Wasted Work, Wasted Time

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Published

2003

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In the water law of the Western United States there is a strange concept of waste.  The West is the most arid region of the country.  Water is precious.  Yet in the courts of those states, waste is not water that you use needlessly.  Rather it is water that you don’t use at all.

If you have rights to water, you keep those rights so long as you use them. It makes little difference what you use the water for. You can pump out groundwater for an Olympic swimming pool for your mistress, or for a golf course in the desert. If you have used the water, the law pretty much assumes that you have used it “beneficially,” and so extends your rights to it.

But if you don’t use the water the consequences are severe.  You are deemed to have wasted the water, and can lose your rights as a result.  To conserve is to waste, and to waste is to conserve.  Rarely have the rules of law been so starkly at odds with the laws of nature and of common sense.

And rarely has the mentality that underlies this thing we call “the economy” been so starkly on display.  That mentality operates entirely on the focal plane of money.  It assumes that the only  activities that have reality and value are those in which money changes hands.    activities that do not involve money dwell in a kind of netherworld where they await the  beckoning of the market to attain actuality and life.

As with water, so with time.   Divert time from its native flow, deploy it in a process in which money changes hands — then, and only then, does it become useful and productive where the dominant mentality is concerned.   It makes little difference where the time goes and what exactly it produces.  It could go to thinking up new ways to seduce children into drinking more cola, or plotting ways to subvert the clean air laws.

So long as the time has flowed into the market and increased the churn of money there, it has been used beneficially where the economic mind is concerned.  By contrast, time not so engaged is deemed a state of inertia, a kind of temporal primal sludge.

Economists will deny this, and journalists too.  But it is the embedded narrative in much of what they say.  Just observe the daily media.  When a new diversion of temporal resources comes onto the scene — video games for adults, for example, or more choices to make regarding retirement accounts – does anyone stop to ask where this time is coming from?  Does anyone ask what life function is going to get less time so that the market can get more?   Much as economists assume that natural resources such as water and air are infinite, they assume that temporal resources are infinite too, so that when the market takes more there is no deficit anyplace else.

But time is not infinite, just as air and water are not.  It can be depleted if not husbanded with care.  Nor is time wasted just because it does not go to market use, any more than water is.  Water left in a river or aquifer is working all the time. It sustains fish, forests wildlife, and ultimately humanity.  It provides rest to the eyes and activity for the body.  Such functions are no less beneficial than are the golf course and swimming pool.

And so with time.  Time not diverted to the market is not necessarily lost  to lethargy and waste.  When we are not working for, or spending, money we often are doing more genuinely useful things.  We might be working on a project with our kids or attending a town meeting or fixing a banister for an elderly neighbor.  We might just be sitting on a front porch or stoop, providing watchful eyes that help keep the neighborhood safe.

This simple fact is obvious to most of us.  But it usually is lost on the policy experts who define the master script for the media — which is to say, who define the way the nation sees its own time. Every new diversion of time gets cheers as a new source of economic “growth”, without regard to where the time comes from and the effects of that diversion.  It is as though the nation were drawing down a temporal bank account, and no one thought to ask how much was left.

The Depletion of the Temporal Commons

No man is an island, the poet wrote, and the market is not one either.  It needs a realm outside itself – a commons – for sustenance and life.  It needs a natural commons, in the form of water, air, space and the like.  It needs a social commons, in the form of language, sidewalks, community, an ambient civility and respect for law, and so on.  A market also needs a temporal commons, a pool of time available for work that the market neglects.  If this work does not get done — if no one cares for the young and old, serves as neighbor and friend, and attends to the work of citizenship in the community – then the market itself eventually will collapse.

There is a symbiosis in other words between the market and the temporal commons, and in recent decades that balance has gotten seriously out of whack.  The market has been claiming more and more of the nation’s time, just as it has been claiming more of nature.  Never before in history has a society expended so much time and energy on work of dubious value – pitching junk food to kids, for example — while neglecting so much work that really needs to get done.

The data is not easy to assemble, and this itself is symptomatic.  The U.S. government tracks employment in the market down practically to the last soda filler at McDonalds.   But regarding work in the social commons — the vast and crucial realm of family and community — it does very little. Push junk at kids and you count.  Give your time to them and you don’t.

One recent effort to fill the gap was the book Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam of Harvard University, which documents a pattern of widespread civic and community decline.  Compared to previous decades  Putnam shows, Americans are less involved in community and civic causes, from the NAACP to the PTA.  Paid professionals do much of the work of democracy; most of us sit home and watch a scripted version  on TV, when we pay attention at all.

“For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century,” Putnam says in summary, “a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago — silently, without warning — that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current.  Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities.”

Putnam’s thesis provoked controversy when he first published it in the mid-1990s.  But for most Americans, I suspect, it confirmed a gnawing sense of social deficit and loss.  Putnam cites recent polls showing that some two-thirds of Americans think that civic and community concern has declined.  “More than 80 percent said there should be more emphasis on community, even if that put more demands on individuals,” he observes.  Polls are suspect.  But I doubt many  Americans think that the nation’s social and community needs are adequately met.

The Labor Department did release a survey of volunteer work not long ago, for the first time in thirteen years. (By contrast, the Department releases market employment data every three months.)   It purported to show that some 59 million Americans – about one in four Americans–  did volunteer work “at some point” over the previous year.  One out of four is not an inspiring record; and it is even less so when one considers that a much smaller percentage did the heavy lifting.  Some 22% spent only 1-14 hours in volunteer work for the year.   The Labor Department data was squishy to begin with.  People reported their volunteer hours for the whole year, from memory.

Whether the social commons has declined in absolute terms is not really the question anyway.  The question is whether the time we devote to this work has kept pace with the need.  By that standard, it would take a true Pollyanna to contend that all is well.  A decade ago, the Ford Foundation found that the U.S. had a deficit of some 1 million volunteers in the area of day care alone, and the situation has gotten worse since then.  When more than two hundred foster children are missing in the State of Florida, it does suggest that America’s temporal resources are not deployed to meet its human needs.

The Work Place, The Whole Place

Time is the awareness of space between events.  As our lives get more cluttered — more filled with stuff, entertainments and commercial  come-ons – it is not surprising that the sense of time diminishes, even if actual clock hours do not.

Putnam says that time spent at work does not alone explain the depletion of the civic commons, and he probably is right, strictly speaking.  But work time isn’t what it used to be.  For one thing, we spend more time getting to and from work. All told we spend some 72 minutes a day in the car; and Putnam notes a 10% drop-off in civic engagement for every additional ten minutes so spent.

For another thing, technology has broken through the guard rails that used to keep work within its temporal bounds.  Thanks to e-mail and the cell phone, many Americans functionally are on call 24-7.   During the latter part of the 1990s, a scene became familiar in the coffee shops of downtown San Francisco where I lived.  A family of tourists would be sitting at a table, the parents and two kids.  Mom would be nursing her coffee.  The kids would be picking at their muffins, feet dangling in the air.  The mood would be desultory, even a bit sullen.  Meanwhile Dad would be pushed back from the table, talking business into a cell phone. He was physically present but not really there.

Technology slosh is just one way that the workplace has become the whole place.  More broadly, corporations have contrived to claim our time even when we do not officially work for them.  They have turned us into an unpaid work force that helps produce the products that we ourselves buy.   For example corporations used to have telephone operators to direct our calls.  Now we must navigate labyrinthine answering systems, step by exasperating step — and often several times over

Then there’s the hours and days we spend dealing with problems that corporations should have fixed before they let their products out the door.  As I wrote this, I got a pop-up message from the Microsoft Corporation informing me that my system needed an upgrade.  Generally I don’t let Bill Gates get any closer to my computer than he already is.  But I had been reading about security glitches and secret back doors, and thought maybe I’d better download this fix.

Very big mistake.  The download froze.  When I exited I got the kind of ominous message on my screen that makes me want to dump the whole computer revolution onto a Waste Management truck. According to the man at the Dell help line, Gates was sending out a defective fix.   In the days that followed I spent hours on help lines (not Microsoft’s — Gates makes you pay) in an attempt to get my system working properly again.  Finally I had to hire a local techie to reformat the hard drive, at a cost of two hundred and fifty dollars and considerable time and aggravation. .

The economy today is full of such unpaid labor.  Much of the vaunted “productivity” of computers, I suspect, comes from the way they enable corporations to shift costs onto the invisible accounts of people like myself.  But even that hardly begins to count the time that has been diverted into unacknowledged market work.  Something yet more basic is going on, something that concerns the nature of work itself.  Not only have we become unpaid producers of the stuff we purchase; more, the purchasing itself has become a form of work.

The New Factory of Need

Half a century ago, as America embarked upon a war with Hitler and Japan, Franklin Roosevelt  challenged Americans to produce more and consume less.  Sacrifice in the war effort was a “privilege”,    FDR said, and he called upon all Americans to share this privilege equally.  Last year, by contrast, in the wake of the biggest attack upon this nation since Pearl Harbor, President George W. Bush (and some Democrats as well) called upon Americans to go shopping.  Shopping has become a patriotic duty — and duty implies work.

Quietly, step by step, the realm of consumption has become a mirror image of its supposed opposite, production.  The economy doesn’t really need what most of us produce.  What it really needs is our belief that we need those things.  Accordingly the economy has become a kind of factory of need, producing consumption as ardently as it produces the stuff consumed. Not that long ago, for example, credit functioned primarily on the production side of the economy.  For an ordinary person to go into debt was a sign of failure and a source of shame.  Now “household” (ie consumer) credit totals some one and a half trillion dollars.  That’s six thousand dollars of debt for every man, woman and child.

There is a household shipping fleet of sports utility vehicles that enables people to carry truckloads from the mall.  There’s a warehousing system that holds stuff people schlep home but don’t use — the ever-expanding closets and “Garage-mahals”, and a $12 billion self-storage industry on top of that.  New homes today have three times the closet space of homes built in the 1950s.   The average house size has grown by 50% even as families have gotten smaller. We live in warehouses as much as homes.

There are occupational illnesses in the factory of need, such as obesity and stress. There is child labor, as advertisers seize upon children as the path to their parents’ wallets.  Advertisers even have gotten into school classrooms via the infamous Channel One, which turns the compulsory school laws into a way to corral a captive audience of impressionable children.  Advertising in the schools is not just child labor, but a form of compulsory servitude as well.

A generation or two ago, children were important producers in the social commons.  They would run errands for older people on the block, look out for the younger children; they served a real purpose in the social ecology.  Today by contrast, that time has been commandeered by the factory of need, and  older people are increasingly alone. A retired factory manager in Brooklyn once recalled for me how he used to look in on his grandmother every day after school.  But times are different now he says.  “My grandchildren would rather play Nintendo than come and visit me,” he said.

When kids spend 4-5 hours a day with television, video games and the rest, that time has to come from somewhere.  So too does the time we spend dealing with the deluge of decisions that the market brings daily to our door.  Economists hail deregulation – of telephone service, banking, energy etc. – for the “choices” that it  offers  But choices involve a hidden cost in the form of time. Those hours that we spend  puzzling over the options of medical insurance, long distance and investment plans — and then dealing with disputes over bills — are hours not available for other things.

Meanwhile, technology has quickened the pace in the factory of need, much as it has in the factory of production.   Through computers, the management  can push more stuff at us to increase our output as consumers.  The  Web, moreover, combined with the credit card, has reduced the distance between the impulse and the buying act practically to zero. One click and the stuff is in the mail   This is steady state consumption, and close to maximum efficiency in the factory of need.

And since the Web never sleeps, the computer has torn down the barrier of time as well.  Shopping can slosh over into virtually every waking moment — including time at what is officially called “work.”   The majority of Web shopping is done from the office.  People are browsing Expedia and the Gap when they are supposed to be working on spread sheets.   “These days”, a Wall Street Journal columnist observed, “checking morning e-mail is like taking a frenzied stroll through streets lined with hucksters.”

Nothing so illustrates how buying has become a form of work, as the way it has morphed into the workplace itself.  The conventionally minded will point to this as evidence that people are working less.  But in reality it shows how work itself is changing.   An economy that needs our needing more than it needs our making, eventually will realign the workplace to this new task.  In the true office of the future, we will be paid to sit at our desks and shop.  The most productive workers will be those who buy the most.  On week-ends and vacations, people will pay to do useful work (much as they pay to work on archeological digs now), to break the drudgery of all this buying.

The trend lines are going this way.  The managers in the factory of need are contriving to get even more of our time.  In his book “The Science of Shopping” (more accurately, the “Science of Seducing Shoppers”) Paco Underhill, the business consultant, lays out the guiding principle.  “Our studies prove” Underhill writes, “that the longer a shopper remains in the store the more he or she will buy.”  Time is money, and the market wants more of it – as though it doesn’t already have enough.

Reclaim the Time

In the American West, there is a growing movement to tear down dams, so that water can flow back to its most beneficial uses.  In much the same way, there’s a need to release water back into the temporal commons. Given the pressing needs in the family, community and civic spheres, we need a temporal reclamation project of  major proportions.

To put it another way, more flexibility to the work day, and more time off, does not mean a slackening of work effort.  To the contrary, it means a refocusing of work effort.  The best thing Bill Clinton did as President may have been the Family Medical Leave Act (now under attack from President Bush), which has enabled parents to spend up to four months with newborn children before returning to work.  Business lobbyists predicted economic disaster.  But instead, the nation had an economic boom, and parents got a few months to be real parents, instead of just purchasing agents for day care.

There is a need for more enclaves of time like that.  We need to protect our time much as we are trying to protect the nation’s waters and wilderness. We need also new ways to activate time for community and civic work.  To free up time is not enough;  there must be new channels by which it can flow into constructive uses.  When the social commons is healthy these are invisible.  But with the commons in such disrepair, there is a need to put them consciously into place.

One such channel-building project  is a new currency called Time Dollars, which was designed specifically for the community realm.  In essence, Time Dollars are a service barter system.  Help a neighbor, and you get these time dollars.   Somewhere down the line a neighbor will help you in return. The currency replicates the informal memory banks that used to operate naturally in small towns and inner city neighborhoods in which good deeds were remembered and returned.  They provide an etiquette of introduction to neighbors who have become strangers, and they help to revive the ethos of reciprocity and trust in settings in which it has declined.

Time Dollar networks are functioning throughout the country.  An HMO for seniors in Brooklyn called Elderplan is using them to turn recipients of care into providers of that care for other members.  The Baltimore Housing Authority is using them to turn public housing projects into functioning communities.  “Social capital is something that government cannot provide”, writes Edgar Cahn of the Time Dollar Institute in Washington, D.C., in his book No More Throw-Away People “We have to create it ourselves.  That happens in the space that we all share, in social settings that we create.”

It happens in the time, moreover, that we ourselves have to reclaim.  Time is the basic human resource.  It is the starting point of freedom.  To choose to use time for more worthy and important ends could be the next great freedom movement – the one that truly claims the promise of the Industrial Revolution.   The reason to reduce the work week is not just to gain more rest.  It is also because there is so much important work that truly needs to be done.

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