This article is a republishing of the original, published HERE on Tikkun.org, 1996
The Politics of SimplicityBy Jerome M. Segal
The idea of simple living has always been part of the American psyche - sometimes central, sometimes peripheral. Today, it once again resonates strongly throughout our popular culture. Newspapers carry full-page features on personal downsizing, and books on how to live well with less sell hundreds of thousands of copies. A Nexus search for articles on simple living reveals more than fifty entries in just the last two months. Moreover, the interest comes from all parts of society, not just among people on the counter-cultural fringes. For instance, Working Woman, an upscale magazine for the career-minded, with a circulation of close to a million, devoted its entire December issue to how to create a simpler life. There's a Simple Living Network on the Internet, several newsletters, and a host of itinerant lecturers, taped courses, and workshops.
Advocates of simple living are expressing a value orientation that overlaps in important ways with that of the politics of meaning. They reject the idea that the good life is to be found in ever-higher levels of consumption. They argue strongly against rampant careerism and materialism. They opt for less money, less work, more time with friends and loved ones.
Yet, for all that, the simple living enthusiasm is largely apolitical. Much, though not all, of the literature is of a "how-to" variety, offering advice on how to live more rewardingly with less money. Enthusiasts view the attainment of a simpler, more meaningful life as an individual project, not as a matter of collective politics.
In some ways this is to be admired. Far too often, politics on the Left, in its emphasis on the necessity of transforming fundamental structures of the social order, has had a paralyzing effect, the implicit message being that without large-scale, structural change, people can't make significant progress toward a better life.
Nevertheless, the absence of a "politics of simple living" tends to render the simple living movement a solution for the few, irrelevant for the many. Articles about high-flying professional couples who have cut back from $100,000 incomes have limited relevance for the half of American families that live on less than $40,000 a year. Some simple living advocates even adopt an attitude of disdain toward those who are just getting by. For instance, Amy Dacyczyn, the publisher of the Tightwad Gazette Newsletter, writes in a New York Times op-ed of how she feeds her family of eight on $170 a month, and then goes on to talk about "whiners" who are unwilling to give up their expensive lifestyles.
An apolitical simple living movement has a lot of appeal to Americans. It is increasingly a place where those disaffected from our dominant ethos end up. Yet, insofar as it is apolitical, simple living risks being conservative in its political implications, focusing inordinately on the ability and responsibility of the individual for the quality of his/her life. If the simple living idea remains largely individualistic, it will not only be irrelevant to most Americans - in the end it will disappear under the influence of the dominant forces in American life. It is as a form of politics, a politics that is both personal and social, that simple living has enormous potential for deeply and lastingly transforming life in America.
Simple living is not some 1990s fad. Nor is it the product of "foreign" ideologies. David Shi's book, The Simple Life: Plain Thinking and High Living in American Culture (Oxford, 1985), is must reading for those seeking historical grounding. From the earliest days of the American experience, advocates of simple living have challenged consumerism and materialism, although simple living, or "plain living," as it was sometimes called, has meant different things to different groups.
Puritan simplicity focused on religious devotion, a lack of ostentation, and plenty of hard work. It was not a leisure expansion movement. Nor was simple living a matter of individual choice for Puritans; sumptuary laws restricted consumption display, and economic life was regulated to limit the role of greed in human affairs.
In the worldview of the Quakers, simple living was modified somewhat. The sumptuary laws, which to some extent were designed to prevent those in the lower classes from affecting the manners of those above them, came to apply to all members of the community, and John Woolman, a leading Quaker in the mid-1700s, decried excessively lengthy workdays, and cautioned employers not to work others too hard. Indeed, Woolman made a powerful analytic connection in arguing that the institution of slavery emerged from a wrongheaded pursuit of a life of ease and luxury. Here, perhaps, we find the origins of a radical politics of plain living - the belief that if people adopted the simple life, all of society would be transformed.
In the mid-1700s, republican simplicity emerged. Its ideal was not the simple life of Jesus, an image that inspired many Christian advocates of plain living, but the classical writers Cicero, Tacitus, and Plutarch. Central figures of 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 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 a preoccupation with 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; they viewed Britain as The Great Satan, exporting the corruptions of capitalism.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson corresponded about what were the bounds of the possible with respect to building a non-materialist society. Jefferson emphasized civic virtue and looked to public policy, in particular state-supported schools and values education. Adams viewed this as unrealistically "undertaking to build a new universe." He himself feared economic growth, and argued for preventing both extreme poverty and extravagant riches.
In the mid-1800s, the transcendentalist writers such as Emerson and Thoreau envisioned a new form of simple living. While the Puritans saw the virtues in opposition to the passions, the transcendentalists had a different vision. On one end of the spectrum, this period prefigured the 1960s, with communes, vegetarianism, nudism, and concern for animal rights. The advocates of transcendental simplicity reversed the Puritan emphasis on work. For Thoreau, one of the chief reasons for lowering consumption levels was that it allowed for greater leisure to do the better things in life - not religious or civic engagement, but the life of the mind, of art, literature, poetry, philosophy, and an almost reverential engagement with nature. In the main, the project of transforming society was put aside in favor of the experiential and experimental communities seeking the simple life for themselves.
Interest in simple living was harder to find in the post-Civil War period, but it re-emerged strong toward the turn of the century. There was a reaction against materialism, individualism, and the hectic pace of urban life. In those days, it was the Ladies Home Journal that led the charge against the dominant materialist ethos. Under a crusading editor, Edward Bok, the magazine served as a guide for those in the middle class seeking simplicity; by 1910, it had a circulation of close to 2 million, making it the largest selling magazine in the world. In this period there emerged a movement of aesthetic simplicity, centered around designers William Morris and Gustav Stickley, and giving rise to so-called "mission" furniture, much sought by antique dealers today.
One dimension of the renewed interest in simple living was a country life movement concerned with using modern technology to improve 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 World War II, 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 1960s, there was a critique of the affluent lifestyle and a renewed interest in plain living. In the 1970s, with the energy crisis, the focus on plain living merged with a growing concern with the environment. The notion of "voluntary simplicity" emerged; the Whole Earth Catalogue, a how-to guide to a simpler, environmentally conscious life, sold briskly, and President Jimmy Carter invited E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, to the White House.
In his now-infamous "malaise" speech, Carter criticized the country, decrying that "we worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns." He called for a new cohesive, spiritually rich Commonwealth. The speech, viewed by most Americans as overly moralistic and pessimistic, caused Carter's popularity to plummet. Then came the Reagan and Bush years, during which acquisitiveness and material success, rather than simplicity, were the ideal. And now, in the Clinton era, there is a revival of interest in simple living.
At the heart of the various historical manifestations of the American impulse toward simple living is a rejection of consumptionism. But there has been considerable diversity with respect to the human good and the place of work, religion, civic engagement, nature, literature and the arts among these different visions. It is also the case that a concern with simple living was at some points largely apolitical, and at other times at the heart of a broader political and social vision. And just as one might argue that there is no single politics of meaning, so too there is no single politics of simple living. In the hands of the Puritans, it was almost totalitarian in its scope. At other points, it bordered on the libertarian.
It is important to distinguish poverty from simple living. The difference is not just a matter of the level of provision. Nor is it merely a question of whether or not the lifestyle is chosen. In conceptualizing the simple life, I favor the term "graceful simplicity." It combines two notions. Life is graceful in that it is unharried, and free from dominant fear and stress; the individual is cultivated and appreciative, rather than covetous. Life is simple in that the level of consumption is modest, and the human good is found largely in the simple pleasures of friends and family, a good book, a walk in the woods.
I envision a politics of simple living that is liberal in its core orientation, in the sense that it does not prescribe any particular view of wherein a meaningful life is to be found. Rather, it is defined by what it eschews - the pursuit of ever higher levels of income and consumption. It argues for creating an economic environment which is supportive of multiple forms of simple living. In this it builds on the individualist or communalist thrust of the contemporary interest in simple living which says that the real work of creating a meaningful life has to be done by people themselves, with their friends and in communities of shared values. At the same time, it views our national economic and social policies as playing a vital role in creating the background environment within which such projects will either succeed or fail.
A politics of graceful simplicity focuses on time, money, and work. It seeks a society in which ordinary people have:
* a high level of leisure time;
* the ability to satisfy core economic needs at low levels of personal income;
* economic security and dignified work.
Each of these desiderata is relatively concrete. They are the central features of an economic environment that supports simple living. The basic objective is to put the economic realm in its proper (i.e., limited) place and to make room for the rest of life. Each of these features of economic life can be achieved, or at least attempted, through a wide variety of policies and programs. A politics of simplicity should be defined by its commitment to achieving these broad goals, not by the specific programs that might be employed. We should be open and experimental about the means of getting there.
Even if our economic life were leisured, secure, and not excessively dependent upon high income levels, this would not be sufficient for the good, or happy, or meaningful life. It is not a matter of adding objectives. No set of social conditions ever can be sufficient; to every life there is an enormous personal dimension. Living well is an art that individuals and families must learn for themselves. Yet, there is all the difference in the world between a socio-economic order which is friendly and supportive of the human good, and one that undermines it at every turn. Identifying, and acting upon, these differences comprise the essence of public policy.
For most working Americans today, time is always too scarce to enjoy life fully. Between the demands of work and home - and, ironically, of "leisure time" itself most of us feel harassed and harried. Historically, reduction in work hours signified economic progress. During much of the nineteenth century and in the early decades of the twentieth century, workers, who often put in thirteen- or fourteen-hour days, struggled first to achieve the ten-hour, and then the eight-hour day. In the 1930s, there was talk of a thirty-hour week, but for over half a century, reducing work hours has receded as a social concern.
In the last few decades, as married women in large numbers entered the labor force, the family did not have as an option two twenty-five-hour jobs. The choice was between one or two forty-hour jobs, and many families chose two. Households shifting from one person to two people working outside the home experienced an enormous increase in tune pressure.
Since the 1950s, per-capita consumption in the United States has more than doubled, while for many, leisure has declined or remained stagnant. Without ever choosing, we have made the wrong choice; at least some of the productivity growth that enabled higher incomes and consumption should have gone instead to expanding leisure.
Isolated individuals cannot easily choose leisure rather than income growth. When, bucking the dominant trend, a family chooses time rather than income, it not only foregoes consumption, but finds that, relative to others, its economic standing declines. Such a decline is more profound than simply not keeping up with the upwardly mobile Joneses; it is a matter of slipping out of the socioeconomic community that has provided one's sense of place.
Our society needs to address decisions about altering the shape of work collectively. Just as we have legislation on the forty-hour week, so too we should have public debates to consider three-day weekends, reduced daily hours, and guaranteed extended vacations. On one level, expanding leisure time is the easiest policy change to make. In principle, one piece of legislation could dramatically transform life in America.
Expanding leisure time, for example through the introduction of a shorter work week, would have important implications that bear on the other two goals of a simple living movement. Provided that the costs of hiring people to work overtime were high, it would result in the creation of more jobs, thus improving economic security. A decision to expand leisure, however, would result in lower levels of income and consumption. The politics of leisure expansion requires that people be prepared to give up actual or potential income in exchange for more time. Surveys indicate that relatively few people are prepared to reduce their current income for more leisure, though quite a substantial number say they would willingly forego future gains in income in exchange for more leisure.
Why aren't more people willing to trade off some income for more leisure? The primary reason is that most people feel pressed at their current levels of income. Much of the literature on simple living seeks to convince people that the tightness of their budgets is illusory: If they thought more deeply about money and what it buys, they would see that they can cut back without much pain, and that whatever they would lose, it would be more than made up by what they would gain. There is much truth to this argument; if curling up with a good book became the dominant pleasure in American life, it would transform the society. At the same time, as I argued in a previous article in these pages ("Money and Our Economic Life," TIKKUN, November/December 1995), the financial pressure Americans feel comes from real causes. We need to confront the cost of living in America: Why does it cost so much to meet core needs? And what can be done about it?
The central social objective of a politics of simple living is a society in which fundamental human needs can be met at modest levels of income. For most Americans, their fundamental needs for safe neighborhoods, good education, transportation, economic security, and health care are either unmet, or can only be met when isolated households achieve high levels of income.
Except for the poor, the answer is not higher levels of personal income, but rather a search for solutions that do not rely upon individual income to meet all needs. Through shifts in public policy priorities, we can craft a society in which we do not need two cars to get to work, or a house in the suburbs to ensure our family's safety, or private schools to educate our children, or an IRA or a 401(k) to have economic security.
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. It is not just that people have needs which are not being met; our general approach to meeting needs has depended upon increasing personal incomes, which keeps us wedded to the income focus of American life.
Simple living offers a particular lens through which to approach areas of policy and social concern. It asks, "Will what's happening here result in a society in which we will need more or less personal income to meet central human needs?" For instance, how does the economic and social collapse of our cities affect the financial demands on those lucky enough to flee to private schools, safe neighborhoods, and two car garages? This approach identifies the connections between our social and our economic life, and focuses attention on what has to be done so that modest income allows a family to support a decent life. It is not hostile to the expansion of the public sector, yet it does not view government as the only agent in achieving this goal.
Along with expanding leisure and reducing need-required income, the achievement of graceful simplicity requires change in our notions of income security and employment. There is nothing graceful about a life dominated by fear of losing income, or trapped in work devoid of dignity. To make lives of graceful simplicity possible, we need an economy in which our economic rights are enhanced. Most fundamentally, this includes a right to a job with income sufficient to meet core economic needs. A graceful simplicity movement should not be dogmatic about specific programs for achieving that end. For instance, such a movement should be open-minded and experimental about such issues as raising the minimal wage, or expanding the earned-income-tax credit, or public-sector employment, or empowerment zones.
We are an aging society, and most of us will live longer than our parents. Across America, corporations are cutting back in their commitment to worker pensions, and the Social Security system is headed toward fundamental crisis as the baby boomers reach so-called "retirement age." If the response to a growing insecurity among middle-aged people about their future remains the "every man for himself, and woman too" approach of IRAs and 401(k)s, we will stay mired in the need to earn more.
A politics of plain living rejects that approach, and looks for new answers. Perhaps if we had radically shorter hours and different kinds of work, few would want to retire at all. This kind of politics turns the debate in new directions.
Dignity at work means many things. Some work lives are beneath human dignity, yet people of great dignity endure them to support their loved ones. In part, dignity has to do with power relations between worker and boss, and between men and women. But the issue of human dignity also has to do with the kind of work we are asked to perform. The problem is not that a specific task may be arduous, mechanical, or repetitive; the issue of human dignity is engaged when an entire work life is composed of such tasks. A work life that denies our individuality, our creativity, our moral and aesthetic sensibility is one that denies our dignity as human beings.
It may well be, as some have argued, that the continued introduction of new technologies will have a cleansing effect, eliminating repetitive, mechanical, or formulaic jobs. If so, it will offer half the solution. The other half lies in the creation of millions of meaningful jobs.
How do we, as a society, find ways of liberating people from income pressures, creating meaningful work, yet dealing successfully with the problems of unsafe neighborhoods, inadequate education, and inadequate housing? In an article last year in TIKKUN ("High Tech Populism," May/June 1995), Jeremy Rifkin put forward an intriguing suggestion that can be used to these ends. The government would issue income vouchers to individuals seeking jobs in the non-profit sector. These would be redeemed by the non-profits to cover the costs of training and placement in community-building jobs. Indeed, non-profit-sector employment could be dramatically increased with an even simpler policy change increasing the deduction for charitable giving to, say, 150 percent of the value, or changing it from a tax deduction that lowers taxable income to a tax credit that directly reduces the tax bill. Thus, the politics of simple living might suggest opposition to the flat tax, which would cut rates and eliminate deductions. An argument can be made for keeping tax rates the same or even raising them, and crafting credits and deductions to sustain lives of graceful simplicity. At the same time, unburdening ourselves from an approach to taxation that makes us bookkeepers of our own lives has a powerful appeal.
A simple living movement should not pretend to have all the answers, and indeed there is a danger of being prematurely programmatic. Graceful simplicity is essentially a vision that redefines what counts as personal and social progress in economic matters. It is an alternative to undue focus on growth, income, and consumption. Within that vision, there may emerge a multiplicity of policy agendas. Too much focus on how to get there, rather than on changing the consensus on where we want to go, runs the risk of reducing the goal to a shopping list of programs. What we need in America today is not primarily a new set of programs, but a rethinking of the fundamentals of economic life.
Let us assume that a politics of simplicity was successful, that we had a society in which leisure was ample, needs could be met with limited personal income, and jobs and income were secure. What difference would it make? I believe it would transform our social world. True, some people would watch more TV, but more important, it would lead to an outpouring of interest and energy for the things that really matter to people - enjoying their friends and family, the arts, learning, religion, political engagement, and volunteer work.
In a world in which there was an abundance of truly secure jobs that paid $20,000 for twenty-five hours of work, and in which this was sufficient to meet our needs, the place of employment would recede in our lives. The question, "What do you do?" would fade as a way of asking what you did for a living. Rather, it would be used to ask someone about the range of their activities. For some, being a musician or a writer or a political activist might coincide with producing a modest income; for others, these identities might be avocational, as they make their living working three days a week driving a bus.
A change of this sort would diffuse throughout our society, affecting schooling and childhood itself. Getting on the fight track, deciding what you want to do (i.e., your "career path") would no longer dictate educational priorities to the extent that they do in the current system. We know this is so, because things were different just thirty years ago when many of us were young and there was a buoyant job market for college graduates. In its own way, this would be an opportunity society: not the opportunity to get rich, but an abundance of opportunities to pursue life's experiences, and to do so without fear that if a wrong choice is made, there is no getting back on the train.
Is it possible to bring this about? A few years ago, the agenda proposed here, focusing on leisure, health, education, housing, and income security would not have seemed impossibly ambitious. Yes, it might (though not necessarily) mean a larger public sector; it might mean more rather than less taxes; it might mean new social programs, new efforts to make government work. But nothing proposed here is beyond what people in Congress were thinking about in the 1970s. The original form of the Humphrey-Hawkins Act contained an enforceable fight to a job; this was stripped from the legislation when it passed in 1978. Former Congressman Donald Fraser of Minnesota (for whom I worked years ago) offered legislation to create job sabbaticals.
Today, we face a crisis in public finance and a general disbelief in the ability of government programs to deliver on their promises. If what we are talking about is returning to the unfinished liberal agenda, it is indeed unlikely that we will see it happen anytime soon.
But the politics of simple living is not about government programs, let alone those aimed at discrete social problems. Rather, it is about a comprehensive paradigm shift in our understanding of how the economic realm relates to the human good. The conventional, consumeristic conception tells us that enjoying economic bounty largely constitutes the good life; that work is important primarily because it serves as a means to goods and services; that a person's standard of living is thus measured by their level of consumption; and that the performance of the economic realm as a whole is primarily measured by the expansion of the collective pie - that is, by economic growth.
The simple living paradigm holds that the primary role of the economy is to satisfy core needs; beyond meeting those needs, economic progress enhances the good life insofar as it eliminates toil and expands leisure time. A hectic society with high levels of consumption and long hours of empty work is a society that is confused about the human good.
How, then, do we understand the relationship between a politics of plain living and a politics of meaning? As two different terms for the same perspective? As partially overlapping philosophies that can make common cause but remain distinct?
Both outlooks are critical of excessive concern with getting and spending and social status. Both reject the idea that an individual's worth is linked to income and wealth. Both see a human emptiness and poverty in a life centered around getting ahead and "making it."
Yet, the politics of meaning is a much more ambitious and much more encompassing outlook than the politics of simple living. And, I would argue, perhaps for those very reasons, it has less potential for actually transforming American life.
The politics of meaning focuses on the creation of a loving and caring society. It seeks to find such concern on all levels, be it within individual relationships or corporate behavior. The politics of plain living that I have advocated leaves open certain central elements of what constitutes the good life. It envisions an economic life in which, with relatively limited hours of paid employment, individuals and families can meet their central economic needs. This reordering of priorities then opens a space in which, secure from economic anxiety, people might pursue the good life as best they can fund it, be it in relationships with friends and family, in service to others, in political struggle, in pursuit of knowledge, in the arts, in exploring a spiritual path.
As a form of politics, the politics of plain living is less expansive and less ambitious than a politics of meaning, which would assess social policy and practice, legislation and institutions by asking, "Does it produce human beings who are idealistic and caring, able to sustain loving and committed relationships?" The politics of simplicity keeps its eye on a few rather concrete socio-economic objectives. And, in doing so, it uses different language, and has, I believe, a very distinct appeal.
The focus is much more economic - on increasing leisure, limiting the growth of need-required income, and insuring income and employment security. This is not to say that the politics of plain living is at bottom about economic issues, or that it is a new check-list of liberal desiderata. Rather, it is about creating an economic environment that will enable, rather than undermine, people's ability to find lives that make sense.
If its agenda is more circumscribed and considerably less utopian than one that seeks a loving society, it nevertheless remains daunting, and is similarly subject to the charge that it goes well beyond what is realistic and possible. But, there is a difference. It may be implausible that we might be able to increase taxes so as to provide free higher education, or that we can devise government programs that will transform corporations into loving relaters. But they constitute different kinds of implausibility. The politics of simplicity has a far more circumscribed sense of what is politically viable.
The vocabulary and set of problems on which a politics of plain living centers are very concrete and relate directly to most people's daily struggles. As a political style, there is a marked difference between focusing on why it is that we experience a time famine, and why it is that we experience a meaning famine.
I am not arguing against a full-blown politics of meaning, but I believe that it will not resonate with tens of millions of Americans. Yet, most, if not all, of the policy agenda of a politics of plain living is compatible, or even integral, to a politics of meaning. And this affirmation of a plain living agenda can be expected also to appeal to people with a wide range of social outlooks. What we need today is to open the question, "What is an economy for?" We need a broad consensus in support of a new way of looking at the relationship between the human good and the economic realm. A politics of simplicity not only offers us that vantage point, but it resonates with much of the best in the American experience.
Jerome M. Segal is a research scholar at the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. He is currently at work on a book titled Graceful Simplicity.
Segal, Jerome M. 1996. The Politics of Simplicity. Tikkun 11(4): 20.
Five years from now, a Silicon Valley company succeeds in perfecting robot technology. They can create for each individual, an exact robot duplicate. And they can produce this robot at very little cost. Through the internet they then offer every employer in the country an exact replacement of any worker on the payroll. Because they can do so quite cheaply, they undercut the wage demands of each and every worker. No company has any incentive to hire a human.
Wages fall, but even when wages fall, humans are not hired because their wage demands are always higher than what it costs to buy and maintain the robot copy. Ultimately, even a willingness to accept starvation wages is insufficient to motivate hiring humans, because the replacement cost of the robots is less than what it takes to keep a human being alive. The outcome, then is that, except for a select few, we are all unemployed and we all starve.
This is the workers' worse nightmare, and it seems that the devil is in the technology. But actually the technology is quite neutral. Imagine the very same technological story with one small change: rather than the robots being owned by the California company, each worker is the sole owner of his own robot duplicate. Under these conditions, with respect to any work that is not inherently rewarding, you have the option of sending your robot duplicate to work, instead of going yourself. You can create our own leisure. You can do this for a day, a week, a year, or a lifetime. In short, this very same technology is the fulfillment of an ancient fantasy. It liberates each and everyone of us from labor that is not inherently valuable, and frees us to devote our lives to that which will give it meaning.
Thus a politics of simplicity is not against technological change; it is not against productivity growth. Put in the service of the good life, productivity growth can be liberating. A politics of simplicity can embrace and encourage innovation. The key issues are the composition and distribution of rewards and decision making power. Will productivity gains result in more leisure or more income? Who decides? And to the extent that it is income, to whom does it go? In short "Who will own the robots?"
The Monetary Illusion
If money is not the enemy, if money sometimes helps us attain a safer second-best or third-best or fourth-best life, it must be acknowledged that money does contribute to our confusion. Part of the mystery of why we go so wrong in life lies in the “illusion of money,” by which I mean the illusion that the price of things tells us much about their true value.
What is fascinating about money is that we all know that it does not offer a meaningful picture of genuine wealth. For instance, is it not indisputable that much of what is most important to us—our children, our reputation, the love of another—has no price. This is a commonplace, known to all at the first instant of reflection. Yet, the moment we get up from the easy chair, we seem to set aside our reflections. Or perhaps, even while sustaining them, we cannot break away from thinking about wealth in monetary terms. We use money to measure both the income and the wealth of individuals and society. We use monetary measures to consider how income and wealth are distributed, and we use it to make comparisons with respect to standards of living—between different individuals, or between countries, or between two points in time—whether in our own life, or that of society as a whole.
We suffer from at least two kinds of blindness. First, we tend to measure the value of things in terms of their price; and second, we tend not to see the value of things that have no price. Let us consider these in turn.
The Difference Between Price and Value
Economists long ago pondered what initially seemed paradoxical, that some of the most valuable commodities, such as air and water, have little monetary value, while others, such as diamonds, are worth a great deal. In struggling with this anomaly, the distinction was made between exchange value and use value. Exchange value means the value that something has in virtue of its being exchangeable for some other item of value. We make these exchanges in the market, and in market economies we exchange labor and commodities for money, and money for commodities. Since money is the common element into which things are exchanged, exchange value can be measured by the amount of money that something exchanges for. The term we give to this is “price.” When people inquire about the price of an item, they are asking, “How much money does one need to exchange in order to get it?” As economists came to greater clarity about these matters, explaining and predicting the prices of commodities emerged as a central task of economics.
Use value, on the other hand, was seen to mean the actual contribution to human welfare that the commodity makes. Everyone realized that when diamonds are compared to water, water is low in exchange value and high in use value, whereas diamonds were relatively low in use value but high in exchange value.
For a time, it was a challenge to economic theory to explain how this could be the case. Ultimately, the explanation was found in understanding that the price a commodity exchanges for is determined not by the importance of the commodity as a whole (e.g., water) but by its importance on the margin (e.g., one more gallon of water). Further, what was important on the margin was the cost of supplying one more unit, as well as the value to the purchaser of having one more unit.
Thus (assume that water is the only liquid), while one might exchange most of one's possessions for a gallon of water if none were available at all, one would give very little for an additional gallon if one already had plenty. Similarly, since an additional gallon can be brought to the market at very little cost, one need pay only a small price to induce the sale of an extra gallon. Whereas, if we reached a point at which bringing the extra gallon to market was very expensive (although water as a whole may remain inexpensive to provide), unless the price of water was at that high price, the last ga1lon would not be brought to market; and the same for the next to last and so forth. So, in order for any quantity of water to come to the market, its price must rise to the cost of supplying the last gallon. Thus, despite its almost infinite use value, water exchanges for little because it is abundant (we have limited desire for more) and because more can be obtained rather inexpensively.
What is sketched above is the solution that economists in the nineteenth century—the so-called marginalists, such as Alfred Marshall— found to the seeming paradox that things of great value (in use) could have little value (in exchange). But what is most interesting here is this: first, both before and after the paradox was explained, no one was in doubt as to the phenomenon—that there is no fixed correspondence between the market price and use value. And, second, explaining the paradox made no difference. We still continued to view the prices of things as adequate measures of their value, even though we knew they were not. Such is the hypnotic quality of money.
Suppose then that there are two people, and that they are in possession of exactly the same items, except that the second person has two of every item, whereas the first has only one. Thus, the second person has two houses, two cars, two blue coats, two refrigerators full of food, and so forth. The first person has only one house, one car, one blue coat, and one full refrigerator.
Insofar as we are measuring the extent of a person's assets by summing up the prices paid for the various items (or the price he could get if he sold them), the second person has twice the wealth of the first person. Having no doubt as to the difference between use value and exchange value, we know that this is nonsense. Moreover, if rather than two houses the person had a house twice as big, and rather than two cars, a car twice as long, it should be apparent to us that he still doesn't have twice the wealth of the first person. We know it is nonsense to believe that he does, yet we do so nonetheless.
The extent to which we suffer from such illusions is remarkable. It reflects something very deep about our culture, about how thoroughly our vision of things has been molded by markets and the exchanges that occur within them, and about how much of our life activity is organized around bringing things to market and bringing things back from market—most centrally, bringing ourselves (our labor, our skills) to market and bringing back home, in exchange, money or commodities.
Permanently dispelling the idea that the price you pay for something reflects its value is almost impossible. Nonetheless, it may help to reflect on the following:
- While the price of the physical necessities is often low and in some cases zero, their value is almost infinite. If they were in short supply, a billionaire would pay almost all he had for the food and water that you consume. Yet with these items of near infinite worth, having more than is necessary, or having fancy versions, is worth little more than having that which meets our needs.
- With respect to many of the commodities that we have, they would in fact be fantastically valuable (in monetary terms), if it weren't the case that they can be produced cheaply. Thus, consider your old car. Perhaps it is worth $2,000—but if, in fact, cars could not be made cheaply, or not made at all, your old car would be worth tens of thousands. If it were the only car, it would be worth millions. The same for your camera or your mirror or a pair of scissors, or a pencil or a piece of paper. Under some circumstances, these could be the most sought after, most amazing, most valuable (in monetary terms) items in the world.
- Whenever we buy something, we are doing so because we have judged that the thing is worth more to us than the price that is asked for it. That's the whole point of exchanging the money for the item. Sometimes this gap is enormous, and not merely with respect to necessities. Consider that it may only cost you $50 to buy a dog that you would not sell for thousands. What was the value of the $1 of painkiller that relieved the worst headache you ever had? How much was the best novel you ever read worth? The bicycle you had for ten years as a child—how did its value compare to the $50 paid for it?
The Value of Things That Typically Have No Price
In the 1960s and 1970s the women's movement called attention to a certain blindness with respect to the value of women's labor in the home. The basic problem was that neither the existence of women's labor nor its contribution was recognized, neither within the family nor within the larger society. In response an effort was made to “price out” women's labor at home, to point out what it would cost to hire someone to perform all these tasks. To move in this direction, to focus on monetary equivalents in order to make us appreciative of value, is both wrongheaded and quite understandable. It is wrongheaded because the price we might have to pay for the labor is not a good measure of its value; and it is understandable because being blind to all else but monetary terms, what other language can we understand?
Unfortunately, neither pointing out the monetary illusions we suffer from, nor placing monetary values on that which is not monetized, seems to make a great deal of difference. We are so thoroughly embedded in our ways of seeing that probably nothing short of being reborn in a totally different culture would really free us from the hold that money exercises upon our minds.
Still, we must try.
Consider a familiar item without a price, the human body. What is it worth? Well, if we are talking about a dead body, then perhaps very little. Medical schools, as a rule, don't have to pay for the cadavers they teach from; they are donated free of charge.
But this is not our question. Our question is not about the value of an extra body, but rather about the value of one's own body. We are not really concerned with market prices, since those reflect only: the supply and demand of that which is actually brought to market. What we really are interested in is the value of one's own body to the person himself.
Were it possible, what would someone pay to retain one's body, or perhaps to replace it? That, of course, depends on its condition and the condition of the replacement. Would an eighty-five-year-old billionaire with a life expectancy of five years pay a billion dollars to exchange bodies with someone who had fifty years to live as opposed to five? How many twenty-five year-olds with healthy bodies would rather have a billion dollars plus an eighty-five-year-old body? No doubt some, but not most people. I'd expect most people would not, for virtually any amount, exchange their bodies for significantly older, significantly less healthy bodies. I would imagine that most eighty-five-year-old billionaires would give virtually all that they own to be able to trade for a young, healthy body. Our body—our thinking, feeling, living body—is our natural wealth. It is our great property. It is from this property that our flow of experience emerges. It is this that enables us to enjoy all we enjoy, to feel all we feel. It is this that enables us to do and to be.
In this wealth, with the exception of people with illnesses, we all start out relatively equal. Each of us is given a gift that is worth billions. However, we are cursed at the same time; it is a worth that starts to dissipate the moment it arrives. It flows away from us at a steady rate, like a hole in the bank account—365 days are lost every year. There are some things we can do to make it last a bit longer, but one way or another, we end our lives completely broke.
One of the reasons that very few people see things this way is the simple fact that there is no technology for exchanging bodies. Medical science can, however, replace body parts, even vital ones, but not entire bodies. Even with respect to vital body parts, markets are largely undeveloped or underground—one cannot go out and buy a young heart.
But we are likely not far from technologies that will allow us to exchange full bodies. Let us say that we can do this, retaining perhaps enough of the brain so as to ensure continuity of memory and identity. Suppose then that body swaps between consenting adults become a real possibility. Under those conditions I expect that we would all be greatly more aware of the fundamental equality of our present situation, as well as, ironically, of the fundamental inequality; some will be buyers of sound bodies, and others will be sellers. Of course having (or occupying) a living body is not all much of a muchness—its, value can vary widely. Certainly a person facing only prolonged captivity and torture might value his living body less highly than otherwise. There are always deeply troubled, saddened, and lonely persons for whom being alive has lost all value.
Like all wealth, the wealth we have in our living body represents only the capability of what is good, in itself. Merely being alive is never sufficient for valued living. This wealth in our body is however necessary for any valued human functioning and experience. It is this dependence of all good experiences upon having a living body that imparts tremendous derivative value on whatever is itself necessary to sustain the life and health of that body. Thus, as noted, food, and water, and air, taken in the first increments without which life is not possible, are of extraordinary value to the individual, however little they may cost.
One implication, however, of recognizing the tremendous value of small amounts of life-sustaining necessities, and of the great wealth that we all have in our bodies, is that it seems to call into question the extent of the relative differences in income and wealth of the rich and the poor. If the marginal value of money declines rather rapidly, then the actual value of the goods possessed by the poor is substantially closer to that of those possessed by the rich than a comparison of market costs would indicate. (The use value of a liter of tap water that costs less than a penny may not be so vastly different than that of a liter of fine wine that cost 20,000 times as much; and that of a $50 bicycle may not be vastly different from that of a $30,000 car.) While this conclusion initially may be disconcerting, it takes on a different aspect when we realize that the transition we seek is not from poverty to wealth, but from poverty to simple living.
When Does Money Really Matter?
One clear circumstance where the income of the poor and the income of the rich differ enormously in value is when their income differences translate into differences in years of life. Clearly this is true in very poor countries where the life expectancy at birth of the rich and the poor is enormously different. The poor may be exposed to infant mortality rates of 1 in 5 while the rich might face rates of 1 in 100. In terms of life experience, that means that if you are poor, there is a good chance that one of your babies will die, while this is a rare tragedy if you are rich.
Consider the following table, which shows the relationship between per capita income and life expectancy for various countries in the world.
Country 1994 Per Capita Life Expectancy
GDP (PPP$) at Birth
Luxembourg 34,155 75.9
United States 26,397 76.2
Japan 21,581 79.8
Canada 21,459 79.0
Denmark 21,341 75.2
France 20,510 78.7
Australia 19,285 78.1
Finland 17,417 76.3
Ireland 16,061 76.3
Israel 16,023 77.5
Spain 14,324 77.6
Mauritius 13,172 70.7
Portugal 12,326 74.6
Korea S. 10,656 71.5
Chile 9,129 75.1
Mexico 7,384 72.0
Costa Rico 5,919 76.6
Brazil 5,362 66.4
Turkey 5,193 68.4
Poland 5,002 71.2
Jordan 4,187 68.5
Egypt 3,846 64.3
Table 8.1 (cont.)
Country 1994 Per Capita Life Expectancy
GDP (PPP$) at Birth
Morocco 3,681 65.3
Peru 3,645 67.4
Congo 2,410 51.3
Senegal 1,596 49.9
Kenya 1,404 53.6
India 1,348 61.3
Nepal 1,137 55.3
Haiti 896 54.4
Niger 787 47.1
Chad 700 47.0
Sierra Leone 643 33.6
Ethiopia 427 48.2
Source: Human Development Report, 1997, United Nations Development Program.1
The table suggests a few generalizations:
- Income matters. People in countries with higher average incomes tend to live longer.
- Income isn't all that matters. There are some countries with modest income levels, such as Costa Rica, in which people live as long as in the United States, although incomes are less than one-quarter of our level.
- Income level seems to matter less and less as income rises. Thus, comparing countries with less than $1,000 per capita income with those at about $5,000, there is a life expectancy gap of at least fifteen years. But between countries at the $5,000 level (excluding Costa Rica) and those at the $10,000 level, the gap is around nine years, and comparing those at the $10,000 with those at the $15,000 level, the gap is only around four years. Between those at the $15,000 level and those at $20,000 it is approximately two years. Above the $20,000 level there seems hardly any relationship at all between average income and life expectancy.
These, of course, are numbers for countries as a whole. They do not say anything about the differences within the country. Thus, we must not assume that for individuals within a country, higher income translates into longer life up to the $20,000 per year level, but no further. Unfortunately, data on the relationship between income and life expectancy are not abundant. One study that was done for Canada compared the life expectancy at birth of those in the top one-fifth of the income spectrum with those in the bottom one-fifth. It found that in 1986 the life expectancy difference was 5.6 years for men and 1.8 years for women.2 Income inequality in Canada is less than in the United States, and access to health care is greater. Thus, one would expect to see a somewhat bigger gap for the United States. One study of mortality in the United States for the period 1979-1985 concluded that, between the highest and lowest income groups, there was a difference for white men of about 10 years and for white women of 4.3 years.3 For all the races together, these differences would be greater. This general picture is supported by a recent study that compares life expectancy of Americans, depending on what county they live in within the United States. It found a gap of about fifteen years, ranging from a low of about sixty-five years to a high of about eighty years.4 This gap can at least be partially explained by differences in income, whether understood in its bearing on the quality of medical care available to low-income people or on the levels of homicide in the neighborhoods low-income people can afford.
On the other hand, one should not jump to the conclusion that the only reason for the gap is that the things money can buy result in higher life expectancy. Part of the explanation for the gap may lie in lifestyle choices, such as smoking, which is more prevalent at lower income levels. In part people with certain problems (e.g., self-hatred) may be both destroying their health and destroying their careers. Sometimes the link between income and health emerges not because money can sustain health, but because people who have health problems (for whatever reason) can't earn much money, sometimes being unable to work at all. Thus, in assessing the contribution that having a higher income contributes to life expectancy, these differences in life expectancy should be viewed as somewhat overstated upper limits to the importance of income. The actual significance of higher income is no doubt less, though still quite real.
Figure 8.1: Estimate of How Money Matters in the United in 1999
In relating household income to life expectancy within countries, we can expect to find a structure similar to that found between countries: income matters, income is not all that matters, and there is a declining marginal benefit in life expectancy associated with each increment of income.
While we don’t have precise figures, we can develop an informed picture of what the relationship looks like for the United States, again remembering that not all of the correlation is due to the effect that higher income has on health.
There is a dear advantage to being born into a higher-income family. Measured in terms of life expectancy, this value is of diminishing significance as income levels rise. I would conjecture that it reaches zero somewhere around family incomes of $100,000, but is quite small well before that. This, of course, is a guestimate, but it seems plausible to me.
That there is a declining marginal effect of income on life expectancy must be true. Thus, assume that at levels of family income of $10,000, each increment of $1,000 resulted in a gain in life expectancy of 1 year, and that at the $10,000 level life expectancy at birth was 65 years. If the incremental value did not decline, then at the $60,000 level of annual income life expectancy would be 50 years greater or 115 years long, and someone with $1,01,000 in annual family income would be living until they were 1,065 years old. Because we know that the effect of income on life span has reached approximately zero somewhere below life spans of 100, we know that the actual relationship can't look radically different than my guestimate.
Whatever the exact relationship, it should not be viewed as fixed for all time. It might be that new technologies will emerge such that vast incomes will enable, for a select few, life spans of 100 years or 120 years. Under those circumstances, the marginal value of money at very high income levels would become extraordinarily high. One can go further and imagine a world in which very rich people simply don't die or suffer ill health at all because new, very expensive technologies keep emerging to sustain them. The point of such speculations is that it helps to remind us of what it would be like if money really did continue to matter at very high levels. In the present world, the marginal value of money in yielding a longer life rapidly declines toward zero as we reach high levels of household income.
One way of responding to this recognition that beyond a certain point having more money doesn't significantly change life expectancy is to say, “Well that's a reasonable level to aspire to, and beyond that, perhaps it hardly pays to have more.” From the point of view of simple living, however, this might prove a disquieting conclusion-depending on what that “zero impact” level is. It is quite different if money stops contributing to a longer life span at $20,000 in family income than if it stops being useful at $100,000 or $200,000. Moreover, we know from the county-level studies that there are pretty big differences (ten to fifteen years of life) depending on where in the United States you live.
But as stated earlier, the case for simple living does not depend upon showing that money makes no difference, any more than it depends on showing that consumption makes no difference in responding to complex human needs. Rather, the case for simple living is that high income is not necessary, either to live well or to live long. Thus, from the point of view of simple living, the conclusion is twofold: first, beyond a certain level (whatever that is), having more money yields little benefit; and second, if one lives properly, one can attain those benefits at much lower levels of income.
Here, what is important is the existence of the examples of countries like Costa Rica where, with an annul average income of about $5,000, people live as long as in the United States. As was noted above, in Canada, money seems to matter less when it comes to its contribution to life expectancy. We can have a society in which money stops making a contribution to longer life spans at very low levels of income. Such a society facilitates simple living, and is one of the objectives of a politics of simplicity.
The Value of Unpriced Personal Services
Beyond having a healthy body and a long life expectancy, in what else does human wealth reside? As we have seen, the Greek philosopher Epicurus identified friendship as that which was most important to human happiness. In this he was right. Clearly it is our relationships with other people that truly matter; having a loved and loving life partner, having good friends, having loved and loving children and relatives. We do not use the word “property” in these cases, nor do we speak of ownership. Yet we do some times speak of our friends and loved ones as our true wealth, or more commonly as our treasures or treasured ones.
When we own something, we have certain specific property rights with respect to it: a right to use it as we please; a right to exchange it for something else; a right to sell it; a right to whatever of value emerges from it; a right to restrict the access of others to it; a right to give it away; a right to destroy it. These property rights are what constitute economic ownership.
When it comes to other people, we have no such rights. Yet even with respect to physical property, such rights themselves confer little of economic value unless they can in fact be exercised. Where there is no expectation that such rights can be exercised, ownership is empty and, in market terms, will yield nothing. It is like being told that you own a million shares of stock in a gold mine, but no one will ever be allowed to mine the gold. The shares are worthless. Ultimately, what gives economic value to the things we own is the belief or expectation that such ownership can be transferred into a flow of things of value: in the first instance into a flow of income (through sale, rent, investment), and then, secondarily, into a flow of valued goods and services through the expenditure of that income. If not the second assumption, then the flow of monetary income is itself without economic value. Thus, it is the potential for transformation into a flow of valued goods and services that gives economic value to what we own.
How then are our human treasures, our very most valued relationships, related to goods and services? To goods, hardly at all. But what we get from each other, when we have the right others is a unique flow of services. Consider, just three of the many things that the other, beloved and true, might provide:
- partner: someone with whom you can act in concert, not just doing things together but having a joint project;
- companion: someone with whom one can share the events of the day, someone who listens; who responds, who understands, who helps you see things more, clearly and more fully;
- affection: someone who has genuine concern, someone who thinks of you, who does things that make you feel valued, who helps you see your own worth.
The illusion of money is such that we self-blind ourselves toward these unpriced personal services, just as we do with unpaid household labor. How are we to move out of our restricted way of seeing economic life? How can we find human touchstones for thinking about political economy? How can we relate these “services” that friends and loved ones provide to the questions of wealth and income? A starting point is to rethink the notion of personal services and home production.
Personal Services and Home Production
It has long been recognized that in nonmarket economies much of what is produced is never brought to market, but is intended for home consumption and thus falls outside normal income accounting. Thus, in some Third World countries one might find, as was once the case in the United States, that 70 percent or 80 percent of the population lives on small land holdings, and that most of what they produce is used by the family itself. Thus, a very substantial portion of their income comes not in a monetized form, but rather in the goods and services directly produced.
In order to develop a more adequate picture of consumption and income and either to allow comparisons with more marketized economies or to make historical comparisons where the degree of marketization has changed, economists have sought ways of placing appropriate monetarized value (i.e., exchange value, price) on these outputs of home production. When the item in question is a good that is itself subject to market transactions (e.g., a kilo of rice, a bushel of wheat), or when it is a clear substitute for a market good, then it is easy enough to simply adjust the income and consumption figures for home production/consumption by using these market prices.
When no market price exists, an effort sometimes is made to attempt an estimate of what such items might bring if brought to market, or alternatively to estimate what price the family might have to be offered so that they would place the item in question on the market.
This all makes good sense. For most purposes our interest in income or consumption is about something more basic than the amount of money earned or spent by the household, and we can more adequately evaluate the household situation by making these adjustments for nonmarketed goods and services.
What has not been generally recognized, however, is just how wide such a principle of admission truly is. For instance, if we have agreed, as I think makes sense, that the unpaid household labor and services of women (whether as Third World farmers or in rich country homes) are both part of the income of the household and part of what it consumes, then what basis is there for not similarly treating the very same services when members of the household provide them for themselves? Thus, if it is part of the household income when the homemaker cleans five rooms, it is similarly part of household income if her husband cleans his own room, or cooks a meal for himself. In short the entire array of household tasks that encompass housework, no matter who does them, are part of the home production of the unit, and part of what must enter into a full notion of economic well-being.
But this only scratches the surface. When we think of housework we think of those activities that are somewhat arduous and often unpleasant. But this is not a defining characterization of work or of income-producing activities. Some people love their jobs; productive activity can be activity that would be done in the absence of external reward. Moreover, in wealthy economies much of our consumption expenditures are for leisure time activities. In one society a person goes out to work, earns some money, and then provides to the family a TV for their evening entertainment, indirectly paying others for a multitude of entertainment services; in another society an elder mesmerizes the children with ancient tales told around a campfire. This, too, is a contribution to family income. Once we accept the idea that goods and services produced or performed at home which substitute for market goods and services are part of family income and consumption, the range of activities that can be so viewed is wide indeed.
Often when economists attempt to adjust income numbers for home production they limit themselves to those goods and services that have a clear market substitute. But this is a matter of convenience, not because having a market substitute is a necessary condition for having economic value. Often, the absence of a clear marketplace substitute for home activities, rather than impugning the value of the home activity, is an indication of the inability of the market to actually generate a viable substitute. The most graphic examples of this occur in the area of human relationships (e.g., spending time with friends). When the market tries to provide substitutes (e.g., escort services, prostitution), they are poor imitations of the real thing, yet their prices are often very high. The high prices paid reflect the high value placed by consumers on the real thing. And of those things for which it is near impossible for the market to provide a substitute (e.g., things that have value only when provided free of monetary motivation), one is dealing with things of the greatest value.
Thus, the idea that a marketplace substitute is necessary to show that a nonmarketplace activity is of value has things backward. The economic history is typically that marketplace items take on their value by being substitutes (generally imperfect) for what is produced or done for self or others outside the market. Most of what is truly valuable are personal services, things that people do for each other or for themselves. We are drawn into market economies because of their vastly greater efficiency, even when it means that the services and, to some extent, the goods are less meaningful. Those areas that are of greatest value, or where the personal service relationships are unique, are typically areas in which market provision is so inadequate that it is not undertaken at all.
Consider then the differences between these two lists of personal services. In the first what most people seek (and need) is the engagement of a particular person who is of most importance to us:
- intimate conversation
- dinner with the family
- sitting on your father's knee
- hearing what happened with your daughter at school today
- having a holiday dinner
- watching TV together
- holding hands
- having a game of catch with your son
- playing chess with an old friend
Most of what the very wealthy hire household workers to do does not fall into these categories. Rather, it is typically the case that others are hired when the personal service has some clear output that is the actual objective of importance, not the doing itself by a particular person. Though people differ, rich people hire others to do things such as these:
- cleaning the house
- painting the house
- mowing the lawn
- fixing the roof
- paying the bills
- cooking dinner
- shopping for food
- taking the car in for repair
- driving the kids to soccer practice
With respect to those person-centered services (the first list) in which the value of the activity resides in the fact that it was done by or with a particular other person (a friend, a parent, a loved one), the rich are no better positioned than the poor. Neither can hire someone else to do it for them. Yet it is these person-centered services, which markets cannot provide, that are of the greatest value.
Moreover, the household is not the only nonmarket source of personal services; friends and other non household traditions also help meet our personal service needs. Thus, the market can be thought of as servicing a residue of needs that remains when we subtract those needs that are met by all nonmarket providers, be it oneself, others within the household, friends, and neighbors.
With respect to simple living, the core wisdom is that the provision of person-centered services can under certain circumstances be, not a demand on a person's time, which subtracts from their ability to live well, but rather an opportunity for them to have a meaningful existence. It is to be able to do this that we need time.
One of our deepest personal needs is the need to provide significant personal services to others. Having the psychological capacities to do that and having the social opportunities to use those capacities are among our greatest forms of wealth. Here we might remember Seneca's point that we want a friend because we need someone to sustain when he is in need. This is a major part of the contribution to our wealth that having children contributes—it gives us an opportunity to develop into our higher selves and to express those selves by giving to others.
At bottom a successful form of economic life is one that figures out how to organize society so that we are each performing and receiving such services from each other. The existence of social roles that allow this to occur is a form of national treasure; these roles are the value infrastructure that make it possible for what is truly valuable in human life to emerge. Without knowing what we do, we often sweep away such forms of human interaction in the name of a false efficiency.
This may become more obvious when we remember that fewer and fewer workers are actually engaged in the production of commodities; most are providing services, and increasingly these are personal services. For the most part economic life is merely the exchange of services, whether within the marketized segment of life or outside.5
Understanding the value of nonmarket services casts the familiar distinctions we make between opulence and simple living in a different light. It appears a distinction that functions only on the more superficial level of goods and marketable services. Once we reach down toward what is most valuable, the chance to give and the opportunity to receive those forms of personal services that are themselves nonmarketable, we find that the simple life can be inherently opulent if it is a life in which human bounty is constantly increased through giving to one another.
Simple Living: Wealth and Poverty
When a form of simple living is advocated, it is generally because it is believed that, by living simply on the material level one can live best in one or another of the nonmaterial dimensions.
The concept of wealth can be captured within this same framework.
Being wealthy means having the diverse “assets” that allow us to live a life that partakes of diverse form of richness: material, intellectual, spiritual, aesthetic, and social.
Once approached from this angle it becomes dear that genuine wealth resides in an extraordinarily broad range of “assets”:
- in our social relationships, our friendships, loves, and families;
- in our psychological capabilities, our abilities to build relationships, our ability to find meaning, to take aesthetic pleasure;
- in our cognitive capabilities, our ability to read, to understand, to learn, to reason;
- in our creative capacities, our ability to make something beautiful, to contribute something different;
- in our political rights, our ability to be a citizen of one country rather than another, our ability to build our own life, according to our own lights;
- in our historical and cultural legacy, in the riches of insight and experience that have been preserved from previous human lives and that are embodied in the great elements of human culture, be they forms of life and traditions, or great literature;
- in our natural and man-made physical environments, the beauty of Florence, or the view from the back porch.
Material wealth is not irrelevant, but its role is largely instrumental, largely in terms of how it facilitates our ability to access other forms of wealth. With clarity about genuine wealth, we may recognize how wealthy we really are (or in some cases, how poor) and, as a result, be better able to choose time rather than money, or make better use of both time and money.
The life of graceful simplicity is not a life that one can live merely by deciding to do so. To live well is an art, and to live gracefully in time is to be particularly accomplished in that art. It involves drawing on our internal capacities for creativity, appreciation, and generosity; it involves having attained some substantial level of inner peace, of security of identity and freedom from anxiety. And it involves having the good fortune of an external environment in which there is good grass and clean water and an absence of predators, but mostly essentially having space that is abundant in beauty and friendship.
- The income figures are provided in terms of “purchasing parity,” which seeks to compare income levels in different countries based on what one can buy with them rather than through reliance on international currency exchange rates.
- R. Wilkins, O. Adams, and A. Branker, “Changes in Mortality by Income in Urban Canada from 1971 to 1986,” Health Reports 1(2)(1989): 137-74.
- E. Rogot, P. D. Sorlie, and N. J. Johnson, “Life Expectancy by Employment Status, Income and Education in the National Longitudinal Mortality Study,” Public Health Reports 107(4) (Jul-Aug 1992): 457-61.
- David Brown and Avram Goldstein, “Death Knocks Sooner for D.C.'s Black Men,” Washington Post, 4 December 1997, p. 4.
- We are actually well beyond the point in which most people are engaged in providing services rather than growing or manufacturing things. In 1994, the number of people employed in various occupations was as appears in the following table.
Total employed civilians 123, 060
Managers 16, 312
Professionals 17, 536
Administrative support 18,620
Household and protective 3,066
Other service (food, health, cleaning, hair) 13,847
Precision production, craft, and repair 13,489
Machine operators, fabricators, and laborers 12,740
Farming, forestry, and fishing 3,629
It is only in the last three categories that we have people involved in making, growing, and building things. There were 29,858 (30 million) people with occupations of this sort in 1994, constituting 24.2.percent of those employed.
When viewed by industry, independent of exactly what the people themselves might be doing, we get a similar picture.
1979 1992 2005 (pro)
total 10,363 121,093 147,484
Nonfarm wage and salary 86,491 107,888 132,960
goods prod excl agr 26,461 23,142 23,717
mining 958 631 562
construction 4,463 4,471 5,632
manufacturing 21,040 18,040 17,523
service producing 63,030 84,746 109,243
transport, comm., util 5,136 5,709 6,497
wholesale trade 5,221 6,045 7,191
retail trade 14,972 19,346 23,777
finance, insur, real est 4,975 6,571 7,969
services 16,779 28,422 41,788
government 15,947 18,653 22,021
Agriculture 3,398 3,295 3,325
Private households 1,264 1,116 802
Nonag self-emply/unpaid fam 7,210 8,794 10,397
SAUS, 1995, table 654, Employment by selected industry with projection
As a percentage of the total, those employed within agriculture or goods-producing industries is projected to fall to 18 percent within a few years (from 26 percent in 1992). As recently as 1979, those in agriculture or goods-producing industries was 29 percent of the workforce. This is a totally different world than that, say, or 1920, when those in agriculture or goods-producing industries comprised 62 percent of the workforce, or 1850 when it accounted for 81 percent of the workforce (Historical Statistics of the United States Series D. 152-166 Industrial Distribution of Gainful Workers. 1820-1940).
Simple Living and American Dreams - SegalForSenate.Org
Education for Simple Living - SegalForSenate.Org
Are We Simple Creatures? (1999)
The Politics of Simplicity (1996)