Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Wasted Majority?

An oft-heard criticism internal to America is that we consume far more than our share, relatively speaking. Perhaps a good consequence/symbol of this was illuminated in a documentary I watched recently that noted America's second largest export is scrap metal. If this level of consumption is undesirable, it might be worthwhile considering potential causes.

Our society seems to dictate that most of us spend at least eight hours a day at our jobs. Otherwise, except in probably rare circumstances, it's difficult to survive as a normal member of society. This structure only works, of course, if the products being manufactured are being purchased/consumed. If levels of individual time are categorized as: self-preservation, partner/friend outreach, family nurturing, workgroup participation, cultural participation, and shared-knowledge contributions, is it any surprise that the balance of community focus might be obstructed when society typically demands that half of our waking hours are spent in one of the six categories (workgroup)? If our survival is largely based on our ability to produce consumables, is it a surprise that the American landscape has become a big shopping mall, as George Carlin has criticized? The choice doesn't seem to be that you work as much as your needs demand (as you define them), but that you either work a full time job and survive, or you do not.

What would economists have to say about a world in which people had the freedom to choose how many hours a day they worked? Does the 80/20 rule offer any insights? For instance, if 20% are by far the most productive and are responsible for 80% of production, could the remaining 80% be better served focusing on other layers of organization, like child-care or community services? In other words, can their efforts be measured in a way that don't necessarily involve dollars and cents? For instance, what of a person that can sit at home and play with abstract mathematics and physics, contributing to the shared knowledge category? Although it might be difficult to ascribe a monetary value to their theoretical contributions or set up an institution for supporting them financially, it's probably a good idea to have people doing what they do best. Companies are known for not financially supporting pure science as much as applied science since the short-term payoffs are likely to be less. This is reasonable from a business standpoint and funding from government attempts to fill the gap, but is there no other way for society to operate that takes advantage of the people that are willing and capable to do such things? Obviously a complete restructuring of societal mechanisms is an idealistic and romantic notion, but there might be benefits to being skeptical of the capitalistic/democratic presumptions that have done wonders for the world so far, but may not remain sufficient to keeping our communities healthy in ways that are measured by means other than economic productivity.