What Do ‘Laziness’ and ‘Productivity’ Mean?

Last week, my opinions were gently criticized on Conan Tanner’s podcast  regarding something I said or wrote about laziness (around 1:48:10). I would like to gently respond to that criticism. 🙂 

When I was interviewed by Conan on his podcast, he asked me what I thought about a mandatory minimum income (around 1:02). I don’t think this is what Dr. Salinger was referring to when she referenced my prior comments about laziness, but Conan thought it was (so he told me later).  I think Dr. Salinger was referring to my above-linked blog post.  (I would like to thank her for being a MOE Reader!) Regardless of which comment(s) she was referring to, I will respond to both possibilities.

Truthfully, I had never given the concept of a mandatory minimum income much thought prior to my discussion with Conan. When he asked me about it, I said I would “play devil’s advocate” and noted that I wasn’t crazy about the idea of paying for people who sat around all day doing absolutely nothing. But after that, Conan challenged me, and I came around. He noted that if people have their basic needs met, they are less likely to do harm, with which I wholly agree. However you interpret my comments that day, everything I said on Conan’s podcast was pure contemplation. My ideas were not well-developed. I was merely thinking out loud. (My ideas are still not well-developed on the subject, and I invite further conversation about it. I would love to talk about it with Econ-Mom, who I would expect to have well-substantiated views on the subject.) 

Later, however, I did formulate some of my feelings about laziness (as a general topic) in the above-linked blog post. That post was in response to something Conan said while he was talking with Econ-Mom. I do not remember if it was said in the context of talking about mandatory minimum income (and I’m not going to go find out because I cannot remember where in the podcast it was said). Regardless, my response was solely to something that Conan said: “What is so wrong with being lazy?” To which I said: “Everything.” 

Let me emphasize something about that opinion: it is based largely on *feelings.* I can have feelings about something and still, rationally, come to a different conclusion about things. So, I *feel* like it is inherently unfair for some lazy people to get something for nothing. (The Little Red Hen agrees with me.) But that does *not* mean that I do not believe in social welfare. I believe in social welfare because I care about people. And I know that many people require assistance because they are just down on their luck. Furthermore, most people, including myself and my family, are just one or two tragedies or emergencies away from homelessness and bankruptcy. I am incredibly fortunate that I *can* work. I am blessed with a healthy, functioning body that allows me to do things. I know people who are unable to work because of their health issues, and it is *not* their choice. And they are *not* lazy. In fact, I bet some of the most struggling people are some of the hardest working, most industrious, and least lazy people on the planet. 

That brings me to what I really wanted to write about: What does laziness mean?  To me, laziness means selfishness and entitlement. It means not lifting a finger to help out when others are tirelessly working to help you and serve you. Laziness means not making the most of one’s abilities and/or not making the most of a day and what it brings to the table. It means expecting others to do something for you. It does not mean resting or relaxing after working a long day. It does not mean exploring hobbies or being creative.

We can also ask, what does productivity mean? To me, it does not mean productivity for the sake of productivity. It does not mean working oneself to the bone in the pursuit of the dollar or personal achievement. For me, productivity means taking care of what needs to be done. Because *someone* needs to do it. I put in long, tiring days because I have to. Food needs to be put on the table. A roof needs to stay over our heads. Kids need to be tended to and cared for. Clothes need to be cleaned. Homes require a basic level of cleanliness or chaos and squalor result. To me, productivity is the sheer force of necessity. It is not the mindless pursuit of acquisition and achievement. 

So, those are my terms and how I think about them and define them. Econ-Mom: What do you think? 

Econ-Mom has given me permission to post her response email to me:

“I read the post quickly yesterday….All I can say at this point is that I’m clearly too “productive” to do anything!! I just freaked out this morning because I couldn’t find the Xmas card for DH’s aunt. I’m pretty sure I put it in the mail with the other cards, but it’s supposed to go to Canada and will not get there on one stamp!! 🙁 ARRGH….Holidays!!!! 

But I will try to write an actual response soon, I promise!! 🙂 Or, if you want to publish with a note that Econ-Mom was too “productive” to respond, I’m fine with that too!”

We Respond To Each Other’s Podcasts

Law-Mom:  I really enjoyed your conversation with Conan Tanner on “Barbarian Noetics,” Econ-Mom. I particularly appreciated your comments about changing the paradigm so that all parents – moms and dads – spend more time with their children. I also appreciated Tanner’s comment about making the world a more “child-friendly” place to be. Shouldn’t that ultimately be the goal of our society? A more child-friendly world is a more human-friendly world.

I did want to respond to two things that I believe Tanner said during your discussion. The first was Tanner’s comment,”What’s so bad about being lazy?” or, “What’s wrong with lazy people?” At that point, I wanted to barge into the conversation and say: “Ummm…everything.”

I don’t know what that says about me, but I truly have a deep-seated bias against lazy people and laziness in general. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in relaxing and rewarding oneself after a long day, or a long week, of being productive. But I truly abhor general slothfulness. I get mildly ragey when I perceive lazy behavior in my own children. I think some of this is because I have an understanding of just how hard you really have to work to enjoy the finer pleasures of life. And I think most people have to work super hard in life to get where they are. (Not all, of course, but most.)  So, while I do not consider myself very conservative in political matters, I do understand the viewpoint of: “Hey, look: I’ve worked my tail off, so I’m not super interested in being taxed out the ying-yang so that someone else can sit on their duff and enjoy the fruits of my hard labor.” It’s the story of “The Little Red Hen”: I’m not interested in sharing all of my hard work with you ungrateful, lazy, jerks.

Is that selfish? Maybe. But I think it’s understandable. On the flip side, I do believe in cooperation (as I talked about with Tanner). But cooperation is a two-way street: it means everyone is working and  being productive. You only get to be lazy, IMHO, if you are younger than the age of six and/or an invalid. Otherwise, you don’t get a pass in my book. I’ll share with you, but you need to uphold your end of the bargain.

Last but not least, Tanner asked: Why don’t we allow jurors to do their own research? Because the judge has already carefully ruled on what the law is that governs the case and what evidence can and will be admitted. And, if jurors were to “go rogue” and find that different law applies, or different evidence is relevant, it could very-well jeopardize the defendant’s constitutional rights. Of course, the judge may have gotten everything wrong and violated the defendant’s constitutional rights, anyway…but at least there is a record of it. Since no one knows what is going on in the jury room, it is extremely important that the jury follow the judge’s instructions and not do their own research — on the facts or the law — so that everyone knows exactly what evidence and law the jury heard, received, and deliberated over.

That being said (a perfect use of the phrase, I might add), I agreed with both of you that: (1) it was an abysmal use of resources to try that poor transient man over a $20 meth exchange; and (2) that he very likely was not tried by a true “jury of his peers.”  The first point is easily solved: Stop prosecuting and jailing harmless homeless people for non-violent offenses and offer rehab and resources instead. The second point, however, is a bit more problematic and difficult to solve. I agreed with the points you made about finding a way to include more caretakers on juries. Still (and this is coming from someone who skipped out on jury duty, because I was the full-time caretaker of my 10-ish month old), I’m not sure I’d be super keen on leaving my child with government-paid daycare workers whom I’d never met or seen in action. So, I think there would need to be some choice involved on the part of caretakers, because otherwise it might feel a bit like forced child-napping. Not all young children are easily separated from their parents (SC1 being one of them) and it could be traumatic for some children to be away from their caretaker for days, or sometimes weeks, on end.

Econ-Mom:  I also really enjoyed listening to Law-Mom on Barbarian Noetics! Law-Mom and I have a lot to say, people!  It’s now already been a crazy week-ish since I listened, so I don’t remember all the brilliant points I had here, but as someone who has taught Introductory Economics, I feel compelled to say something about bartering. Law-Mom and Conan talk a lot about a more cooperative society and end up talking about bartering.  I’m not against bartering, I think it’s great when it works!  And for what it’s worth, I believe it should be studied more (for example, how and why people revert to bartering in economic crises, such as what’s going on in Venezuela right now).  But it can’t scale up that well because if you have N goods, it means you have to somehow keep track of N*(N-1) prices.  [Law-Mom: I do not understand this at all, Econ-Mom. Please do elaborate in another post.] For example, if you have apples, oranges, and pears, you must have some kind of going rate for apples in terms of pears, apples in terms of oranges, and oranges in terms of pairs, and vice versa. More importantly, when you get to the point where you have thousands of goods (which we do currently have – if not millions!) you run into almost zero chance of finding someone to make a mutually agreeable trade with.

And regarding Law-Mom’s point above about making jury duty optional for parents of young children I absolutely agree!  For sure neither of my kids could have gone with a strange caretaker, and that goes double (or times 100) for kids with more severe autism or other conditions.  But it’s just sort of food for thought.  And I do think that people abuse the chance to get out of jury duty to some extent.  I just had someone tell me that she was still using the ‘caretaker’ excuse even though her daughter was now 16.

Finally, regarding laziness…. Well, I think I’m just going to have to write a separate post about universal basic income because it’s a very interesting topic that economists are really getting into these days!