John Quiggin

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From “Housework in Utopia,” a post about domestic drudgery by economist John Quiggin, a passage about how we struggle to keep up appearances that were established under a long-abandoned societal model:

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

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

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

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

That still leaves a number of inescapably physical and essentially crappy jobs, for which technology has yet to offer a solution. The obvious examples for me are cleaning (surfaces, baths, toilets etc) and ironing (not such a problem if, unlike me, you can do it while watching a video/TV). Something these tasks share, and which is true of a lot of crappy jobs, is that we do a lot more than is actually necessary.  Social standards inherited from the days of cheap servant labour dictate much more cleanliness than is required for hygiene, and practices like ironing for which there is no need at all.

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

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


A bunch of my favorite articles from 2012. (A couple of pieces from December 2011 are included since I do these lists before the absolute end of the year.) All ungated and free.

  • Pedestrian Mania(Brian Phillips, Grantland): Beautiful piece about world-famous 1870s long-distance walking champion Edward Payson Weston, subject of the book, A Man in a Hurry.
  • Brains Plus Brawn(Daniel Lieberman, Edge) Incredibly fun article about endurance, which points out, among many other things, that as quick as Usain Bolt may seem, your average sheep or goat can run twice as fast.
  • A New Birth of Reason” (Susan Jacoby, The American Scholar): Great essay about Robert Ingersoll, the largely forgotten secularist who was a major force in 19th-century America, taken from the writer’s forthcoming book, The Great Agnostic.
  • One’s a Crowd” (Eric Kleinberg, The New York Times): Great Op-Ed piece about the increasing number of people living alone.
  • How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work” (Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, The New York Times): A deep and penetrating explanation of the complicated forces at play in job outsourcing.
  • The Power of Habit“ (Charles Duhigg, Slate): An excerpt from the author’s bestseller of the same name which explains how Pepsodent became omnipresent.
  • We’re Underestimating the Risk of Extinction (Ross Andersen, The Atlantic): I didn’t necessarily agree with the premise (or conclusions) of this interview with philosopher Nick Bostrom, but I enjoyed its intelligence immensely.
  • Hustling the Cloud” (Steven Boone, Capital New York): Wonderful piece about a bleary-eyed, middle-of-the-night search for free Wi-Fi–and anything else that would seem to make sense–in a time of dire economic straits.
  • Craig Venter’s Bugs Might Save the World (Wil S. Hylton, The New York Times Magazine): Fascinating examination of the titular biologist, who wants to make breathing bots that will cure the world’s ills.
  • The Machine and the Ghost(Christine Rosen, The New Republic): The author riffs on how the rise of smart, quantified gizmos and cities necessitates a new “morality of things.”

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The opening of a really smart Aeon essay by economist John Quiggin, who wonders whether we will embrace a world free of toil:

“I first became an economist in the early 1970s, at a time when revolutionary change still seemed like an imminent possibility and when utopian ideas were everywhere, exemplified by the Situationist slogan of 1968: ‘Be realistic. Demand the impossible.’ Preferring to think in terms of the possible I was much influenced by an essay called ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,’ written in 1930 by John Maynard Keynes, the great economist whose ideas still dominated economic policy making at the time.

Like the rest of Keynes’s work, the essay ceased to be discussed very much during the decades of free-market liberalism that led up to the global financial crisis of 2007 and the ensuing depression, through which most of the developed world is still struggling. And, also like the rest of Keynes’s work, this essay has enjoyed a revival of interest in recent years, promoted most notably by the Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky and his son Edward.

The Skidelskys have revived Keynes’s case for leisure, in the sense of time free to use as we please, as opposed to idleness. As they point out, their argument draws on a tradition that goes back to the ancients. But Keynes offered something quite new: the idea that leisure could be an option for all, not merely for an aristocratic minority.” (Thanks Browser.)

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