Opportunity knocks

by John Quiggin on October 12, 2012

I’m very interested in ways of increasing leisure, so when I saw mention of The Four-Hour Workweek, I naturally rushed to check it out. It turns out to be about “Outsourcing your Life” by hiring a fleet of remote executive assistants from India, to handle your email, pay your bills, run interference between you and your wife (really! ) and generally to replicate the archetypal “office wife” secretary, right down to the 1950s gender stereotypes.

That wasn’t what I had in mind at all, but just after seeing the link, I got an email asking about a presentation I gave last year, and which I had totally forgotten. It only took me a few seconds to find it (one reason I don’t want a remote EA), and to recall that it’s an improved version of this old blog post which reads as if it was written just before I joined Crooked Timber. But I haven’t got around to turning into an article and probably never will. 

I’ve got more things like this than I can count, lying around on the hard drive (and now in the  cloud as well) but most of them will never be seen by anyone who didn’t come to the session where I gave the presentation. After reading the outsourcing stuff, it struck me that maybe there is someone on the Internet who could take these slides, chat to me a bit about them, add some ideas of their own, and turn them into jointly-authored articles.

I’ve never seen anyone else do this, but that doesn’t prove much. Academic prestige these days goes mostly to those who follow what ecologists call a K-strategy: a small number of high-quality offspring, where “high-quality” = “published in highly ranked journal”. And the narrower the specialisation, the better, so a good knowledge of the relevant literature, the tastes of editors of the key journals, and so on, comes with the territory. For K-strategy people, second-tier publications are worse than valueless, so the kind of thing I’m talking about would make no sense.

As ought to be pretty obvious by now, I’m an r-strategy follower. I produce lots of stuff on lots of topics, without polishing it too much. My idea is that it’s impossible to tell in advance what is going to produce valuable insights and what isn’t. the r-strategy works OK for me, but it does result in a lot of half-finished projects, that could maybe be turned into something worthwhile by the right co-author. Anyway, I’ve put the presentation that provoked all this here. The slides and the blogpost linked above should give you the general idea. If it sounds like something to work on, get in touch.

{ 50 comments }

1

John Owen 10.12.12 at 12:27 pm

“run interference between you and your wife”

Reminds me of Bradbury’s Marionettes, Inc. !

2

Barry 10.12.12 at 1:44 pm

“As ought to be pretty obvious by now, I’m an r-strategy follower. I produce lots of stuff on lots of topics, without polishing it too much. My idea is that it’s impossible to tell in advance what is going to produce valuable insights and what isn’t. the r-strategy works OK for me, but it does result in a lot of half-finished projects, that could maybe be turned into something worthwhile by the right co-author. Anyway, I’ve put the presentation that provoked all this here. The slides and the blogpost linked above should give you the general idea. If it sounds like something to work on, get in touch.”

If you’re trying to change things in directions the established elites don’t like, this might be the way to go. They won’t let you into the ‘k-journals’.

3

Tedra Osell 10.12.12 at 3:48 pm

I remember the article that I think “The Four-Hour Work Week” must be based on. The thing that struck me about it, including especially they “outsourcing your relationship with your wife” part, is that, in a joking way, it did a pretty good job of demonstrating that a lot of the things we expect ourselves to do in the course of living–dealing with email, shopping for gifts–are work. It’s sort of like how hiring someone to clean the house suddenly highlights that up til now someone else has been doing it for free.

4

Phil 10.12.12 at 4:18 pm

If it sounds like something to work on, get in touch.

Sounds (looks) fascinating, although the bit about risk towards the end lost me a bit (not that it’s complicated, just that if you say ‘risk’ I glaze over).

If I were involved – which I could be interested in – I’d want to throw in some critical realism. You seem to have (independently) hit on what Andrew Collier calls the necessity of stratified explanation – e.g. the fact that crowds behave as crowds doesn’t make it untrue that each individual in the crowd has a unique conscious and unconscious mental landscape, which in turn isn’t falsified or wholly determined by the chemical properties of the hormones sloshing around their bloodstream at the time.

5

Colin Danby 10.12.12 at 7:26 pm

How many of us are outsourcing our blog-commenting?

Re the main idea, I’m wondering about some sort of e-forum for publishing what used to be called “Notes” in journals, short bits that move the ball forward a little in some area but aren’t full articles. Some folks do this on their own websites. This lets you get something out and findable by search engines, and would provide a basis for seeking co-authors.

On a possibly related note, I’ve been sporadically using Zotero for referencing, and it has a feature which lets people share bibliographies, with annotations. That’s another way of finding like-minded folks.

6

Retief 10.12.12 at 8:50 pm

How to have a 4 hour work week: Sell snake oil through the internet, write a self help book.

I saw a day in the life of feature on this guy and had to turn it off because of the smarminess.

7

Neil 10.12.12 at 10:00 pm

Seems to me that most of the scientists I know who have high prestige do not follow the K strategy. Rather, they combine a small number of high-quality publications with a much larger number second tier publications, often first-authored by post-docs.

8

leederick 10.12.12 at 10:44 pm

“it did a pretty good job of demonstrating that a lot of the things we expect ourselves to do in the course of living–dealing with email, shopping for gifts–are work. It’s sort of like how hiring someone to clean the house suddenly highlights that up til now someone else has been doing it for free.”

That’s just a nifty feminist rhetorical trick. How has it been done for free? I can see how you can say an activity is work because, were it marketed, it would cost you to get a third party to do it and be an expense. But how can you then turn right around and ignore that you’re enjoying a benefit as a consequence which, if it has been marketed and provided by a third party in exchange for other services, would be a revenue.

9

Colin Danby 10.12.12 at 11:03 pm

Tedra’s comment seems precisely about not ignoring the benefit.

10

Phil 10.13.12 at 8:41 am

Meant to say, JQ – can’t find an email for you anywhere. Mine’s next to this comment, if you’re interested in getting in touch. I write fast & people seem to like my editing.

11

Belle Waring 10.13.12 at 12:59 pm

leederick: “how has it been done for free?”
It has been done for free because someone has done the work but has not been paid any money. And yes, afterwards, everyone living in the house has enjoyed the service they might otherwise have purchased from a third party. But they did not do so; the person doing the cleaning was not remunerated. This is not a “nifty feminist rhetorical trick.” It is a formal logic trick. If you are trolling me it is tedious of you, as I am tired. I fear, on reflection, that you are trolling, as you are unlikely to be quite that stupid.
There are actually a lot of social duties that are expected to fall to the wife in a straight marriage: gifts and cards for mother’s day, thank you notes for children’s birthdays, organizing hospital visits and funerals when it comes to that. You can, as a woman, say “I’m not doing this shit” or “I’m only doing my family and he can take care of his side,” but you will be universally regarded as a failure/bad person, not him.

12

Phil 10.13.12 at 1:48 pm

IANAE, but doesn’t it go something like this:

Scenario 1: A pays B for a service; B provides a service to A. A has the benefit of the service at the cost of the payment; B has the benefit of the payment at the ‘cost’ of the work. This may or may not be a good arrangement, but from a pure economic standpoint nobody’s losing out.
Scenario 2: B provides a service to A. A has the benefit of the service at no cost; B has the ‘cost’ of the work at no benefit. B is losing out and A is gaining by it.

Scare-quotes to indicate where a cost is non-monetary. Not ideal, but I’m typing in a hurry.

Cases where B provides a service to him/herself and gets all the benefit (e.g. a single person cleaning their own rooms) can be ignored for the sake of the current argument. However, cases where B gets part or even most of the benefit (“it’s only fair for you to do the cleaning, you’re the one who really notices the dirt”) are covered by the above scenario – just ignore the part of the benefit that goes to B and a proportionate part of the cost of doing the work. In other words, to the extent that B is providing a service from which A benefits, we’re still in scenario 2.

13

Anarcissie 10.13.12 at 3:25 pm

Could be the gift economy, where services and goods are provided not in exchange for one another but in order to produce a social relationship.

14

Salient 10.13.12 at 4:53 pm

That’s exactly it, Anarcissie; a gift economy tends to reinforce existing traditions and social norms, even when the “gifts” each party’s expected to give to “produce a social relationship” is categorically asymmetric and unfair to a whole category of people. Not to say that gift economies suck, just that they can suck.

15

Phil 10.13.12 at 4:57 pm

Applicability to the social-relationship-producing practice of “being a good wife” is left as an exercise for the reader.

16

Watson Ladd 10.13.12 at 6:14 pm

It seems that in the standard 1950′s household there is renumeration in the form of a percentage of the husband’s salary. The issue seems to be not the absence of renumeration, but the way in which it cannot be addressed by negotiation. (“I cook and clean and you don’t make enough money! Go make more or I will leave!”).

JQ: In some sense this can be seen akin to things like Dijkstra’s letters and Ramanujan’s notebooks, in that the product is incomplete and mainly provides inspiration to others.

17

Aaron Swartz 10.13.12 at 6:24 pm

The folks at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence have been attempting to do a bunch of stuff like this. (Or at least talking about doing it.) Let us know how it goes.

18

Tedra Osell 10.13.12 at 8:44 pm

What Belle said. Because, tired or no, she is more right-on than I am. I had decided to ignore the trolling.

19

Tedra Osell 10.13.12 at 8:50 pm

Watson @16: It’s not only that it’s not negotiable within the marriage itself, but also–and this is the point–that actually only one half of that exchange has real value. Think about what happens if the couple divorces, or if the wage-earner drops dead.

20

Anarcissie 10.13.12 at 11:26 pm

19 — I think you mean real capitalist value, that is, money, social status, business repute.

In my view of the social order, there is a kind of communistic or gift-economy base which makes human life possible, and resting upon it a superstructure of, for instance, state institutions, whose relation to the base is usually (although not necessarily) predatory or parasitical. The above-described devaluation of ‘home-making’ (as it’s called) and child-rearing in the state context is an example of predation. Its purest form would be outright slavery.

(In case it’s not clear, I think of capitalist organizations as part of the state.)

21

Nancy Lebovitz 10.13.12 at 11:35 pm

Sorry no cite, but I saw an analysis of what Tim Ferris was doing which claimed that if you added in all the self-promotion he does, his work-week is considerable more than four hours.

22

Watson Ladd 10.14.12 at 3:00 am

Sorry, I’m really confused by how value is being used in post 19. If we’re saying that the housecleaning has real value and the wife’s spending the husband’s money doesn’t, than that ignores what happens when the husband dies, namely the wife goes out on the street. (Unless the idea is that somehow the fact that she had a roof over her head and presumably ate during the marriage is worth nothing. Generally the fact that something ending is bad means you don’t want it to end) If the housecleaning doesn’t have real value, why does the husband demand it? I’m sure this is just a terminological distinction.

As for 20 I’m sure that deep under all the social relations, the obfuscations of tradition and state, there is some essential form of human life consisting of what again exactly? Gift exchange is usually connected to rituals and traditions far less deserving of respect then the modern state. To paraphrase Marx, capital substitutes one unconscionable freedom for a million unjust privileges.

23

Anarcissie 10.14.12 at 4:03 am

The other day, in the supermarket, I provided the service of reaching down a package for someone who was short, bent with age, and probably not in good physical shape. This service was provided free of charge. It was a case of ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,’ that is, communism. Why did I do that? I’m not a particularly nice person, I expected no specific reward for it, nor do I think of myself as laying up treasure in some Heaven or other place. I’d say that I did it because I instinctively want to preserve a certain environment of civility in my immediate community. In other words, I was supporting a set of social relationships with a ‘gift’. I might similarly have loaned someone a tool, given them a ride in my car, told them where the nearest subway station was. It’s part of the necessary communism of daily life — the social glue which hold human societies together. (For a longer rant of similar theme, see Graeber’s Debt, starting on page 94 under the heading ‘COMMUNISM’.)

I think the Marx you paraphrase may have referred more to capitalism’s confrontation with feudal institutions in Europe. My reading tells me that until rather recently, capitalist states, confronted with ‘tribal’ societies, were more likely to apply pillage, slavery, and genocide, rather than unconscionable freedoms.

24

UserGoogol 10.14.12 at 4:35 am

Anarcissie: There’s an important distinction there, though. That’s you doing nice things for people you do not know, and therefore is motivated by sheer benevolence. That’s fine.* But when you have an ongoing relationship with someone, things get far more problematic and prone to exploitation, because then people have the leverage of wanting to maintain the relationship to try to get more than their fair share out of the relationship. When power inequalities are encouraged by the state or the market or whatever then sure, that becomes even worse. But even between two friends of more or less equal socio-economic standing you can have a situation where one is just a bit of a dick to the other friend but gets away with it because the other friend just wants to stay friendly.

*I guess to some extent even anonymous impersonal charity can become exploitative if social norms in favor of charity become excessive. If everyone has to go around acting nicer than they really want to, that incurs a cost, and one which in extreme situations might even cancel out the benefits of the niceness itself. But that’s less of a concern, since broad social norms have less teeth than individual personal relationships. In your particular situation none of that really applies though, since nobody will notice whether or not you’re nice to the old person. So it’s still basically fine.

25

Tim Worstall 10.14.12 at 1:17 pm

“I might similarly have loaned someone a tool, given them a ride in my car, told them where the nearest subway station was. It’s part of the necessary communism of daily life “

How the mighty are fallen. Communism is now defined as good manners?

26

Watson Ladd 10.14.12 at 1:43 pm

Slavery was abolished in Europe by 1820. Industrialization and the rise of capital were politically opposed to slavery in the US. Of course, such rise of the bourgeoisie also gives rise to the good manners you so praise! They aren’t universal.

27

Ebenezer Scrooge 10.14.12 at 3:14 pm

@Tim 25. Yes. Communism was always defined as good manners. And many apologists for capitalism (e.g. Hayek) have defined capitalism as bad manners, with a little sphere carved out in the family and other small groups for good manners.

28

bianca steele 10.14.12 at 3:40 pm

nobody will notice whether or not you’re nice to the old person

Nobody will notice what Belle said, either.

29

Anarcissie 10.14.12 at 4:26 pm

24 – I explicitly tried to exclude benevolence from my example, but evidently to no avail.

26 – I think of capitalism as a form of state organization of the modern period, starting around 1500 maybe. That the first encounters of capitalist states with tribal peoples in Africa and the Americas were characterized by genocide and slavery — generally both — seems indisputable. If you look at the slavery timeline in Wikipedia, an interesting compilation, you find slavery being abolished over and over again in the same places, which should tell us something. I agree that slavery is not a capitalist ideal, however, since the ideal atom of capitalism is a worker-consumer; slavery inhibits the full exercise of these functions.

25ff — I think the attempted trivialization of communist relations as ‘good manners’ is an example of the predatory ideology of the superstructure that I was talking about. The communism of daily life seems, is made to seem, unimportant, although human life rests on it, because it doesn’t consist of state relations such as force, law, money, property and so on.

30

bianca steele 10.14.12 at 4:29 pm

Anyway, people are strange. I once tried to give away a photocopy cash card to the nearest available person, and he reacted with horror. Maybe he thought I was a Communist. Maybe he thought I was trying to trade photocopies for sex.

31

tomslee 10.14.12 at 4:48 pm

The folks at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence have been attempting to do a bunch of stuff like this. (Or at least talking about doing it.)

I wouldn’t hold my breath. They can put things off a lot longer than the rest of us.

32

Tedra Osell 10.14.12 at 6:36 pm

Watson @22 et al: What I meant is that the husband’s income has a value that society recognizes, whereas the wife’s housekeeping doesn’t. If the couple divorces, suddenly the household income is *his* income–he may be required to pay alimony or child support, but it’s still his income. Whereas her housekeeping is worth jack shit: its “worth” evaporates as soon as push comes to shove. And you can’t invest or save “cleanliness,” as anyone who actually does the work of keeping a house clean knows.

The entire idea that wifely work is equivalent to actual income is a kind of lip service we pay as a society, but there’s very little behind it. (More than there used to be, in no-fault divorce states and in terms of survivor’s social security benefits, but that’s about it. And even in no-fault divorce states, I think it’s pretty clear that we tend to see alimony and child support as something the partner with money “gives” the other partner in a very different way than we see, say, selling the house and splitting the proceeds.)

33

UserGoogol 10.14.12 at 7:00 pm

Anarcissie: Ah yeah, I must have missed that part of your post somehow, that does kind of render my post somewhat off the mark. (As does bianca@28′s point, for that matter.) My post failed horribly in that regard, and I’m sorry.

I guess I can salvage the post by noting the smaller distinction between kinship relations and community relations. Kinship is a far more smothering kind of relationship than community, and therefore far more problematic. The person you helped at the store may help you in some similarly vague indirect way, but they aren’t going to hang around your house shooting shit or anything.

34

LFC 10.14.12 at 7:56 pm

Maybe he thought I was trying to trade photocopies for sex

I hope this was meant to be humorous; anyway, it’s one of the funnier lines I’ve read here in a while.

More likely, the intended recipient of your photocopy card was (1) caught off-guard and simply surprised, (2) preoccupied and/or having a bad day and thus inclined to see every unplanned interaction as an intolerable intrusion, (3) psychologically disturbed or (4) some mix of the above.

35

Anarcissie 10.14.12 at 8:24 pm

33 — Maybe I can blame oppressive kinship relations on the state. That’s what seems to be referenced in #32 and its antecedents.

36

bianca steele 10.14.12 at 10:47 pm

LFC, since he was a graduate student, it was probably only (a). Or maybe he was annoyed because he was a non-tenure track professor and had to make his own copies.

37

Hogan 10.14.12 at 11:07 pm

Industrialization and the rise of capital were politically opposed to slavery in the US.

Charles Sumner begs to differ.

38

Watson Ladd 10.14.12 at 11:39 pm

Hogan, cotton mills were only one sectional interest. Quite a few Southern writers point out that anti-slavery proponents were either for socialism or capitalism.

39

rf 10.14.12 at 11:41 pm

” Industrialization and the rise of capital were politically opposed to slavery in the US.”

‘Charles Sumner begs to differ.’

My working life for the last half decade has been based around short term contracts that can be terminated literally on the spot. Always my agency tries to break the news softly, gently inquiring if I have anything lined up next week etc. And always I have to explain that it’s none of their business and I don’t really care one away or the other –
My relationship with my employer is NOT an issue, my concern is myself, paying my rent etc. Other than that I couldn’t care less. (About them, my employer, their staff etc – really, not a concern)

The same feeling applies to W Ladd at this stage. His nonsense is too trivial for the times we live in. If people really feel it’s necessary to reply to the horses**t that is Mr Ladd’s perspective then by all means knock yourselves out, but let’s not treat it as any-more relevant than a Friday afternoon s**t.
This probably has some relevance to the main post aswell.. probably.

40

Watson Ladd 10.14.12 at 11:50 pm

rf, if you don’t see why the politics of slavery in 1861, or the politics of nationalism in 1848 are relevant to today, then you don’t understand the magnitude of what happened in 1968: nothing. History today is at the same place as it was before the new left: without any direction or progress.

Coming back to the post, it’s not surprising that capitalism has a new set of jobs as executive assistent. After all, in the 1950s they were called secretaries and many people had them. What is surprising is that no one has anything to do about it politically.

41

rf 10.14.12 at 11:54 pm

Fine, sure.
It’s just, to claim that ‘Industrialization and the rise of capital were politically opposed to slavery in the US’ strikes me as idiotic and redundant, that’s all.

42

liberal 10.15.12 at 1:53 am

Yawn. The Onion reported on this quite a while ago.

43

Meredith 10.15.12 at 3:10 am

Let me promote:
http://econ4.org/

44

Nahim 10.15.12 at 6:49 am

Let’s say a couple is married for five years. One partner earns income which is used to cover household expenditures, while the other is in charge of the housekeeping. Let’s assume any savings are divided equally among the two partners (otherwise the contract is clearly “skewed” towards the earning partner, as the housekeeping partner does not have the option of working extra hard and saving the benefits).

If the marriage is ever-lasting,this *might* be a “fair” contract (we haven’t accounted for societal valuations of the services provided by the two partners which might determine things like social standing, feelings of self-worth etc.). But once you factor in the possibility of divorce, then the equivalence disappears: the earning partner can probably get by with less household services than before, whereas the other partner’s greater skill at household management is only useful given a minimum level of income (and moreover is under-valued by the market). So the marriage contract is unlikely to be fair, since the partner who has the more to lose from the breakup of marriage will be in the poorer bargaining position.

The problem is that perhaps a perfectly fair contract doesn’t exist even in theory, unless you have both partners working and providing household services (in which case you lose some specialization benefits). If the husband and wife were to decide “fair terms” before the marriage, the earning partner would still have the greater bargaining power once the contract is entered into, and can still extract benefits until they exceed any compensation terms given to the other partner. In effect this reduces to a Prisoner’s Dilemma: joint benefits may be maximized by specializing, but there is no way to actually allocate the benefits in such a way that both the partners are happier with the arrangement than the alternative where they both work.

45

bryan 10.15.12 at 7:34 am

“It seems that in the standard 1950′s household there is remuneration in the form of a percentage of the husband’s salary. “

No, I think the standard 1950′s model is socialist, a division of labor based on available time. The husband contributes the time to the community that takes him to go to work and do husband related tasks around the house, and the wife contributes the time to do wife related tasks around the house. The 1950s argument tends to be that the wife must do all the house cleaning and taking care of the kids because the husband spends so much time at work.

After which then there is a remuneration aspect, but that is again communal remuneration. The husband’s monetary resources are contributed towards the cost of the maintaining the communal unit, in this case a family.

46

Katherine 10.15.12 at 9:34 am

At this stage in the discussion I would like to recommend to you all the book “Wifework” by Susan Maushart, if you haven’t already come across it.

47

Watson Ladd 10.15.12 at 3:08 pm

Nahim, its very possible to compensate one side for the loss of experience. That’s what alimony in California is. My bet is that gender relations between couples with more equal earning potentials at the start of the mariage look different then when there is a disparity. Also note that men have dramatically lost income over the past 30 years, but haven’t accepted the new economically required role of house-husband as gracefully.

48

Phil 10.15.12 at 3:35 pm

The husband’s monetary resources are contributed towards the cost of the maintaining the communal unit, in this case a family.

How is that actually different from “The husband pays the wife for services rendered, the rate of pay being set at or slightly above subsistence level”?

Just thinking, if you factor out the bits of the wife’s domestic labours that benefit her, and the bits of hubbie’s ‘contribution’ that benefit him…

49

Salient 10.15.12 at 4:15 pm

Watson, you are misusing the word “percentage” in a way that actually manages to be offensive as well as dead wrong. In the vast majority of relationships you are talking about, the wife does not receive a contractually specified percentage of the husband’s income. Money is pooled and she uses some of it independently, and some of it in consultation in joint decisions, but there’s no specified transfer of pre-defined compensation to the wife. There’s no direct relationship between the quality or quantity of work performed, and compensation received; the husband could withhold all of that “percentage” of income on the grounds of, say, not getting enough sexy time, or on a whim. The thing that makes employment unique and special, is the contractually defined compensation the employee receives. (Duties are never specified with the same rigor as compensation.) And the apparatus of the state all reinforce this. The certainly not reported to the IRS, it doesn’t accrue Social Security time-spent-employed, etc. Housework performed by oneself or one’s family members is not treated as employment in any technical, formal, or institutional sense.

Sure, you can say housework is like employment, in the same way sherbet is like gelato, and you could even specify an institutional structure through which we could make sherbet incrementally more like gelato… but, like, what’s the point? Why are you so determined to equivocate housework with employment, even when the comparison is so strained that you’re having to fall back on creatively tweaked interpretations of stuff like alimony in order to make your case?

50

Nahim 10.16.12 at 6:21 am

@Watson

Perhaps alimony can serve to compensate the non-earning partner to some extent, but I doubt there can be “perfect” compensation. I’m not too familiar with alimony laws, but it surely is difficult (and costly?) for courts to determine how much alimony would fully compensate for the lifetime expected loss in earnings (and any other benefits from working) for the non-earning partner. I’d also think alimony might screw up a lot of incentives e.g. reduced incentive to work or report earnings.

The essence of the problem is that there is no market mechanism for converting housework into money at a rate that is consistent with its implicit value in a fair marriage contract. You can think of many mechanisms to compensate for this (alimony, unequal division of property accumulated during marriage etc.) but the basic problem is unlikely to fully go away. Under a “veil of ignorance”, you’d still rather be the earning partner, since you’re the one with a guaranteed income.

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