Articles by Jerome Segal:
This book is about time, work and money. Even as a child, I was aware that these were troubling and confusing matters. They troubled my father and mother, and they confused me.
Between 1943 and 1964, I lived at home with my parents and sisters. During that time, typically six days a week, my father would wake early in the morning. He would put on a white shirt, starched rigid at the Chinese laundry. With that shirt, he would wear a tie, a suit and polished shoes. He would then leave our apartment in the Bronx and travel by subway to Brooklyn (in 1956 he learned to drive and bought his first car). I now know that when he arrived at work, he would take off the shirt, tie, suit and shoes and change into work clothes. He was a blue collar worker, working in a small factory that made women's blouses.
In that factory he worked first as a cutter, then as a marker (the person who figures out how to lay the pattern on the reams of fabric so as to minimize waste) and then as the shop foreman. He always worked overtime, and often on Saturdays. He brought his pay home in a small brown envelope stuffed with tens and twenties. Coming home late, he often ate after the rest of the family had finished, and when he had finished eating, he would tell stories.
Often, they were the stories about what had happened that day, and inevitably he was a modern knight battling against the utter stupidity of the people around him, his boss, his fellow workers, or officials from the union (of which he was a proud member). Sometimes, however, the stories were of another world, the world that he had grown up in.
Born in a small village in Poland, he was the great-grandson of a famous Hassidic rabbi. (Years later, he and I would visit the Library of Congress and work through the several inches of card catalogue devoted to his famous ancestor). In his little corner of the world, he was something of a prince -- always known in his town as the great grandson of Rabbi K. As a youth, he rebelled against his religious background and became an ardent socialist. He was a natural leader and public speaker. By the time he was twenty-one, he had already been elected to public office and had served time as a political prisoner.
As a young man, he came to the United States as a tourist on the Isle de France. He came to visit his father and mother and sister, all of whom had emigrated. He came wearing hand-tailored suits, and planning to return to his life in Poland. He never went back.
At first, I suppose, the transition was not very difficult. There was a vibrant Jewish socialist movement in New York. Everyone spoke Yiddish. There was a Yiddish theater (he sometimes performed), there were Yiddish papers (he sometimes wrote). He met my mother. She taught him English. She too was a socialist. She was also beautiful and a dancer. He had friends; he had relatives; he had ideals; he had a political movement. He lived in Manhattan.
Gradually it all changed. He had never pursued a career, had never even gone to college. He was devoted to the "movement" and took jobs just to earn some money. When I was growing up everything was different. The Depression was over. World War II was over. He was married, had two children and was living in the Bronx. My mother stopped dancing. She took care of the house, and ultimately four children. My father, for the most part, stopped his political activity. There were fewer friends. Mostly, it seemed, life was about making a living and supporting a family. He worked hard. He earned good money. He resented the work and resented what had happened to him. I remember he paid careful attention to how I was doing in school; he used to say, "Work now and you won't have to work later."
One of the great things about my childhood was that I was able to spend my summers with another family. My mother's oldest sister never married. Having no children of her own, she became the extra parent of the children of her younger sisters. She owned a small cottage that was part of a summer cooperative some forty miles north of New York City. For years, my family would spend July at the cottage, and my mother's younger sister and family would spend August. My father chafed at the ambiguous arrangement, feeling neither guest nor owner. Ultimately our family spent the summers in the Bronx. We lived next to a park.
Fortunately, it was arranged that I would continue to spend my summers at the cottage, living with the family of my mother's younger sister. If our income bracket was lower-middle class, theirs was what used to be called "working class." But my uncle wasn't a factory worker like my father, he was an artist. They lived in Greenwich Village and paid $60 a month rent.
My uncle was a bit of a buffoon, but he was also a true magician. He saw the magic in the most ordinary things, and he could awaken you to that magic. He built a tiny frog pond in the woods -- a place to sit on large stones and watch the tadpoles as they grew their legs. The cottage was on a hillside, and he spent a decade, perhaps it was two decades, transporting dirt from the front of the house to the back of the house, so that ultimately there was level ground for a driveway and for a turn-around area. What fun it was to work with him in the August sun, sweating and straining to fill a home-made cart with front-of-the-house dirt. The other kids used to come over just to join in the project.
Around the cottage we had some of the best raspberries that ever grew. And in the July morning sun, we would walk a step or two out the door and gather jewels for our cereal. The cottage had neither phone, nor T.V. nor even radio. It had just one bedroom, and at night we rigged up all sorts of sleeping places and shared what beds and couches we had. Most of the time, we had no car. My aunt was a great cook, and though no one said grace at any meal, there was a kind of pagan reverence at mealtime -- a kind of food worship. It wasn't about overeating, nor was it about being thankful for having food. It was about the food itself -- about how good the bread was, even about how good was the old family knife that my uncle used to cut the bread.
It wasn't all sweetness and light. Both families had their internal problems and considerable craziness. My mother did not work outside the home and for many years neither did my aunt. Both of them suffered from the isolation. And for both of them, money was always an issue. For years, my parents fought about it. And my aunt watched every penny. Indeed, during the summers, she watched everything I ate and made sure that I was not costing more than my parents were contributing for my keep. Indeed, some of the worse moments in the family, some that estranged people for years, turned on the issue of money and property, on who was doing what to whom.
For years I passed between these two families who had gone different routes with respect to work and time and money, both of whom had failed to square the circle. The issues never go away. When I was in college, I did a double major, philosophy and economics. My economic honors thesis was about John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society. That was twenty-five years ago, and nowadays, struggling over whether to send my eight year old to private or public school, I'm still wrestling with these questions. During those twenty-five years, I have worked in various venues. First as an academic philosopher, then as a Congressional aide and Administrator of the House Budget Committee's Task Force on the Distributive Impacts of Economic Policy, then as a policy analyst in the United States Agency for International Development, now as a peace activist concerned with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and as a research scholar at the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy.
I've put all the autobiographical material in the preface; there is none in the text. Yet in its way, the book remains intensely personal. It is about something that many of us continue to feel and continue to struggle with.
In the world today there is considerable confusion and uneasiness about how to live, in particular about those dimensions of life that are sharply impacted by the economic realm. Whether it be questions of overload, of hectic life styles and harried existence, or questions of materialism and consumption, or concerns over interpersonal competition, careerism, over-work, loss of leisure, or loss of security -- there is a widespread skepticism that our fast-paced, mass consumption society represents the highest form of human social development. On the most visceral level, for many of us, something just doesn't feel right. We have lost any semblance of graceful existence, and we sense it, even if we can't articulate it.
As an American, it is the United States and the Western tradition that I know best. Thus, while these issues are of general concern, middle class life in the United States provides the contemporary context for much of the discussion. At the same time this inquiry into simple living should be of particular interest to those in wealthy countries, such as France and Japan, where much that they cherish is under pressure, whether it be two-hour lunches, or the small shops that give life to city streets, or family traditions and bonds that give shape and meaning to the cycle of life. Equally, what is discussed should have special relevance to those in low income countries. We in the United States and in other rich lands have somewhere along the line made a wrong turn. We are not quite sure where it was, in part, because we are not sure where we are. Yet even without fully diagnosing our own situation, there are clear mistakes that we have made that others can learn from.
The subtitle of this book is: "Towards a Philosophy and Politics of Simple Living." The plan of the book is the reverse of what might be expected. I start with politics and end with philosophy. I take it as given that there is a widespread desire for a simpler way of life. Books on simple living abound; magazines regularly feature stories on people trying to "cut back"; there are simple living web-sites and simplicity support groups. Part One concerns itself with how we can move towards simpler lives. Its central thesis is that this is not merely something to be pursued on the personal level. The missing half of the equation is a politics of simplicity. Contrary to those who offer advertising, consumer culture, or even human nature as explanations of why we never feel we have enough, I argue that we have created a very inefficient society -- one in which our very real and legitimate economic needs can only be met at high levels of income. As a result, it is very hard to work less when this means a lower income for your family. This is a problem that we must address as a society, through new ways of thinking about economic and social policy.
In Part Two, the discussion explores elements of a philosophy of simple living. It is concerned with whether or not, at bottom we are simple creatures with simple needs. It considers the nature of genuine wealth. I call for a form of simple living that I term "Graceful Simplicity" and from which the general title of the book emerges. Gracefulness is one of those elusive concepts of great power; like "love" -- it is not easy to say exactly what it is, but we can feel its absence like a pain in the heart. The absence of gracefulness captures much of what is wrong with the way we live -- our sense that things have gotten "hard" whether it be hard to make ends meet, hard times within the family, or the hard edges of our daily interactions. And this is not a problem easily righted. Achieving gracefulness is always a challenge. To live gracefully, in both its inner and outer dimensions, is to have mastered an art.
The central theme of the book is that we cannot think coherently about economic life, unless we situate the economic within a broader conception of human existence. But that is not how we typically think of the economy and economics. We need to go back to basics and ask, "What is an economy for?" -- and this I suggest, cannot be properly answered unless we can also answer some of the questions that once animated philosophers, such as "What is the nature of human happiness?" and "What is true wealth?"
The reader is advised that I allow the discussion to go where it needs to, without paying much respect to familiar boundaries that restrict any given book's subject matter to certain topics but not others. Thus, in the course of the inquiry, I consider diverse matters that are generally not found within the same cover, for instance, Aristotle's views about money, strategies for giving up paid employment, the virtues of Sabbath observance, and the extra financial costs associated with shifting from one to two wage earners. While this may be initially a bit disconcerting, I believe it gives strength to the argument, making it something of a web, tacked down at many points.
Two cross-cutting themes recur throughout the text: the importance of the aesthetic dimension of life, and the central role of the services that people provide for each other. Let me address these in turn.
The choice of the term "graceful simplicity" is intended to give emphasis to the aesthetic dimension -- by this I mean far more than surrounding oneself with beautiful objects. Gracefulness is a way of being in the world, and there is an aesthetics of time that is violated when we live in constant rush, when our lives are a succession of agenda items, when we live like someone racing through the supermarket with a shopping list. To live well means giving things the time they deserve, be it time for the children, one's spouse and lover, one's friends, or the garden.
Taking the time to do things right strengthens our ability to live more simply. Slowing down, achieving a human pace brings out the value in the things we have and the things we do. Living in a beautiful environment, whether it be a beautiful city or the unspoiled countryside has a similar power to liberate us from the imperative to consume. Rather than retreating to the isolated self-created environment of home and possessions, we are drawn towards a shared public space.
Our need for beauty also forms part of the discussion of household budgets, and of our need to escape to places of beauty. In a broader sense, aesthetics is also at the heart of the notion of Sabbath observance -- a cultural/religious construct that seeks to enable all, rich and poor like, a one-day a week opportunity to experience gracefulness within time.
The second theme that laces its way through the book is the issue of services -- the centrality to the good life of the things that people do for one another -- paid or unpaid. The contexts in which this arises are quite distinct. In the final chapter, when taking up the question "What is real wealth?" I respond that real wealth primarily resides in access to the services of others and to modes of activity in which you can be of genuine service as well.
In the Greece of Aristotle, for those who were privileged, it was indeed easier to live gracefully on a modest income, because graceful living rested on three forms of inequality: the subjugation of women, slavery, and vast economic inequality. Thus substantial numbers of people were channeled into lives devoted only to serving the needs and pleasures of others. Even today, often in Third World countries we find that people in the middle class live more gracefully than in the United States, because they can afford to hire servants. Ultimately, this is much of what people seek when the seek riches. Yet in this sense it is logically impossible to have a rich society, because no matter what the economic abundance, it is impossible for everyone to have servants and yet not themselves be servants.
The most significant progress than mankind has made over the last two thousand years is on the level of moral ideas. In thought, and to a considerable extent in practice we have made progress in overcoming the presumption that only a limited set of people possess transcendent potentials. Today everyone affirms their right to seek genuine fulfillment. On one level this is at the heart of many of the contemporary struggles within the household and over the role of women. But it also bears on the issue of living simply, of living in a way that does not give rise to an excessive need for the services of others, and thus, it motivates the search for a form of graceful existence that can be widely attained. This is the primary goal of the politics of simplicity.
Taken more deeply, however, what people need is not merely to be the recipients of services, and to be freed from roles of subservient service providers. In addition, we have a need for the meaning and creative expression that comes through the services we provide to others. Viewed through this lens, a politics of simplicity offers a distinctly different understanding of what the output of an economy is. Rather than thinking of economic output as a gigantic heap of material goods and work as a labor input, instead, the economy is better conceived as the creator (and destroyer) of life roles. The material outputs are the means of our subsistence. What is really important are the forms of service interaction, the forms of work that a society provides.
This in turn circles back to the issue of time. When we give to things and to each other, the time that is deserved, the meaning of service provision is transformed. When we act in haste, whether it be at work or with friends, our activity and ultimately our very being becomes a mere means to some intended outcome. When this is our general way of being in the world, we have failed in what Thoreau identified as the great enterprise -- to make living poetic.
Money: Reducing the level of Need Required Income (NRI)
I have spoken about the cost of meeting core economic needs, but fundamentally the issue is not the monetary costs, but time costs. Simple living is living that is rich in time, this in turn requires that the time spent on purely instrumental activities (e.g. work that is not inherently fulfilling) undertaken to meet core needs must not be excessive. Ideally, a graceful life is completely free from such necessity, but such a goal is both largely out of reach and itself goes beyond what is required.
From the point of view of the consumer, the amount of time that must be devoted to earning enough to meet core needs depends both on one's wage rate and the total cost of meeting those needs. Dividing the total cost of meeting core needs by the wage rate identifies the required labor time (e.g. $50,000 divided by $10/hour equals 5000 hours required for meeting needs, divided by $50/hour equals 1000 hours of required time).
Since for the economy as a whole, changes in real wage rates are generally reflective of productivity, the underlying variables are the cost of meeting core needs and changes in labor productivity. If the real cost of satisfying needs remains fixed, need required labor time will decline as productivity increases, provided that productivity growth is taken in the form of higher wages. But as noted earlier, whenever there is productivity growth, a society has a choice. Should the benefits of productivity growth be taken in the form of higher incomes or in the form of expanded leisure? Yet without really deciding, without even recognizing that this is a fundamental decision for us to make, our overall system tends towards income expansion rather than leisure expansion. A politics of simplicity seeks to make this a matter of deliberate political decision. And substantively, it comes down strongly on the side of increasing leisure.
If we are successful in using productivity increases to reduce labor time, then income remains fixed. If needs are already satisfied then this is not a great problem, but I argued in the previous chapter that for many core needs are unsatisfied and that for many it is a struggle to makes ends meet. How then does a politics of simplicity respond to the financial pressure of the ordinary household?
Though it remains critical for people at the bottom of the income spectrum, as a general objective, the politics of simplicity looks towards increased social efficiency rather than higher wages, as the means to better satisfy core needs. Why does it cost so much to meet core needs? And what can be done about it?
As we saw in the previous chapter, there is no simple story with respect to such costs. In some areas they have been stable, in other areas they have increased enormously, far faster than income growth.
Looking backwards two areas stand out as problems that have thwarted movement towards simple living: housing costs and transportation costs. Together these two occupy roughly 50% of the typical household budget. Given that for most Americans the needs for food and clothing are relatively well satisfied at historically low percentages of personal income, 12% and 5% respectively, had we managed to hold housing and transportation costs steady, we would have made substantial progress in opening up the possibility of simple living for moderate income families.
What happened with transportation is particularly unfortunate, because it could have been avoided had there been clarity with respect to the appropriate goals of transportation policy, for instance, had it been a goal of national policy to not evolve into an intensely automobile dependent society. Instead, over the last half century, as first one car and then two cars became a necessity for most families, the percentage of household expenditures for transportation has more than doubled. Today, as we have seen, the average husband and wife consumer unit (with or without children) spends almost $8,000 annually on transportation, roughly one fifth of total spending. Put in different terms, we might say, that of the five days we work, one day is for transportation expenses. That is a tremendous price to pay in terms of wedding individuals to a work-and-spend cycle, a tremendous price to pay for the absence of good public transport and the collapse of the urban environment.
A politics of simplicity would make the lowering of the amount of money required to meet transportation costs a central objective. This might involve policies in many sectors, be they public transportation, housing development or urban revitalization. Central to this is avoiding or overcoming automobile dependency, and it is worth a serious effort to ascertain the extent to which this might be reversed. But assuming that two-car dependency cannot be reversed, it would be worth an effort to see if it could be made significantly less costly.
We should seek the emergence of a new kind of automobile. It would be one deliberately designed for the simple life. It would be safe, low cost, fuel efficient, and capable of being repaired by anyone handy with tools. It would be intended to last indefinitely, with each long-lasting component capable of being replaced, and with parts permanently available. This is not outside the realm of the technologically possible, and there are multiple policy tools government could use to encourage its development. Indeed, many transportation experts believe that the next generation of cars will be vastly more fuel efficient, capable of attaining eighty or one hundred miles to the gallon. With double or tripled fuel efficiency, doubled life spans, and less costly repairs, a significant reduction in transportation costs is possible.
Also in the transportation area we might require the kind of labelling that we now have on foods, but instead of information on cholesterol and fat content, we would require information on "automobile liberation day" -- that day of the year on which we stop working merely to pay for the car. To do this one would factor in for each model its cost, fuel efficiency, expected repair costs and longevity. Then using the median wage level, one would calculate how many hours and days of work are just to pay for the car. For instance, if auto-related costs for a particular model account for 15% of median income, auto-liberation day would not be until March 1st -- whereas with the simple living automobile, auto-liberation day might arrive on January 25th. Thus, we might at least become better informed consumers when we make our transportation purchases.
Even more fundamental than the transportation sector are the problems we face with respect to housing. Here the goal is to facilitate the simple life, making it possible for people to have decent housing with modest incomes. The housing objective should not be understood in purely physical terms, but in terms of safe, perhaps even beautiful neighborhoods with good schools. Of course, the topics of housings, crime and schools are standard issues on any political outlook. A politics of simple living brings to these familiar areas of policy interest a fuller perception of the problem and a new criterion for solutions.
At this stage a politics of simplicity is not about answers, so much as it is about how to define problems, about opening up new perspectives on old problems, and seeing new meanings in long standing debates. One of the hard lessons of the last several decades, is that solutions to public problems do not come easily.
Rather than being dogmatic about solutions, we should be experimental. John Dewey once referred to the individual states as "48 laboratories." That's not a bad way of thinking. We do not yet know how to solve the housing-crime-schools matrix of unmet social need in this country. We do know that when each of us tries to solve it by earning enough to escape from it, two things occur. First, we are wedding ourselves to income levels and life styles that squeeze out the possibilities of a simpler life. And second, we are finding solutions that work for the few, but cannot work for all. We can't all escape from ourselves.
Thus, a politics-of-simplicity approach to the housing-crime-schools problem, rather than facilitating upper middle class escape, (e.g. through tax breaks for higher housing purchases, or private schools) would emphasize the mobilization of energy and resources to transform the neighborhoods we presently live in. An easy first step is beautification: flowers, trees, picking up trash, painting and polishing. Part of what a politics of simplicity brings to such problems is a perspective that redefines what's at stake -- these are not discrete "issues" or "social problems" -- rather these are the central obstacles that block the path to simpler, more coherent and more vigorous lives.
Five years from now, a Silicon Valley company succeeds in perfecting robot technology. They can create for each individual, an exact robot duplicate. And they can produce this robot at very little cost. Through the internet they then offer every employer in the country an exact replacement of any worker on the payroll. Because they can do so quite cheaply, they undercut the wage demands of each and every worker. No company has any incentive to hire a human.
Wages fall, but even when wages fall, humans are not hired because their wage demands are always higher than what it costs to buy and maintain the robot copy. Ultimately, even a willingness to accept starvation wages is insufficient to motivate hiring humans, because the replacement cost of the robots is less than what it takes to keep a human being alive. The outcome, then is that, except for a select few, we are all unemployed and we all starve.
This is the workers' worse nightmare, and it seems that the devil is in the technology. But actually the technology is quite neutral. Imagine the very same technological story with one small change: rather than the robots being owned by the California company, each worker is the sole owner of his own robot duplicate. Under these conditions, with respect to any work that is not inherently rewarding, you have the option of sending your robot duplicate to work, instead of going yourself. You can create our own leisure. You can do this for a day, a week, a year, or a lifetime. In short, this very same technology is the fulfillment of an ancient fantasy. It liberates each and everyone of us from labor that is not inherently valuable, and frees us to devote our lives to that which will give it meaning.
Thus a politics of simplicity is not against technological change; it is not against productivity growth. Put in the service of the good life, productivity growth can be liberating. A politics of simplicity can embrace and encourage innovation. The key issues are the composition and distribution of rewards and decision making power. Will productivity gains result in more leisure or more income? Who decides? And to the extent that it is income, to whom does it go? In short "Who will own the robots?"
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Beauty and the Need for Money
In the foregoing, I have limited the discussion to seven core economic needs. Although it is true, as various religious and philosophic traditions have espoused, that it is possible to develop a conception of identity and an outlook on existence in which even these basics are viewed as superfluous, such psychological gymnastics suffer from two problems. First, they can result in an emotionally constricted form of life that is far from ideal for most people. And second, because they call for a vast degree of personal transformation, they are, realistically speaking, unattainable by most people, and even if attained, do not last from one generation to another.
What I have tried to capture in the seven needs just discussed, is the central economic core of need, which is both motivationally powerful and recognized as legitimate by most people within our society. I believe these needs would also be widely, though perhaps not universally, recognized by most peoples in other cultures and at other times -- though, obviously, with different commodity specifications.
Insofar as this is correct, the satisfaction of these core needs is required on any conception of simple living that seeks to be broadly relevant to the perspectives and limitations of real people. In Part Two of this book I will introduce and explore a particular conception of simple living termed "graceful simplicity." Graceful simplicity is distinguished in part by the centrality it gives to aesthetic values. To translate this into the present concerns, is to ask about beauty and money -- how much money do we need in order that there be beauty in our lives? Assuming that in addition to the core needs discussed, there is in some sense a need for beauty, to what extent is that need fulfilled, and what has happened over time to the amount of money required to satisfy it?
This is a much more difficult area to ponder than core needs for food or clothing. For instance, are we talking about beautiful homes with beautiful furnishings, or are we talking about access to beautiful music and art? Or are we talking about living in a beautiful city or having access to the beauties of nature? Or all of these?
A few reflections on the place of beauty within the economics of graceful simplicity may be helpful:
- Beauty must not be thought of as residing solely or even primarily within things. There is the beauty that is the architecture of time; it requires slowing down and doing things right, and it may call for less income and more time, rather than the reverse.
- A life of graceful simplicity does not require that our homes be museums; it does not require that every artifact of daily use be striking. At the same time, from the point of view of gracefulness, a life that is aesthetically impoverished is abhorrent.
- One dimension of graceful living is the awakening of aesthetic appreciation, and with that will come a selectivity that often, without any additional cost, results in the attainment of things of beauty. Anyone who has wandered through flea markets and garage sales and thrifts shops knows that there are great things to be found -- beautiful objects, not seen, not desired, not valued by others.
- Things of beauty exercise a special power, they radiate within their space, and as they draw us into their orbit they close our consciousness to that which is outside. Thus, it is not necessary that all our possessions, be beautiful, only that some things are.
- One of the sources, inexpensive sources, of beauty is our own creative ability. In part this is a matter of tapping into our own latent abilities to take a beautiful photograph, to sculpt, to draw, to play an instrument. These to some extent involve mastery of technique -- but within the household, we are constantly engaged with the issue of design and arrangement -- whether it be the utensils, the tools, the furniture, the towels -- what we find in every space, is that beauty resides not just in the objects, but in how they are arranged with one another. Perhaps this is better understood by thinking about marketplaces. If one has travelled in Third World countries and gone into marketplaces, sometimes one is stopped short by a staggeringly beautiful display, formed with fifty loaves of bread, or with several kilos of nuts, or with fifteen cooking pans, or with a few dozen shirts.
- The beauty in our private spaces, inside our homes, is accessible only to ourselves and our friends. But perhaps of more significance is the aesthetic quality of public space, be it the architecture of houses, yards and gardens, the pavement of the streets, the shops, the trees, the skyline, or access to the sunset. In economists' terms these are public goods, in the sense that the enjoyment of them by one person does not diminish their availability to others. They are not, in the ordinary sense, consumed.
An enormous part of the need for beauty in our lives can be supplied through the aesthetic quality of the outside space. When one lives in a beautiful city, or when one lives in a beautiful natural environment -- be it the shore, the mountains, a river -- there is an aesthetic abundance that surrounds us, a wealth that we have, merely in virtue of being there rather than somewhere else.
It is the creation and destruction of this public beauty, whether manmade or natural, that is most significant. No fortune within the home can compensate for not being able to walk outside, for not being able to bear to look outside, for having nothing interesting to see when walking to the store. On the otherhand, it is remarkable how little we feel we need, when we are in a beautiful place. Indeed, rather than retreating to our private spaces, we rush to be outside. How much of our expenditures on our homes, then, represents this failure, this aesthetic inadequacy of public space?
What has happened over time? Does it take more or less money to satisfy our need for beauty? It is hard to draw up an accurate balance sheet. There are some areas, such as music in which there really have been enormous technological advances -- today at relatively little cost, one can hear, at very high quality, the world's best music played by the best musicians.
But this it seems to me is more the exception.
- The "efficiency" of supermarkets, malls, and now ware-house shopping has not only driven out the small shop, but in doing so has robbed us of the chance to walk along an interesting street or to have a friendship with a local shopkeeper.
- Chain stores rather than individual proprietors have driven out the individual display, the originality and idiosyncrasy that offers opportunities for surprise and discovery.
- Fear of crime has deprived many of us of access to the beauty of the moon and stars; it has made us afraid to take a solitary walk, or run, in the park.
- Much of our urban world is unremittingly ugly, and suburbanization has made it extremely hard to even arrive in the countryside.
- Even the possibility of aesthetic delight in our food has suffered. A good bakery, a fine tomato, a nectarine that explodes with sweetness -- these are hard to find, or if we know where to go, running from one special store to another, we pay extra, in time and money, for what was once an inherent part of a loaf of bread and a piece of fruit.
For many the need for beauty is unfulfilled. For the few that can satisfy it, it is done at very high cost; living in much more expensive cities and neighborhoods; taking vacations to other places that are beautiful, to Paris, to Martha's Vineyard, to Hawaii or Greece. Such escape is very expensive. Necessarily these can only be solutions for a few; the presence of many itself will destroy the aesthetic, and at any rate, it is an escape not a way of life.
We pay a complex price for our modern world. The world we have lost was in many ways more interesting, more diverse, and often more beautiful than the world we have created. To be aware of these differences only becomes sentimentality if we make the leap to a general idealization of the past. But it is a kind of blindness, if our fear of being accused of sentimentality prevents us from seeing what has been lost.
Consider just one example: pavement. Goodness knows there are many arguments for pavement. And once one gets started paving things over, there are powerful arguments for asphalt over cobblestones. Yet if one has a chance to walk down an unpaved road, there is no telling what one will find. Perhaps an interesting stone, perhaps a mysterious animal hole that was not there last week, perhaps the erosion caused by last night's storm. What dirt roads lack is "all-the-sameness" and with "all-the-sameness" comes predictability, and predictability makes it easier to go fast. So if you're in the business of getting from place to place, then asphalt is the way to go. But if you're not quite sure of the point of the destination, and not quite sure of the point of being there sooner rather than later, then pavement is the enemy, and paving over the world is madness.
There have been tradeoffs, and sometimes we made them quite poorly. This is especially true with things of beauty, because we lack the language for asserting its value. Thus, we sacrificed too much. We compensate for this aesthetic impoverishment with diverse consumption expenditures, but the road towards a simpler life is one that allows us to regain the aesthetics of public space.
More generally we need societies in which the level of NRI is low, or to put it differently, a society in which the efficiency of need satisfaction per unit of income is high. It is the background efficiency of the society that determines how much money the individual household needs.
In the Third World context the rationale for great social efficiency is simple and powerful -- it allows the satisfaction of basic needs at low levels of income. Thus, some live who would otherwise die. But we may also seek a society with low levels of NRI for a different kind of reason: because it facilitates a distinctly valuable form of life.
In a high productivity society, if the amount of money a family needs to meet its core economic needs is rather modest, this opens the possibility of simple living. First it allows people to put in less time on the job. Thus, in a socially efficient society, a two career family might be able to meet core needs with two twenty hour jobs rather than with two forty hour jobs. This would be a blessing. It would enable us to restore some peace and harmony to our hectic, harried existence.
Second, a society with low levels of NRI is one in which we are largely freed from the economic realm. If our needs are met with limited income, we are freed from the money side of life. In chosing jobs we can focus more fully on the non-pecuniary aspects of a good job; if needs are met we can afford to experiment, to make changes in mid-career, to rethink a life plan, to re-educate, to take a bold plunge towards that thing we always wanted to do.
And if needs can be met at low levels of NRI, then there is less to be anxious about if we suffer a drop in the income stream, if we lose our jobs, or if we walk away from producing or selling goods and services that do not conform to our values.
In a nineteenth-century essay on Gracefulness, Herbert Spencer, searching for a definition of gracefulness, reached the conclusion that any action "is most gracefully achieved when achieved through the least expenditure of force . . . .[that] grace, as applied to motion, describes motion that is effected with an economy of muscular powers."
Using that definitional approach, we might say that an economic system operates most gracefully when it satisfies the needs of the population with the least expenditure of income. The social efficiency of money, the ratio of need satisfaction to income is a measure of such gracefulness, and it tells us the extent to which a society makes simple living feasible. When it is high, then with modest incomes needs can be met; when it is low, needs can only be met if income is high.
In short, a high productivity society with low levels of need required income is a society that makes possible lives that are less pressured, more centered on friends and family and on activities of inherent value and fuller dignity. How we might begin this transition is the subject of the next chapter: The Politics of Simplicity.
Towards a New Central Economic Paradigm
At one time, concentration on the fundamental questions of life was thought essential to any reflective social politics. At a time before there was a distinction between economics and political theory, Aristotle put it thus:
"A person who is going to make a fruitful inquiry into the question of the best political arrangement must first set out clearly what the most choiceworthy life is. For if that is unclear, the best political arrangement must also be unclear."
The point of economic and political institutions and policies is to make possible the good human life. It is against this criterion that institutions are to be evaluated.
Often enough, the biggest questions we have to answer are never asked. Because of their magnitude, because of their extensive implications, it is often hard to see that there can be major alternatives to the way things are and the way we typically think about the world.
The single biggest social policy question confronting us today remains the same question it was 2300 years ago: What is the purpose of economic activity?
Today this is a question rarely posed, yet while rarely asked, there is an implicit understanding of the good life and its relation to economic activity that underlies modern consumerism. Thus we have:
The Dominant Economic Paradigm
- The good life is to be found in the satisfaction of our desires, in particular desires that can be satisfied through consumption.
- The economy contributes to the good life by providing consumers with the goods and services they desire.
- Work (along with land, capital and information) is an input within the productive process, as well as the central means through which people earn the income which allows them to purchase goods and services produced.
- Successful performance of the economy is best understood as the sustained expansion of goods and services (i.e. economic growth).
- Efficiency is primarily a matter of achieving maximum outputs (goods and services) with any level of resource input.
This vision, if it ever served us well, is today exhausted. It leaves us adrift in a changing world, hoping than "more and faster" adds up to better. What we need is a new outlook, one that in some ways returns to a more ancient vision. The perspective of simple living offers this alternative paradigm for thinking about the purpose of economic life:
The Simple Living Paradigm
- The good life is a form of simple living, it is found primarily in meaningful activity and the simple pleasures of friends and family. It requires an abundance of time to do things right.
- The economy contributes to a good life by providing goods and services to meet core needs, by offering meaningful forms of activity, and by providing economic security. Once core needs have been met, the consumption of goods and services is of secondary importance.
- Work is itself a central arena in which the good life is either found or lost. Work is not a mere means to income or productive output; at its best it is an opportunity for people to engage their highest qualities and creativities in ways that are of value to others. The kinds of work opportunities a society has to offer are its real outputs, the forms of life it makes available.
- Economic performance should be evaluated not in terms of economic growth but by looking at the levels of need satisfaction, levels of leisure, levels of security, and quality of work roles.
- Efficiency is primarily a matter of achieving high levels of need satisfaction at low levels of labor time or at low levels of income.
Put in different terms, a politics of simplicity responds to Aristotle's question by saying that the good life is found as a form of simple living and then turns to both government and the economy and says, "Your purpose is to facilitate the attainment of such lives, to create an environment which is supportive of simple living."
A politics of simplicity recognizes that the real work of creating a meaningful life has to be done by people themselves, with their friends and in communities of common values. At the same time, it looks to the society as a whole, to our national economic and social policies and says that they play a role of tremendous importance in creating the background environment within which such projects will either succeed or fail.
Making this shift to a different lens, to a different way of looking at economic life, to a different set of criteria for evaluating economic performance, is the single biggest element of a politics of simplicity. In many ways it turns conventional thinking on its head. It says that what are normally viewed as inputs or by-products of economic activity, namely the forms of human activity and interaction that are generated by economic activity ("work" and "jobs" and "social roles") are its real outputs, and that what is typically viewed as economic outputs (the goods and services received from the economy) are really inputs into life. They are the means that sustain us physically as we seek to find lives of inherent value and significance.
In making this shift to a different economic paradigm it is important to see that a politics of simplicity is not anti-technology. The primary problem that we as a society face with respect to technological change has to do with the benefits of technological innovation, both in deciding which kinds of benefits to choose and in determining who is to receive them. This is best illustrated with an example.
Today there are many who fear the impact of new technologies, and there is a growing list of writers who have warned that technological changes on the horizon may threaten the jobs of just about anyone. Let us assume that this is the case; let us assume:
The Worker's Worst Nightmare - SegalForSenate.Org
Beauty and the Need for Money - SegalForSenate.Org
Towards a New Central Economic Paradigm - SegalForSenate.Org
Taking Back Our Time (2003)