On the wisdom of the grasshopper

Elon Musk wants you to be the ant. But make room for the grasshopper, too

Fresno Bee, May 29, 2023

Elon Musk recently suggested it is “morally wrong” to work remotely. He said it wasn’t fair for “the laptop class” to work outside the office while others toil in the factory. In the same interview, Musk said that he works seven days a week, sleeps six hours a day, and only takes a couple of days off per year.

A workaholic boss is not the best source of wisdom about the morality of work. Is there a virtue in toil? Or is the laptop class wise to phone it in?

The fable of the ant and the grasshopper comes to mind. This allegory can help us clarify our intuitions about the morality of work. The grasshopper spends the summer fiddling, while the ant labors under the hot sun. When winter comes, the anthill is stocked with food. And all the grasshopper has is memories of the music of summer.

Of course, human beings are not insects. We invent technologies to make work easier and more efficient. Repetitive tasks are mechanized. Robots do the heavy lifting. Computers and AI will make it possible for us to have even more free time.

Almost a hundred years ago, the philosopher Bertrand Russell proposed that human beings should work about four hours per day. Some work is necessary. But Russell argued that work is not an end-in-itself. The higher goods of civilization such as music, art and science are products of leisure. Russell said that only a “foolish asceticism” would make anyone insist on working in “excessive quantities.”

We should also question the distribution of leisure, income, and wealth. The mechanization revolution is uneven and unfair. While the laptop class sits at home, calloused human hands pick our food, and millionaires live off interest income. The hardest manual labor is often paid the least. The ants and grasshoppers of modern capitalism show us unfairness in the system.

Forcing folks to return to the office won’t solve the fairness problem. But the shift away from the office does create other economic problems. There are empty office buildings. And the ancillary workforce of janitors, parking attendants and coffee shop workers will lose jobs. But if office work is not necessary, we could repurpose those empty buildings, and find other jobs for those workers.

Another concern is about the social aspect of work. Laptop laborers don’t chat at the proverbial water cooler. Nor do they care about office parties or lunch meetings. There is some value in those informal chats. But the technology revolution now allows creative conversations to occur on Zoom or email.

The biggest question here is about the value of work in our conception of a good life. This takes us back to Elon Musk’s own work life. Even before his recent interview, Musk bragged about how hard he works, often sleeping at his Tesla factories. When he acquired Twitter, he slept in the office there, as well.

Some entrepreneurs may see Musk as a model to be emulated. But his life seems sad, frankly. What about family life? Or taking a hike in nature? Or a day at the beach, or a weekend music festival? And what about a summer afternoon lounging by the pool with a good book? Most of the best of human life occurs outside of work, in our free time.

Ants build impressive anthills. But the work of the creative imagination is done by grasshoppers. Humans play and sing. We don’t aspire to the drudgery of the anthill. Our playful, creative spirit gives us architecture, art, literature, music and a sense of justice. These human goods are leisure activities. It is in our free time that we are most fully human.

When the mind wanders and explores, we dream of a world beyond the anthill. These dreams led human beings to invent technologies that make life and work easier. We also imagine a world that is fairer, and more humane.

As summer approaches, it’s worth considering the value of play and free time. There is no sense in working for the sake of work. And while the workaholic bosses in the anthill may warn against the idleness of the grasshoppers, it’s worth pointing out that human beings are not insects, and that human life is richer than work.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article275806896.html#storylink=cpy

Work Hard and Do Well


Fresno Bee, May 22, 2022

Find good work and do it well. That’s useful advice for graduates. Work is an important part of life. This does not mean that you should toil like a slave. But you should avoid the fantasy of living without working.

As with most things, moderation is crucial. Drudgery is dehumanizing. So too is idleness. Our lifelong task is to engage in meaningful activity. We do that by building, learning, and creating.

Our culture confuses us about this. On the one hand, the overachievers brag about how busy they are. They boast of their exhaustion and gloat about their stamina. These folks spin their wheels, making the rest of us feel lazy and incompetent.

On the other hand, the underachievers prefer the sofa to the treadmill. These are the folks who dream of a life of loafing. Some clever slackers manage to make malingering a way of life. Their indolence makes the rest of us wonder why we bother.

Each extreme undermines our humanity. The rat race turns human beings into rodents. And the lazy loafers are called couch potatoes. A good life is lived in the middle, with enough work to provide us with purpose and enough leisure to provide enjoyment.

Inequality can cause us to misunderstand the value of work. The fortunate few live luxurious lives without breaking a sweat. The eager beavers dream of joining that elite. But most will slave away, feeling that the golden ring is just out of reach. Meanwhile, those at the bottom live a precarious existence. There are a few safety nets. But a crisis or emergency can create a vicious spiral that ends in despair.

In the background is advertising that tell us that wealth is about luck rather than labor. Billboards promote casinos. Online betting is common. And every convenience store sells lottery tickets. Casino fantasies fuel the stock market, cryptocurrency, and NFTs (non-fungible tokens). This is a world where wealth is disconnected from work. The recent decline of stocks and the collapse of crypto reminds us that bubbles burst.

The housing crisis reveals a similar problem. The affluent own vacation homes, while the unhoused sleep on the streets. The value of a house is not determined by its usefulness in providing shelter. Rather, it is determined by a market based on borrowed money.

The credit industry loves this, of course. Debt becomes a way of life. And interest payments chain us to the treadmill.

A further problem is the fantasy of “the dream job.” In reality, there is no such thing. Some jobs are better than others. But the grass is always greener somewhere else. It is wiser to stop dreaming. Put down roots and bloom where you’re planted. Unfulfilled desire breeds resentment.

In a way, the animals have it easier. The bee makes its honey without asking questions. The bird builds its nest without complaint. But we compare our lives to others. We want sweeter honey and a bigger nest. And we are quick to complain.

But complaining does not produce happiness. This is a central idea of ancient Stoicism. Everyone has a job to do. Take pride in doing your duty. This is not always pleasant. Rather, the happiness of work comes from a sense of achievement.

The Stoics said that the only bad jobs are those that exploit and degrade humanity. Prostitution comes to mind as an example. Good work, on the other hand, helps us develop our human capacities.

Artists and scientists can easily find meaning in their work. But so too can gardeners, plumbers, and accountants. You don’t have to win the Nobel Prize to live a good life. You only have to contribute to the common good. At the end of the day, you want to be proud of your work. And at the end of your career, you want to be able to say that I did my job and left the world better for my efforts.

The quality of our lives is not determined by how much we earn or what we own. Happiness is not produced by running on the treadmill. Nor does it come from loafing on the couch. Rather, happiness is created when we find good work and do it well.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article261627322.html#storylink=cpy

The Great Resignation, Growing Resentment, and the American Dream

Fresno Bee, Dec. 12, 20221

People are quitting their jobs. In some industries, it’s difficult to find workers. There are nursing shortages and teacher shortages. Some folks call this “the Great Resignation.”

The pandemic changed the work environment. Some people did not want to risk catching COVID at work. Others were not willing to adapt to remote work or comply with pandemic restrictions. There were government handouts for those at the bottom and a booming stock market for those contemplating retirement.

But the Great Resignation can also be mapped onto the resentment of the working class. This problem predates the pandemic. And it will continue.

Consider two local quitters. Congressman Devin Nunes quit in the middle of his term to become CEO of a Trump company. Fresno State’s football coach, Kalen DeBoer, abandoned his team before the bowl season to become the University of Washington’s head coach. Both are pursuing power and money. DeBoer will double his salary to over $3 million per year. Trump already awarded Nunes a Medal of Freedom. If Trump runs for president again, Nunes will be well-placed.

With these kinds of examples, it’s no wonder that the average schmo is sick of working. The fat cats make millions, while the average worker faces rising gas prices and student loan debt.

This is a system rigged for the rich. The funding priorities of American universities are ludicrous when a coach earns more in a year than a professor earns in a lifetime. And when powerful congressmen jump ship for the private sector, it’s clear why the country is foundering.

We should also consider the way the American Dream has morphed into the desire not to work. The Declaration’s “pursuit of happiness” is interpreted now as a life of leisure without labor. No one seems to believe in a “work ethic.”

Americans dream of making millions on crypto, winning the lottery or becoming online influencers. These dreams imply that hard work is for suckers. The “winners” in our society are those who get rich while doing the least work.

This was not the original American dream. A century ago, the sociologist Max Weber used Benjamin Franklin as an example of the Protestant work ethic. In previous centuries, Americans were suspicious of laziness and profiteering. Work was viewed as the path to salvation, while leisure and luxury were associated with sin. As Weber explained, we once thought, “not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God.”

Nobody seems to think that way anymore. We see ourselves as consumers instead of workers. We value leisure instead of labor. Nor do we feel loyalty to faceless corporations and heartless industries that show little concern for our well-being. It is no wonder that when the opportunity arises, people quit their jobs. And if people can make millions by jumping ship, we cheer them on rather than questioning their loyalty.

Most of us don’t have the options that Nunes and DeBoer have. And so we dream, while trudging through the motions. Meanwhile, resentment grows.

This is all obviously problematic. If you didn’t work, what then would you do? Good work is needed to make life meaningful. A life without labor can quickly become hollow and boring. At some point, you’ve watched everything on Netflix. Then what?

Human beings are creative, thinking animals. We need problems to solve. That’s one reason that work is good for us. Creative labor exercises the mind. Repetitive and mechanical work deadens the human spirit. The same is true, by the way, of some forms of leisure. The goal is to find meaningful and constructive activity. We need work — and play — that inspires and engages our humanity.

The Great Resignation is an opportunity to rethink our humanity and our economy. The American Dream has narrowed. Inequality is driving resentment. Some jobs remain inhumanly dull and dissatisfying. And our economy does not generate a sense of meaning, belonging or loyalty.

Let’s enliven our workplaces so that work becomes meaningful. Let’s find ways to prevent resentment from festering. Let’s stop idolizing indolent elites who make millions by doing nothing. We should reward loyalty and dedication. And we should remember the virtue of labor and the quiet dignity of a job well-done.

Work, Pay, and Morality

Pay and work issues raise deep moral questions

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-10-20

Human beings are working animals. We thrive when engaged in meaningful, goal-directed activity. And we dutifully take care of things that must be done. While money is a concern, work also involves moral necessity and intrinsic reward. We flourish when we have good work and do it well. In an ideal world, work would be rewarding, spiritually and financially.

During a recent Fresno State Ethics Center lecture, James Sterba, a professor from Notre Dame, defended liberal ideals about work and wealth. He argued that there is something unjust about a system in which rich people build up surpluses while hard-working poor people barely survive. He claimed that poor people have a right to have their basic needs satisfied. To solve this problem, we would have to tax the wealthy in order to support the poor.

Critics worry that taxes may discourage the well-off from working. Mitt Romney explains on his website that high tax rates “discourage work and entrepreneurship, as well as savings and investment.” On this view, workers would see that it doesn’t pay them to work harder when the government takes more of what they earn. A related concern is that those who receive welfare will have no incentive to work. From this perspective, work is motivated by external necessity and the hope for monetary reward. If we didn’t need to earn a living, we might not work. And if we were taxed at a higher rate, we might choose to work less.

This makes sense in a world in which people can rationally weigh the costs and benefits of work and monetary reward. But most workers do not have the luxury of deciding whether and how much they should work. A lot of the most important “work” is done without choice or compensation. Consider how much time is spent every day doing housework and yardwork, caring for children or for the elderly and disabled. It is significant that this sort of essential but uncompensated “work” is traditionally done by women. What would our economy look like if we found ways to pay the family caregivers who now work for free?

Perhaps caregiving work provides intrinsic rewards. Maybe there is joy in changing diapers. But caregivers are often at a disadvantage. According to Legal Momentum, the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, “people in single-mother families had a poverty rate of 42.2% and an extreme poverty rate of 21.6%.”

It would be nice if all work were both rewarding and fairly compensated. But many must work at dull and demanding jobs to put bread on the table. Unfortunately, even these jobs are scarce. The unemployment rate in Fresno is above 13%; one in four of us lives in poverty.

Sometimes, due to the vagaries of the economy, hard working people cannot find work. Some people are unable to work because of illness or disability. And children can’t and shouldn’t be forced to work. In these cases, it seems that social support is justifiable.

But what about able-bodied adults who refuse to work, should we also support them? This is a deep moral question. Liberals tend to think that every human being deserves to have basic needs fulfilled, regardless of what they do or have done. Conservatives tend to think that able-bodied adults should be left alone to fend for themselves.

I wonder whether there really are that many able-bodied adults who are unwilling to work. If work were available, if work were meaningful and if work were fairly compensated, I suspect that most adults would choose to work. There may be a few sponges who game the system. But the bigger problem is that the work that is available is meaningless drudgery paid at a less than a living wage.

For many, the question is not about meaningful work but about basic survival. This brings us back to Professor Sterba’s conclusion, which is that there is something unjust about a social system that leaves many impoverished, while others enjoy luxury.

I would add that there is something unjust about a system in which much of our most essential work is uncompensated, in which single mothers and their children are disadvantaged and in which many jobs are spiritually deadening and poorly paid.