What David Graeber got Wrong about Work (what happened to the 15-hour workweek?)

This came as shock: David Graeber, Caustic Critic of Inequality, Is Dead at 59

A middle-aged man with no obvious risks or preexisting factors dies at 59 of unknown causes, so I was surprised.

A public intellectual, professor, political activist and author, Dr. Graeber captivated a cult following that grew globally over the past decade with each book he published.

 

In “Debt: The First 5000 Years” (2011), he explored the changing definitions of borrowing and who owed what to whom. He advocated a “jubilee” of loan forgiveness. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Thomas Meaney called the book “more than a screed” and praised its “brash, engaging style.” In “The Utopia of Rules” (2015), Dr. Graeber ridiculed the bureaucracy that is typically associated with government, but that also permeates the corporate world and everyday business transactions.

There are thousands of professors, most of them you have probably have never heard of. David was not one of them. His name kept coming up on Reddit and other related communities, especially for the past 5 or so years in regard to his hugely influential BS jobs theory and his equally influential and important book on money, Debt. A Google search shows considerable interest and discussion about Graeber’s idea, with most of the reception positive.

The intellectual net Dr. Graeber cast is vast, spanning anarchist and alt-right communities. Despite being a leftist (specifically, an anarchist activist who spearheaded the OWS movement), his ideas have been appropriated and well-received by both extremes, by both the dissident right and the dissident-left, who can relate to how the economy seems to produce so many jobs of ambiguous value,and his criticism of imperialism and how American uses its monetary system and reserve currency status to indirectly enrich itself at the cost of other nations, backed by military might. Why are so many Americans doing work that produces no obvious or discernible value? How much of the economy is artificial, ephemeral make-work, the labor equivalent of vapor-ware? These are question and topics that cross the political aisle, and can explain the popularity of his ideas, not just in terms of agreement but the considerable debate his ideas have engendered. Too many liberals look at issues only through the lens of social justice, and this turns off rightists, moderates, and centrists, but many social issues are downstream from economics and money.

Some of his earlier writings, such as a 2014 Guardian article The truth is out: money is just an IOU, and the banks are rolling in it, laid some of the theoretical justification for MMT:

What this means is that the real limit on the amount of money in circulation is not how much the central bank is willing to lend, but how much government, firms, and ordinary citizens, are willing to borrow. Government spending is the main driver in all this (and the paper does admit, if you read it carefully, that the central bank does fund the government after all). So there’s no question of public spending “crowding out” private investment. It’s exactly the opposite.

His ideas have and will continue to be hotly debated online.

However, I disagree with Dr. Greaber (and the burgeoning anti-work movement, in general) regarding shorter workweeks.

From the aforementioned NYTs article:

In “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory” (2018), he wondered what happened to the 15-hour week that the economist John Maynard Keynes, in 1930, had predicted would be possible by the end of the 20th century. (“This book asks readers whether there might be a better way to organize the world of work,” Alana Semuels wrote in her Times review. “That’s a question worth asking.”)

So what happened to the promise of the 15-hour workweek? But why stop at 15 hours. There are millions of Americans who have 0-hour workweeks, but they tend to be homeless or are NEETs. If you don’t mind living in shelters and relying on government assistance for everything, it is possible to work few, if any, hours. I think there is a trade-off between number of hours worked and lifestyle, with Americans choosing to work more hours to support what they consider to be the idealization of a middle-class lifestyle, as opposed to a more subsistence, Spartan lifestyle , which would require fewer hours at the cost of comfort. So when people ask why the workweek is still 40 hours, some fail to take into account individual preferences, in that people are willing choose to work more hours, because the utility they derive from their wages in terms of healthcare, autonomy (not having to rely on the government or family and friends), material possessions, disposable income, etc., makes it worthwhile.

In fairness, maybe what Greaber means is, why can’t people maintain a middle-class lifestyle while only working 15 hours/week. There are multiple explanations/possibilities:

Low-skilled jobs tend to be hard to automate. Robots can parse data or perform certain repetitive tasks, but cannot emulate fine motor skills well, so this leaves a lot manual/physical labor and service sector jobs that cannot be automated.

Second, even if jobs are automated, they are replaced by new jobs, hence people still have to go to work.

Third, a consumerist and individualistic culture, in which one’s social status depends on material possessions, compels people to work, in order to keep up with their peers and project the outward appearance of being successful, as discussed above.

Forth, even if people are still have 40-hour workweeks, going to work is not the same as actually working 40 hours. I suspect that for many jobs, especially for unsupervised office jobs, there is a lot of downtime. Someone may only do a few hours of actual work despite being at the office for 7-9 hours/day. 100 years ago, before the information age, jobs were much more closely supervised, so someone who clocked-in for an assembly line jobs was expected to work continuously until his shift ended.

Five, as discussed above, due to technological factors and cheap imports, workers derive more utility from wages, hence giving them an incentive to work more hours: look at all the cheap stuff you can buy at Walmart, compared to 100 years ago when such options did not exist and consumer choices were much more limited.

In regard to the last point, imagine a society or economy in which the returns on capital are high enough that working as many hours as possible, in order to invest one’s wages in such rapidly-appreciating assets, becomes an attractive proposition at the individual-level. This means that one’s wages are effectively magnified in terms of the value/utility one derives from them at a later date, by investing in the present. Thanks to historically-low interest rates and low inflation combined with the longest and biggest bull market in equities ever, the past decade–from 2010-2020–has seen the greatest real returns in the stock market and real estate in a long time, possibly ever, even surpassing the stock market booms of the ’80s and ’90s. [Why the market has done so well can be explained by technological and economic trends over the past decade, in terms of a handful of huge firms with market dominance (such as Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple, Walmart, etc.) deriving large, reliable, recurring revenues, that benefit shareholders greatly, combined with low interest rates.] This means that workers who invest their wages in assets–be it index funds, corporate bonds, or real estate–stand to derive significant real returns, as opposed to in the 60s and 70s, when inflation was very high and real returns were negative.

Th same applies to real estate. Historically low mortgage rates combined with rapidly appreciating home prices (on a real basis), especially post-2010, makes it attractive to invest one’s wages in real estate, unlike in the 70s when mortgage rates were very high (there and inflation-adjusted returns were flat or negative. This creates an incentive for individuals to work as much as possible and invest their wages in the housing and or stock market, delaying short-term gratification for long-term financial security and comfort of early retirement. This is what the FIRE movement is about. There are plenty of stories, on Reddit, Hacker News, and elsewhere, of people in their 30s or 40s who worked long hours and assiduously saved and invested, and now have a comfortably-large nest egg (although it certainly helps that many of these people worked in tech, banking, or other high-paying occupations), thanks in large part to investing their wages in the stock market over the past decade. Opponents of work fail to take this into account, because they are only looking at the present, as opposed to future utility.