Recently I have returned from a country where, let’s be frank, people are very poor. And it shows. It is humbling; as a by-our-world’s-standards affluent Euro-Usonian I have nonetheless heard about poverty. I’ve even seen it from afar, driving through the boondocks of western Ontario, the backwaters of upstate New York, the bushw[h]ackiness of Virginia. One memorable viewing was from an AMTRAK train while slowly rolling through I think Philadelphia: run-down, 1950s-style, two-story, three-walled houses in what was visibly a black neighbourhood. I might have been twenty-two at the time, and the vast majority of extreme poverty I had seen before then was of the redneck-hillbilly variety: small houses, half forgotten in the middle of nowhere, with yards containing the standard three point five cars needed to qualify for the title and accompanying free “Don’t Tread On Me” flag. As a young, white, privileged male (one concussion away from being a libertarian), it didn’t so much surprise as astonish me that a whole community of people right in the middle of a city could also be forgotten. And yes, it has to do with the colour of their skin, just to answer any ALMAs (all lives matter assholes) who’ve gotten past the latest social network algorithms.
Fastforward eight years later, and fly south of the equator to Brazil, with a short, seven-year detour through central Europe. It’s more or less the same deal there, except much more extreme, and the forgotten comprise the majority of the people, and actually it’s not the same at all because it is and it isn’t. What does seem to be the same is that the elites tend to be much, much, much whiter than the rest. As a white Euro-Usonian whose blindingly pale skin beaconed that he was fresh from The North, I was clearly in the minority, and yet enjoyed the same privilege as, well, everywhere I go I guess. Whiter people have better homes. Whiter people are on the advertisements. Whiter people tend to be the ones hounding Rousseff. Does this sound familiar to anyone else? It doesn’t have to do with having money, except that if you’re white in a country like Brazil people assume you have some.
All this: passive observation from the safety of a car, the security of a balcony in a building surrounded by concrete walls. By this time I am no longer surprised or astonished, just saddened and angered and guilty. Because I was still enjoying the luxury of the bubble around me, enlightened enough to be aware of the bubble’s existence, but not enough to know its extent, much less breach it in any meaningful manner. And here is where I begin my piece on time. (And if you know me, you know I don’t write little pieces).
Because it’s not as if I have never interacted with people who are poor, never spoken with a homeless person, never had a conversation with someone attending a meagre stand. That’s not the point (nor am trying to rake up street cred). The point is the nature of our interaction. My encountering this or that person in poverty is brief and invariably economic in nature. In Brazil he’s a guy in dreads selling me a pipe. (What a stereotypical thing to do as a tourist). She’s the live-in maid making me tapioca and waiting for me to finish before sitting down to eat. (Another first for me; we don’t run into nearly as many maids in the US or Germany, and we usually hold truer to the illusion that they’re “part of the family”). He’s an old, grizzled man to whom my Brazilian friends try to warn me against giving too much money. (It’s interesting: the universal constant among the better-off that it’s somehow reckless to give beggars too much money, that it’s clever not to do so, as if they can’t responsibly handle too much, or as if you’re being conned through your compassion. In any case, I was high, and not even the one carrying money, so I was just doubly confused. Thanks, guy with the dreads!).
In Brazil and Germany and everywhere, the tangent of interaction with a poor person barely touches my bubble. The bottom line is, in varying ways poor people spend much of their time making sure people like me can live comfortable lives. Some walk around making sure I have ready access to knock-off sunglasses whenever I want to pose for a selfie. Others wait around gas stations on the off-chance we want to navigate the dunes without getting the rental car stuck in the sand. Others ensure that I have a full belly and a clean apartment without my being disturbed. Others guarantee that I never run out of chilled to nearly frozen beer at the beach. And still others whom I do not see sit in factories for sixteen hours a day so that there are sunglasses, rental cars and beers to be had in the first place. And by standard economic thought I am returning the favour if I pay them.
A question that is rarely asked in my bubble is, what am I paying them for? Not why pay at all?, as some in the bubble also ask with altering levels of earnesty. But what do the objects and services have in common that, when I hand someone a banknote, or a computer subtracts its equivalent from my account, I get in return?
If you’re intellectually honest with yourself you know that it is time and labour. Nothing less than that. You’re not pulling that coconut, perfectly cut with a straw and an umbrella, from the depths of nothingness. The smartphone on which you’re reading this did not materialise miraculously out of the air. Things cost time and labour, specifically someone’s time and labour, more precisely lots of people’s accumulated time and labour. There’s nothing new about this simple truth, as it’s been shown over and over again. Nor is there anything profound about it, other than that so many people refuse to believe it, or choose to ignore it, despite all the evidence before our eyes.
My question, also un-new, is how I can possibly equate my work/labour per banknote to theirs. I can’t. This equation is impossible, even between two workers sitting next to each other in the same factory, because labour is not equal to labour. If you’ve ever dabbled in human biology and neurology on even a layperson level, then you know our brains and bodies never work (i.e. expend energy to do something) the same amount even when doing the same task for the same period of time. If you’ve ever worked at, say, an exhibition hall building stands for rich companies to display their products for two days before tearing everything down and throwing it away (*seethes in rage*), you will also know this to be true. In all jobs, actually, if you’re just half observant and humble enough to think everyone around you is not a lazy idiot, then you will notice that people do things better and faster or worse and slower than you. You’ll also notice that your own sense of how much you work is probably greatly inflated, even if you do actually work a lot, because humans are goldfish to their own faults and elephants to the faults of others.
I am, of course, a bad example of a labourer. Yes I’ve done odd hard jobs, such as carrying heavy boxes up five flights of stairs, or putting in a 25-hour day at the exhibition halls despite being yelled at on a regular basis by an incompetent manager for doing exactly what he told me to do (*seething*). But all of that pales in comparison to a Bloomberg headline: “Denied Breaks, U.S. Poultry Workers Wear Diapers on the Job”. Or to slaves in the fish industry. Or to basically anyone who produces basically any of the “goods and services” that I use on a day-to-day basis. Why? Because for me those efforts were the exceptions, the very extremes of my labour, not the rule, nor anywhere near the mean. And nowadays I’m paid mostly to sit around, read, pace my room thinking, get distracted from reading, and kick myself for not doing enough to make the world a better place and myself a better person. I call it a productive day when I have built a drying cabinet for dishes, or have read an article or two for my own PhD dissertation, or have written an essay for my blog. It’s not like I don’t get exhausted from these things, as anyone in academia can surely attest, but there’s simply no denying that, even if I were to give it my all, my banknote per non-temporal unit of labour ratio is very high. In other words, I’m privileged. And most of the people around me are, too.
So, leaving time aside, for my efforts I can get, say (just say), ten banknotes, where someone else in Germany only gets one. That’s the irrefutable refutation of the meaningfulness to the standard economic mantra that people who earn more work longer hours. Once you set time aside from your equation, you understand that some high-earners might choose to work longer hours, too true, but it’s never, on the whole, harder, more difficult work than, say, sitting in a factory. They are, in other words, not only able to get more banknotes out of each non-temporal unit of labour (whatever that unit may be — maybe calories?), but expend so few units of labour that they can, putting time back into the equation, physically and mentally afford to put in more hours. Understand why it’s meaningless? If we paid garbagepeople as much as Wall Street spectaculators [my own sic], they’d still ever only be able to pick up so much garbage before having to call it a day. Speculators as well can only speculate so long, obviously, but in the en don’t work as hard, and have the added bonus that they can afford to take time off to look after their bodies, if they choose to, unlike actual garbage people. (Ironically, people who earn less are also often forced to work fewer hours per employer, not more).
And then we return to our Adam Smith, and every single economist who has read Smith should by now understand the meaninglessness of that above-mentioned economic truth (and be ashamed of themselves for not being good economists). Here’s a thought experiment along Smith’s insights. Jesus (hey Zeus) Nagel is a young, fit man who makes nails all alone in his shed. Let’s say for each nail he has to perform nine tasks: cutting wood, stoking a fire, cutting a metal rod, heating it up, holding it on an anvil, hitting it with a hammer, using a special tool for the head, cooling the new nail in oil, and setting it aside. Nine Inch Nail Co., on the other hand, is a modern company that employs nine people of varying ages and levels of fitness, each of whom is specialized in one of those nine tasks. They have such good tools, and some are so proficient at their respective tasks that, working with the same effort as Jesus, they are collectively able to produce 900 nails to his one, or, as you guessed it, 100 nails per person. Do you see where this is going? Let’s just assume neither Jesus nor the Nine Inch Nail Co. have money-leaching employers. If Jesus is able to just scrape by with the nails he produces, then the Nine Inch Nail Co. workers are, by any standards, doing pretty well for themselves. If Nine Inch Nail Co. workers are just scraping by, Jesus has long starved to death, or quit nail making to join the army.
Something often neglected, when talking about Smith, is his own critique of the division and specialisation of labour: “In fact, he thought that the division of labour could have negative effects—both for the individual and for society. In a later part of the ‘Wealth of Nations’, Smith reckons that as a result of strict labour specialisation, the worker ‘has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention’, and consequently ‘becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become’.” But economists since Smith and nowadays prefer to focus on his less insightful, almost offhand remark about and “invisible hand” that regulates the market. Because the one is very flattering to capitalism, and the other eternally damning. The invisible hand dresses up and abstracts away all of the differences in labour — between people performing the same tasks and between people producing the same commodities in different ways and between people producing very different commodities altogether — giving the credit for all labour done to the capitalist organisation of that labour. But in the end, the labour of factory workers, through its repetition, makes poor people dull and dumb, whereas the labour of economists, through its repetition, makes dull and dumb people rich.
And then there’s the last argument: I like what I do. You probably don’t.
Thus labour is variable. What about time?
Time, as all science tells us, is not the constant humans once thought it was. If you move faster, time goes slower for you, faster for the people you pass by. Subjectively as well, time flies when you’re having fun, but it slows to a crawl when you’re getting your teeth scraped at the dentist. (That one was so I could imagine you all cringing).
But, in another sense, we all have the same amount of time; and it’s never enough. We lead 24-hour days, 365-day years, 71-year long lives, and while your days/years/lives may be longer and mine may be shorter, the bells ring on the hours, the rooster crows at dawn, and the sun sets on us all. For time, as we know it, is really nothing more than knowing that when this happens that will happen, too. And so we try to get this much done before that happens, with some effort to coordinate it all. Eight hours of the day we, as a society, are supposed to be working, eight hours for leisure, eight hours for rest. (Well, except for many women, who still have to pick up the kids from the daycare and clean the house and make dinner, despite it not being 1950, but you get the picture). Time, in other words, might not be constant, objectively or subjectively, and yet its units are all something we can meaningfully compare, much unlike units of labour.
And however much time we have, however much time we subjectively feel, we only have a finite amount of time. Whereas, if you were following along, we have the potential for always doing more effortless labour in shorter and shorter periods of time. Because that’s what technology means, right? A car can now drive me 600 kilometers in the time I can comfortably walk 25. A 3D printer can now produce 10,000 pipes in the time it takes me to carve one. Eventually, the way things are going, we will actually be able to move mountains with our faith. For quite some time now, in other words, we’ve had the ability to shorten everyone’s working hours and make their jobs easier and even enjoyable and still have a higher standard of living than even I do today. I still live paycheck to paycheque (so to speak, in Germany we have only Czechs), but my standard of living, and that of my friends and most of the people I know, is so high that I simply cannot compare my salary to that of most workers, or to that of any person living on the edge of poverty.
Because what does that standard of living mean if not to have enough money to buy the time to do what you want?
Want sunglasses? You can take the time to make them, or you buy a pair. For ten banknotes and a few minutes of human interaction you can enjoy a pair of cool sunglasses for the rest of your life (or until you break/lose them). Want beer? As a hobby brewer I know it takes about fifteen hours of rather enjoyable labour to make 60 bottles of beer in a standard kitchen, plus anywhere from two to eight weeks of waiting. Or you can go out and buy yourself the same number of brewskies for just about one banknote each, and enjoy them over a relatively long period of time (shorter for me than it is for you). Want a car? Same story. Because of technology and specialisation we’re not only able to have stuff without first making it, we can buy it for so cheap — i.e. exchanged labour/time — that we no longer have to spend most of our waking hours producing other things in order to get the stuff we want in return. In fact, some of us have so much time on our hands that we consider it a pleasurable pastime to brew beers and build cars (I have yet to hear of someone making their own sunglasses). And sooner or later we’ll have such good 3D printers that we’ll all be able to produce anything we want for very, very little money, which means we also won’t need to spend much time doing labour, but can instead take the time to enjoy those things.
That’s how it works. As another age-old saying goes, “Time equals money”. And unlike most sayings, it actually does. Really, truly, in every meaningful way, time equals money. Because with enough of it you can spend your time doing what brings you meaning, with the tools and toys you need to make that time more meaningful. But in the end that means you are spending someone else’s time to make your time better.
Does income inequality then not sound really, truly horrific? Because in the end it means some people have enough money to spend 100, 200, 1000 lives doing anything and everything they want to, but only have one life in which to do it. While other people barely have time for themselves, to give themselves the education and training to get the jobs to spend more time for themselves. And still other people, after putting in exhausting days full of labour, don’t even have time for that. And still other people aren’t even allowed to put in exhausting days full of labour, so years of bad health and malnutrition shorten their lives significantly. Does that make the lives of the rich more worthwhile?
Do things like McDonald’s happy meals or basically anything sold at Wal-Mart then not also sound truly terrible? Because in the end it means some people are giving away many, many hours of their lives in exchange for very very little money with which they, in our current capitalist system, can buy some time for themselves and their families in return.
And then we remember that a very good portion of where each of us are today is due not to hard work, but to luck. The science of luck, as any good monarch knows (there are none), shows that hard work is neither necessary nor sufficient for guaranteeing a high salary, or even a living wage.
Thus I propose that all banknotes in all units of currency are equated to the time ticket, the average hourly income per person at purchasing power parity. It just so happens, after I looked at Wikipedia and did some fudgy math, that one time ticket (tt or †) is equal to about 10.00 US Dollars/hour. Thus my sunglasses are worth 1,00†, or the same as 10 beers. A normal car where I live costs about 200 – 300†. Officially, after taxes, I earn about 2† an hour, i.e. either 20 dollars or two hours of time for every hour I am paid to work, however you want to look at it.
Look, obviously it’s absurd to try to actually calculate this and think we’ll ever get a proper ratio out of it, which is why I am fine with the lax research and fudgy math, since at least it comes out to a nice, round number. The point is not to start a new economics of the dollar, but to show the absurdity of money in the first place. Money is supposed to have value. But in the end labour, not money, produces value, and that value is measured most meaningfully by the time we have to do the things we want to do, not the money we have to spend. With technology and cooperation we can reduce labour per person such that it becomes much, much, much more valuable, i.e., we have to work for much shorter periods of time while producing all the tools and toys we need for some good ol’ respective me-time. All of us, for everyone. But the system we have now prevents us from having me-time, from helping others get more of it, and has done so for a very long time, as have other systems before it. It’s an absurd system that uses an absurd unit to measure what we really want: more time. As long as this absurd system is in place, my fudgy math doesn’t sound as bad in comparison, so I will stick with measuring time tickets just as I have, thank you very much.
So, for all I care, the message you should take from time tickets is that for every hour we spend on labour for others we need many, many more hours for ourselves in return. If you accept my calculations above, just for the sake of argument, then I get two hours of me-time money to split between rent, utilities, beer, etc., for every hour that I am paid to work, but am only paid to work 24 hours of a week. I feel affluent, yes, but in the end that means I come out with just 48.00† to spread over 168 hours, or 0.29†/hour. That reads to earning just under a third of an hour to use on every hour I live. A CEO who “earns” 16,000.00† a week has 95.24† for every hour of that week. Assuming we, as a society, already accepting the eight-hour work week as the standard, want each person to have 1.00† for every hour they live so that they can live a comfortable life, then I am well below the poverty line. I only get away with it because I have no children, have few responsibilities to other people, and am happy with relatively few things — and have long had a Bank of Dad and good credit rating among my relatives. What about others?
An eight-hour work day means one needs to earn 3.00†/hour just for theirself, and anywhere around 6.00† to 12.00†/hour if they have children and dependents. And yes this is all fudgy, bullshit math. Through and through. But so are all wage calculations, cost of living calculations, poverty-line calculations, etc., etc, all the more so because they are tied to a slip of paper, an abstract unit of worth, and not, as they should be, to the one thing we all value most: time.
As I started on race and poverty, so I will end. This piece isn’t about race, but you have to understand that, if you talk about poverty, as I did, you cannot not talk about racism and remain intellectually, morally honest. The same goes, of course, for sexism, ableism, etc., etc. And I sincerely apologise for not giving these subjects, and the people whose lives are tied up in them, more of my time. Because, in the end, if you accept the arguments I have made about time tickets, about the meaning and usage of human time, its value above all else, then what we, as a society, are currently saying to minorities, women, the disabled, workers, and all of the other oppressed peoples, is that they are not worth as much of our time as the white male’s time is worth to them. That’s bullshit.