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Labor, work, and leisure


Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

Yeats, “Among School Children”

From a story about how reminding Stephen Breyer that he needs to retire will only make him mad:

Breyer personally witnessed how the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg struggled to keep her cancer at bay long enough for a Democratic president to be elected and name her replacement. Ginsburg lost her battle two months before the election, clearing the way for then-President Donald Trump to fill her seat with the conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

Lets linger for a moment on what RBG actually chose to do. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February of 2009. Although it’s never been publicly revealed if this was an adenocarcinoma, more than 90% of cases are of this type, which has an overall five year survival rate of about 1%. It’s true that this percentage goes up for the rare cases, such as apparently Ginsburg’s, that are discovered early, but even in cases of early detection the average survival period is about three years.

Democrats held both the presidency and the Senate for nearly six years after RBG learned she had pancreatic cancer.

That he has the crystal clear example of Ginsburg’s selfish irresponsibility before him only makes Breyer’s current behavior worse (I apologize to everyone for pointing this out in prominent venues, thus making it more likely that he’ll stay on the Court, because apparently we’re supposed to assume that SCOTUS justices have the emotional development of moody teenagers).

Anyway, thinking about Breyer’s and Ginsburg’s refusal to retire reminds me of a topic I’ve been wanting to explore, that I hope some LGM commenters have some thoughts about: the distinctions we might draw between labor, work, and leisure.

The classic definition of labor versus leisure in economics is that labor is what people do in order to be able to afford to consume, among other things, leisure. This leads to the income effect versus substitution effect conundrum: When wages rise people can afford more leisure, so rising wages will, all other things being equal, produce less labor, as people substitute leisure for labor. On the other hand, rising wages also mean that the opportunity cost of substituting leisure for labor goes up — rising incomes mean that substituting leisure for labor costs workers more — so that cuts in exactly the opposite direction. This is the income effect.

All this is neat and straightforward and easy to graph. It’s also way too simplistic, sociologically speaking.

Take Stephen Breyer. His current job counts as labor when the BLS is calculating the Labor Force Participation Rate, average weekly wages for labor, etc. But it certainly doesn’t fit the classic definition of labor versus leisure, because as a practical matter Breyer is actually paying to remain in his job rather than getting paid to do it. This is because he could retire from it and maintain exactly the same compensation he’s getting in wages and benefits, but now in the form of a lifetime pension. Since retiring from the SCOTUS would allow him to, if he so chose, greatly enhance his current income in ways that he can’t at present because of his current job, he is in effect paying, in pecuniary terms at least, a whole lot of hypothetical money, in the form of opportunity cost, for the privilege of staying on the Court.

Economists are happy to explain this sort of choice — they’re happy to explain everything — by assuming that Breyer is getting all sorts of non-pecuniary psychic income from staying in the job, which is no doubt true, but again not the whole story.

The whole story involves a distinction between labor and work — or rather a distinction that makes labor a subcategory of work. Clearly being a judge is a form of work: it’s not a leisure activity in any recognizable sense of that term. On the other hand, in the case of Breyer and many other federal judges it’s a form of work that they are doing almost literally for free, or, as in his case, paying for the privilege to do it. I’m not conversant with the economic literature on this point — help me out here — but it does seem to be something of a conceptual problem that there are forms of labor that people do not because they have to in order to get things that they want — goods, leisure — but because they enjoy doing the work for its own sake, quite apart from any pecuniary compensation they get from it. To the extent a job is like that, it doesn’t seem to fit the definition of “labor” in the classic sense at all.

Now it would seem obvious that a big social goal in an affluent society should be not just to substitute labor with leisure, but to the extent possible eliminate labor altogether. Too often, however, this is imagined as the goal of trying to replace labor with leisure. But we should not just — or even primarily — be trying to replace labor with leisure, but rather with the kind of work that people want to do even if they don’t get paid to do it.*

I realize, per the discussion above, that its possible to simply model this kind of work as a special form of leisure, but I think that’s an unhelpful oversimplification. Rather, we should work toward a society that doesn’t try to eliminate work, but does strive to eliminate, to the extent possible, labor.

Since we can’t give everybody a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, this is going to be hard work, but it’s the kind of work worth doing.

*Keynes has an interesting passage, in which he touches on the problem of what can be called broadly speaking “occupation.” Foreseeing a future in which people aren’t required to work to survive, he asks what people will do with themselves:

Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes to-day in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard-those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me-those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties-to solve the problem which has been set them.

Of course in the United States we have so far kept this potential problem at bay through a combination of extreme income inequality, an almost non-existent social safety net, and compulsive consumerism.

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