Posner on Skidelsky and Keynes and leisure time

This review is a fun rant about whether we would be better off with lower incomes and more leisure time.  Here is one excerpt:

…I well remember as recently as the 1980s how shabby England was, how terrible the plumbing, how shoddy the housing materials, how treacherously uneven the floors and sidewalks, how inadequate the heating and poor the food — and how tolerant the English were of discomfort. I recall breakfast at Hertford College, Oxford, in an imposing hall with a large broken window — apparently broken for some time — and the dons huddled sheeplike in overcoats; and in a freezing, squalid bar in the basement of the college a don in an overcoat expressing relief at being home after a year teaching in Virginia, which he had found terrifying because of America’s high crime rate, though he had not been touched by it. I remember being a guest of Brasenose College — Oxford’s wealthiest — and being envied because I had been invited to stay in the master’s guest quarters, only to find that stepping into the guest quarters was like stepping into a Surrealist painting, because the floor sloped in one direction and the two narrow beds in two other directions. I recall the English (now American) economist Ronald Coase telling me that until he visited the United States he did not know it was possible to be warm.


How sad that Posner doesn't enjoy walking, gardening, reading, cooking, or conversation. I work long hours for expected healthcare and education costs, paying for leisure has nothing to do with it.

Sheesh. You must be too busy working to enjoy a fun rant.

You might want to go to the Becker- posner- blog.com where this discussion intersects with tax policy as well.

Posner has a long discussion in his blog on why he is doubtful that the marginal increase in taxes on the top one percent will have any effect on work effort. He also claims that there is no research on the effect of cap gains and dividend income tax changes on work effort, and is doubtful of that as well.

Americans do not substitute work for leisure, as much as they substitute income for status ala conspicuous consumption.

Veblen over Skidelsky

This sort of misses the point. What is traded isn't lesure for work, its productive work for tax-avoidance work.
This was the beauty behind the 10-10-10 plan. It made tax avoidance strategies pointless.

Or, to make tax avoidance pointless, close the loopholes.

Thats what the 10-10-10 plan did.
It closed all the loopholes (read deductions) and made all the rates the same, so you couldn't game the system.

The biggest loophole is to do your business in a jurisdiction that doesn't tax as much. Hell holes like Canada.

And who would ever think that these folks who peruse numbers with interest would ever make a investment decision based on after tax returns.

Do you mean the 9-9-9 plan? In any case, I agree with Bill (for once). Closing loopholes would have been a good side effect of an otherwise dumb plan. Just close the loopholes.

Brasenose the richest college in Oxford? Two hundred years ago maybe but not recently. (Here's a 2002 list of Oxford colleges by wealth: http://www.btinternet.com/~akme/oxtimes5.html)

Perhaps the dons enjoy practising upon visiting American lawyers. (Could this be the sort of fun activity with which the Skidelskys expect us to fill our ample leisure time?)

Definitely a ridiculous caricature of Britain, ironically Oxford college in the eighties probably isn't a good example at all, there was a tendency for Oxbridge to treat itself like an extended hardcore boarding school.

Still, UK houses are definitely too small.

It reads like an account of Oxbridge colleges in the 60s. In the 80s? Not impossible, but not representative. Mind you, my wife stayed once in a guest room at Oriel in the noughties, and that was distinctly unwelcoming. By contrast an Australian friend, a mere postgraduate, stayed as a visiting student at Trinity Cambridge one summer in the 90s, and thought it pretty fine. American friends of mature years stayed there once too, back in the 70s; they were awed by the loveliness of their room, and grimly amused by the one bar electric fire supplied to heat it. I asked why on earth they'd want heating in the summer. Culture clash, I think.

The description of Oxford is pretty accurate for the early '90s as well. Every building I lived in was damp, drafty, shoddily built, run down and a fire trap to boot. One friend took glee in noting that his bedsit was older than my country, until I pointed out that the insulation and plumbing (and probably the wiring) were, too. Chilblains were still so common they weren't considered worthy of complaint. I am personally convinced that the entire British nation would have starved to death had it not been for kebab vans, because the immediate reaction of English cooks to any food product was to boil it until they were sure it was dead. The best advice I got before I moved there was "just accept that the sole purpose of a British bathroom is the mortification of the flesh." That wisdom applied to a whole bunch of areas. Most of the North Americans I knew who acclimated fairly well did so by considering themselves to be living in a third world country.

While I didn't live elsewhere (and God knows Oxford is not a good basis for judging the UK in general for just about any purposes), with the exception of places in London that catered to visiting foreigners, the other places I visited seemed much the same.

Don't get me wrong - I loved my years in Oxford, wouldn't trade them for anything. But the standard of living was ... not what I was used to.

It is possible for an individual to do what the Sidelskys recommend, but I doubt that the numbers so doing would be large. If you devote yourself to frugal living and the accumulation of capital, you can be relieved of the necessity of working for a living well before the customary retirement age. But not needing to work does not mean that you won't work. You are then free to work for little or nothing. You can be an amateur.

I do not consider Posner's essay to be a rant. The Sidelskys' recommendations seem deserving of ridicule.

As a spanish poet, Jaime Gil de Biedma, said, probably mondays are right over sundays: good things are better if scarce.

Actually, I think a quite lot of people would trade a substantial fraction of their income for more leisure. After all, one of the main attractions for school teachers is clearly having summers off (and most of them spend those summers in leisure rather than other paid work).

So why is this pattern as rare as it is? After all, in the case of teachers, this did not come about due to demand for leisure but because of the agriculturally-driven school calendar. I'd say it's rare because there's a big filtering/signalling problem. An employer probably could attract a lot of employees by offering lower salaries combined with a short work week or more weeks of vacation than the norm . But would those employees, on average, be the most ambitious and hard-working? Obviously not. Considered why its standard practice for employers to offer little vacation to new employees and only increase the amount gradually with seniority -- surely the reason is that this is the way to filter out employees who put an above-average value on leisure. Only after new hires have proven themselves over several years can the employer grant the extra time off without worrying that they're in danger of attracting the 'wrong sort' of employee. So instead of shorter work weeks and longer vacations, what we see instead is more leisure being consumed by shortening careers on both ends -- people enter the labor force later and retire sooner than they used to.

I agree with this, although I'm not sure how many people would actually take the tradeoff. The discussion on work-life balance that apparently has taken off lately seems to be conflating the situation for all workers, which I don't think is right.

For lower-wage workers (or apparently the English in the 1980s), the problem is, bluntly, low wages. Posner is right: Their material living standards are less than they would prefer, and they couldn't afford the leisure they want even if they had the time. Higher skilled workers face a different problem, which is exactly the sort of signalling antics you point out here. My favorite example is white-shoe law associates. Here both sides of the market are signaling, with most firms offering exactly the same salary scale precisely to signal that they are a top firm. Workers, obviously, want to signal they're higher quality, and so the situation spins out of control.

It's striking to compare today's [this was from 2002] expectations to a lawyer's reasonable workday in 1958. In that year, the ABA announced that unless a lawyer worked overtime, there were "only approximately 1,300 fee-earning hours per year." This assumed a five-day workweek plus half-days on Saturday. At that time, the ABA set a "realistic" goal of five or six billable hours a day. Today, a billable hour target of 1,300 billable hours a year would amount to a civilized part-time schedule—the equivalent of a three-day, part-time workweek in most large firms.

To the extent that there are solutions to these problems, they are clearly different.


I think this also applies to mission-driven organizations and non-profits that offer low pay AND low opportunity for leisure in exchange for an opportunity to "do good" or "change the world." Some right-leaning/libertarian think tankers I know expect that they will attract high-quality candidates despite the low pay and leisure because, after all, think of the utility they'd get from "advancing liberty." I've certainly known some very hard-working, talented think tankers, but I've seen a higher proportion of relatively mediocre people who probably wouldn't be able to get a higher-paying research job.

"English aristocrats in their heyday didn’t work, but neither did they cut marble or explore the mysteries of space and time. Hunting, gambling and seduction were their preferred leisure activities. "

Probably, But was was the class affiliation of all those amateur British scientists of the 19th century: Darwin, Galton, Bayes, etc.?

Oh don't upset his lazy stereotypes: you don't expect the effort to check evidence from a lawyer do you?

Students of Oxford's richest college today (St. John's) are housed with the comfort of having a guaranteed minimum room temperature of 15° (which is regularly attained). Otherwise, things are of course better now.

How are they expected to sleep at 15C? Bloody outrageous.

They have clearly been infected by the mad, grasping consumption habits of those damned Americans.

Better than the more traditional type of British consumption, I suppose, which is really aggravated by a cold, damp room.

This is the key paragraph:

And it is ridiculous to think that if people worked just 15 or 20 hours a week, they would use their leisure to cut marble or struggle with a musical score. If they lacked consumer products and services to fill up their time they would brawl, steal, overeat, drink and sleep late. English aristocrats in their heyday didn’t work, but neither did they cut marble or explore the mysteries of space and time. Hunting, gambling and seduction were their preferred leisure activities.

This is going to be a big problem in the future, not because we'll all have so much leisure time, but because there won't be any work for the people on the left half of the bell curve. We won't want them to suffer, so income will be supplemented up to some minimum standard of living (via welfare, or other subsidies), but humans need honorable work. Especially males. Without it, you get social dysfunction.

Let them play World of Warcraft.

We ALL, male and female, need honorable work, but females (at least those who have children) have a built-in "integral to the species" form of honorable work already.

Plus, preliminary indications are that females may be temperamentally more suited to many 21st century workforce needs.

Plus (perhaps not coincidentally) males are much more prone to violence and destructive anti-social behavior.

So, it is society that is particularly interested in producing honorable work for males.

"If you ask someone to work half as long for half the pay"

Uhm... no. The point is if you double your productivity you should be able to work half as long for the same pay.

And the cost of leisure would double so I will want to work more. Given the flatness of wages for the median worker over the last 40 years it would be time to play catch-up. This of course is all fantasy since wages have been diverging from productivity growth for some time now.

But since the productivity is mostly owned by the corporations, they can just move those jobs overseas -- at less than half the pay.

That's the key issue with productivity: who owns it? The part of my increased productivity since 1980, say, that's due to my being smarter / more experienced is the part I can monetize and could convert into leisure (with enough income to enjoy it).

The part of my productivity that's due to better infrrastructure at my company can't be -- in fact, that infrastructurre has allowed my company to move most of the operations to cheap labor countries abroad. That created "involuntary leisure".

This is somewhat reactionary, isn't it? OECD working hours stats have the US averaging 1800 hours/year, versus about 1400 in the Netherlands and Germany (i.e., about 27 hours per week, not far off Keynes' hope). Anecdotally, at least, work/life balance preferences are the major reason for moves from the US to those countries. Are the Dutch and Germans lacking materially, with faulty plumbing and floors like Surrealist paintings? Clearly not. Has slower on-the-job learning wrecked their productivity? Clearly not. Has the crime rate soared with no police on the street due to the short working hours? Clearly not.

I haven't read the article yet, but I have to wonder if this example of shoddy English living is merely because of the antiquity of their buildings? What American building is as old as Oxford? From what I gather the buildings referenced in this article were built in the 1600s. So is it even relevant? Aren't all old buildings rather shabby domiciles regardless of wealth? Does that invalidate the article? Is it even worth my time?

I have rarely seen such a flawed argumentation as in that article.
1) People do have tendency to find something to do on their free time. Has Posner never taken a vacation?
2) I would assume that even with shorter work weeks people are allowed to work more if they choose to do so. Before all, a shorter standard work week would give people a choice to have more leisure time if that is what they want.
3) How arrogant can one be to think that people can't figure out how to use their time on their own and instead demand that these things should be decided in this sort of top-down manner.
4) Compared to the US, most European countries have far shorter work weeks and, as far as I know, this hasn't resulted in any kind of catastrophe.
5) As strange as it might seem to people living in the US, there is an endless supply of free (or very cheap) fun things to spend your time on.

Sheesh, to an european, the american discussion on the length of the work week and the nature of work in general sounds completely absurd.

I well remember as recently as the 1980s how shabby England was, how terrible the plumbing, how shoddy the housing materials

To me, the situation may not have improved that much; as an undergrad I went from Clark University to the University of East Anglia for a semester and was shocked at the condition of the latter, and of England in general.

"Has Posner never taken a vacation?"

With three dozen books published, I doubt it. And his live and career make his point better than even he could make.

There are two, not mutually exclusive, hypotheses to explain greater European leisure than US leisure. One is higher marginal tax rates in Europe, making leisure look more attractive. The other is that working hours are far more regulated in Europe, be it through trade unions with the connivance of governments or through governments directly.

In the US one can indeed find a job with a non-standard number of weekly or annual hours. There is demand there, but apparently not as much as leisurists would like us to have, and there is supply.

I also take straw polls of acquaintances, asking: "Would your boss allow you to go on unpaid leave for x number of weeks, if suitably planned ahead?" Outside of government, the answer is almost invariably "yes".

A non-problem, except perhaps for overworked aristocrats of any nationality.

OK, so Judge Posner dreds nature; what is the difference in life expectancy in England versus the US?


UK 80 yr at birth, US 78, Monaco 89, South Africa 49.

Of course you all miss the point.

The Skids would enforce their wonderful notions of how we should live on us through confiscatory taxes, regulations, and the guns of the state.

They are not simply misguided, they are criminal tyrants.

But, keep debating minutia.

I will continue to enjoy my leisure time so as to avoid developing Posner's posture, physique, and pallor. Off to go for a walk now.

I wonder how many embers of Posner's online amen corner have actually read the Skidelskys' book. Anyway,Here's a link to a fun rant that completely demolishes Posner and his apologists:

http://ofbyforbook.com/post/29904725280/how-much-is-enough-richard-posner-and-the-leisure .

My favorite lines:

"Mr. Posner’s response is [...] keep them working, even in more and more meaningless jobs. Where Mr. Posner sees endless boredom in leisure, he finds no such boredom in the servants jobs proliferating across our post-industrial economy."

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