Housework in Utopia

by John Quiggin on May 3, 2012

The immediate reason for this post is the Crooked Timber discussion of my previous post on world meat supplies which morphed into a (mainly First World) arguments about cooking. But my bigger concern is the need for the left to offer a feasible utopian vision as an alternative to the irrationalist tribalism of the right.

My idea of feasible utopia is prosaic compared to some of the utopias that have grabbed attention in the past, but have led either nowhere or into disaster. On the other hand, it’s positively, well, utopian, compared to what’s on offer from Obama and Romney, or their counterparts in other  countries. In essence, it’s an extrapolation of the course we seemed to be on from the end of World War II to the early 1970s, a mixture of social democracy, feminism and environmental sustainability applied to ever broader spheres of activity.

The central element of my idea of utopia is that everyone should be able to live decently, without being forced to spend a lot of time doing crappy jobs. That brings us pretty directly to housework[1], something most of us spend quite a bit of time on, and which involves a fair amount of crappy work, literally and figuratively.

If my conditions for utopia are to be feasible we need two things to be true. First, the total amount of crappy work has to be small enough that the average amount per person is not too large. Second, the work has to be organized so that no one actually has to do a lot more than their share.

The second condition is the one that’s politically interesting, of course. But unless the first, primarily technological condition is satisfied, there’s no point in talking about utopian politics, at least in the way I want to talk about it. So, I’m going to focus on the technology of housework.

For any of the tasks we think of as housework, there are four possibilities I can think of,

(1) we can do it ourselves, as a crappy chore

(2) we can do it ourselves, as an enjoyable and fulfilling avocation

(3) we can do it using a technological solution that involves little or no labour

(4) we can contract it out to a specialist worker, who may in turn either (a) enjoy the work or (b) find it just as crappy as we do

In the case of cooking (or food preparation more generally), which caused a lot of angst in the previous thread, all four possibilities are easy to see.  I’ll spell them all out in comments if necessary, but for the moment it’s enough to treat the typical fast-food restaurant as the exemplar of 4(b). My view of utopia, contrary to quite a few people in the previous thread, that all of these possibilities except (1) and 4(b) are fine.

A lot of the angst around cooking concerned the idea of eating food produced through industrial processes that don’t involve much labour. It’s true that, under current circumstances, such food is likely to be unhealthy. But that doesn’t need to be the case – even now there are plenty of alternatives that make a point of being healthy.

Moreover, it’s easy to improve on the basics with a combination of the options. A typical low-effort dinner at our house might combine a meat item bought ready-to-cook from the butcher (say, a rolled roast, beef wellington, or kebab), microwaved vegetables (a combination of fresh and frozen) and baked vegetables (fresh onions and frozen potato mini-roasts). Someone who enjoys cooking and is willing to put in an hour or two of effort could doubtless do better. But I don’t see that I’m failing as a human being if I take the easy option I’ve described. And the effort required for the butcher to prepare the meat item is much less than the same job would take at home.

Looking a bit more broadly, the picture is mixed. The household appliances that first came into widespread use in the 1950s  (washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and so on), eliminated a huge amount of drudgery, but technological progress for the next forty years or so was pretty limited. The only truly significant innovation I can date to this period is the microwave oven.

At the same time, the great decline in inequality freed lots of working class women from doing the chores of others, as well as maintaining their own homes. Those same tasks, eased by technology but still burdensome, were shifted onto middle-class women who would previously have employed servants.

How likely is it that new appliances will resolve the remaining problems of household labor? We just acquired a vacuum cleaning robot which is a real boon, and there are versions that are supposed to clean tiled floors as well.

In other cases, there are less direct solutions. Technological progress in the clothing industry means that it no longer makes economic sense to sew your own clothes, or even to mend them. So, these are now jobs that fit into category (2) – to the extent that we do them it’s because we enjoy them. Similarly, while the bugs still need to be ironed out of online shopping, particularly for groceries, it won’t be long before no one needs to visit a physical shop unless they enjoy the experience (once every three months is about optimal for me!).

That still leaves a number of inescapably physical and essentially crappy jobs, for which technology has yet to offer a solution. The obvious examples for me are cleaning (surfaces, baths, toilets etc) and ironing. Something these tasks share, and which is true of a lot of crappy jobs, is that we do a lot more than is actually necessary.  Social standards inherited from the days of cheap servant labour dictate much more cleanliness than is required for hygiene, and practices like ironing for which there is no need at all.

So, a final part of my idea of utopia would be the institution of social norms that frown on unnecessary crap-work. In my utopia, a freshly ironed shirt would attract the same kind of response that is now elicited by a fur coat or an ivory brooch – a mixture of anachronistic admiration with disapproval of the process by which it was produced, with the latter element predominating over time.

I haven’t done the numbers yet, but it seems to me that with a bit of technological progress and a sensible attitude, we could get the requirement for household crapwork below an hour a day, which even utopians should be willing to live with.

 

 

fn1. For this post, I’m going to ignore childraising, which raises a whole lot more issues, and which seems to have changed a lot since I was directly involved.

{ 125 comments }

1

Tim Worstall 05.03.12 at 10:57 am

“Social standards inherited from the days of cheap servant labour dictate much more cleanliness than is required for hygiene,”

Indeed. That the average male just left home does not contract typhus from lice ridden unwashed clothes, salmonella from the distinctly uncleaned kitchen nor whatever it is that is feared from not scrubbing round the u-bend each day is sufficient proof of this contention.

“I haven’t done the numbers yet, but it seems to me that with a bit of technological progress and a sensible attitude, we could get the requirement for household crapwork below an hour a day,”

And as you point out, technological progress has got us a lot closer to that than we were in, say, the 1930s. Which leads to something that fascinates me but I cannot find the numbers for. Keynes’ economics prospects for our grandchildren. Of that predicted fall in the number of hours of work likely to be needed, how much of that fall has actually occured but occured not in market activities, as predicted, but in the non-market household ones?

2

John Quiggin 05.03.12 at 11:03 am

Tim, I am working on article about Keynes and grandchildren right now. Out before too long I hope

3

ajay 05.03.12 at 11:14 am

Technological progress in the clothing industry means that it no longer makes economic sense to sew your own clothes, or even to mend them.

I think you’d have to value your own time incredibly highly (or wear incredibly cheap clothes) before this was true. Surely not including things like sewing on buttons or fixing tears in pocket linings. I admit that darning socks is a dying art and good job too.

That still leaves a number of inescapably physical and essentially crappy jobs, for which technology has yet to offer a solution. The obvious examples for me are cleaning (surfaces, baths, toilets etc) and ironing.

Surely technology has already come up with a solution for ironing: non-iron clothes. It’s possible, right now, to lead an ironing-free life. It’s just that – and this is where your utopia point comes in – people tend to sneer at people in non-iron clothes.

The other obvious example, surely, is tidying up. And it’s also one that’s much less susceptible to technology. A Roomba can clean your floor, but it can’t clear it.

4

bexley 05.03.12 at 11:15 am

In my utopia, a freshly ironed shirt would attract the same kind of response that is now elicited by a fur coat or an ivory brooch – a mixture of anachronistic admiration with disapproval of the process by which it was produced, with the latter element predominating over time.

This seems somewhat extreme. I don’t bother ironing anything other than my shirts as it is and would quite happily move to a world where my work doesn’t expect me to even do that, but if I’m the one doing the ironing why should it elicit disapproval if I choose to do so?

5

chris 05.03.12 at 11:24 am

I missed out on the previous thread, but I was going to raise the issue of clothing manufacture/maintenance as a lost art that nobody seems to particularly mind losing, in distinction to the several people insisting that everyone *must* do their own cooking, no outsourcing allowed. What’s the difference exactly? Why can’t “home cooked” go the way of “homespun”? Some people enjoy the textile arts today, but they don’t insist that everyone else should practice them too, enjoyment or no.

Is it just that people are really bad food consumers and eat too much junk food instead of healthier options? But then, if they try to cook at home, won’t they cook something like deep-fried butter? ISTM that this suggests the real problem is insufficient nutrition awareness, rather than cooking per se. If enough people want to buy healthier food, the food industry will sell it to them. It’s not a conspiracy to ruin people’s health, after all, it’s a conspiracy to make money.

6

Matt 05.03.12 at 11:27 am

Somewhat similar to ajay’s last point, while I am very grateful for my Roomba, mine does need to be “supervised” (in part because it’s an older model) and I can’t just let it go automatically, because I’m too likely to have piles of books, papers, etc. on the floor.

As for on-line shopping, I guess that there’s some evidence that the behind-the-scenes work for that is pretty unpleasant. That is, that filling the orders isn’t a great job. Perhaps this will be done by robots at some point, even for groceries. Whether that’s a good idea or not I don’t know. But my impression, from very modest reading, is that on-line shopping has made work-life worse for people who fill the orders, as that’s a worse job than working at a store. (I did nearly every possible job at a large grocery store, including stocking shelves in the day and throwing freight, for several years, so have a pretty good idea how bad such jobs can be.)

7

Jacob T. Levy 05.03.12 at 11:42 am

Something these tasks share, and which is true of a lot of crappy jobs, is that we do a lot more than is actually necessary. Social standards inherited from the days of cheap servant labour dictate much more cleanliness than is required for hygiene, and practices like ironing for which there is no need at all.

Yes. This.

8

Jacob T. Levy 05.03.12 at 11:49 am

Hm. The permalinks to comments in JABHAB don’t seem to work. Anyway, I raised the “we do too much of this stuff and should not expect the standards that made sense in the bad old days to be the standards in equilibrium under better gender norms” argument there, in response to the claim that “men are messier than women as a strategic move because they know women will do all the cleaning anyways.”

9

Elsie 05.03.12 at 12:16 pm

You assume that fast food workers find their jobs crappy, in my experience that is often not true. Sure they are low status, but the actual work is similar to bar work – reasonably varied for unskilled work. There is also a great deal of camraderie, it is the absense of this which makes housework feel like drudgery.

The majority of housework is done by women and the amount of crapwork they need to do is largely determined by their caring responsibilities. Does modern technology make caring for children, the ill and the elderly much less time consuming?

10

Nick Barnes 05.03.12 at 12:30 pm

“practices like ironing for which there is no need at all”
What does need have to do with it? There are many practices – such as gardening, or preparing or eating desserts – for which there is no “need” at all. For that matter, most western countries have norms of laundry and grooming (the latter often mistaken for hygiene) which go far beyond “need”. Is it utopian to imagine a world without gardens, or dessert, or shaving, or showers?
As it happens, I enjoy ironing, and cleaning, in moderation.

11

ajay 05.03.12 at 12:46 pm

The majority of housework is done by women and the amount of crapwork they need to do is largely determined by their caring responsibilities. Does modern technology make caring for children, the ill and the elderly much less time consuming?

A very good point.
I suppose modern technology
a) makes the elderly more able to care for themselves – from things as basic as spectacles and hearing aids right up to lightweight, easily used appliances and so on – though of course longer life expectancies may counterbalance this

b) reduces the burden of caring for the ill by, well, curing them, or at least treating them successfully
and
c) reduces the burden of caring for children by allowing women to have fewer of them.

12

Jason Murphy 05.03.12 at 12:49 pm

The main reason I am able to ride to work is because someone in the city launders my shirts.
I hate ironing and have outsourced it to a friendly old couple who run a nearby tobacconist / barber / dry-cleaning franchise. They are really just agents for the faceless mega corp Ironing Services LLC.
Whether the person who irons my clothes enjoys it, I can’t say. But I’d argue my role in the transaction is not to ascertain that – just to vote for the party that seems to prefer fairer workplace relations rules.
One note:

“For the moment it’s enough to treat the typical fast-food restaurant as the exemplar of 4(b)”

When I was about 15, the idea of working in McDonalds was incredibly alluring. The kids that had jobs and freedom were very cool. And being store manager by age 19 is probably quite a thrill too. Every job has crappy elements, but people are smart enough to eventually quit the jobs they really hate.

13

Data Tutashkhia 05.03.12 at 12:58 pm

How’s this a more feasible utopia than any other utopia?

One of the most utopia-mongering characters in history knew: “the poor will always be with us.” Well, maybe this is not exactly what he meant, in context, but it certainly seems that in any foreseeable future many millions of people will always have to choose between starving and cleaning someone else’s toilet.

14

kent 05.03.12 at 1:38 pm

But you see, there’s no longer any reason to think Mr. Christ was correct. And I absolutely don’t believe that “ANY foreseeable future” will see MILLIONS of people cleaning other people’s toilets. Perhaps a little broadening of imagination is called for.

15

bianca steele 05.03.12 at 1:48 pm

My new dryer gives a reasonable semblance of pressed clothes if you catch them right away (and presumably uses a lot less energy than the old one), but I’m not seeing evidence that freshly pressed shirts and even jeans are going out of style.

16

ajay 05.03.12 at 1:52 pm

I’m not seeing evidence that freshly pressed shirts and even jeans are going out of style.

Wait, you press your jeans? I hope they have a single razor edged crease down each leg.

17

bianca steele 05.03.12 at 1:57 pm

I don’t but I see men in the mall whose jeans and sport shirts both have apparently either gone through a dryer with a “steam” setting or under an iron.

18

bob mcmanus 05.03.12 at 1:58 pm

Cleaning might be easier if we change, or make more easy, certain aesthetic preferences about the way we live. It takes much less time to clean the surfaces in a 1000 sq ft home than in a 3000 sq ft home. Then we can simplify the kinds of surfaces and the number of surfaces. A Japanese-style shoin home had one piece of furniture, a small hardwood table.

We could accept a single change of clothing, electrostatically cleaned several times a day.

I myself am in the process of lessening time spent dusting, by moving books to electronic storage.

19

Moby Hick 05.03.12 at 2:00 pm

I don’t think I’ve seen jeans that look pressed since the teachers wore them for “jeans day” in high school.

20

bianca steele 05.03.12 at 2:01 pm

Ironing heavy cotton sheets and tablecloths is presumably a good example of “Social standards inherited from the days of cheap servant labour dictat[ing] much more cleanliness than is required for hygiene.”

21

Substance McGravitas 05.03.12 at 2:30 pm

So, a final part of my idea of utopia would be the institution of social norms that frown on unnecessary crap-work.

I don’t know that you’d want to include frowning on learning to do the unnecessary crap work, if you’re considering cooking to be part of that. There seems to be a bit of “lessons for living” in most western secondary curricula, in my day shop class for boys and home economics for girls. But I don’t have a belt-sander or a drill-press at home and I do have a stove: it would have been a far better thing to get me used to the kitchen (which I still suck at, but there are instructions to follow) rather than used to machines most of the boys in class would never see again.

22

Data Tutashkhia 05.03.12 at 2:36 pm

@13 But you see, there’s no longer any reason to think Mr. Christ was correct.

That’s fine, but now you’ve abandoned that modest, feasible, fluffy utopia, and you’re back to one of those “that have grabbed attention in the past, but have led either nowhere or into disaster.”

23

sanbikinoraion 05.03.12 at 3:27 pm

I saw a picture of an expensive shirt steamer on the internet which I now can’t find which essentially steamed shirts in seconds by you buttoning the shirt onto it as if it were a body and then it fired steam out of multiple pores. Between that and a trouser press, if you have the money ironing it pretty much optional, for men at least (I wouldn’t like to speak to the particularities of womens’ clothing).

24

engels 05.03.12 at 3:43 pm

I presume you are referring to the Dressman Automatic Iron.

25

Eli Rabett 05.03.12 at 4:11 pm

Hans Rosling has your answer

26

Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 05.03.12 at 4:12 pm

What’s wrong with darning? Admittedly most of my darning is confined to jumpers and the like but I have darned an expensive pair of hiking socks which had worn through just where the edge of my boots met my Achilles tendon.

27

Marshall 05.03.12 at 4:14 pm

The discussion here seems to be assuming that everyone lives in a city and works as a professional. Out where I and many live, going to town for every meal is not at all practical and no one is expected to have an ironed shirt. Stopping in at the store is an important opportunity to share a moment with casual acquaintances. For city folk visiting at the store might be psychologically useful in affirming that incoming stuff comes from somewhere, the product of human labor, rather than being conjured up by keystrokes on the internet. Sorry if human-assisted transactions are painful for you, John … seems like this is a pointer to a big problem in modern life.

28

mpowell 05.03.12 at 4:19 pm

Materials for clothes are improving. I have a shirt which can be washed and worn several times without ironing which you could never tell wasn’t ironed. It’s awesome.

29

Moby Hick 05.03.12 at 4:23 pm

I have a bunch of those shirts and they are nice. They’re so great that Slate had an article pointing out how horrible they are.

30

Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 05.03.12 at 4:24 pm

What does it say, I wonder, that M&S do non-iron shirts for men and children, but not for women?

31

Matt 05.03.12 at 4:32 pm

In other cases, there are less direct solutions. Technological progress in the clothing industry means that it no longer makes economic sense to sew your own clothes, or even to mend them. So, these are now jobs that fit into category (2) – to the extent that we do them it’s because we enjoy them.

Whoa there. Do you see the little tags in your clothing that indicate an item was made in Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Honduras, etc.? Unless I have been gravely misled, the garment industries involve vast amounts of low-wage crapwork, mostly by women located on the other side of a national border.

32

ajay 05.03.12 at 4:45 pm

25: it’s fiddly and time-consuming and I don’t know how to do it.

33

Watson Ladd 05.03.12 at 4:52 pm

Do children not have parents anymore? I learned how to cook assisting my mother with baking, and as for the rest have a cookbook and use it. Gardening is actually relaxing and a fun way to spend a weekend, and it doesn’t take that much time depending on what is planted. We seem to have fallen into this idea that everything beyond tying one’s shoelaces ought to be taught in school.

34

geo 05.03.12 at 4:57 pm

General FYI: a very good guide to utopian living is Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach (who died last week).

35

piglet 05.03.12 at 4:57 pm

The comparison of cooking with clothes-making is interesting but obviously, food is prepared and eaten only once. Also, the food equivalent of “homespun” would be “home butchered”, not “home cooked”. But certainly there is a range of activities that might or might not be considered housework and I don’t disagree that there is a range of acceptable options between doing oneself, paying others, or buying a ready-made product. I do think however that the “utopia” of not having to do any of it is not a desirable one because caring for oneself is a part of being human.

36

Substance McGravitas 05.03.12 at 5:06 pm

Do children not have parents anymore?

Do people not live as I do?

37

bianca steele 05.03.12 at 5:19 pm

I’m just having a difficult time finding an argument from a left perspective for why it is wrong to solve the issues raised in the OP by having a woman work long hours, with occasional assists from technology and her family, on ensuring their lifestyle is “decent” in the sense of being coiffed, dressed, and pressed, the woodwork polished, the guest towels neatly presented, and a healthy, properly prepared meal (as Mark Bittman might put it) on the table every night. All of the left bloggers (and McArdle too) I have read are Bittman fans and seem oblivious, to the extent they discuss housework, to the difference in effort between ironing their own clothes and ironing for a family of five, or in doing a little gardening and keeping a big lawn and elaborate garden looking nice while also cooking and shopping and cleaning for a family of five, with toddlers in tow.

38

marcel 05.03.12 at 5:22 pm

But then, if they try to cook at home, won’t they cook something like deep-fried butter?

You must have spent some time in Wisconsin or Minnesota!

Minor correction to Substance McGravitas’s correction:

Do people not live as I did?

39

UserGoogol 05.03.12 at 6:42 pm

Matt @ 31: There’s a lot of crapwork, but there’s also a whole lot of clothes being produced. The relevant question is whether less crapwork overall is being done than the old-fashioned way, which seems fairly plausible. People working with modern garment-making equipment and a well-organized supply chain of fabric should be able to make clothes quite a bit more efficiently than someone doing it by hand for their own purposes. It’s not particularly utopian, but it’s certainly an improvement.

40

michael e sullivan 05.03.12 at 7:03 pm

I agree with Elsie @ 9. I’ve done fast food work, and the work itself is not intrisically crappy, or at least no more so than being a short-order cook or line cook in a non-fast food restaurant, or some of the jobs in my print shop.

There were two primary things that sucked about working at mcdonalds (besides the low pay) — one was the low status. The other was the way that the system treated workers as if they were little more intelligent than a robot.

The severity of second varied a lot by who your supervisor was and how much they trusted you. With an asshole boss, it was like a disneyfied version of industrial dystopia, exactly what you would imagine from watching John Hughes films. With a good boss you could laugh together at some of the corporate materials, and it was a lot like any other low end craft/manual job. The severity of the first varied mostly by how often my high school friends showed up when I was working.

41

Kaveh 05.03.12 at 7:13 pm

This utopia sounds like one in which most people’s needs can be fulfilled by the market, and that will create (or accommodate) pressure on people to channel more and more of their time and energy into a small range of tasks that they’re good at, at the expense of having a more balanced set of daily activities.

I don’t mind doing a certain amount of crap work, provided that it’s not too much, doesn’t make me worry that it’s taking time away from other things I want to do, and (best of all) if some of it involves camaraderie, like cooking or cleaning with somebody (although sometimes I like working alone, too). No matter how much I like my job/career/vocation, I also like the feeling that I don’t need to devote every minute of the day to it to maximize my efficiency, and feeling constant work pressure can (worst of all) even make me like other work even less, because I get worried that housecleaning is taking away from time I could spend writing my dissertation (or whatever).

There are a lot of cultural/technological changes that would cut down on housework without adding cost or being less clean. For example, in the Middle East, a lot of apartments have tile floors with a drain that the whole floor surface drains into. You can throw water on the floor and mop it into the drain with a long-handled squeegy. Makes deep-cleaning the floor a lot easier, but isn’t compatible with certain decorative preferences that predominate in the US, like wall-to-wall carpeting and hardwood floors. With cooking, knowing the right recipes and willing to be a bit flexible in our tastes and demand for meat can make it easy to do a lot of your own cooking in a way that’s cheap, not time-consuming, healthy, and tasty. I often don’t save time eating out vs cooking, and I have restaurants practically right downstairs from where I live.

But I think what I’d like, also, is a work situation where I’m less anxious about how productive I am and more able to engage in pointless menial housework without feeling guilty that I’m letting it take time away from other things.

42

mijnheer 05.03.12 at 8:08 pm

I find it depressing (though, unfortunately, not surprising) that so many on the “progressive” left think that a positive vision should include providing everyone with lots of meat — or with any meat at all, except in unusual geographical or medical situations. Instead of bringing other nations up to first-world standards in this respect, let’s aim at bringing first-world nations down to the meat-consumption levels of the most impoverished parts of the world — for a start.

43

John Quiggin 05.03.12 at 9:08 pm

“The other was the way that the system treated workers as if they were little more intelligent than a robot.”

I guess I’ve mostly encountered that version – not directly, as this particular kind of job barely existed in Oz when I was in the right age group, but in the experience of my son and his friends.

44

John Quiggin 05.03.12 at 9:11 pm

@Kaveh “This utopia sounds like one in which most people’s needs can be fulfilled by the market, and that will create (or accommodate) pressure on people to channel more and more of their time and energy into a small range of tasks that they’re good at, at the expense of having a more balanced set of daily activities.”

I have pretty much the opposite in mind, and will try to spell that out as I go.

45

engels 05.03.12 at 10:16 pm

I think the term “crapwork” is rather demeaning to those who do work which, while it may be unpleasant and unfulfilling, is vitally important.

46

Watson Ladd 05.03.12 at 11:15 pm

@bianca: There is Mitchell’s “Women, the Longest Revolution” which addresses the question of female equality head on, and concludes that is only in industrial society that this is possible. The assignment of much of the work of social reproduction to women is something that hasn’t changed, even with women entering the workplace.

@mijnheer: What exactly is emancipatory about being poor? We’re leftists, not monks!

Substance, the more you call on schools to do, the less time they have to actually teach, and the harder it is to agree on what to get them to teach is. Would you want your children to only learn how to cook Mexican food, or Sichuan food? How much is not participating in another family activity with them worth in terms of years of algebra they won’t have?

chris, has I think, nailed the problem. Some people have preferences that are bad for them, and we want to change those preferences. We’ve already done this with smoking through taxes and education. It can be done for food, without forcing teachers to supervise dozens of kids all handling sharp objects at once. (And don’t forget how hazardous boiling water is) through the same methods.

47

Substance McGravitas 05.03.12 at 11:25 pm

Substance, the more you call on schools to do, the less time they have to actually teach, and the harder it is to agree on what to get them to teach is. Would you want your children to only learn how to cook Mexican food, or Sichuan food? How much is not participating in another family activity with them worth in terms of years of algebra they won’t have?

These courses already exist in many countries with fine public schools in which students also learn algebra. More boys should be in those classes because the practical knowledge in gained far outweighs the utility of learning to use a lathe.

48

Watson Ladd 05.03.12 at 11:31 pm

Substance, school should not be about skills that can be acquired by watching the television and reading a book, along with some practice that doesn’t require coaching. School should devote itself to subjects where it is the best means of teaching them, and I doubt cooking is one of those subjects.

49

Matt 05.03.12 at 11:36 pm

How likely is it that new appliances will resolve the remaining problems of household labor?

There’s a good guest post by Cat Valente over at Stross’s blog: Life With and Without Animated Ducks: The Future Is Gender Distributed

50

Substance McGravitas 05.03.12 at 11:38 pm

Substance, school should not be about skills that can be acquired by watching the television and reading a book

What you think schools should teach is irrelevant in this instance, as many many schools DO teach cooking and algebra besides, and apparently successfully. My experience – which could be completely wrong now! – is that girls take those courses instead of boys, and it would make a lot of sense for more people to take them.

51

John Quiggin 05.03.12 at 11:46 pm

@Matt – that’s a great post, thanks for the link.

Cat Valente links in turn to the possibility of self-cleaning clothes. Now if only they would be self-ironing as well, the millennium would be at hand.

52

bob mcmanus 05.03.12 at 11:54 pm

51: This link has been discussed at Unfogged, and she cannot be trusted. For instance, she says women wash their clothes by hand, but washers has a 77% household penetration by the mid-1970s.

53

chris 05.04.12 at 12:37 am

Also, the food equivalent of “homespun” would be “home butchered”, not “home cooked”.

People who advocate that everyone should cook from scratch rarely bother to precisely define “scratch”. Storebought butter or olive oil (rather than churn/press your own) is just part of a continuum with storebought flour, storebought bread, storebought pasta, storebought bread with butter and garlic and herbs already on it, storebought pasta sauce, storebought precooked pasta and sauce mixed together in a little plastic tray with a piece of bread with garlic and herbs in another compartment of the tray… oh look, it’s a TV dinner. All of these are “processed” foods — the only difference is the nature and extensiveness of the processing.

And, in any case, home sewn is almost as rare as homespun, anyway. There’s some home knitting in John’s category 2, but it forms a trivial part of the overall clothing supply.

Instead of bringing other nations up to first-world standards in this respect, let’s aim at bringing first-world nations down to the meat-consumption levels of the most impoverished parts of the world—for a start.

Wait, what? Aspiring to equal distribution of poverty is the right-wing strawman version of what the left is about, not the real thing.

Or maybe you’re just saying that the first world’s overconsumption of meat is self-defeating in health terms? Okay, maybe, but matching the most impoverished parts of the world is surely going too far in that direction.

I often don’t save time eating out vs cooking, and I have restaurants practically right downstairs from where I live.

I don’t think the accessibility of the restaurants is the main variable here — how long do you have to travel to buy fresh ingredients, and how good are your facilities for storing them? Now what would you do if the answers to those questions were very different? Cook a lot fewer meals from perishable ingredients, I bet.

54

Watson Ladd 05.04.12 at 12:45 am

Substance, it’s not that schools cannot teach children how to cook. It’s that schools don’t need to teach children how to cook, when parents, or the cooking channel, or a cookbook, can instead. You’re advocating that schools teach children just because the schools can, when this is a skill that they can learn whenever they want to.

55

mijnheer 05.04.12 at 1:20 am

@Watson Ladd: Did I say I wanted anyone to be poor? No, I did not. I suggested something quite different: reducing or eliminating meat consumption. However, leftists would be advised to keep in mind the distinction William Morris made between riches (articles of folly and luxury: the products of useless toil, which waste resources) and true wealth (communion with nature, free communication among people, and the products of what he called useful work — including art — aimed at meeting our vital needs).

56

Chaz 05.04.12 at 1:26 am

@Watson Ladd

High school students are smart enough to use knives and stoves with minimal supervision without hurting themselves. You seem to already know this because you advocate people self-teach cooking with no supervision at all (but maybe you didn’t know you knew it?). Also please see Michael Sullivan’s post about high school students wanting to be trusted to be able to cook. And finally, a student probably will lightly scald himself once in a while, but that’s no reason not to cook. I’ve cut myself and burned myself while cooking; it hurts but life goes on.

@Substance McGravitas

My high school didn’t have those kind of shop classes and I don’t think most other schools do here either. Everything’s college-prep or mathandreading test-prep now.

@Watson Ladd again

I don’t think cooking is necessarily less suited to school than many school subjects. You can learn almost anything from a book. I learned calculus from a book. I did have a class and a good teacher, but I couldn’t follow the lectures and had to learn it all at home from the book. Same goes for a lot of my college courses. On the other hand, I learned to cook from my mother, and the first times I tried to bake using only Joy of Cooking and no assistance ended with me giving up because the instructions used various verbs that I did not know. As it turns out those verbs are much more easily explained with a personal demonstration than from pictures and text description (which weren’t present in any case).

57

Watson Ladd 05.04.12 at 1:36 am

Chaz, the risks of cooking are magnified for big kitchens with inadequate cleaning. Obviously it’s not impossible for people to be taught to cook by instructors. But the question whether they should learn this way or not, and more importantly, whether it is so utterly vital to our society that social means for the provision of cooking knowledge should be established.

mijnheer, William Morris seems here no different from St. Benedict, only the Host has become the host of a party.

58

Substance McGravitas 05.04.12 at 1:39 am

It’s that schools don’t need to teach children how to cook

Well, they seem to do that – at least where I am – and do fine. Oh well.

59

engels 05.04.12 at 1:45 am

I actually like – or at any rate don’t dislike, or get impatient with – cleaning up after myself. Cleaning up after other people though can get seriously fucking annoying.

60

Chaz 05.04.12 at 1:48 am

I think that school should teach whatever is most useful and important, not just “academic” subjects. In particular that means yes to sex ed and yes too cooking, and also yes to PE if they actually bother to teach you anything (stretches, weightlifting and exercise techniques, etc.) rather than just making you run around a track or play soccer. Also stuff like CPR, driving safety, auto maintenance, and computer skills that may not warrant a full class. And English should be about writing coherently, not about literature (yes you should read some books and yes lit classes should be an option, but mandatory* AP American Lit and AP English Lit needs to go away)

*If it’s the only AP option for English, then that means it is mandatory for ambitious students.

Also, speaking of automation and utopia and meat and food, I wish to point out that literally everything that happens in a McDonald’s could be automated (actually I haven’t thought up a good method for lettuce insertion yet, but everything else!), and it wouldn’t even be very hard technically. If we could drive up the wages for unskilled labor a lot of John’s vision would come to pass without additional intervention.

61

Watson Ladd 05.04.12 at 1:57 am

Chaz, shouldn’t schools make students who can continue to learn? There are a lot of skills out there: how do you pick which ones fit and which do not. Also, education is not just about skills: it’s about developing as a human being and as a citizen, and literature deserves to be a part of that for many reasons.

62

Alex K. 05.04.12 at 2:23 am

It was considered a publishable result when someone got a half a million dollars robot to fold a towel in about half an hour.

Solving all housekeeping problems via technology would involve solving the most difficult problems in computer vision and in object manipulation (which can involve hard high-dimensional control theory problems). In other words, if all housekeeping problems are solved by technology then virtually all manual labor problems are solved.

So we should expect either very little or an extreme revolution from the technology of housekeeping.

63

Kaveh 05.04.12 at 2:26 am

@44 I have pretty much the opposite in mind, and will try to spell that out as I go.

Okay, I’m eager to see. I guess my misgiving was that what people usually mean by technological progress (inventing new devices/products that do things better) involves a lot of specialized labor, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if too many of the results of crapwork-lessening R&D are products that people need to buy on the market, then it seems like that should lead to more division of labor on the whole. If they’re replacing other products, or if we’re talking about just change in preferences/culture, that’s something else.

@60 Study of literature is an important venue for learning critical thinking. Besides which IMO stand-alone lessons on how to write convincingly/clearly tend to be a waste of time in more than very small quantities. What I would consider reasonable in the way of reducing the amount of ‘traditional academic’ subjects in favor of ‘practical stuff’ would be to have less emphasis on a literary canon and more on general close-reading skills that are applied to a wide range of things from news articles to ‘genre fiction’ to TV commercials.

In my utopia, I would have high school students learn statistics–from the foundations up, not just a bit of applied statistics like how to get a z-score off a table–at the expense of some natural sciences.

64

Harold 05.04.12 at 2:41 am

Waldorf schools teach both boys and girls to knit and do cross stitch embroidery. They also learn to bake bread and vegetable soup, which they make every day in kindergarten.

Back in the day, NYC public schools taught girls to sew a skirt and to make muffins. Ballroom dancing was also taught.

65

Moby Hick 05.04.12 at 2:55 am

In my utopia, I would have high school students learn statistics—from the foundations up

Doesn’t anybody teach kids how to gamble anymore?

66

Emma in Sydney 05.04.12 at 3:20 am

New South Wales schools teach all students to cook basic meals, sew with a machine, and basic woodwork and metalwork in years 7 and 8. Many primary (elementary) schools also have cooking lessons, especially the ones with vegetable gardens. It is enormously popular with the kids, and a revelation to some of them. The subjects of Food Technology and Design and Technology which students can elect to do from year 9 to year 12 take cooking and making things to a much higher level.

This is entirely uncontroversial here, possibly the only part of the curriculum that is.

67

John Quiggin 05.04.12 at 4:06 am

@Alex Well, if today’s $0.5 million robot can do it an 30 mins, Moore’s Law @ 16* 18 months gives you a $500 robot that can do it in 30 secs, about 25 years from now. Maybe quite a bit faster with improved algorithms

@Emma I hated woodwork, and have never used the little I learnt. On the other hand, some elementary lessons in cookery, gardening and car maintenance would have been great – I had to pick all these things up myself.

68

s.e. 05.04.12 at 4:09 am

tp by dfntn cn nt xst. r blgtns t thrs r rl.
n n rlr pst, lbrlsm ws dfnd s th blty t hv blgtns nly f yr chsng. Bt y cn’t chs nt t py txs nd y cn’t chs nt t hv prnts. Y cn chs nt t cr fr thm, bt s tht cnsdrd ccptbl, ndr nrml prctc?

Dmcrcy bgns n blgtn. Ctzns shld b xpctd, vn rqrd, t ndrstnd sss rltd t gvrnnc. Mst f th ppl ‘v knw wh’v md th chc t b srvnts xtnd th lgc f srvnt nd mstr t thr pltcl mrlty. Ppl wh lk t srv wnt t b crd fr; th wrst snbs r nt th mstrs bt th drct srvnts f pwrfl. Grg Wll nd Dvd Brks hv th rrgnc nt f rlrs bt f thr ttndnts. THr ngr s drctd mstly t ths wh rfs t srv.
s dmcrcy srvd by clbrtng th frdm t vt s yr mstr r yr prst tlls y?

W nd t t. t s <> gd t ndrstnd th dtls f fd prprtn.
f y t mt, y shld vst slghtrhs.
Dwllngs nd t b clnd t lst nw nd gn. t s <> gd t xprnc th wrk f clnng.

t’s s nt <> gd t wnt smn ls t wp yr ss.
s t <> gd f smn wnts t?
Nt f t’s n spct f plsr n srvlty.
n drms bgn rspnsblts. Th prc f frdm s trnl vglnc.
Dmcrcy s n dlgy.

G.. Chn: Th bsc qstn s, f y hv slry – dn’t wnt t sy xctly wht my slry s bt bvsly t’s myb tw, thr tms th vrg wg n th scty- nd y dn’t blv tht y ght t gt ll tht, whch dn’t. Thn y blv tht y ght t scrfc qt lt f t whch dn’t – gv wy sm bt nt vry mch- nd th xplntn s tht ‘m lss gd prsn thn wld b f wr s gd s cld b. Y knw jst thnk tht ‘m nt mrlly xmplry prsn tht’s ll. Tht’s th rcncltn. Whch shld tk prcdnc, th strggl fr xmplry ds r t b bttr prsn? thnk mst f th ppl hr wld sd wth Chn.

Crsty bt th wrld dmnds crsty bt thrs. Crsty bt thrs dmnds crsty bt thr ntrst n thngs tht my nt ntrst y. Grtfyng yr wn dsrs s nt th sm s ndrstndng thm. Th lttr tks mch mr wrk. Th frmr hs lttl mrl vl.

Dmcrcy nd ndvdlsm r ppsd.

69

Neville Morley 05.04.12 at 9:51 am

I’m really not convinced by your underlying historical model: “Social standards inherited from the days of cheap servant labour dictate much more cleanliness than is required for hygiene.” Anecdotally, my mother (straight out of the professional middle class) adheres to the “a little bit of dirt never hurt anyone” principle, whereas my wife (solid Welsh/Irish working class for countless generations) is utterly obsessive and gets through several packets of disinfectant wet wipes per week. I can imagine an argument that an insouciant attitude to mess could have been based on the assumption that the servants would clean it up for you (but then you’re having your cake and eating it), and an argument that the working-class attitude to cleanliness (which I think does go beyond my wife) is somehow an attempt at keeping up with the servant-owning classes, but I’d need some convincing.

In any case, I’m struck by how far your utopia depends on modifying people’s desires and expectations so that they will perceive it as a utopia. There seems to be a radical difference between e.g. ensuring that everyone gets a square meal (even if some people have to accept that they won’t get caviar) and establishing a world in which it’s socially unacceptable for people like my wife to worry about the bit of dirt on the kitchen worksurface that’s going to kill them if not cleaned up. At some point, physically, one becomes full; there is no clear point at which something becomes completely clean, and the concept of “clean enough” is anathema…

Of course, as the person who always fails to clean the bathroom and kitchen adequately, I am wholly in favour of the proposal.

70

Peter Erwin 05.04.12 at 11:47 am

Neville Morley @ 69:

Somewhat tangential to this, there are two potential reasons why obsessive cleanliness (as opposed to basic hygiene) might be somewhat counterproductive, as opposed to just unnecessary:
1. Continual disinfecting with antibacterials holds the possibility of encouraging bacterial resistance, making the antibacterials less useful in situations where they’re actually important and useful, such as hospitals — though I think studies so far haven’t shown this is happening yet (the way that widespread antibiotic use in farm animals has encouraged the emergence of antibiotic resistance).
2. The Hygiene hypothesis argues that an excessively “clean” childhood environment biases the developing immune system and encourages asthma, allergies, and certain autoimmune disorders.

As for your main argument: well, the plural of anecdote is not data (and you’ve got exactly two anecdotes). This doesn’t mean John’s thesis is necessarily valid, but an argument along the lines of “Oh, I happen to know a couple of people [out of hundreds of millions] for whom that doesn’t seem to be true” doesn’t mean very much.

71

magistra 05.04.12 at 12:23 pm

Neville Morley@69, Peter Erwin@70

Historically, discussions about cleanliness have often had a strong moral/class element: see e.g. discussions of bodily cleanliness in early America or the use of soap in Victorian England. So it’s perfectly possible to have standards of cleanliness used in different ways by social classes to “prove” something, e.g. working class cultures in which fanatical cleanliness demonstrated respectability and not being “dirt poor” as well as upper class reliance on domestic servants. As for (male and female) professionals not worrying about dirt, that may also be to some extent a moral pose, indicating that you are intellectually above worrying about such mundane things. (There is a very long tradition of academics and intellectuals being really untidy and/or filthy).

So I don’t think we can come to an agreement on acceptable standards of hygiene when these are being used as social markers in this way.

72

Neville Morley 05.04.12 at 1:04 pm

@Peter Erwin #70; I had hoped that my use of the word “anecdotally” would serve to indicate my awareness of the ‘anecdotes aren’t data’ thing, but clearly not. Since I’m not an expert in modern social history, I really couldn’t do more than note the fact that some cases with which I’m familiar seem to raise questions about the assumptions of the original post, in the hope that others with more knowledge would illuminate the situation. I could have rambled on about ancient Roman attitudes to cleanliness instead, but since they’re somewhat peculiar I’m not sure that would have helped.

Anyway, magistra’s comments feel right to me: cleanliness as a means of distinguishing oneself from the non-respectable poor. (Come to think of it, that fits nicely with the complaints I get when I fail to clear the recycling on a sufficiently regular basis: “I don’t want this place to look like a hillbilly’s yard.”). Can utopia do away with such behaviour patterns?

73

Walt 05.04.12 at 1:21 pm

I never understood that “the plural of anecdote is not data” quote. If you have a representative sample of anecdotes, how is that different from data?

74

Neville Morley 05.04.12 at 1:51 pm

A couple of people to whom I’m either married or related doesn’t constitute a representative sample, and most anecdotes employed in argument tend to be of the “yes, but I was talking to this bloke on the bus and he said X, QED.”

75

engels 05.04.12 at 2:12 pm

‘Anyway, magistra’s comments feel right to me: cleanliness as a means of distinguishing oneself from the non-respectable poor.’

I think you’ve badly over-simplified Magistra’s nuanced comment. There a plenty of reasons why working class people tend to be more concerned with cleanliness which have nothing to do with status insecurity about the very poor. Learnt work habits and generally not expecting others to do things for you (because you have ‘better things to do’) are the most obvious. For another they probably share more space with others. Picking your way through one’s own mess is one thing; picking your way through other people’s, regularly, tends to get more annoying.

76

reason 05.04.12 at 2:15 pm

Elsie @9
Got it I think:
“There is also a great deal of camraderie, it is the absense of this which makes housework feel like drudgery.”

Isn’t this really the big issue here.

I used to like to divide work as follows (reminds me a bit of John’s list):
1. Easy and boring
2. Easy and interesting
3. Hard and boring
4. Hard and interesting

By far the worst tasks are 3. Sort 1 is generally OK because people use occupy their brains with something else while they do it. A lot of housework is of type 1 – that is why people who do the ironing often do it with a radio or a TV.

It seems to me the real problem is indeed that when people are doing housework, they are often doing it alone. Maybe we should promote practicing team work rather and specialisation more. Even when it is less logistically efficient, it may be more than offset by psychic and partnership benefits.

77

bianca steele 05.04.12 at 2:56 pm

I think Neville Morley hits on something important with his comment about teaching new ways of thinking about things. But since much of left discourse these days seems to be addressed to the well-off young people who, it is assumed, will someday be able to have an influence on things, none of the options (hired help, less luxurious living, lower standards) seems palatable. OTOH there is Watson Ladd with his British Lacanian difference feminism (socialist to boot in Julia Mitchell’s case, no?), to tell them that grown-up men don’t worry about petty things and grown-up women are only properly fulfilled when they’re taking care of a house (and not pretending to their husbands that it’s important in any objective sense)–and hey! there’s nothing wrong either with displaying the man’s earning ability by having a house that traditionally couldn’t actually be maintained on his salary. It shows hard work and successfully rewarded contribution to society, doesn’t it?

(I’d also like to apologize to Neville Morley for initially assuming his name must be fake.)

78

Salem 05.04.12 at 2:57 pm

“Some people have preferences that are bad for them, and we want to change those preferences.”

Yeah, this is exactly the kind of leftism we can do without. The whole point of the moderate utopias JQ is writing about is to get away from this kind of thinking. As Neville points out, there is a portion even of JQ’s proposed utopia here that “depends on modifying people’s desires and expectations so that they will perceive it as a utopia” (emphasis in original). However, this is a bug not a feature.

79

bianca steele 05.04.12 at 3:01 pm

Instead, though, we seem to be going in the other direction. It may be confirmation bias, but I’ve been going to the same mall for almost twenty years, and it’s only recently I’ve been seeing young men, who you’d expect to be a little sloppy, wearing pressed casual clothes. Why would we be going in the other direction?

80

Neville Morley 05.04.12 at 3:03 pm

“(I’d also like to apologize to Neville Morley for initially assuming his name must be fake.)”

I think (nervously) that I’d love to know why…

@engels #75: fair point, magistra offered that as an example rather than as the entire argument. Very happy to agree.

81

Aaron 05.04.12 at 3:11 pm

Chris – the problem with switching away from home-cooked food is that food from restaurants is currently far less healthy than anything you’ll make at home. And I’m not just talking about fast food joints–in a lot of good restaurants, butter, oil, cream and salt are key ingredients. Thus, in order to switch to a restaurant-heavy society, restaurants would have to become far healthier. The trouble is that restaurants’ top priority is usually to make your food delicious and enjoyable. Maybe an intermediate step will be places that give you prepared foods to eat at home. I have seen those starting to pop up in New York.

As a home cook myself, I’m more inclined to John’s vision. Cooking can be really easy–roast some vegetables in the oven, cook a pork chop on the stove, and you’re done. And it will taste far better than a frozen dinner you picked up at the store.

82

JB 05.04.12 at 3:11 pm

Re: food preparation, it does seem like communal eating is one thing that nearly every classic utopia has gotten right. Lots of people don’t enjoy cooking and the insistence of food writers like Bittman that everyone should just learn to seems to me to be rather silly and futile. Nonprofit cafeteria-style restaurants with simple, healthy-enough options, cheap enough so that everyone can afford them and decent enough so that lots of people will eat at them at least occasionally, seem feasible, at least in dense cities. Not to mention more efficient all around.

83

bianca steele 05.04.12 at 3:12 pm

“Neville” and “Morley” seemed an unlikely conjunction of names I associate with the Elizabethan era. I apologize again.

I thought CT commenter “Philip Hallam-Baker” might be using a fake name, too, but that’s because I know another English computer scientist with a similar, and similarly historically resonant, name and wondered if they were the same person.

84

ajay 05.04.12 at 3:18 pm

it does seem like communal eating is one thing that nearly every classic utopia has gotten right.

On the veldt, communal eating was an essential way of bonding the group together.

Well, it was. Whatever human culture you look at, they’re going to do communal eating as a social ritual.

85

Kenny Easwaran 05.04.12 at 7:23 pm

The recent popular work of Daniel Kahneman suggests that we should think of commuting as one of these chores. Cars were supposed to move it to category 3,but for most people they just increased the distance of the commute and put it back in category 1. Biking and walking can move it to category 2 for some people, especially if there’s a nice trail through a park or something. Public transit has the potential to improve things – there’s still someone who does the crappy chore of driving a bus, but it allows 99 people to read or nap or zone out or read Facebook on their commute.

86

Kaveh 05.04.12 at 9:50 pm

re “Some people have preferences that are bad for them, and we want to change those preferences.”

I think the argument about ironed shirts wasn’t that it hurts you (wasted time) to iron, but that it hurts others if you expect them to have ironed shirts as professional attire.

But even then I think just about all cultural politics involves some degree of direct effort to change people’s preferences, or tastes, even pref’s that seem strictly personal. Most people would agree they don’t like ‘crapwork’ like commuting. But to reduce that thing that everybody hates, it helps a lot if people reconsider their preferences WRT personal cars vs public transit, and that creates a need for what I think is very ordinary salesmanship. It’s like how advertisers try to sell a lifestyle, not just a product–they’re not just telling you the product is good, they’re trying to change your preferences in ways that make the product (but potentially also other similar products) more desirable.

87

Kaveh 05.04.12 at 10:09 pm

@85 and really in general, I don’t think it’s at all obvious that a job like bus-driving is really crappy to everybody, especially when you compare it to other jobs they might do.

I think John is onto something by singling out crappy work as a social ill, but I think the definition of that should not be rote work, but all kinds of work under crappy conditions. Take for example people who work for insurance companies to review claims. What I’ve heard about that industry (including from one person who worked in it for a few years) is that employers typically demand that you process such a high volume of cases that many people work undeclared overtime to meet their quotas. They are officially discouraged from undeclared overtime, but they do it anyway because they don’t want to get fired for not meeting their quotas. The work itself would be pretty harmless (maybe not super fulfilling, but hardly ‘crapwork’) if it weren’t for that added stress. My sense is that a lot of industries are like this nowadays. So that is a kind of crapwork that I think nobody who’s been exposed to it would miss. Between that and the recent news stories about working conditions in shipping facilities for Amazon and similar, it sounds like we need is a stronger OSHA. Pointing out the huge volume of crappy work a lot of people have to do might be a good way of selling that, but I’m not sure that discouraging people from having ironed shirts is the right target.

88

Watson Ladd 05.04.12 at 10:41 pm

bianca, I’m just saying that people don’t garden because they have to, but because they want to. Where is the city apartment sans a potted plant? Now, the scorn heaped upon those with a spotted lawn is quite indefensible, but to say that some people don’t like caring for living things is leaving out a lot of people.

You are also misreading the Mitchell: it’s not that women have a different sphere or should, but that so long as childcare and household work required one adult’s fulltime involvement, along with frequent pregnancies, female equality was impossible. Socialization of the means by which one raises a family, kibbutz style, is possible. (With some tweaks: cooties have a real function in incest prevention, and the kibbutzniks did not realize this until people had to move away to marry) And that will change the way in which children learn to cook, namely by now learning by being integrated into the social life of the community.

89

chris 05.04.12 at 11:10 pm

The trouble is that restaurants’ top priority is usually to make your food delicious and enjoyable.

That’s because it’s customers’ top priority. Restaurants don’t have a secret pro-cream agenda — they have an open pro-higher-sales agenda, so they adopt the priorities of the customer base. Currently that means taste uber alles, and for reasons which may or may not be related to evolution, our instinctive feeling that we have enough fat, salt, or sugar kicks in WAY too late, if at all, which is why we have an obesity and diabetes epidemic in countries where people can afford to dig their graves with their teeth. And the wealthy classes have had similar problems for centuries even when the whole society wasn’t in a condition of food abundance — just look at Henry VIII, who could have practically anything he wanted cooked for him, with no personal effort, every day of his life, and with no one presuming to make his food choices for him.

But if those same people who prefer buttery, salty food with creamy sauces skip the restaurant to go home and cook, aren’t they going to cook something with butter and salt and a creamy sauce, rather than brown rice with plain carrots and tofu? I think the question pretty much answers itself.

People who are disposed to deny themselves tasty-but-unhealthy food seem equally capable of doing so whether they’re looking over a menu and rejecting most of the entries, or cooking for themselves at home; why shouldn’t the same apply in reverse to people who eat what they want regardless of whether they might regret it later?

90

bianca steele 05.04.12 at 11:43 pm

chris,
I’m happy to have peanut butter and jelly on lame store-bought bread for lunch, or three-ingredient chili, but I’m probably not going to pay enough to eat it in a restaurant to cover their overhead and waitstaff’s wages.

Watson,
I don’t know what you’re arguing about. If Mitchell doesn’t argue for separate spheres, then I also don’t know why you mentioned her, or why you brought it up. I can’t find a discussion of “female equality” anywhere in this thread. Are you intending to argue that it’s implicit in the OP?

91

Watson Ladd 05.05.12 at 2:53 am

OT, but you wanted a left perspective for female equality at 37, so I gave one in 46.

92

Emily 05.05.12 at 11:46 am

Kent @14 Belated response
“But you see, there’s no longer any reason to think Mr. Christ was correct. And I absolutely don’t believe that “ANY foreseeable future” will see MILLIONS of people cleaning other people’s toilets. Perhaps a little broadening of imagination is called for.”

I work in hospitality to pay my way through post grad studies. Cleaning toilets comes with the territory. Our very lovely, very houseproud housekeeper was recently extremely offended when a very prominent utilitarian philosopher took a roll of toilet paper from our room he was accommodated in without so much as a by your leave.

General question: can humanity effect a low carbon/ post carbon socio-economy along these technological lines?

93

Peter Erwin 05.05.12 at 12:09 pm

bianca steele @ 79:
… it’s only recently I’ve been seeing young men, who you’d expect to be a
little sloppy, wearing pressed casual clothes. Why would we be going in the other direction?

Fashion? The casual-vs-neat axis is one of the ways in fashion varies over time, as well as across class/gender/subculture boundaries.

The whole “preppy” look in the 1980s US was an earlier example of young men dressing
neatly, following a period of more casual styles.

@90:
I have no knowledge of Mitchell’s “Women, the Longest Revolution” whatsoever,
but I kind of had the impression that Watson Ladd was making arguments about
past practices, not eternal desiderata. E.g., Mitchell “concludes that [it] is
only in industrial society that this [female equality] is possible” and “it’s
not that women have a different sphere or should, but that so long as childcare
and household work required one adult’s fulltime involvement, along with
frequent pregnancies, female equality was impossible.” (Note the past tense.)

Now, there’s arguably a problem with the idea of excusing the sexism of past societies’ work assignments on the grounds of “well, anything else wasn’t possible” — and thus possibly suggesting that any community that wants to chase some dream of a pre-industrial lifestyle is licensed to behave in that fashion….

94

Emily 05.05.12 at 12:41 pm

Peter Erwin @93

There’s a realm of recentish anthropological studies looking at female agency within traditional societies. Strathern’s Gender of the Gift, a book called Wings of the Dove on Appalachian church music, others on Korean gift giving and wrapping traditions &c.
Have you considered these accounts and interpretations?

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Emily 05.05.12 at 12:43 pm

Also I forgot to mention anthropological work on a women only written language in Southern China.

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bianca steele 05.05.12 at 12:52 pm

Watson’s response to me seemed no more coherent or appropriate than anything else he’s posted on a comment thread on CT in the past–only typical in its response to a mention of practical questions by a woman (“practical utopia”) with “society has always had certain expectations of women,” as if there’s no other question women can be expected to discuss in public.

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Peter Erwin 05.05.12 at 6:37 pm

Neville Morley @ 72:

I’d gotten the impression that you were treating John Quiggin’s argument as suggesting a universal rule for cleanliness/class associations (i.e., “everyone from working class origins will have this attitude”), which was something I didn’t see in the OP. My apologies if I was wrong.

(And your comment @ 74 is a nice explication of how we move from anecdotes to data.)

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UserGoogol 05.05.12 at 6:46 pm

*Walt @ 73 said I never understood that “the plural of anecdote is not data” quote. If you have a representative sample of anecdotes, how is that different from data?

A representative sample is fine, but a “representative sample of anecdotes” is a hard thing to get. If you take a bunch of anecdotes, there’s no particular reason to believe that they’re representative. Even if you avoid intentionally cherry-picking anecdotes which suit your side, (and in practice people will invariably do that) there’s all sorts of potential psychological biases which could lead you to focus on some anecdotes instead of others. You want to have some sort of methodology for collecting information without bias, and once you do that, it’s not really anecdotal anymore.

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piglet 05.05.12 at 7:35 pm

chris 53: I don’t disagree that there is a continuum and I don’t personally advocate that everything has to be cooked “from scratch”. I still object to the textile analogy but maybe a better argument is the simple fact that you don’t need new clothes every day but you do need to eat every day. Being unable to prepare any food on one’s own makes one dependent in a way that is much more consequential than being unable to make one’s own clothes (or furniture, or house, for that matter). The same goes for being unable to clean after oneself. When I buy clothes once or twice a year, I don’t feel that negating my personal autonomy. On the other hand if I had to eat out all the time or if I had to eat TV dinners all the time, I’d have to give up quite a bit of my personal preferences. When I think about my restaurant choices, I notice that they are quite limited (unless perhaps if money were no issue at all). Even my favorite restaurants don’t actually have enough diversity on the menu that I could eat there every day. One example, almost any pasta dish in any restaurant comes with cream sauce. I don’t claim a lot of cooking expertise but actually I know how to make a passable pasta sauce without cream. I’m quite lazy and I like eating out but when I really think about it I’m glad I don’t *have to* all the time. So my argument is not that everybody must be a great cook and everything has to be made from scratch; rather, I think not being able (either for lack of a kitchen or for lack of skill) to prepare one’s own food at least some of the time is a severe limitation of personal autonomy and not a desirable let alone utopian state of being.

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Emily 05.05.12 at 8:14 pm

UserGoogol@98
“You want to have some sort of methodology for collecting information without bias, and once you do that, it’s not really anecdotal anymore.”

My understanding from qualitative and quatitative (stats) studies – in the social sciences – is that researchers tend to frame questions that are heavily weighted towards proving their original hypothesis. Phrasing of questions also works to steamroll respondents into particular answers.
Is this not your understanding?

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John Quiggin 05.05.12 at 8:30 pm

Clearly, Australia is different in that only a minority of pasta dishes here have cream sauces. More relevantly, the supermarket has a comprehensive supply of pre-made pasta sauce, which are at least as good as any we would make, and probably cheaper than the ingredients we would need. After all, pasta sauce production must be subject to huge economies of scale. So, I don’t think I’m losing anything because my home-cooked pasta dinner uses pre-made sauce, any more than because I didn’t make the pasta.

I don’t think we are really in disagreement here – in the absence of money constraints, and with a little bit of training, most people can eat well, without relying on restaurants all the time, and with a work input that’s in the category of “enjoyable exercise of skill” rather than drudgery. For Bittman (haven’t heard of before, so I’m inferring) that presumably means spending a lot of time in the kitchen. For me, a lot less, but not zero. I don’t mean to dictate to Bittman what s/he should do, and just ask the same in return.

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Peter Erwin 05.05.12 at 8:59 pm

For Bittman (haven’t heard of before, so I’m inferring) that presumably means spending a lot of time in the kitchen.

Actually, Bittman, who had a food column in the NY Times called “The Minimalist”, tends to focus on simpler and easy-to-prepare food. I suspect people are simply using him as a synecdoche for “writers who preach cooking your own food in a healthier style.”

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JW Mason 05.05.12 at 9:24 pm

The central element of my idea of utopia is that everyone should be able to live decently, without being forced to spend a lot of time doing crappy jobs.

This is interesting. I think it clarifies the divide between those of us on the all-cooking-should-be-done-at-home side from those of you who think there’s no reason in principle to prefer home-cooked food to commercially made food. You want to minimize the amount of crappy work. We want to maximize the amount of rewarding work. It’s the idea of wellbeing as measured by a standard of consumption, with labor seen as a cost; vs wellbeing measured as flourishing, as the development of human capacities.

Of course it’s true that flourishing is impossible if simple survival requires most people to engage in tedious, grueling labor, so in that sense we certainly needed technology to free us from the requirements of drudgery historically. But we’re well past that point now, except in the poorest parts of the world. Clearly most of the drudgework in the rich countries today is not necessary in any objective sense at all — if we were ever to face a genuine labor shortage, I’m sure we would quickly find that e.g. the retail sector could function with far less labor than it currently uses.

And, of course, “we” do not develop technology to free “ourselves” from unpleasant work. The production process is organized by capitalists, who of course want to reduce costs but above all want to maintain control of production. This means they have a special interest in eliminating the need for skilled work, since workers with special skills are most likely to be able to assert their autonomy in the workplace. I don’t think there is any sense in which this kind of deskilling advances social welfare. In a world in which there are vast numbers of people without a vocation, replacing a skilled job with an automated process is always a bad thing, regardless of whether it raises output or reduces costs.

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Chris Bertram 05.05.12 at 10:05 pm

Just wanted to say how much I appreciated this post John, though too busy right now to contribute.

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Salient 05.05.12 at 10:08 pm

[attempting to dodge auto-mod, part 1]

We want to maximize the amount of rewarding work.

Can we please distinguish “work that is rewarding” from “work that produces a rewarding result”? Cooking from scratch is not rewarding work, except for enthusiasts; it’s just blehhh exhausting for the rest of us (in the vast majority). It can produce incredible results, either because you have the skill set of a chef or because you got lucky, but working on your own usually even one dish takes several iterations to master, the first try’s inedible, the second unpalatable, the third palatable enough to tolerate, but it takes effort to eat it… and good luck getting your kids to eat it… and finally, after enough tries, each of which takes a couple hours, you’ve mastered a gourmet dish, which is awesome, but it’s still a minimum of half an hour’s work to produce a delicious result, and during that half hour you’re in a constant state of tension.

workers with special skills are most likely to be able to assert their autonomy in the workplace.

I guess this is, if we all train to be cooks, then we can be cooks, or chefs? How does learning to cook delicious things from scratch help us assert our autonomy in a workplace that could care less where our food comes from?

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Salient 05.05.12 at 10:11 pm

Ok, seems automod hates me for actually disagreeing with JW Mason for once (sure doesn’t happen often; I’m usually over here applauding). This is probably a feature and not a bug. :)

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Watson Ladd 05.05.12 at 11:06 pm

JW Mason, cooking at home isn’t necessarily crappy, any more then making music at home is. Some people like to cook and bake for themselves. Some don’t. Neither is a better position then the other.

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bianca steele 05.06.12 at 12:41 am

It’s tough for me to take Mark Bittman seriously. IIRC he wrote a screed against “foodies” and proceeded to take a job that consists of writing for foodies (I’m sure there’s some subtle difference I’m not getting).

About six months ago he wrote an op-ed proving that poor people can too eat healthy, by publishing a recipe that took 1-1/2 hours not including prep time and involved peeling 2 lbs. of potatoes, and comparing it with fast food. The prices were probably just about within the realm of the possible.

If you believe the Interwebs, those of us who eat instant oatmeal are with 100% certainty going to hell.

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Substance McGravitas 05.06.12 at 1:02 am

Since I’m inept you should take it with a grain of salt – wrong metaphor – but Bittman writes cookbooks that help me, and include a lot of lists for when you want something done in 20 minutes and so on. I think he and others go overboard in the criticism of those who can’t/won’t get the job done at home, but he’s provided a whole lot of ways for those folks to at least give it a shot.

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Matt 05.06.12 at 5:37 am

When I lived below the poverty line I had to cook for myself. I couldn’t afford to buy even dollar menu fast food or store brand packaged snacks and meals very often. But apart from having low income I was well off: my parents cooked and taught me to cook when I was a child, I wasn’t taking care of very young/old/sick people, and I wasn’t disabled or chronically ill. I wasn’t a poor person, I was a healthy, well educated person from the middle class who happened to be low income for a few years.

It’s true but maybe irrelevant to the lives of poorly eating Americans in poverty that home cooking is less expensive than highly processed foods, better for you, and not very time consuming (if you know what you’re doing). It’s a bit like saying “second hand computers are very cheap and work great once you reformat and install Linux…” The people with the ability to hyper-optimize are also those who usually don’t have to if they don’t want to.

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Tim Worstall 05.06.12 at 10:28 am

“Clearly, Australia is different in that only a minority of pasta dishes here have cream sauces.”

Would seem to indicate that the Italian immigration into Australia (or even just the source of the culinary influence) is from the South not the North.

Spaghetti Carbonara for example, a northern recipe would add cream, a southern it’s much more likely to be a dry sauce.

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Kaveh 05.06.12 at 5:58 pm

Where is the data on what poor people actually do for food? This seems like a lot of speculation.

I had a friend who was very poor growing up who told me that her (single) mother used to always make very simple fare, especially boiled potatoes and cabbage. Super cheap, probably not that delicious, but relatively healthy and not labor-intensive. And I’m willing to bet you don’t have to have spent hours reading an NYT foodie column to know how to cook like that. This is just one anecdote, but are the assumptions being made here about what the very poor eat and why really any more sound? What would change if more of the very poor didn’t live in food deserts, for example?

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Kaveh 05.06.12 at 6:12 pm

J W Mason @103 Of course it’s true that flourishing is impossible if simple survival requires most people to engage in tedious, grueling labor, so in that sense we certainly needed technology to free us from the requirements of drudgery historically. But we’re well past that point now, except in the poorest parts of the world.

Salient @105 Cooking from scratch is not rewarding work, except for enthusiasts; it’s just blehhh exhausting for the rest of us (in the vast majority).

I’m surprised how little consideration is being given to the factors that make work grueling and tedious, or not. Is subsistence farming grueling and tedious because it inherently is so, or because of relative deprivation? In my experience people who grew up helping their parents cook have very different attitudes towards cooking from scratch. I certainly wouldn’t describe the experience as a state of constant tension, even for people who don’t find it particularly enjoyable.

It seems like this whole discussion is based on assigning an inherent value (or range of values) to activities like intellectual labor, housework, or cooking, with no consideration of social context, which is extremely silly.

I guess this is, if we all train to be cooks, then we can be cooks, or chefs? How does learning to cook delicious things from scratch help us assert our autonomy in a workplace that could care less where our food comes from?

If you can cook from scratch and enjoy it, you can eat for cheaper than if you can’t cook from scratch, so you are less dependent on the market, ==> less dependent on the salary you get from your employer.

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Neville Morley 05.06.12 at 6:14 pm

As I’m currently in the process of advancing from growing my own vegetables, brewing my own beer and making my own jam and cider to curing my own ham and smoking my own bacon, I may be automatically disqualified from the cooking conversation…

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bexley 05.06.12 at 11:39 pm

Where is the data on what poor people actually do for food? This seems like a lot of speculation.

There is some good stuff by Kossacks:
http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/01/23/1057742/-Survive-and-Thrive-Kos-Lentils-an-affordable-meal
http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/02/12/1064072/-Survive-and-Thrive-Pea-Soup

The author also has an interesting (if somewhat horrifying) blog on working in retail in the US.

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Meredith 05.07.12 at 12:47 am

Curious conversation here. I just spent a day and a half cleaning up the garden (very behind on this), doing laundry, stuff life that. (Dinner, too, but that happens just about every day.) Can’t say I looked forward to any of it, but in the end I found all of it satisfying, to some degree in the doing and especially in the results. I am puzzled by a “leftist” perspective that would assume labor of this kind “crappy.” Now I turn to reading students’ papers. Much more tedious in prospect than cleaning.
The issues about work should perhaps concentrate less on the whether the tasks are pleasant in themselves at every moment and more on old-fashioned notions like “alienation of labor”? I can’t help but think of the premise of Fight Club (the movie — I haven’t read the book.)

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Peter T 05.07.12 at 12:36 pm

One odd thing is that medieval peasants, who sometimes had to work really hard, worked less than modern Americans in terms of hours, if Wikipedia is to be believed – see . And they had more variety in their work and often more control over pace and timing (except at planting and harvest times). So technology does not necessarily lead to less work, or less crappy work, or greater sharing of crappy work. The social change John is proposing (which I would support) would be quite large, given that most “work” does not actually produce anything, but rather maintains and expands a set of social relationships. Overturning these has historically been a large job.

Promoting some minimal level of skill at self-maintenance (cooking, mending, home maintenance) as admirable is probably a good start, as it lessens dependence and fosters self-assertion.

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Katherine 05.08.12 at 10:40 am

One hour per day for one person is still quite a lot, and likely to be more if there are children involved too. Of course half an hour per day for two people is much more manageable. The evidence says that it’s more likely to be quarter of an hour per day for one person, and three quarters for the other, which sucks for one person, and easy street for the other.

Perhaps the secret utopian solution is not just technology, but fair sharing of the labour. Radical I know.

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Katherine 05.08.12 at 11:44 am

Although as far as I am aware the research shows that in couples that could be roughly described as “egalitarian”, what actually happens is more like a 20 minute/20 minute split – ie standards go down, as John suggested.

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chris 05.08.12 at 12:14 pm

Clearly most of the drudgework in the rich countries today is not necessary in any objective sense at all—if we were ever to face a genuine labor shortage, I’m sure we would quickly find that e.g. the retail sector could function with far less labor than it currently uses.

The retail sector isn’t where the real drudgework is — janitorial is a bit harder to get along without.

And, of course, there’s all the drudgework in the household, which is where the post started out. To some extent, as Meredith points out, drudgery is in the eye of the beholder, but very many people have household labor that nobody in the household particularly enjoys, but someone must do; and for some households cooking also falls into this category, unless outsourced.

I think cooking enthusiasts are a little prone to believing that everyone else would be a cooking enthusiast too, if they just had the right kitchen/gave it a good enough try/etc. It just ain’t so. Subjective preferences are subjective and other people’s preferences genuinely differ from yours. Some people may enjoy gardening and others may not; some people may enjoy cooking and others may not; I find it hard to imagine anyone enjoying laundry, but I won’t categorically pronounce it impossible. Etc.

On the other hand I think cleaning bathrooms may genuinely be in the realm of work that is enjoyed by absolutely no one — and yet it still does need to be done on occasion.

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Emily 05.08.12 at 12:49 pm

Peter T @118
I’ve read that the ‘robots’ ( or liegemen) of I think Hungary were expected to work 8 hours per week for their liegelords and the remainder they could work for themselves/family/community or play.
In England following the Norman conquest there were complicated laws between ‘villains’ and liegelords, including governing marriage statuses between liberal and liege men and women.
By Chaucer’s day most lords preferred to gift ‘liberty’ and hire liberated men for labourers.

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Peter T 05.08.12 at 2:15 pm

Emily

Bit more complicated – serfdom in western Europe was part personal and part an obligation to a manor. Whether the manor took the obligation in work or goods or cash depended on circumstances (when labour was cheap goods were preferred, when it was in tight supply lords tried to insist on serfs working their full quota). It gradually transitioned to paid work supplemented by miscellaneous rights. In Eastern Europe serfdom was personal and came in later – work obligations to the lord could run as high as 4 days a week. But really long hours of persistent work only came in with factories, in the nineteenth century. The story is interesting because it highlights just how much social forces shape work – an area Marxist writers are good on.

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Emily 05.08.12 at 10:20 pm

Peter T @122
I happen to have read some Marxish historians &c. such as Sahlins, Harvey, Jameson, Thompson, Hobsbawm among others. I don’t claim my understanding is exhaustive.
I appreciate Engel’s descriptions of conditions in Manchester.

Marx seems to me to have had a bee in his bonnet about Hegel (is it? – haven’t read him), and I’m not really a proponent of teleology or dialectical materialism. Don’t know if it’s apocraphyl but the idea that once communism was achieved Marx would spend his mornings milking, afternoons hunting, and evenings philosophising seems a bit utopian in the Thomas More sense (ie. No Place).

I don’t know about the East/West European split, but I do have a book of the laws of ‘villainy’ in England.

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Watson Ladd 05.08.12 at 11:23 pm

Looking at work performed for others isn’t that useful: a peasant household had to maintain itself, a very time consuming set of tasks. It’s a similar problem for GDP measurements of subsistence farmers: labor and money don’t enter the market, leading to them not being counted.

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Peter T 05.09.12 at 2:29 am

Watson kind of hits the mark. Modern households as much as peasant ones have to maintain themselves (measures put this effort around 40% of GDP). A lot of the issues mentioned flow from the crowding out of the time and resources available for a reasonable standard of home/personal maintenance by the need to earn money in the formal labour market to pay the rents that maintain middle/upper economic niches. The key point is that this is an issue of class relations more then of technology, and re-adjusting the balance would likely involve a vigorous political struggle.

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