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06������������,Opinion | Why Do We Work So Damn Much?

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ezra klein

I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”


So one of the truly great essays in the history of economic thought is this 1930 essay by John Maynard Keynes, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” And it’s a weird essay. It’s done in the depth of the Great Depression, so everything is terrible, and people are really poor. But Keynes steps back and just imagines the future.

And he makes his now famous prediction that by 2030, which was a 100 years hence, human beings would be so much richer, so much more technologically advanced, that the problem of scarcity — that the problem that had defined economics, and arguably, human civilization, until then — would have been solved. And now we’d only work 15 hours a week. And the whole problem would be what to do with all this time.

And the reason this essay still gets talked about and debated and written about today is that Keynes was interestingly right and wrong. The part of this that seems hard and probably seemed very out there when he did it, the calculations for how much richer we’d get in 100 years, that was not just right. If anything, it was conservative. We passed his predictions for income growth decades ago. And then we got even richer than that.

But you may notice we don’t work 15 hours a week. In fact, in an inversion of past history, the more money you make now, the more hours you generally work. It used to be the point of being rich was to not work. And now we’ve built a social value system. So the reward for making a lot of money at work is, you get to do even more work. And so people all up and down the income scale with levels of plenty that would have been shocking to anyone in Keynes’s time are harried, burnt out, always wanting more, feeling there’s not enough.

So what went wrong? What did Keynes get wrong? My guest today is the anthropologist James Suzman. And he flips this whole conversation on its head. Suzman has spent the last 30 years living with and studying one of the oldest enduring hunter-gatherer societies. For most of the history of civilization, the prevailing belief was that life before what we now think of as civilization was, as Thomas Hobbes said, nasty, brutish, and short.

But modern anthropology has turned that around. Hunter-gatherers were usually healthy. They were usually well nourished. Even in very unforgiving climates, they tended to have diverse diets. And they did it while only spending about 15 hours a week on hunting and gathering.

Suzman’s new book is called “Work, A Deep History from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots.” And the overarching argument is that the way we work today isn’t driven by what we need. It’s driven by what we want. It’s also driven by how, socially, we regulate or encourage wants, which is part of where his research on hunter-gatherers and how they approach this comes in. But the big thing here is that Keynes had it backwards. Humanity solved the problem of scarcity and achieved a 15-hour workweek long before modernity. But as we’ve gotten richer and built more technology, we’ve developed a machine not for ending our wants, not for fulfilling them, but for generating new ones, new needs, new desires, new forms of status competition.

You can’t solve the problem of scarcity with our current system because our current system is designed to generate endlessly the feeling of more scarcity within us. It needs that. And so we keep working harder and harder and feeling like we have less and less, even amidst quite a bit of plenty, at least, for many of us. As always, my email, [email protected]


James Suzman, welcome to the show.

james suzman

Thank you very much for having me, Ezra.

ezra klein

So let’s start here. What did John Maynard Keynes predict in “The Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren“?

james suzman

Ah, he predicted a great change in pretty much everything. No, but it was an extraordinary essay that he wrote. And he wrote this in 1930. And he’d just lost his personal fortune in the stock market crash and was watching the Great Depression clasp its way all over Europe and America and the rest of the world.

And what Keynes decided to do was disabuse himself of short-term views to try and understand what the Great Depression was in the context of a larger economic history. And in doing so, what he did was he set about predicting what the economy would look like in 100 years’ time, in the time of his grandchildren, so nominally around about now. And he predicted that the combination between capital growth, improvements in productivity, and advances in technology, that nobody would be working more than 15 hours in a week.

And even then, he was suggesting that the reasons for this, that people would continue to work was because it was really a question of habit. His view was that once we crossed all these thresholds, everybody’s basic needs would be met. And if people’s basic needs were met, he reasoned, along with many other thinkers who were before him, from Oscar Wilde to Bertrand Russell, that if people’s basic needs were met, then they would cease to devote their lives to endless toil and rather spend their time working on things that mattered and were meaningful to them.

ezra klein

What did he get right in the specifics of this? And what did he get wrong?

james suzman

Well, when Keynes made his predictions about capital growth, technology advancement and productivity; he got those wrong. He massively underestimated the speed of advances in those areas. So basically, the thresholds in terms of capital growth that he predicted would need to be met to usher in this 15-hour week, this economic utopia, we passed them ages ago, in the 1980s, likewise with productivity. Technology, of course, is much harder to measure.

So in other words, we passed those thresholds 30 or 40 years ago. Yet, here we are. And we’re working pretty much as long hours as people did in the 1930s when Keynes wrote the essay in the first place. So that’s another critical thing he got wrong.

ezra klein

So the big counterintuitive argument of your work is that Keynes had it backwards. Humanity actually had solved the problem of scarcity. It had figured out a 15-hour workweek. But the solution was in our past. And the very advances in technology and income and productivity that Keynes predicted are actually the problem, actually the things that are getting us further from the 15-hour workweek. Tell me about that.

james suzman

I don’t necessarily think those are the things that are taking us away from that utopian dream that Keynes actually had. I think the way we are approaching them is what’s taking us away from that utopian dream that Keynes had, the fact that we have a series of cultural ideas that are deeply embedded in the very fabric of our society and the very institutions around which we organize our lives. And that, in a sense, is holding us back from really embracing this extraordinary affluence that we have won ourselves.

And where this becomes most clear is when we look at things like hunter-gatherer populations like the Ju/‘hoansi, who I worked with, who had much less than we do in a material sense. In a material sense, they were deeply impoverished by modern standards. And yet they consider themselves affluent and enjoyed a degree of affluence as a result of that. Yet we seem to be trapped in this cycle of ever pursuing more and greater growth, greater wealth, greater anything, it seems. It seems that our aspirations continue to grow endlessly.

And we’re caught in this kind of treadmill in which we never stop and actually enjoy the rewards of what we have won. So in some ways, I think it’s to do with the fact that basically, this growth and the technology and the expansion of productivity is something that keeps driving us forward. But at the same time, it’s also an opportunity to organize the way we do things very differently. And for me, that is something that we really ought to be looking at.

ezra klein

So before we get too deep into the hunter-gatherer societies, I want to ask an epistemological question. How do we know how much time hunter-gatherer societies spent working? How do we know how they lived? I mean, these societies existed a very long time ago, were often working off of fragmentary evidence. There are some surviving pockets of this kind of lifestyle. But it’s not the bulk of it. So what makes you certain we can speak with confidence about any of this?

james suzman

Well, the truth is, when we talk about anything in our very deep history, we’ve got to be a little bit circumspect. I speak with confidence because it seems all the pieces fit together. But the evidence, as you say, is thin. The problem is, is that many of our hunter-gatherer ancestors — and we now know that they’ve been around for 320,000 years. That’s just modern Homo sapiens. And there’s plenty of debate about how human the various antecedents of that were. So the problem is, is that most of their material culture was made of things that were pretty organic or stones and was very small scale. So we have very little in the way of actual material traces of how these societies organize themselves.

And really, up until the 1960s, there was this absolute certainty pretty much everywhere that hunter-gatherers probably endured lives of constant misery, that their lives were nasty, brutish, and short, that they lived constantly on the edge of starvation, and that this was, in fact, what instilled within us this obsession we have with scarcity, this thing that we — you know, food. Having enough food today is simply a trigger for worrying about whether we’re going to have more food tomorrow and so on.

In the 1960s, some anthropologists took the view that if they looked at some of the surviving groups of hunter-gatherers scattered around— and again, these tended to be in very ecologically marginal places — maybe they’d be able to develop some insights into how our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived. And what they could say with some reasonable confidence was that things like the material culture were probably relatively similar. They used similar tools. And likewise, based on the archaeological evidence, the suggestion was that certainly in many places. And of course, there was variation.

And they tended to be similar group sizes to modern hunting — contemporary hunting and gathering populations. And the most famous group chosen for study were the Ju/‘hoansi of northern Namibia, who, at the time, were living fairly remotely in northeast Namibia and northwestern Botswana and living as hunter-gatherers, by and large.

And one anthropologist, Richard Lee, went out and did a very basic economic input and output analysis of how the Ju/‘hoansi lived. And this was in a — the Ju/‘hoansi lived in a tough neighborhood. The Kalahari Desert is no easy place. This is a place that had basically defied — farmers who had been wanting to come in there into the Kalahari for 2,000 years. But it was too tough a place. You couldn’t basically raise livestock or plant vegetables in fields and so on there.

And when Lee arrived there, he set about doing his work. And he was really worried because it was in the middle of a terrible drought. Anyway, he ended up working with them. And he discovered that pretty much on the basis of around 15 hours for women and 17 hours work week for men in terms of the food quest, the Ju/‘hoansi were pretty much able to meet all of their basic needs. And then on top of that, they’d work a similar number of hours on domestic household activities, tasks like preparing food, making fires, fixing tools, and so on and so forth. In other words, that they worked much less than we did.

And he took those findings back. And several other anthropologists had been working with other enduring hunter-gatherer populations from northern nomadic hunter-gatherers in the Arctic to Aboriginal societies to the Hadza Bay in Tanzania. And they actually all found that they had fairly similar data, that these hunter-gatherers did not live constantly on the edge of starvation, that they enjoyed quite a lot of leisure time, and that they were surprisingly well nourished on the basis of relatively little effort. And this was just effort by economically active individuals. In other words, they supported the elderly, and they supported their children. So children were not expected to work.

So on the basis of this, on the basis of this broad geographical spread of convergent evidence, we can assume that since these hunter-gatherer populations, which we now know had no cultural contact for 60,000, 70,000 years, so the relationship — there has been no direct cultural contact until this century between, for example, many Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherer populations and groups like the Ju/‘hoansi. Yet, they organize themselves in very, very similar ways.

And to me, what that suggests is that the very nature of securing a living, that nature of that work, tended to create very specific kind of cultural, social, and economic forms, which are broadly consistent. There’s obviously variation on all sorts of aspects. But there’s a lot more in common between hunter-gatherers than there is different. And there’s certainly a lot more different between hunter-gatherers and agricultural societies than there is between hunter-gatherer societies.

And so it’s really on the basis of that that we can speculate that there must be some greater insight that these societies offer us into the way our ancestors lived and worked than certainly anything else. So it’s an imperfect lens through which to view the past. But I think it is, nevertheless, a very illustrative one.

ezra klein

So on a signpost of where we’re going to be going here, the big point of that Keynes essay is that eventually, we’re going to be able to produce so much, we don’t need to work because we’ll have produced our way into abundance. And the point you make about hunter-gatherer societies is that — and frankly, about modernity — is that what we’ve seen so far is the opposite. Abundance doesn’t come from endless production. It comes from effectively regulating what you want. Because then you can actually produce enough and fulfill that level. So let’s talk a little bit about the way the Ju/‘hoansi regulate want. And maybe we can start with demand sharing.

james suzman

One of the most distinctive features about the Ju/‘hoansi and, indeed, many of the other hunter-gatherer societies, similar ones, was that they were, to use the words of Richard Lee, fiercely egalitarian. And they had various mechanisms to manage this egalitarianism. Now one of the most interesting mechanisms was a system called demand sharing. One anthropologist who didn’t like it much called it tolerated theft.

And it is a system which is, in many ways, the complete inversion of our rules of giving, sharing, and taking. When we ask somebody for something, we say please. It’s an offer of a debt. When somebody gives us something, we say thank you. I’m in your debt. There’s a kind of sense of an exchange going on. And it is in the right of the giver. And generally, I was always brought up, wait for somebody to offer you something. And always say thank you and be in their debt. And it’s effectively in the rights of the giver to deny somebody something that they asked for.

In Ju/‘hoan cultures and, indeed, many other hunting and gathering cultures, that relationship is inverted. Basically, in an idealized form, demand sharing means that pretty much anybody in a society can go to anybody else. And remember, these are relatively small social groupings. Can go to anybody else and demand something from them. So if, for example, I have a bag of tobacco, somebody else is perfectly entitled to come and demand some of that tobacco from me.

And it would be considered extremely rude — in fact, it would be considered offensive — if I don’t give him some of that tobacco. At the same time, it’s not considered at all rude to make that kind of demand. So what you have is a society where, in effect, everybody can spontaneously tax everybody else. The net result of this is that nobody bothers acquiring services because you’re just going to share it and give it away anyway. And people end up spontaneously sharing everything.

And they see a certain virtue. It’s not a completely unconscious thing. I mean, culture is habitual. It becomes unconscious. But people are aware of the virtues of it. And in hunter-gatherer life, there was a real sense that if anybody tries to accumulate resources or dominate the distribution and flow of resources, it is socially unhealthy. It produces tensions. It produces anxieties. It produces a hierarchy or an attempted hierarchy. It adds a whole level of risk and cost to the social life of the group.

So demand sharing is really just a functional way of distributing resources within a society. And in these societies, it worked really well. Because with everybody able to tax everybody else, it meant that everybody actually got a reasonable share. It also meant that they got the right amount because if somebody overtaxed somebody, they could be taxed back in time. So it was the sort of sense of social moderation. And what it typically produced, in most instances, was a very harmonious way of living and a very harmonious way of living even when things sometimes were tough, and resources were scarce.

ezra klein

So let me ask you about the harmonious way of living. Because there is a debate in recent years, particularly about the level of intra and inter-group violence among hunter-gatherers. So you read Steven Pinker, and he’ll say, ah, our past was much more violent. There was much more violence in these societies. I’ve heard other anthropologists and experts dispute that. I think looking at it from our current perspective, you might expect something like demand sharing to lead to a lot of violence. So what is your perspective on the level of actual open conflict?

james suzman

My perspective on demand sharing was that it certainly made anthropologists feel violent until they got a bit used to it. But amongst everybody else, it was actually something very peaceable. Now, yeah, there’s been this pretty much endless debate. And it really is a debate about modernity, whether we’re on this great path of progress or not. To make the case of progress, it helps to say that actually our lives in the past were much more miserable and much more violent.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that in hunter-gatherer societies throughout history, there was, of course, violence. Certainly with Ju/‘hoansi oral histories, there’s definitely memories and stories of people, groups living, someone in [INAUDIBLE] getting in a fight with the people from [INAUDIBLE] or — it happens. People are violent. And often, they’re violent. In the Ju/‘hoansi case, as they say, usually, there’s a fight over matters of the heart, and then sometimes occasionally some revenge. Of course, there’s violence.

But as a general rule, hanging out with hunter-gatherers and hanging out with societies like this actually is extraordinarily harmonious. So statistically, it’s difficult to say whether it’s more peaceful now or more peaceful then. But what’s certainly absolutely right to say is that hunter-gatherers did not live in this state of kind of Hobbesian constant war, that actually, like our lives, there were moments where violence erupted. And it shook people when it happened. People were traumatized by it. They found it difficult. They did not like it. It was not part of the norm.

But on the whole, I think life was pretty placid. And this is, again, the sort of overwhelming sense, certainly from anthropologists who preceded me, who spent more time in these societies when they were still more free to hunt and gather — of course, the area I’ve worked in has been one of constant difficult change. And the overwhelming sense from all of them, again, is just the general serenity of life in these circumstances. And I think it’s fair to say that we are, as a species, relatively peace loving. And I think that applies to most of our history. But within that, of course, there are instances where things would have been tough and brutal and violent, too.


ezra klein

Can you talk a bit about the practice of insulting the meat?

james suzman

This is the other great egalitarian device in Ju/‘hoan life. In the Ju/‘hoan world, people don’t place a great deal of store on material resources. Things are shared relatively easily and evenly. Demand sharing is not a cause of tension.

But one thing in the Ju/‘hoansi world which is loved above all others is meat. And it’s one of the few things that inspires people to jealousy, to anger, if they feel a little bit left out. And it is also one of the few things that if somebody is too productive in bringing meat, if somebody is too good a hunter, then there’s a risk that that person starts to accrue additional social capital as a result of that, to accrue power, just simply because they’re the bringer and the distributor of meat.

And so what they do is they have a number of customs around, one, the distribution of meat and, two, how to deal with the hunter themselves in order to manage any kind of tensions that might emerge from this. So when a hunter comes back with a kill and, in particular, if it’s a spectacular kill, something huge like a giraffe or eland bull, the hunter will not be praised in the way that we’d generally expect and imagine the hunter coming back with this trophy. Ha-ha, everybody is going to get fed. Everybody is going to be wonderful. Pat me on the back, and now I’m the hero for the night.

Instead, the hunter is mocked and insulted. And it’s done in a kind of lighthearted way, but also with a little bit of an edge. And the hunter for his part is expected to behave with great humility. And the kinds of insults that will be — everybody knows that it’s a performance issue, right? Because if a giraffe shows up, it’s a big piece of meat. No poor man’s going to struggle to eat the thing over the course of a few days.

But they’ll still say, ah, this giraffe. Ah, the meat smells like urine. Ah, it’s not enough to even feed my mother-in-law. And their insults come out again and again and again and again and again over the course of the consumption of this animal. And the reason they do this is to avoid the hunter accruing any unnecessary hierarchy, any unnecessary authority over others and any socially destructive authority over others.

There’s a wonderful quote, again, by Richard Lee, where man describes the basis behind the practices. We use it to cool young men’s hearts. And in this way, successful hunters were, in effect, encouraged or discouraged from hunting excessively. Now bizarrely, because in hunter-gatherer bands, everybody liked me, you wanted to discourage the good hunters from hunting too much. And but at the same time, you didn’t want the incompetent ones going out or the elderly going out and being unsuccessful all the time. So they had other methods of actually distributing the responsibility for that meat.

So technically, the owner of an animal that was killed was actually not the person who killed the animal and brought it home, the one who effectively did the hard work, but actually, the person who made the arrow. And as a result, that meant that in Ju/‘hoan communities, the elderly, the club-footed, and all the rest could occasionally claim to own an animal themselves and have the added burden of responsibility of distributing the meat and enduring insults.

ezra klein

So this falls on our ears, my ears, very strangely, right? I mean, it it defies almost everything you would think about motivation and how you get people to do difficult tasks and excel at them. So in this world where you’re a hunter, and you bring down a giraffe, and then you come back and everybody insults you, and somebody else gets to distribute the meat because it was their arrow and not yours, why be a hunter? What is the implicit theory of motivation to do things that are valuable for society, but scarce in their skillset within these groups?

james suzman

This is one of the wonderful things about sort of looking at the idea of work as we go into our deep history, and actually, even beyond the Ju/‘hoansi, into evolutionary history. It’s pretty clear that we have evolved to love work, in a very basic sense. We have evolved, become these extremely purposeful focused species with this extraordinary array of skills and flexible devices, from our hands to our incredibly plastic brains, that, in a sense, need to be fed. There’s a reason why when we are stuck in solitary confinement in prison for something, that boredom eats us up. It’s because we can’t basically apply these extraordinary skills we’ve evolved to have.

And people get extraordinary pleasure out of doing work. And it can often be different kinds of pleasure. Now in the Ju/‘hoansi case, let’s take the example of hunting. Hunting is extraordinarily fulfilling work. It is very satisfying. It engages your mind. It engages your intellect. It engages years of acquired and accumulated skill. It engages your intuition. It engages your physical strength. It engages your stamina. And it engages you emotionally because you have this huge empathetic connection with the animals that you’re pursuing. It is deeply and profoundly satisfying. And in the end, it turns into meat in your belly. It fulfills you quite physically at the end as well.

As one Ju/‘hoan hunter put it to me, he was like — he said at the end, “Hunting makes my heart happy, my legs heavy, and my belly full.” It is profoundly satisfying work. And it’s obviously part of our evolutionary heritage, this ability to work efficiently and to apply our skills to acquiring the food, first of all, that we need. Because that is the primary job of life — to get the food and energy into our bodies in order to grow and reproduce.

And then when we have surplus energy, we clearly use those same skills that have empowered us to be such versatile, flexible hunters, foragers, understanders of an environment. We apply those skills to many other things, like creating music, creating art, telling stories, and so on and so on. And work is very much part of who we are. And when we are deprived of the ability to work, we are miserable. We are listless. We are bored. We are uncomfortable. And in many senses, life is not worth living.

ezra klein

That makes some sense to me on a theoretical level, but make the case to me that these cultural practices were actually successful. When I look around, I don’t see many hunter-gatherer societies around today. And the ones that do exist are often living in pretty awful conditions. So why should I take the hunter-gatherer model seriously as a successful cultural model?

james suzman

The extraordinary longevity of Homo sapiens is particularly relevant. 30 years ago, when I started studying anthropology, there was a sense that modern Homo sapiens, cognitively modern as it was referred, had been around for maybe only 40,000 years and physically modern for maybe 100,000 years. Now with genomic research, we’ve pushed that date way backwards to perhaps 320,000, 340,000 years, which suggests that Homo sapiens have been going around, acting relatively intelligently and acting as they did for quite a long time.

And it also suggests that they must have had a model that worked, a model that effectively enabled them to adapt, firstly, to changes in climate when they were still locked in Africa, and then, ultimately, to expand and adapt to different contexts around the world. Humankind is extraordinary for its ability to basically break out of habitats and ecological niches, which most animals are absolutely hostage to, and adapt and develop entirely new ways of making a living. And I think that kind of structure was very much part of this process.

I think that kind of flexibility, that focus on the short-term, that focus on securing their basic needs, and then spending time otherwise was a system that effectively worked. And it enabled the gradual expansion of our species across the globe. So I think it was simply just part of who we are. We’re cultural beings. We develop forms and systems of managing and organizing ourselves, which can be highly different, but occasionally, you come across a form that works.

And in the case of hunter-gatherers, I think the form of the small scale foraging societies organized on very cooperative grounds, based on sharing resources, and skills, and so on, was a successful model that allowed the slow and gradual expansion of our species to reaching a period of near dominance as had just before the agricultural revolution.

I think it was a system that worked, but it was also a cultural system. That was it. And was it a good one? Yes. If you measure the success of a civilization by its endurance over time, by its sustainability, then that is a very sustainable way of working. I mean, 300,000 years is a very long period of time.

ezra klein

I want to put a pin on how we measure success of civilizations. But I want to draw out another connection I think you make in the book, which is that one thing happening here is that these societies developed, in demand sharing and insulting the meat and other practices, pretty extraordinary social structures to keep people from amassing too much, to keep them then from wanting too much, because it became kind of a pain if you got a lot. People just took it from you, or they made fun of you, or they got mad at you.

And so one of the things happening here is that if you don’t want to work that much, if you want a society where you have abundance, create leisure, you have to keep people’s desires under control, and that what you have here in these hunter-gatherer societies, and certainly, in the one that you studied closely, is a pretty extraordinary system for keeping desire under control. If you think of our society now as an endless engine of desire, an appreciater and generator of desire and a plotter of desire, that you basically have the opposite here. And so you get the time, because people are being dissuaded, from the kinds of things that lead to the hedonic treadmill.

james suzman

I wouldn’t call it extraordinary. I’d say that where we are now is extraordinary certainly in temporal terms. But yes, absolutely. What you had with these societies were societies where, effectively, the problem of scarcity, the economic problem, the thing which economists or classical economics tells us drives us to always want more, this idea that we have infinite wants and limited means, just did not exist. They had limited desires that were relatively easily met. So they weren’t caught in this sort of constant loop of wanting more in the future.

And you talk about it as extraordinary because, of course, you’re looking at it from a perspective of the United States. And you’re looking at it as I was looking at it when I first went and spent time with them. And they don’t view it as extraordinary at all. They find it extraordinary — or they found it; we’ve got to be clear on historical context here. Life is changing very fast for them. But they found it extraordinary instead that people might want to accumulate wealth, that people might not want to share. They respond to it with that same kind of visceral surprise that others respond to them.

And again, it’s a sort of telling thing about the power of how culture and experience really shapes our sense of the world around us and our sense of what is normal, what is natural, what is good. As far as Ju/‘hoansi are concerned, not sharing is something that is unnatural. So while we see the Ju/‘hoansi as abnormal or exceptional, they do the same thing with us. And I think this is the great power of cultural difference, it’s what gives me hope about the fact that, actually, the possibilities for humankind in the future are endless. Because what we often assume as nature is just culture masquerading as nature.

ezra klein

I was going to ask about that. This is a tremendously wide variation in how people act depending on the cultures they grow up in. I was thinking when you were saying that the Ju/‘hoansi see it as strange when somebody doesn’t share as unnatural, I mean, I’ve got a two-year-old. There’s definitely something natural about not wanting to share.

He definitely does not find it an intuitive concept, which is all to say, do you have a view on whether there is such a thing, at least in the way we discuss it now, as human nature? Or is basically most of what we consider to be human nature cultural imposition? And what is really human nature is our ability to absorb cultural and social cues and the flexibility therein?

james suzman

Well, you’ve answered my question very nicely for me. We’ve often sought out human nature. Are we intrinsically good? Are we intrinsically bad? Are we cooperative? Are we not? And I think what we are is we’re a host of contradictions because human nature is to be, one, cultural, two, adaptive and, three, intransigent, all at the same time. So we’re the species that can adapt to circumstances with extraordinary ease.

Put us in a difficult place. Force us into a change. Like for example, the lockdown of last year, all the objections notwithstanding, we coped with it remarkably well. This was a almost unprecedented change in behavior that was required. And we got on, and we managed and adapted to it and even became habituated to it, which is now why flexible working is likely to be a norm in many societies for years to come.

So we’re this incredibly adaptable creature because we have these very plastic brains. And our experience imprints itself on those brains, and we become habituated to things. We become creatures of habit. Certain things are normal and acceptable and doable. And that’s just the way they are. And these things can be very, very different. And this is, at the same time, what makes us so intransigent, so resistant to change, which is why, for example, people smoke themselves into an early grave, knowing that it’s killing them, simply because they can’t change that habit.

So human nature is to be cultural: to be, at once, adaptable, and to be intransigent. And anything beyond that I think is to impose some kind of universality on what is ultimately a cultural norm. So to say are we basically kind to one another and humanitarian, or are we basically selfish — those, in my view, are very clearly cultural norms. Those are normative behavior, which feel natural because that is culture’s extraordinary power over us.

ezra klein

So the implicit cultural tradeoff here seems to be between status egalitarianism and then personal striving and ambition. You can either encourage striving by choosing to give certain individuals greater status, greater wealth, greater social power, given what they produce, but the cost is jealousy and envy and inequality and this kind of positional competition. Or you can maintain status egalitarianism, but at the cost of discouraging some of that striving and ambition. You’re probably not going to invent antibiotics in a society. You’re probably not going to invent some of the things that capitalism or even agriculture drove us towards. Is that how you see the tradeoff?

james suzman

I don’t. I tend to think that people do things because that is what we are. We are thinkers, doers, creators, makers. And we get intense personal satisfaction from doing so. Now we happen to live in societies at the moment where we get a certain amount of social credibility and social satisfaction from doing so. And also, the inverse exists. If you don’t work, you’re effectively denied social dignity.

But work in and of itself can be extraordinarily fulfilling. So that’s use the Ju/‘hoan example again. And there was some lovely studies done in the late ‘60s looking, in particular, at, say, child development. Ju/‘hoansi children typically play in mixed age groups. They look after one another, often with kind of cascading open responsibilities. Education is very undidactic. Children are expected to learn things, not to be taught things.

And the kinds of games that they play, some of them involve a huge amount of skill. Hunting, for example, practicing with bows and arrows involves skill. There’s games involving catching weighted vulture feathers that are thrown in the air with a stick and twisting them up. And these are highly skillful things, like playing tennis. And people master them because it gives them great pleasure to do so.

But there’s no lording it over others for being better or worse at it. And so you end up with actually quite — you end up with these games which are quite intensely individually competitive in the sense that somebody might be trying to master a skill or become much better at something. But because of the context in which it takes place, there’s very little of that kind of social pressure of that, again, the back patting and all the rest.

So for example, in Ju/‘hoansi society, there’s very much in one place left in Namibia where people are able to still hunt and gather. There are hunters who are absolute masters of their craft. And insults and what have you notwithstanding, they go on and they do the hunting because it brings them profound satisfaction. There is a great joy in executing that skill.

The truth of the matter is, it’s the same for most of us, most honest endeavors. If I play on my guitar, it brings me pleasure. But I know nobody in their right mind would want to listen to it. Most people who write books generally write them for themselves. Because you have to be very, very lucky to get read more widely than just a handful of people. So there is that thing. We’ve sort of forgotten, I think, and lost a sense of the wonder and the joy of that kind of purposefulness and the execution of the purposefulness and how important that is to human flourishing.

ezra klein

So let me play the cynic here. Because we’re talking about a set of societies that have been driven almost out of existence. I mean, as you’re saying, even for the Ju/‘hoansi, this is a period of extraordinary change. One way of looking at this history is that we had a survival of the culturally fittest societies. And now hunter-gatherer exists only in these protected pockets. That we sort of ran a competition, and they lost. And that the societies that supercharged our ambition, our intensity, our status competition, they created, for better and for worse, everything from these multitrillion dollar economies, to nuclear weapons, to CRISPR and mRNA vaccines.

Maybe we can modulate it on the margin, but some of this is a cost we pay for these kinds of advances. So to say that work is its own reward, it may be. I actually don’t disagree with that at all. But in terms of advancement and the kinds of things that we’ve seen in the past 100, 200, 300 years, there’s something going on there that is going on differently in the broadly capitalist, market oriented, et cetera, societies from some of their former competitors.

james suzman

I’m not absolutely certain [about], for example, the narrative that capitalism per se is what creates this wealth of creativity and these great advances. There’s, of course — one goes through history. Wherever people have had sufficient surplus energy that they haven’t been stuck on the food quest, you’ve had these great sets of innovations and creativity, whether it’s artistry, whether it’s medicine, whether it’s theology, whether it’s physics, wherever you’ve had these concentrations of energy, so whenever there’s been a decent surplus and knowledge can be reproduced and shared and passed on from one generation to the next.

And I certainly think that the kind of capitalized culture that we’ve had is an organic consequence of the transition to agriculture. And it is very much part of what’s brought us to where we are now. But I don’t think it’s what’s part of what’s needed in order for us to take the next step on. And in fact, I actually think, in many ways, that the kind of innovation and the productivity and the growth mindset that came out of agriculture has brought us out of the miseries of the agricultural era, which was quite long and quite difficult, and into a brave new era. But that very same medicine that brought us this great prosperity that we enjoy now might now well be making the patient sick.

ezra klein

One of the fascinating threads of the book is the way the transition to farming transforms the way we experience labor, of course, but also the way we experience and understand time. And you really emphasize the human relationship to time, essential to our relationship to work. So can you tell me about that, the difference between how foragers and farmers related to time?

james suzman

It is an extraordinary phenomenon. And it’s one that I was very attuned to right from the beginning of my first ever fieldwork. Because I was working with some Ju/‘hoansi who’d lost their land already. This was in the early 1990s. And my determination was to actually get a Ju/‘hoan oral history of what had happened. We had all these colonial histories dominating the story of Africa. I wanted to get their version of events, in a sense. And that, on the whole, I really struggled. People didn’t have history. They didn’t talk in historical terms. They didn’t think in particularly temporal terms.

And at the same time, you had lots of the farmers who were trying to employ them, saying, ah, the Ju/‘hoansi, they don’t think beyond today. They don’t have a concept of tomorrow and so on and so forth. And it turned out that this was what the Ju/‘hoansi largely agreed with. And part of the reason was they had what’s called historically an immediate return economy. In other words, pretty much all economic effort went into simply meeting their needs for that day.

And that was based on this idea that they had few needs easily met. So they were competent foragers. They knew that within a few hours of spontaneous effort, they could fill their bellies and so on in most circumstances. And as a result, they didn’t really spend a great deal of time planning into the future or, indeed, thinking about the past.

Now the transition to farming was very, very different. Where hunter-gatherers viewed their environments as inherently provident, as almost generous, as something which gave them, farming, you have to view your environment as only potentially provident. For it to be provident, you have to invest your labor into it.

But investing your labor into land in order for it to provide you with something to eat involves a time scale. If we use, for example, the early wheats that were grown in the first populations to embrace agriculture in the Levant, you have a seasonal cycle. You plant the seeds in the spring. You then have to nurture and look after the crop and water it and so on and so forth, nurture it over several months, then process it, and eventually, maybe by New Year’s Eve, you might have a loaf of bread out of it. Everything is focused on future rewards.

Now the problem with not being able to meet your immediate needs is those future rewards are rewards that are then stored and used to sustain you over the next agricultural cycle. So farmers found themselves locked into this kind of circular time, this process where they invested their labor into the land. And the land, in effect, gave them a return at some point in the future. And this, of course, changed not only the relationship with land because the land became something — if you worked that land, you had some kind of claim of ownership. So it change their notions of territoriality and ownership.

But at the same time it transformed the perception of time. Everything became future focused, much like it is for us today. Most of the work we do involves accruing some kind of return in the future. In fact, there are only a handful of activities that we routinely do, such as, for example, cooking is an immediate return economic activity, if you’re going to eat that meal immediately afterwards.

But most of the economic work we do is for the immediate future or the distant future. And in farming societies, often, the aim was, if you worked hard enough for long enough, you might be able to secure a sufficiently grand surplus that’s stored away in your silos that you might be able to, in a sense, enjoy some kind of retirement, some kind of time off. You might be able to purchase your liberation from labor. And all of this came with the fact that, actually, farming involved a great deal more effort and work than hunting and gathering did.

ezra klein

So there’s a trend in recent “history of human civilization” books of making farming sound really bad. So you work more. You have a less diverse diet. You’re more vulnerable to drought and to famine. You get pressed into these settlements. There’s more disease. I mean, honestly, if you read books — and yours is not a heavy one necessarily, but it is there.

The question that begins to rise is, well, why did human beings ever do this? If farming was such an unpleasant lifestyle compared to foraging, then for the people on the border of those two lives, why farming? What accounts for the human move into this, you know, apparently, much more toil-filled and unstable existence?

james suzman

Look, part of the thing is to take away from it, to make sense of it, is to take away the idea that there was any kind of choice. In some sense, when you look at a transition from hunting and gathering to farming, it’s something that happens over a very long period of time. I mean, we talk about revolutions. It’s not a thing that it happened overnight. It’s a slow process, a gradual recalibration of norms and behaviors. And trying to make sense of the transition to agriculture, it’s one of the great mysteries of the world today.

And what’s so mysterious about it is that there used to be this narrative that the transition to agriculture happened in the Levant around 12,000 years ago in the Middle East. And this great technology spread and was adopted by hunter-gatherers, saying, well, this is wonderful. Now we can grow our own food. But what we now know is that for a start, agriculture developed independently in populations where there was no chance of knowledge being shared across them.

It developed in Mesoamerica. It developed in Southeast Asia. It developed in West Africa. It developed in the Levant, all independently of one another within a very short period of time, a period of around 5,000 years, beginning 12,000 years ago. And quite why that happened, we don’t know. In the Levant, the most obvious answers are to do with this intense period of climate change that happened before, which would have transformed the ecological landscape and I think resulted in the case of these populations.

Suddenly, the fields of wild wheat is becoming prolific because of changes in the carbon cycle. And suddenly, people became dependent on it. So I imagine, in a sense, they were sort of seduced by a period of great [INAUDIBLE]. So if you imagine you have a wild stand of berries that, for example, you’ve harvested episodically every couple of years as a hunter-gatherer, and suddenly some shift in the climate happens, that this tree and this grove just becomes unbelievably prolific, and so you kind of move there and you become dependent on it.

And then after 200 years of being dependent on it, suddenly the weather changes again. The climate changes, and you start trying to nurture it to restore that. And I think some kind of process like this must have happened in the Levant. I think similar processes probably happened elsewhere. But as I say, it remains a great mystery. And I think it becomes less of a mystery if we take away the idea that there was any choice involved. This was things that happened slowly over many generations. And suddenly they were dependent on it.

And this is the way it is for all of us. We become dependent on things over time. We become habituated into them. And the other truth is that once you become dependent on a single resource, for example, going back to being a hunter-gatherer becomes rather difficult. The Ju/‘hoansi have learned over time, for example, to identify around 150 different edible plant species in parts. And they know how to track in the behavior of the animals.

Once you abandon that knowledge, it takes one generation to lose that. So one generation of eating maize and maize porridge and tinned meat, and you forget how to — many of the young generation of Ju/‘hoansi, they wouldn’t be able to survive as their fathers and grandfathers did. Because they simply no longer have that practical knowledge acquired through years and years of experience. And so I suspect that is what happened. And once we were on that hamster wheel of growth and agricultural change, there was no getting off.

ezra klein

So farming changes our relationship to time. It changes our relationship to work. And then you write about cities as really changing our relationship to want, that people began pressing in together. And then you write that they develop a form of scarcity, articulated in the language of aspiration, jealousy, and desire, rather than of absolute need, that we are around so many other kinds of people. We can see what they have or in competition with them. Can you talk a bit about the way density changes desire?

james suzman

I think there might be something within us. We talked a little bit about human nature. There’s something within our nature that responds very viscerally to inequality, to somebody having more than us. And again, this is something we see when you watch two siblings sharing out their bag of sweets with immense precision. There can be no inequality in how it’s done.

Cities are different spaces. And we’ve got to remember, even though most history of the last 10,000 years or 7,000 years since the first cities were born, there’s a history of cities because that is where people learned to write. And that’s what they focused on. Most people still lived in the countryside and made a living. And when I say most, I mean really 90 percent. It was only sort of small elites that ever lived within city walls. Most people worked on the land, producing the energy that they needed to survive.

Cities, on the other hand, with these sort of exclusive spaces where nobody worked to produce energy, but everybody worked to expend energy. And so the ability to monopolize, control the distribution and flows of energy resources, whether those took the form of food, whether those took the form of beer, whether those took the form of, ultimately, money or exchanges and debts, became a source of great power and became a source of great differentiation.

But at the same time within cities, because people were expending energy and because they have this innate creativity, this drive to work, you ended up with a whole efflorescence of new professions, ways, and things of doing. You have this explosion of art and literature. You also had people developing religious centers and centering ritual power on themselves. And these forces ended up creating many micro communities within cities. But these micro communities were often highly differentiated by the amount of power they were able to accrue, the influence they were able to work.

And this effectively transformed the way people engaged and worked with one another and lived with one another and produced, I think, this real sense of people wanting things, people wanting. You were continuously confronted by somebody who had more than you or somebody who had less than you of whatever it had happened to be. It could be any form of capital, whether it’s social capital, ritual capital, or capital, capital. But you’re constantly confronted by people having more.

And we have that gut instinct to say, well, if they have that, maybe I want to have that, too. And in many ways, I think that is the kind of driver of — if it’s said that we have infinite desires. I don’t think it is. We just want to have as much as the next guy.

And there are two ways of achieving it. Either you work to try and get what they have, or you try and take what they have. Or, as has happened throughout history — and again, it’s very particularly a history of ... there have been very few what you’d call sort of great, turning things over revolutions in purely rural communities — you have them in urban centers where you get elites brought down, crashing down. And then the process begins almost inevitably again.


ezra klein

You talk in the book about Émile Durkheim’s theory of infinite aspiration. Can you just explain that?

james suzman

Well, around that period when Émile Durkheim was writing, of course, this was the era where economics was becoming an established science, a science based on how people allocated scarcity. And there was the sense of trying to understand what is this basic economic problem, this problem of scarcity? What is this idea that we have such huge desires that we can never hope to satisfy?

And for me, it seems that there’s a very clear correlation between that sense of economic desire and what Émile Durkheim talked about when he talked about the sense of anomie, this idea that people felt left out or that they felt alienated in society, and, at the same time, this desire they had to have something, which they didn’t have at the time, this constant sense that there was something unfulfilled.

Durkheim explained this as a consequence of the transition really from the kind of artisan-based industries to early levels of industrialization as people moved into cities. And he believed that this kind of sense of alienation, of left-outness, would be ended because, eventually, people would coalesce around different kinds of artisanal communities in urban areas. And they would have a sort of sense of self and a sense of identity and a sense of purpose closely associated with them.

But I think this idea of constant unfulfillment is something very much associated with modern life. And part of it is because things are constantly changing. The goalposts are constantly moving ahead. So, for example, I’ve always been a bit of a tech junky. And I’m tired of it now. But the minute you suddenly reach your goal of having the iPhone 11, somebody has got an iPhone 12 out. There’s this constant reaching forth, this constant sense of unsatisfaction, this constant sense that as soon as we achieve a goal post, it moves onwards. And I think that is very much a function of urban life. And I think it’s also very much a function of this ever changing nature of modernity.

ezra klein

I think the natural way to think about that competition is material. You brought up the iPhone 11, and then somebody’s got an iPhone 12. You got a house, somebody gets a bigger house. But there’s also this social one. When I was reading the section of your book on Durkheim, you talked about how he believes at that time that he’s simply living through a transitionary moment in society. And people will figure it out. They’ll figure out how to regulate their wants a little bit better. They’ll figure out how to not have their head turned by everything, that it’s simply the explosion of material goods that is doing that.

So on the one hand, clearly, not. It just accelerated and accelerated and accelerated. But then on top of that, it made me think about the social media age. Because you often hear the same thing now, which is, well, we’re just getting used to these new technologies. Facebook, it’s certainly in my lifetime. I mean, it’s in my adulthood. Twitter even more so, Snapchat, et cetera.

But when I look at it, I wonder if what we’re developing now, for particularly people who are young, is an age of infinite social aspiration. So I mean, even if you could get a lot of things before, there was still pretty limited community in which you could play out the drama of your social standing, right? It was the people you knew and your family and your neighborhood. I mean, it was sort of geographically bound for most people most of the time.

And now it just isn’t. And you might have different social standings in different networks, some of which you’re participating in as a pseudonymous player on Reddit. And then you have your real name on Instagram and on Twitter.

And I’m curious how you think about that. Because a big driver here isn’t just material goods. I mean, material goods partially drive because they’re reflections of our social identities. But now, in some ways, we’re also disentangling that. And we just have more direct social competition in all these weird, little social micro worlds. So I’m curious what you see in that trend.

james suzman

Well, I’ll tell you what I see. I see another mystery. So exactly as Durkheim imagined that we would enter some kind of next steady state, I’m now increasingly persuaded by — the data would suggest that actually, we’re now — we’ve entered an era of near constant flux. And what we are becoming good at and what I hope we become good at in our infinite adaptability is to become good at coping with and dealing with constant change. And I think it’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to untangle.

But I think that is the key. I think we now live in an era where there is no steady state for us to aspire to. There is no end game in front of us. And that requires an adjustment in our mindset in terms of how we engage with the world around us. And I may be being naive, but I take some encouragement from how some younger people actually seem relatively at ease with it. I’m constantly surprised by my own children, for example, in this respect.

ezra klein

I hear people say that. And my interactions with young people and then my read of the data is that they’re not at ease with it. Very, very, very high rates of anxiety, of depression, of competition, of fear, of suicide, for that matter. One of the things that I think all this comes to is, we’re in an era where the dominant systems in which we live have hooked into our desires. And they use them to propel everything forward, right? That’s a part of our humanity that you could either emphasize or deemphasize, to the point of this whole conversation. And we really emphasize it. And so you get weird things now, weird outcomes, when you have direct conflict between the desire for leisure and the desire for work.

So one of them is — a really strange trend in affluent countries today, is that elites are often working more than ever. They often work more than the middle and lower class work, at least on the income scale. That’s weird because it used to be the point of being rich is you didn’t have to work. You did all kinds of things to show you weren’t working.

But now there is survey research published a few years ago in the Harvard Business Review that found that 62 percent of high-earning individuals work over 50 hours a week. More than a third work over 60 hours a week. One in 10 works over 80 hours a week. So I mean, here are people who absolutely could have abundance, right? To some degree, I’m one of these people. I work a lot. And I’m very tired. And I recognize that I’m enough outside it to realize something is weird in this. But I’m curious how you look at that. Because I mean, we really are seeing the collision here. And even the people with the most capacity to choose leisure are choosing labor. And they’re doing so more and more. I mean, it’s different than it was 100 years ago.

james suzman

Yeah, look, it’s a very strange phenomenon, in some senses. And in others, it seems perfectly natural. I mean, again, I tend to take an anthropologist’s eye on this. Most of us are urban creatures now. We get our sense of identity, our sense of self-esteem, our sense of purpose, our sense of community comes from work and the workplace. So beyond that kind of purposefulness, even if we’re doing a job which is not particularly important but it gets us money, we continue to do it.

And I think, in many senses, because the people who are in the upper echelons, the workers, the highest paid and the best rewarded, actually, they’re in a position to dictate the nature of their work and to be able to nudge their work towards being something that actually gives them great satisfaction. So in a sense, it’s a kind of privilege. And if you look through history, again, I mean, lots of people who were — we talk about the original aspiration to be — you do your work, and then you get free for leisure. But people with that leisure time spent that time doing work that meant something to them.

And it just so happens I think in the urban modern world that we live in, for many people, there actually isn’t a great deal of life outside of work. And as cultural creatures, that’s what we do. We stay with the communities and systems and processes and ways of doing things that make our lives meaningful that we are comfortable with and that we are confident with and that don’t challenge us the whole time. So I think that’s probably where the culture of workism comes from. But again, I view it very much as a cultural phenomenon.

ezra klein

One of the things you say in the book is that the purpose of the book is to, quote, “loosen the claw-like grasp that scarcity economics has held over our working lives.” Which is to say that you want to nudge us towards the idea that we can have lives of more leisure. We could enjoy the abundance we’ve created. But I found the book very pessimistic on this score. If you think the problem with how much we work is we simply haven’t produced enough, well, then you could say, well, maybe we’ll invent AI, or we’ll start mining asteroids or whatever it is. And we’ll get over that production threshold.

But if you think that our society’s obsession with work, it’s not simply a modern reflection. It kind of sits at the heart of how we’ve built human civilization since the move to agriculture itself and that it’s kind of conquered all these societies that didn’t have it, it’s won all these contests when it came to conflict with somebody saying, well, how about more leisure?

Then it’s much harder because it implies that sort of nothing we actually invent will do it. We’ll just always come up with ways to work more, or we will become miserable in the face of automation because people will feel not like they’re sharing in abundance, but they’ve been deprived of dignity, of a job of meaning. So instead of having a post-AI and -automation utopia, you have a dystopia. I’d love you to convince me I’m wrong, that there’s a more optimistic read of the trends here.

james suzman

Well, no, let me put it this way. I am certainly not an optimist, but I always remain hopeful. Because if we abandon hope, then what good is it doing? What good is that doing anything? My sense of where we are and where we could be is pretty much aligned to Keynes’s dream. I mean, that’s really why I actually quote him so often. Because I kind of buy into the idea that once we are liberated from tedious labor, once we’re liberated from the difficult work, which I think machines can and will do, then we are free to do work that is meaningful to us.

And at the moment, of the many inequities of the way our economic systems are organized is you get lots of truly gifted people in one or other sphere of life who end up doing work completely unrelated to that gift. So I live in a university town, Cambridge. And I’ve lost count of the number of friends I’ve had who’ve gone from jobs that I think were doing really useful research, whether it’s in chemical engineering to medicine, to taking some job in the private sector to improve the consistency of honey or the sparkliness of somebody’s dress or something. We tend to get incentivized into doing work that is not particularly interesting.

I imagine that if we’re in a world where, actually, all of our basic needs, very basic needs were met, that people didn’t have to do unsatisfactory work, that we would end up, actually, having more of the good work done in the first place. So I mean, it’s a relatively trite example. But I think it’s one that serves the piece. I mean, the world is full of really great musicians who, pretty much, nobody’s ever listened to. And nobody’s ever listened to them because they just haven’t had the good luck, the kind of break that you need. For every top selling artist, there are 10,000 other ones who are just as skilled and accomplished who’ve never got anywhere.

And that’s because they’ve had to get stuck in doing whatever minimum wage jobs to get by because of the way we’ve organized our system of work. And what I think is that there are opportunities in front of us. And this is why I say we’ve got to unshackle ourselves from this sort of focus of perpetual growth and start asking ourselves this question, how do we use our wealth as well as we can?

And we can think about that wealth in terms of, again, this phrase, “human flourishing” in terms of enriching ourselves spiritually, in terms of enriching ourselves mentally and in terms of doing things that are of greater social good. And I think that world is possible, a world where people do what they want and that produces greater total value for everybody. That continues to drive some kind of progress forward for all of our benefit.

ezra klein

Let me ask about an example in the book where that came into direct question. You have this great sequence on the Kellogg’s cereal company. And that in the 1930s, Kellogg’s, they actually did it. I mean, they increased productivity. They went down to a 30-hour work week. They were paying people more per hour than they had been before. I mean, it’s everything you would think that we want. And so then people would have all this extra time, at least theoretically, in which they could make music or write novels or just hang out with their friends or play sports or take a walk, whatever it might be.

And then the denouement of that story was kind of shocking to me. It’s not that the Kellogg’s corporation brings back the 40-hour workweek, but the work force votes back the 40-hour workweek, largely because in a world of more material goods, they want the option to be able to make more money. So how do you read that story? Because that struck me as a real example of like, OK, we had the choice. And it wasn’t like the capitalists forced it back in. But the workers said, nah, in the society, unless everybody jumps at the same time, we’re not going to be the only ones working 30 hours a week and not being able to give our families or ourselves as much as everybody else is getting.

james suzman

I think the guy who produced a great answer to that particular question was John Kenneth Galbraith, when he wrote that book, “The Affluent Society,” round about the same time that the Kellogg’s crew were busy voting themselves back into 40-hour shifts. And this was an era I think where you had massive amplification of desire created through advertising.

So when Galbraith wrote that book in 1950 — I can’t remember the exact year — he wrote it effectively as a warning to say that America was squandering its newfound wealth. And the way it was squandering it was by manufacturing desires. He made the case, effectively, that America had defeated scarcity. And that if they organized their resources well, then everybody could be comfortably looked after.

But he said the great risk was that now that we’ve defeated scarcity, this kind of desire for more amongst certainly, in particular, I suppose, wealthy entrenched businesses meant that people were manufacturing scarcity, and that this great scarcity manufacturing machine, in the form of an advertising industry, began to expand and play directly into people’s homes, elevated from small newspaper adverts to suddenly this wonderful television box and radio and just pumping desire into people’s home. Your life will not be complete if you don’t have x, y, or z.

And this, of course, was a great driver of growth, in a sense. This remains one of the great drivers of growth in our world, this idea that if we have a little bit more, we’ll find that point of satisfaction. And I think that’s really what happened. I think the Kellogg’s, that era, Kellogg’s was sort of swept up in this wonderful set of new great conveniences that emerged in post-war America, as all these sort of wartime technologies were repurposed into domestic technologies, from microwave ovens to all these great new wonders. And people wanted a part of them. And then advertisers were saying, well, if you’ve got more and more of this, then you might make it. And so, yeah, it fed. Basically, this desire took people to a point where they thought we need more.

ezra klein

Yeah, that’s a little funny piece of it there. But I want to hold on that the point about advertising. I’m always thrilled when a podcast gets back into “The Affluent Society.” I love John Kenneth Galbraith. I had Noam Chomsky on the show a couple of months back, and we ended up talking about that for a while.

But that’s one of the places where I get very pessimistic. So I think when people talk about a post-work world, the typical technological savior is artificial intelligence and automation. The idea is that we’re going to have this super intelligent, cognitive, zero marginal cost workforce creating all the stuff for us. And we’ll just get to enjoy it.

And then I look at who is actually creating, who is actually creating the big AI platforms. And I see Google, and I see Facebook. And I see Open AI, which is hitched, in some ways, now to Microsoft and others. It’s more complicated, but still, there’s some connection to these companies. And you can keep going on like this. But Google and Facebook, who are two of the very big players here potentially, those are advertising businesses. They survive on generating desire.

And it’s already my view. And by the way, I’m in the media. I’m also in advertising and subscription, but an advertising business. And it’s my view that advertising is both inefficient, but also a pretty neglected economic force. The disdain with which a lot of modern economists treat Galbraith’s ideas just seems completely unmerited to me. But at the same time, again, advertising — and I know this for quite a fact — it’s usually pretty bad. It’s quite inefficient. It’s quite poorly done. It’s much more art than science. A lot of it is witchcraft.

Now, though, if you hook it to AI, feeding off of the level of data we have and the level of iteration it could do with us, maybe it gets a lot better. And so rather than this sort of AI world we’re moving towards being really, really good at creating abundance, I worry that particularly in the near term, it’s going to be really, really good at creating desire. More than it’s going to give us more of what we actually want, it’s going to become better and better at getting us to want more that we don’t have. Because that’s what the real business model is. And I’m curious if you have any reflections on that.

james suzman

I think, regrettably, you’re kind of right. If I see one potential silver lining to that cloud — and it’s not a very cheerful silver lining either — is that this process of increased automation that we’ve been going through is having a number of secondary social and environmental impacts. And these produce absolute constraints upon us. Now the environmental ones you’re familiar with — I’m not going to rehearse them — but we clearly are at a stage in time in history where we need to constrain our economic behavior one way or another, or at least, alter it, in order to respond to environmental circumstances. So that’s one absolute constraint.

There is a second one. And this is the more automated our economies become, the more driven by AI, the more work that is actually done by machines, the less marginal utility human work actually has. And when you live in a society where human work has diminished value, you end up with a society where the ability to work yourself to prosperity diminishes. Prosperity becomes about access to capital because capital is what you use to acquire machines, which do the actual work.

And we’ve seen this mushrooming inequality, coincidentally since the beginnings of the digital revolution in the 1980s and, obviously, amplified by deregulation and so on. And that is because wealth now accrues effectively to wealth. Money begets money, to use Benjamin Franklin’s phrase. And this continued growth, if we have a continued amplification of desire and so on and so on, I can only see this inequality getting worse. And my sense is, is that we are. It is, again, part of our nature to respond to inequality. And I see these tensions as building up and potentially coming to a kind of crashing point, which either forces us to some kind of action.

Now my speculation and, in fact, my hope is, is that before you end up with some sort of hideous revolutionary action, and we’re seeing temperatures rising in all sorts of places, my suspicion is that something, perhaps an environmental disaster, which makes us start thinking a little more globally and recognizing the interconnectedness of our problems, might take us there. I speculated idly and kind of wish I hadn’t, actually, when I finished the book, I speculated idly that something like a pandemic might push us into that kind of frame of collaborative thinking. And I’m certainly not convinced that it has now.

But I think with these things, one has to have some kind of hope. Because otherwise, we’re not going to be able to deal with the bigger problems that we’re facing. And the bigger problems are, above all, environmental, and secondly, relating to greater social fragmentation in an ever smaller world.

ezra klein

Well, I do think the one message of the book, the more hopeful message of the book, is that culture can do more than we give it credit for. And if a lot of the science fiction conversation, the utopian conversation, looks towards technology to usher us into the world of abundance, I think some of what you’re saying is that no, it’s going to have to be cultural change that allows us to live within abundance. It allows us to appreciate abundance.

So in the societies that you mostly study, it’s a lot of social shame and mockery and demand taxing. Those are pretty big changes. And it’s hard for me to see a near-term version where they become the tools we use to police status and to police desire. But I’m curious if you think there are cultural trends or cultural tools that are suited or more adjacent to the societies we’re in right now that could begin to play that role.

james suzman

I certainly think there are some tools that are available and there are some policy ideas that are available. I mean, we live in unprecedented times. I mean, it’s the kind of thing that’s been said again and again and again. But we have never before lived in an era of such extraordinary material abundance with such huge energy footprints, such a large population. Prior solutions are not going to work.

But there does seem to me to be a real willingness to expand beyond old ideas, for example, this kind of tired old division between capitalism and socialism, and start looking at other mechanisms that might be able to change the way we engage with things, like want and desire and so on, and indeed, change our relationship with work. And something along the lines, at least the moral lines, of the universal basic income strikes me as a potentially transformative tool in terms of getting us to, one, work better, and, two, diminishing, potentially diminishing, that sort of huge desire.

I also think that there’s great value — and I mean, I’m speaking to you from Europe, where we have a much stronger socialist tradition. But I think now that we are in an asset-based economy, it’d make perfect sense to have a taxation system based on asset ownership — in effect, a wealth tax, rather than an income tax. Income is so marginal in terms of real wealth creation at the moment, that it seems bizarre that that is what we’re taxing.

And if we instituted those kinds of structures, then it produces a kind of change in morality. In Denmark, they make a joke saying, well, we work three days for the state. And then Thursday and Friday morning, we work for ourselves. But there’s a sense that actually that’s a good thing. There’s a sense that that realizes the whole sequence of benefits. And it doesn’t drive people off to a mass, grand wodges of wealth, or it doesn’t incentivize it massively. And because they have that general system, things bizarrely, like asset prices, property prices in places like Copenhagen, remain relatively stable.

And I think there’s an opportunity to experiment. And I think because we are in unprecedented circumstances and because the risk is so high of not getting it right, we’ve got to be brave. We’ve got to be prepared to experiment. We’ve got to be prepared to learn from those experiments and accept where they don’t work.

And I think the best opportunity we have at the moment, the one that looks best prepackaged to me, is universal income. And I’d love to see a large scale experiment in it. And the problem with all the current experiments we have with it, that they’re basic income experiments. They’re not universal basic income experiments. And so we don’t see how that might incentivize our relationship with desire and aspiration on a societal level.

ezra klein

I think that’s a good place to come to a close. Let me ask you always our final question on the show. What are three books that have influenced you that you would recommend to the audience?

james suzman

So I’m going to mention three books, two of which are books that I’ve read recently and one of which is possibly my favorite nonfiction book of all time. And that one is Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost,” which tells the story of the exploitation of rubber in the Belgian Congo and the horrendous genocide that emerged out of that. For me, apart from being just a beautifully written piece of history, it’s a book that explores humanity at its absolute best and its worst. And it reminds us that in the kind of grimmest circumstances, there is some cause for optimism and that there is some basis to ideas that sometimes seem antiquated now, like dignity.

The other two books are kind of closely related in a strange way. “Entangled Life” by Merlin Sheldrake, which is, really, the story of fungus and how fungus interacts and is so critical to our ecosystem. And it’s one of these many books now that are bringing in, I suppose, a sort of mix between philosophy and very hard core science, but which reminds us that our environments are far more complex and interconnected than, really, we’d ever imagined before. And these are the kind of things that are driving the new extended evolutionary synthesis and really waking us up to the interconnectedness of our actions with those of our broader environments.

The other book which I want to talk about is “Other Minds” by Peter Godfrey Smith. And this is a story about alternate forms of intelligence. And it’s a mix of philosophy and biology. And it’s about his time working primarily with octopus. And so, in a sense, it’s a bit like that movie, “My Octopus Teacher,” but a far more sophisticated engagement with it. And what it does is it introduces us to the idea of possibly supremely different kinds of consciousnesses. And in the case of octopus, the fact that they have separate brains for each of their legs and that the main brain is actually a minor player in the mix is just amazing.

And he talks about — where it’s particularly wonderful is there’s now all this talk about potential extraterrestrial contact and alternative forms of intelligence. And it reminds us that intelligence can manifest in some supremely strange and very, very different ways, ways that force us to really question our basic categories of what intelligence is.

ezra klein

James Suzman, your book is “Work: A Deep History from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots.” I enjoyed it tremendously and recommend it very much, even as I betrayed almost every message in it while working on this to create the podcast. But thank you so much for being here.

james suzman

Thank you very much for having me, Ezra.


ezra klein

“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Jeff Geld, Roge Karma and Annie Galvin; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones and mixing by Jeff Geld.