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.
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- What Should President Abbas Say When He Meets Mr. Trump Part Two March 23 2017 .pdf
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- Secretary Rice’s Message to Prime Minister Haniyeh .pdf
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- Reflections on Palestinian Strategy - 2004.pdf
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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)
Income and Development (1985)
Simple Living and American Dreams
We entirely mistake our own history if we think of simple living as some recent fad. The idea of simple living has always been part of the American psyche; sometimes central, sometimes only a minor theme, but always present. From the earliest days of the American experience there have been advocates of simple living who challenged consumerism and materialism.
Simple living, especially in America, has meant many things.
For Christians the central inspiration for a life of simplicity has been the life of Jesus. In the hands of the Puritans, this emerged as a life of religious devotion, a lack of ostentation, and plenty of hard work. It was certainly not a leisure expansion movement, as it is today. Nor was simple living a matter of individual choice; sumptuary laws invoked the power of the state to restrict consumption display, and economic life was regulated to limit the role of greed in human affairs.
In the hands of the Quakers, the concept of the simple life underwent an evolution. For the Puritans, at least part of the motivation for sumptuary laws was to prevent those in the lower classes from putting on the manners of those above them; among Quakers, the restrictions on display and consumption became more widely applicable. Most importantly, the pursuit of luxurious consumption was linked to a broad range of injustices and social problems, including alcoholism, poverty, slavery, and ill treatment of the Indians. Here perhaps are the origins of a radical politics of plain living, the belief that if people adopted the simple life, all of society would be transformed.
The key Quaker theorist of the simple life was John Woolman. Central to Woolman's thought was the recognition that people could be "necessitated to labour too hard." He focused of the plight of those who did not own their own land but rented it from large estates. If the rent was too high, the amount of labor required of the poor would oppress them and draw them away from the proper affairs of life. But rent was an intermediate concern, what was really at issue was the extent to which one person would be required to labor so that another might have superfluous luxuries. Woolman wrote, "Were all superfluities, and the desires of outward greatness laid aside" then "moderate labour with the blessing of Heaven, would answer all good purposes . . . and a sufficient number have time to attend on the proper affairs of civil society."
Thus, he maintained that "Every degree of luxury of what kind soever and every demand for money inconsistent with divine order hath some connexion with unnecessary labour." Woolman called on his listeners to follow the example of Jesus in simple food and dress. He saw their desire for luxurious consumption as the core motive which resulted in the practice "of fetching men to help to labour from distant parts of the world, to spend the remainder of their lives in the uncomfortable conditions of slaves." He also identified selfishness as the cause of past wars, telling us to "look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and the garment in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions, or not." Were Woolman alive today, it is likely that he would extend his critique, arguing that excessive consumption, and the desire for it, is at the root of both the drug and environmental problems we face. Indeed, Woolman would probably have been receptive to the idea that the harsh poverty of many Third World countries emerges from the excessive consumption of the rich nations.
In the mid 1700's, in the years prior to the Revolution, the ideas of simple living and democratic government were intertwined. For many of the leaders of the Revolution, however, the ideal was not the simple life of Jesus, but the simple life of the self-governing citizens of ancient Greece and Rome. Key figures in the revolutionary period, in particular Samuel Adams, were deeply concerned about the relationship between our political health and the individual pursuit of luxury. The rebirth of democracy in the world brought with it an interest in the ancient Greek and Roman experiments, and why they disappeared. There was a concern (as there is today) with the virtue of office holders. Genuine democracy seemed incompatible with too great an absorption in getting rich. There was great fear of the corrupting influences of unbridled commercialism. When the colonists boycotted British goods, it was not just a tactic of the independence movement; Britain was viewed as The Great Satan, exporting the corruptions of capitalism.
In their correspondence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson assessed the prospects for building a non-materialist society. Jefferson emphasized civic virtue, and looked to public policy, in particular state-supported schools and values education as the foundation of such a society. Adams viewed this as unrealistically "undertaking to build a new universe." He himself feared economic growth, however, and argued for preventing both extreme poverty and extravagant riches. Both men feared rather than celebrated boundless economic opportunity.
Benjamin Franklin's views on these questions are also worth noting; they too have a contemporary echo. In Franklin we have an unusual mixture: the espousal of frugality, hard work, and restrained consumption as the vehicles for getting ahead, as the central patterns of behavior that will lead to wealth. Thus, in the Preface to Poor Richard's Almanac, which was reprinted in fourteen languages under the title, "The Way to Wealth,"
Franklin writes, "But dost thou love Life, then do not squander Time,; for that's the stuff Life is made of." And "If Time be of all Things the most precious, wasting Time must be, as Poor Richard says, the greatest Prodigality." Franklin was concerned with how the average person might remain free in his own life, his own master. "Employ thy Time well, if thou meanest to gain Leisure." He warns of the perils of spending and in particular of borrowing. The great thing is to save. "We must add Frugality, if we would make our Industry more certainly successful. A Man may, if he knows not how to save as he gets, keep his Nose all his Life, to the Grindstone, and die not worth a Groat at last. . . If you would be wealthy . . . think of Saving as well as Getting." Note that here Franklin is advocating simple living as a means to future wealth; quite a different reason than those than animated Woolman.
Franklin warned that the dangers of excessive consumption are easily missed. And he was quite demanding in what he viewed as "excessive." He wrote, "You may think perhaps, that a little Tea, or a little Punch now and then, Diet a little more costly, Clothes a little finer, and a little Entertainment now and then, may be no great Matter; but remember what Poor Richard says, Many a Little makes a Mickle. . . . A small Leak will sink a great Ship."
He continued, "The artificial Wants of Mankind thus become more numerous than the Natural. . . When you have bought one fine Thing, you must buy ten more, that your Appearance many be all of a Piece." "'Tis easier to suppress the first Desire, than to satisfy all that follows it." "What Use is this Pride of Appearance, for which so much is risked, so much is suffered? It cannot promote Health, or ease Pain; it makes no Increase of Merit in the Person, it creates Envy, it hastens Misfortune."
Franklin rails against going into debt. Credit cards would have seemed to him the instruments of our undoing. "What Madness must it be to run in Debt for these Superfluities! . . . think what you do when you turn in Debt; you give to another Power over your Liberty." "Preserve your Freedom; and maintain your Independency: Be Industrious and free; be frugal and free."
Often in American history, the mode of response to the dominant commercial culture has been utopian, not in the sense of speculation on utopia, but in the actual establishment of a community wherein this dominance by the economic is overcome. Utopian thought has a long and rich history, much of it European. It was in America, both before and after the founding of the United States, that the impulse to go ahead and just create that better world was the strongest.
Though the formation of these communities was not unique to the American experience, the abundance and constancy of utopian communities does appear to be distinctly American. Indeed there has not been a single year in the history of the United States without communes. One recent study of American communes concluded,
. . .the extent and continuity of the communal phenomenon had no equal outside the United States. . . .in modern times the United States is the only place where voluntary communes have existed continuously for 250 years.
Two features of these utopian communities are particularly noteworthy. First, with few exceptions, they were communes. Property was typically held in common, and sometimes income was pooled. And second, they were typically not mere sites of residence, but work sites as well. The community collectively owned land and capital, and the community both provided for itself and collectively produced for the outside world. Thus, virtually all of these communities challenges the boundaries between household and work place that had begun to emerge in the seventeenth century. And in doing so as a community, through the holding of the common property of the unified home/work site, they were re-establishing the extended establishment-family. In a sense, these communities could be seen as large establishment-households.
The uninterrupted history of utopian communes throughout American history, speaks of an ongoing practical discourse that seeks through actual life experiments to break the boundaries between home and economy and to replace, within the economic realm, harsh marketplace relations (of worker/master, of owner/employer) with a simpler life within a "circle of affection." In the mid-1800's such communes flourished. In some ways this period prefigured the communes, vegetarianism, nudism and animal rights efforts of the 1960's.
Filled with a sense of adventure and experiment, but of a more individualist bent, was Henry David Thoreau. In Walden he looked about him and saw mostly foolishness -- people not knowing how to grab hold of the gift of life. He revelled in the energy of youth and in its ability to find out what older generations had never seen.
"Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures . . . Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me. . . If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors, said nothing about."
With words that had echoes of Aristotle he told Americans that our necessities are few, yet we subject ourselves to endless labor. He described a world that had taken the wrong turn. "The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve and had an end."
Wealth itself is a curse because it enslaves us. "I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of." Of most men Thoreau says, "they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born." "Men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost." We must take better care of ourselves, of our potentials. "The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly." We miss that which is best in life. "Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them."
Yes, the necessities must be met, "for not till we have secured these are we prepared to entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success."
But "most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life and not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor."
He tells us that "None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty."
The dictates of wisdom call for "a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust."
For Thoreau it is not necessity that enslaves us. Rather we have become our the "slave-drivers" of ourselves, "the slave and prisoner of [our] own opinion of [ourselves]." Once we have satisfied our necessities, rather than laboring for superfluities, it is time to "adventure on life." But few undertake this adventure. Instead, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." It is from a disease the spirit that Thoreau recoils, one that people may not even be aware of. "A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them . . ."
Thus Thoreau called Americans away from their over-absorption in economic life, from their self-subjugation to a life of toil. Unlike earlier advocates of simple living, he was not calling people to religion or to civic engagement, rather he was calling us as individuals to find our own nature, to define ourselves at a higher level of experience. He called for simple living in order to enable the life of the mind, of art, literature, poetry, philosophy, and an almost reverential engagement with Nature.
Interest in simple living was harder to find in the post Civil War period, but it re-emerged powerfully towards the turn of the century. There was a reaction against materialism, and the hectic pace of urban life. In those days it was Ladies Home Journal (of all things) that led the charge against the dominant materialist ethos. Under a crusading editor, Edward Bok, it served as a guide for those in the middle class seeking simplicity. By 1910, the Journal had a circulation of close to 2 million, making it the largest selling magazine in the world. This period also witnessed a movement of aesthetic simplicity. It was influenced by the English thinkers John Ruskin and William Morris, and recognized that only in a world which appreciated fine crafts would there be jobs for fine craftsmen. It is from this mileau that we have the "mission" furniture, much sought by antique dealers today.
One dimension of the renewed interest in simple living was a "country life" movement which sought to use modern technology to improve country life for the small farmer and to keep young people on the farm. Later, in 1933, the Department of the Interior created a Division of Subsistence Homesteads to resettle the urban and rural poor in planned communities based on "handicrafts, community activities, closer relationships, and cooperative enterprises." About 100 such communities were established, most of them failing in their grand design to replace individualism with "mutualism."
After the Second World War, as after the First, the Civil War and the Revolution, there was a surge in consumption, and simple living receded into the background. But again in the 1960's there was a critique of the affluent life style and a renewed interest in plain living. In the 1970's, with the energy crisis, this merged with a broad environmentalism. Many saw the energy crisis not as an economic or political problem to be overcome, but as an occasion for a spiritual renewal which would turn us away from the rampant materialism of modern life. One of these was President Jimmy Carter.
"We worship self-indulgence and consumption," Carter declared, taking his place in a great American tradition of social criticism. "Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns." And like earlier critics, Carter lamented the emptiness of such an existence. "We've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning."
Carter saw the problem as residing in what he termed "a mistake idea of freedom" -- one in which we advocate "the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others." He called on Americans to unite together in a crusade of energy conservation:
We often think of conservation only in terms of sacrifice. . . solutions to our energy crisis can also help us to conquer the crisis of spirit in our country. It can rekindle a sense of unity, our confidence in the future, and give our nation and all of us individually a new sense of purpose."
This was his so-called "malaise" speech, and while it failed as an effort to transform the national spirit, and certainly failed Carter politically, it did capture well the link between environmental concerns and simple living that many Americans continue to feel today. Carter was followed by the Reagan and Bush administrations in which no similar critique was heard. But now at the turn of the millennium there is renewed interest in simple living, if not in the White House, then at least in the heartland.
This quick historical survey reveals that "simple living" has meant many things. There is an anti-consumptionist core in much American thinking on this subject, but great diversity with respect to the human good and the place of work, religion, civic engagement, nature, literature and the arts. Concern with simple living has been largely apolitical at some times, and at others the heart of a general political and social vision.
Today, when there is once again a great interest in simple living in America, it is mainly an apolitical enthusiasm. Most, though not all, of the literature is of a "how to" variety, offering advice on how to live more rewardingly with less money. The attainment of a simpler, more meaningful life is seen as an individual project, not as a matter of collective politics. In the chapters that follow I will explore the limitations of this individualistic approach and argue for a "politics of simplicity."
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.
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.
Education for Simple Living
Simple living involves knowing how to live well in time. It involves knowing what is important in life, and knowing how to appreciate that which is given to us, be it another person, or a spring day. It involves becoming centered and often independent of the judgments of others.
It is clear that our schools do not equip children to live lives of simplicity and to resist the hectic, frenetic, alternatives to which they are pulled. One might say that such is not the job of the schools; that this is the work of the family or of religious education. But the idea that the schools can somehow be neutral between different ways to live is a myth. It rests on thinking of schools as abstractions, rather than as real-life places that children attend for seven or eight hours a day, for twelve or sixteen or twenty years.
So much of what goes on is schools is instrumental, so much of it is directed at equipping students to succeed or at least to find their place within our socio-economic order, that schools inevitably are transmission belts for the values and perspectives that sustain the dominant way of life.
In our competitive social world where there is a powerful semi-consensus on what success means and a limited number of successful life-places, parents look to their child's school years and school performance as decisive factors in determining how he or she will fare "in life." And the schools, aware of the key role that they play in society's central game, see themselves in a similar fashion. Thus how can it be otherwise than that the entire schooling experience, including that part which occurs within the home, will both implicitly and explicitly endorse the central terms of that competition. In particular, what is affirmed is the dominant conception of the good life that is operative within the social competition.
Yet at the same time what happens in schools is complex and multi-dimensional. And insofar as people break free from opulence versions of the American Dream and find their way back to the simple living version of that dream, it is often things that happened in school that enables them to shift direction.
Rather than lambasting schools, it is useful then to consider those things that sometimes happen in schools that do contribute to a person's ability to form a life of graceful simplicity.
From this perspective, here are some of the best things schools can accomplish:
A love of books.
I put this first for several reasons. If one loves books, if one loves to read, if in a family, people read to each other -- then a foundation has already been laid for a simple life of great pleasure, at little expense. Entering into this world, provided that one has learned to love what is within it, and has developed the appreciative skills required to fully participate in it -- is to have the key to the central repository of human wealth.
Reading good books can serve as the central emblem of a life of simplicity. If one wants to look for a single operative criterion of whether or not schools are succeeding or failing in their central task (as understood from the perspective of the simple life) then look to whether or not a love of reading has been developed.
An aesthetic sensibility.
The presence and appreciation of beauty is central to the good life. Schools at their best offer an alternative to the larger society, as intentionally crafted environments designed to affect the development of children in beneficial ways that will not be forthcoming from the general social environment. Thus, within a culture in which there is limited beauty and limited aesthetic sensibility, it becomes especially important for the school to focus on beauty and creativity.
For some, schools are the first and perhaps only place where children are exposed to the finest in art, music, sculpture and poetry. Yet as we all know, exposure and the development of an aesthetic sensibility are not one and the same. Often enough such appreciation courses can be deadly -- and it remains a central challenge to educators to master their craft in this area.
An ability to create things of beauty
Central to the development of an aesthetic sensibility is the development of one's own creative abilities. Within the broad rubric of arts and crafts, ranging from fine arts and music to carpentry and even cooking, it is not asking too much of schools to require that all students emerge having attained some degree of excellence in at least one form of creative endeavor.
Being able to produce something of beauty is among the greatest of capabilities. With it one can always contribute to the richness of the lives of others; with it one can always be deserving of the esteem and respect of others; with it one can always undertake activities of unique joyousness; with it one is provided with something of a vaccine against a shoddy materialism and instead becomes a participant in the development of a general economic demand for things of beauty and thus a participant in the central mechanism that will enrich our entire society.
The choice of school curriculum is always a matter of trade-offs -- there is only so much time in the school day. And if I am urging something as contrary to current practice as preparing skilled artists, or wood workers, or cooks -- then what in the school curriculum would I cut back on in order to expand the development of creative capabilities?
This is an extremely difficult question to answer. My own view is that we have swung too far in the direction of what stared as an effort to keep up with the Soviets when Sputnik was launched in the 1960's, and what we emphasize today in the effort to stay a technological step ahead of the Japanese. If I had to choose between giving greater emphasis to math and science or greater emphasis to the arts and humanities, I would choose the latter. To those that worry about international competitiveness, it is worth considering that for the overwhelming bulk of the population, marginal differences in their scientific and mathematical prowess may make little difference in determining whether or not American science and engineering makes cutting edge breakthroughs.
The broader point here is not these specifics. It is simply that when you ask the average parent what they wish for their children in life, they mostly say that they want them to be happy. If we accept this as legitimate, even if not complete, the central question that faces us is whether we believe that happiness is to be attained through successfully navigating our existing socio-economic competition, or whether we believe it is to be found in better equipping children to find happiness in a qualitatively rich form of simple living.
What is telling of our need to approach these questions together, politically, is that all too often we can see the limitations of the existing framework, but not be prepared to send our own children down any path other than the ones most conventionally understood as leading to success. In part this may be a lack of courage, but in part it emerges from the genuine concern that the price may be too high for our children if as isolated individuals, we and they break with the mainstream.
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: