Mark Twain on the Leisure/Work Divide

Mark TwainWe got an e-mail the other day from John Yinger, a professor of economics and public administration at Syracuse University. It went, in part, like this:

By coincidence, I read a chapter of “Tom Sawyer” to my 10-year-old son the day your column on leisure time came out. It’s the famous chapter on whitewashing the fence. Here’s how it ends:

Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it, namely, that, in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would no doubt have comprehended that work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers, or performing on a treadmill, is work, whilst rolling nine-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service that would turn it into work, then they would resign.

It looks to me as if you were scooped by Mark Twain!

Indeed we were, and hopefully not for the last time. The funny thing is that I thought long and hard about citing the Tom Sawyer whitewash incident in the column — in fact, this passage was in some degree an inspiration for the column — but I, like many writers, am leery of depending too much upon, or citing too often from Mark Twain, whose work was so good and broad that he could legitimately be cited in just about any article I might ever write. (However, as noted earlier on this site, not all the wisdoms attributed to him were actually written by him; also noted earlier is the fact that, as a writer, he was also a devout capitalist).

On a side note, some of the feedback we got from our NYT column suggests that several people missed the point we were trying to make about work vs. leisure. Rather than trying to condemn menial leisure activities like gardening, knitting, and “cooking for fun,” instead by offering personal examples at the end we were attempting to show that, not only do we not disapprove of such moderately irrational behavior, we ourselves embrace it. Oh well.


egretman

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Caravaggio

This excellent quote explains my paradox and reluctance to work.

I haven't 'worked' for about two years, but I keep myself busy and satisfied through the day with activities that others might call work, so the question is why not get paid for it if I am doing it anyway? The problem is that I am not getting paid and that I am now running low on funds. However, if I am offered wages for some of the activities I do of my free will, these will become obligations and I may stop being happy. Any excuse not to 'work' for 'the man', eh!

chesapean

If you live long enough, you will hear many, many people say: "I enjoy my work so much, I cannot believe my luck that someone pays me to do it."

The challenge -- for those who are not -- is to become one of them.

It would be interesting to discover whether market forces, which are enormously efficient at allocating material goods to material needs, are equally efficient at aligning work requirements to personal interests.

Mark Twain was, of course, very wise in pointing out that one can manipulate personal interest. Perhaps, too, there's a greater subtlety in his observation? That most people are not lazy, and it is therefore a shame to manipulate them to work when they are willing to work, anyway.

What "market forces" must exist to allow the greatest number of people to earn the material goods they require doing work they absolutely love?

db

I think a lot of the discussion on your other post has a lot more to do with disagreement over your terms "menial labor" and "irrational behavior". I am not at all sure how to take those terms, although I find them a subtle put-down no matter how I consider it.

The response I was going to make on the other post, though, is that there is an artificial lumping together of things that have ceased to be necessary household tasks (gardening and "hobbies" like cross-stitch and sewing) from necessary household tasks (cooking, cleaning and laundry).

On the point of necessary household tasks, who is supposed to do these tasks? They aren't going to just get done by themselves. How is it irrational to derive a sense of enjoyment in whichever of them you can (like cooking)? Is your actual point of view that simply because we CAN hire these things out that we SHOULD, otherwise we are being irrational? And, incidentally, if a person who would have a more than adequate income to save and invest were they to do these things themselves, instead hired them out -- wouldn't that be more irrational to have outsourced your personal upkeep?

On the other hand, for those things that have turned into "hobbies" -- as others have talked about on your other blog entry there is a huge payback in terms of reconnecting with something on a more human scale than the typical office job provides. For a lot of us the only satisfaction we get from a job well-done may be through our hobbies, which provides us an immediate tangible outcome to our effort (unlike our jobs which may never provide a tangible outcome).

Finally, one other point is that by reclaiming some of this labor (like sewing, knitting and gardening) we may be able to reduce our personal dependence on the growing machine of globalization. We may not be able to completely escape it, but I think there is a real yearning in people to escape this machine.

For example, in the case of those who are gardening, they derive satisfaction knowing that their food is literally grown locally and the best way to do that is to grow it in their own back yard. Part of it is the satisfaction of a superior product (a tomato picked at the point of ripeness will be superior to one picked early in order to be shipped a distance). Part of it is control over the pesticides and chemicals introduced to the crop. Part of it could be a political statement -- not wanting to eat food shipped from abroad or picked by illegal labor. All I know is I for one would prefer to grow my own food as much as possible, and it's not out of pleasure.

Likewise, I despise buying the sort of cheap clothing made in China and some other countries that has become so prevalent under the guise of globalization -- it is inferior in quality to that which I want to spend money on (and all too often the design is not pleasing either). I gladly trade time sewing to have more control over my clothing.

So I trade my leisure doing things I could have others do. At the same time, I'm keeping the scale of my life at a more comfortable, more immediate level. If I wasn't doing these things, what would I be doing? Going to movies? Watching television? Playing video games? Hmm, I'd rather not. Travel more? That would be great, but then again that's a luxury I can't afford to do that much of. Work more hours in an office to afford more things? Wait -- what's rational about that?

DB

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Micael

Who is supposed to do these tasks? Plenty of people who want an opportunity to earn a living.
The work ethic in some cultures deprives some people of time to live (other than work) whi8le denying others a chance to work (other than survive).

egretman

Lonely post
By our host
Take this tease
Comments please?

Caravaggio

This excellent quote explains my paradox and reluctance to work.

I haven't 'worked' for about two years, but I keep myself busy and satisfied through the day with activities that others might call work, so the question is why not get paid for it if I am doing it anyway? The problem is that I am not getting paid and that I am now running low on funds. However, if I am offered wages for some of the activities I do of my free will, these will become obligations and I may stop being happy. Any excuse not to 'work' for 'the man', eh!

chesapean

If you live long enough, you will hear many, many people say: "I enjoy my work so much, I cannot believe my luck that someone pays me to do it."

The challenge -- for those who are not -- is to become one of them.

It would be interesting to discover whether market forces, which are enormously efficient at allocating material goods to material needs, are equally efficient at aligning work requirements to personal interests.

Mark Twain was, of course, very wise in pointing out that one can manipulate personal interest. Perhaps, too, there's a greater subtlety in his observation? That most people are not lazy, and it is therefore a shame to manipulate them to work when they are willing to work, anyway.

What "market forces" must exist to allow the greatest number of people to earn the material goods they require doing work they absolutely love?

db

I think a lot of the discussion on your other post has a lot more to do with disagreement over your terms "menial labor" and "irrational behavior". I am not at all sure how to take those terms, although I find them a subtle put-down no matter how I consider it.

The response I was going to make on the other post, though, is that there is an artificial lumping together of things that have ceased to be necessary household tasks (gardening and "hobbies" like cross-stitch and sewing) from necessary household tasks (cooking, cleaning and laundry).

On the point of necessary household tasks, who is supposed to do these tasks? They aren't going to just get done by themselves. How is it irrational to derive a sense of enjoyment in whichever of them you can (like cooking)? Is your actual point of view that simply because we CAN hire these things out that we SHOULD, otherwise we are being irrational? And, incidentally, if a person who would have a more than adequate income to save and invest were they to do these things themselves, instead hired them out -- wouldn't that be more irrational to have outsourced your personal upkeep?

On the other hand, for those things that have turned into "hobbies" -- as others have talked about on your other blog entry there is a huge payback in terms of reconnecting with something on a more human scale than the typical office job provides. For a lot of us the only satisfaction we get from a job well-done may be through our hobbies, which provides us an immediate tangible outcome to our effort (unlike our jobs which may never provide a tangible outcome).

Finally, one other point is that by reclaiming some of this labor (like sewing, knitting and gardening) we may be able to reduce our personal dependence on the growing machine of globalization. We may not be able to completely escape it, but I think there is a real yearning in people to escape this machine.

For example, in the case of those who are gardening, they derive satisfaction knowing that their food is literally grown locally and the best way to do that is to grow it in their own back yard. Part of it is the satisfaction of a superior product (a tomato picked at the point of ripeness will be superior to one picked early in order to be shipped a distance). Part of it is control over the pesticides and chemicals introduced to the crop. Part of it could be a political statement -- not wanting to eat food shipped from abroad or picked by illegal labor. All I know is I for one would prefer to grow my own food as much as possible, and it's not out of pleasure.

Likewise, I despise buying the sort of cheap clothing made in China and some other countries that has become so prevalent under the guise of globalization -- it is inferior in quality to that which I want to spend money on (and all too often the design is not pleasing either). I gladly trade time sewing to have more control over my clothing.

So I trade my leisure doing things I could have others do. At the same time, I'm keeping the scale of my life at a more comfortable, more immediate level. If I wasn't doing these things, what would I be doing? Going to movies? Watching television? Playing video games? Hmm, I'd rather not. Travel more? That would be great, but then again that's a luxury I can't afford to do that much of. Work more hours in an office to afford more things? Wait -- what's rational about that?

DB

Read more...

Micael

Who is supposed to do these tasks? Plenty of people who want an opportunity to earn a living.
The work ethic in some cultures deprives some people of time to live (other than work) whi8le denying others a chance to work (other than survive).