What Happened To The 15-Hour Workweek?

We wanted something else more:

Well, one explanation is that there are simply more things to want. A supermarket today has thousands of options, and there will always be more things than we can afford.

Advertising—which appears on billboards, in trains and trams, on our smartphone screens, or cleverly disguised as a blog post—is now impossible to escape from, and it exposes us to a never-ending stream of products we didn’t know we needed.

These are well-known complaints. However, there’s another important and poorly understood reason for want expansion. Keynes thought that once our needs were fulfilled, it wouldn’t make sense to work more. However, it turns out that there is a certain need that requires an infinite supply of money to satisfy: the need for social status.

This ties into my writing on the UBI and why I don’t think it would end work as we know it. People will work so they can live around other people that work. So that their “station” is with those that also work.

If we had a 15-hour work week, how would we differentiate ourselves from the people that are only willing to work 15 hours a week?

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53 thoughts on “What Happened To The 15-Hour Workweek?

  1. It would be good if UBI didn’t end work as we know it, right?

    The idea is to lessen the punishment for having a hard time fitting into the labor market to merely having to live on the UBI versus on the cold pavement. Which, in that world, as you say, would be bad enough socially, and be designed to be not much fun materially as well. So there would be social reasons to work, and then the thought is that people will still want to have more money than less money, so they’ll still trade their time and effort (which will still be available to them to trade or otherwise use) for money.

    I tend to focus on the material side of that – that UBI will guarantee only barely getting by, so the incentive to wok and get money will still be there, but I think you’re right about the social incentive as well.

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      • I hate to keep being the guy who thinks UBI will be captured by me and my overlords… but uncertainty about how poor you are is a negotiating advantage; if I know *exactly* how poor you are, I know exactly how much to extract for certain key things. I suppose the notional idea that “competition” will save the day is what keeps hope alive. I don’t share that hope.

        My counter intuitive thought for the day is to restructure corporate charters… we have to deal labor in to the capital market and distribute the returns for automation more broadly. A notional idea is that Capital owns 51%-60% of an entity (including voting rights) and the collaborators in that enterprise each have a stake upto 40% – 49%. Capital raises money off of the capital stake and can’t dilute the collaborator stake. Various maths need doing to figure out how the collaborater stakes work over time and with regards various job responsibilities (my hunch is to keep it flatter rather than hierarchical – top managers can be paid more, of course… and they can buy into Capital shares with their own money, if they chose)… and whether those shares are portable, sellable, or rather a new form of distributed ownership where resdiduals follow you after you’ve lost voting shares… etc, etc.

        But if the goals are to look at inequality, address shifting production ownership and a brand new concept of capturing surplus labor… then new collective corporate structures are a better use of brain power… because UBI and guaranteed work have genuinely bad dystopian possibilities.

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        • There’s also the whole “wait, who makes the stuff that we have in so much abundance?” problem.

          Anything that can’t go on forever… won’t.

          Oslo (AFP) – “Norway needs more children! I don’t think I need to tell anyone how this is done,” Norway’s prime minister said cheekily, but she was raising a real concern.

          Too few babies are being born in the Nordic region.

          The Nordic countries were long a bastion of strong fertility rates on an Old Continent that is rapidly getting older.

          But they are now experiencing a decline that threatens their cherished welfare model, which is funded by taxpayers.

          “In the coming decades, we will encounter problems with this model,” Prime Minister Erna Solberg warned Norwegians in her New Year’s speech.

          “There will be fewer young people to bear the increasingly heavy burden of the welfare state.”

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          • Right… there’s some theoretical danger that the moment you calibrate the UBI to be perfect with regards the need to work vs. want to work is the moment the need to work evaporates and the whole system collapses. In order to prevent that, we have to build privation into the system; and that’s morally fraught and will always provide a pull towards unsustainability.

            I also think people are thinking about this uncreatively… the idea that Govt should tax wealth and then redistribute said wealth is something that the capital owning classes LOVE… its all a negotiation on what I get to keep; I have great tools at my disposal to make the redistributive taxes work to my advantage or mask my wealth, my contribution, or both and other.

            Rich Bleeding Heart Liberals and Rich Christian Conservative Business owners can do this today without Govt intervention… Most all haven’t, but some have; we can learn from their successes and failures… but the fact that we aren’t talking about this on the Right (for their reasons) and on the Left (for theirs) is a gap in the conversation.

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        • I understand your concern there but if the evil overlords could extract money from the poor that way then they’d already be doing it which doesn’t appear to be the case for the things poor people have to buy from what I can see. Creating a UBI regime wouldn’t eliminate any of the mechanisms that keep food or durable goods from skyrocketting in price (housing of course is the rub but that’s going nuts even now in certain markets and there’s no UBI to cause that).

          If I’m reading you correctly you’re suggesting that employees basically automatically have a 40-49% ownership in all companies and thus a form of profit sharing? That’s definitely dramatic and you probably wouldn’t find many people denouncing that idea on the leftier fringes of the left but I suspect you’d have to journey out pretty far to the left to find folks who would think it was feasible.

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          • Fractionally Earned Equity… not simply profit sharing (of which there might be none until an equity event) and not ESOP (though a company could also offer that to sell “Capital” shares to employees… it could not, however sell “Labor” shares nor dilute Labor shares) and not simply a seat on the board (though it also includes that through virtue of regular voting privileges), nor, finally, a Co-op (which are difficult for many various reasons).

            Very simply, since the corporate charter is 100% a negotiated politico/economic legal structure, and not wanting to eliminate the benefits of capital investment it recognizes the equity stake is more broadly distributed (and earned) through both capital and productivity and codifies it into the protections and benefits of a corporation (and certain types of partnerships, of course). An Hybrid which distributes ownership and profit where its created…with an idea of rewarding and encouraging productivity, rather than a redistribution scheme that creates negative incentives and negative external costs… etc. etc.

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        • My counter intuitive thought for the day is to restructure corporate charters… we have to deal labor in to the capital market and distribute the returns for automation more broadly. A notional idea is that Capital owns 51%-60% of an entity (including voting rights) and the collaborators in that enterprise each have a stake upto 40% – 49%. Capital raises money off of the capital stake and can’t dilute the collaborator stake.

          This implies that it would be optimal for workers to have a substantial equity stake in their workplaces. On the face of it, I can understand why this seems like a good idea, but with a little more thought the downside should become obvious.

          There are professions – doctors, lawyers, accountants, consultants, etc. – where the partnership equity model works quite well, but these are all cases where the folks holding the equity are the folks in control of the organization. They are also people who generally have attractive exit opportunities. Even in a firm that was collectively controlled by workers, each worker would only have an infinitesimal say in the direction and day-to-day management of the company. Does it make sense for the median worker to have a huge chunk of their net worth locked into the firm that employs them?

          Would you clear out your bank account, cash in the equity on your home and/or sell any other financial assets and then put all of that money into the stock of the company that you work for? That’s an awful lot of correlated risk. There is a reason that most people work for a paycheck instead of starting their own businesses. Equity gives you a greater shot at out-sized rewards if the business goes well, but it also makes you liable for out-sized losses if things go poorly.

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          • I understand your comment, but see also above. There’s no investment by the worker of their capital; their equity is earned in addition to their paid wages. This isn’t an ESOP or a Co-op where Labor pays Capital for a stake in the company (or in the case of Partnerships is both Labor and Capital).

            It is fundamentally a recognition that the gain in equity that accrues to Capital is economically inefficient with regards to the contribution provided by productive labor… it is a reckoning of this imbalance, not an attempt to force Labor into buying Equity. Which is to say, its not what you think it is.

            Regarding the infinitesimally small say in how the company is run – that is already the case with existing shareholder voting where 5%-10% ownership stakes are reportable and generally result in a seat on the board. It is likely true that Labor will have factions, but with 40% of the shareholder vote, I’m ok with those factions working out whether their proxies are pro-growth, pro-profit distribution, or pro-exit… it also means that factions in Capital will have to work with factions in Labor to set broad agenda… sometimes one or the other parties will be catastrophically wrong – that’s how it is today, and I have no illusions that will change.

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            • Maybe I’m not understanding something here.
              Is there a enforcement mechanism, because if the capital peeps are able to undercut unions and other things of that nature, what is to keep them from undercutting this model?

              I should clarify that undercutting involves picking corporation winners that aren’t using this model, and making winners of those who don’t.

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              • This, of course, is a very relevant question of how the model surfaces at all. There’s not a good simple answer. You are correct that given the rules of the game, the model may be sub-optimal with regards attracting capital, even if it (potentially) offers long term benefits with regards improved productivity and economic flourishing. That’s an ever-present challenge to all new models.

                On the other hand, disruptive models aren’t recognized as disruptive until they disrupt. It would be a short hop and a twist from an already existing model of equity start-ups in Tech using something like this to attract top talent… rather than all equity being Captial equity, having a new class of labor equity which accrues directly to the collaborator – that’s a possible path for disruption. Similarly, companies in need of restructuring and infusion of talent with solid fundamentals but perhaps difficult externals (location, low prestige, etc) could also potentially disrupt the labor market.

                But you are correct, in the current system, it would be a repricing event and it faces significant risk, and it also negatively impacts the managerial class that would need to see the long-term benefits… so yes, there are lots of good reasons not to experiment with this.

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                • Oh, I think this model has potential. There are models similar to this that appear to be providing workers with some quantum of incentive to be attracted to the model.

                  Thankfully they have mostly been voluntary enter-exit arrangements and force hasn’t become a issue. My wager is that if ‘policy’ starts making mandates, that it will be crushed faster than unions were.

                  I think the equity will have to remain outside of chance processes, as ‘chance events’ are constantly wiping out enough equity that people are having trust issues with those arrangements.

                  The other problem is how useful that equity is. If it is locked into long time horizons then that becomes another issue. The big hurdle is whether it will be competitive against models that don’t operate with that equity set aside, that would be just flat out efficiency coming after it.

                  It does have the upside of potentially increasing the local velocity of money, and better distribution of wealth, while maintaining the incentives to produce. It’s by far a better model than UBI right from the start. UBI will be a rule-by-force thing which will generate all the factional warfare over who controls it and who benefits.

                  The way you are thinking about it shows a lot of consideration.

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            • My question for the thought experiment is how the taxes would work. If the equity of the worker is a taxable asset you might risk denying them other benefits in the tax structure accounting for a form of wealth that is illusory to the average worker. I’ve heard of people getting f’d over in employee equity schemes like that in the present.

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              • Assets generally aren’t taxable… what is usually taxable in the ESOP model is the grant is treated as Earned Income and not Earned Equity… That’s an accounting rule where in this model the Earned Equity would be treated as a non-income event… until it becomes an income event. Look at it this way, if I buy shares in a company, I am not taxed for that exchange; I am taxed when I sell those shares (and only if I make a profit). ESOP’s (RSU’s and the like) are treated like a salary bonus and therefore I am taxed for an Income event. That might make sense under the current model, but it would be consistent and trivial to exempt the Earned Equity from treating it as income… until it becomes so.

                There are also other aspects that might come in to play… possibly the Labor Equity isn’t liquid in the way that Capital Equity is.

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            • My comment didn’t assume any kind of buy in. The steady state still ends up with a worker having an awful lot of their net worth tied up in one place and that’s not great from a risk perspective. If you offered me a bonuses of $10k in cash or a $10k stake in the company that I work for, I’d take the cash and invest it in something that diversifies me away from the present risks to my income. You’d have to sweeten the deal a lot to get me to say yes to the equity stake.

              And that’s ignoring how you get to the steady state, which is a whole other set of problems. If I understand your proposal, it basically entails expropriating a little less than half of all the equity in the U.S. private sector and handing over to worker’s councils. So, first you’ll have to figure out how to repeal the Fifth Amendment. And then you can start figuring out how to get anyone to ever invest in this kind of corporate structure. There is a reason that utopian regimes so often end in authoritarian or totalitarian end-states: the only way to get people to go along with this sort of thing is to force them.

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              • Point taken… but the offer on the table is $0 cash or equity vs. $10k equity. You are free to refuse. There’s no “in lieu of” that’s why its partly structural at the corporate charter level, and not a bonus.

                Regarding the uptake, I’m not personally in the camp of forced redistribution… I think there’s a self-justifying disruption play to be enabled. But yes, as I admit below, the way from here to there isn’t obvious until it is.

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                • There is always an “in lieu of.” The management of a company face a constant decision about how much of the profit to pull out of the company and distribute to the owners and how much to re-invest in the form of inventory, capital equipment, wages, etc. You give workers a share and they face the same choice. Every bit that they give themselves in equity is a little less that goes back into the company to pay wages.

                  And I still don’t think that you’re fully appreciating the risk concentration angle. The biggest share of equities are owned by big institutional investors who are investing on behalf of big institutional clients (pension funds, insurance companies, 401Ks, mutual fund investors, etc.). Your proposal would basically force a write down in other financial assets to give workers a share of equity in their workplaces. There would be some proefressive distribution on the margins, for sure, but it’s not clear that this would really benefit workers. Lose $5k off the value of your 401K to get $10k in equity at your company. Is that necessarily better off?

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                  • Sure, as I say, I’m not positioning it today as a top-down event which would be a massive repricing and reallocation of assets.

                    There are benefits and drawbacks to voluntary adoption… some of which could be mitigated by various Govt regulations and favorable taxation rules… it certainly wouldn’t be the first, only or last time we use these tools to drive new patterns of behavior.

                    If (and I stress if) there’s a model that works through the second and third order challenges… institutional investors will see risk introduced into their Capital Heavy (for lack of a better term) companies through some combination of reduced comparative productivity, misallocated compensation, and, if the other model does what it intends to do, a drain of top talent. It will be in their interest to re-price their assets, less they lose them to new and better organized competition. That’s how the system shows its working as intended, no?

                    While the Joint Stock Corporation has been a durable model, it would be very strange indeed to think we’d arrived at the perfect iteration of it; this is more iterative than revolutionary.

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                      • Not exactly, no. I recognize that this is something of a twist and the familiarity of the terms coupled with my poor writing skills combines – if I may borrow from another post today – to make an elephant. This is not an elephant.

                        Right now the surplus value of Labor is captured 100% by capital after expenses; Labor trades both labor and its share of said excess value in exchage for fixed wages.

                        If wages are reduced in order to access the equity, then you would have a point, for then Labor is buying its equity with the delta in wages. But, since this is philosophically and therefore structurally different, the wages remain the same, but the surplus value is divided (equitably, one argues) between both Capital and Labor. The wage earner is immediately better off having collected the same wage as before, plus an earned equity stake that he did not have.

                        In this case Labor is recouping what it has poorly negotiated away… a portion of the surplus value. Now Aristotle and Marx (incorrectly) put Labor’s share at 100% of the surplus value, but given Market Capitalism and the benefits it brings, it is not necessary to insist on 100%; but, similarly, it is a category failure to devolve 100% of the value solely to capital. In both cases, the error is in the 100%… not that equity should be divided in some fashion.

                        So, if today a worker has $50k and tomorrow she has $50k plus 5000 surplus value tokens, she is better off even if those tokens should someday have zero value.

                        It is important to note that she is *not* on the receiving end of the company pushing stock in lieu of cash… the surplus value tokens are earned regardless of and independent of the company’s compensation plans.

                        If you wanted to make a secondary argument that it is hard to see how such a system doesn’t correct or adjust for the different value of the surplus tokens from company to company, I’d grant your point. Perhaps Dunder Mifflin surplus value tokens are of dubious value compared to the annual return of $0.15 per Amazon token… would amazon discount their wages based on that fact? Quite possibly… possibly though $49.25k plus $750 in distributions plus increasing
                        equity in an ongoing concern is worth quite a bit more than $50k at Dunder Mifflin. At what point do we hit equilibrium? If we find companies offering a 100% equity plan, then I’d say we had overshot the mark…

                        If we wanted to allow employees to return their tokens for par value out of extreme risk aversion, then the tokens could be retired for a nominal amount; foolish, but easily accounted for in law and practice.

                        But I would agree that there are lots of valid questions about how this would react in the wild…

                        But the one criticism that simply misses the mark is that the employee has taken on risk by capturing surplus value he has already created and effectively donated.

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                        • The most radical version of your proposal would be expropriation and redistribution. Milder forms already exist in the form of annual bonuses, profit sharing, and stock options. I’m not seeing the middle ground that is something new and worth doing. The best way to make workers better off is to give them more bargaining power, either collectively or individually, and let them negotiate the terms themselves.

                          I guess really that I don’t buy the Marxist framework under which you’re working.

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                          • Well, thanks for chewing on the concept.

                            It is a little depressing, however, to be mistaken for a Marxist, given the objective of distributing equity more broadly as just compensation for work performed. Or, as Chesterton put it: “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.” The peculiarity of the concept I’m proposing is actually an internal critique of my own clique some of whom fetishize “entrepreneurial” capital over simple earned capital/equity/value. A middle-way of a third-way.

                            If you still see this as the same as bonuses and stock options, I’ll have to improve my explanatory powers.

                            [And darned wasn’t I surprised to learn just now that Tony Blaire had somehow appropriated the term “Third Way” in the late 90s … this isn’t in reference to any Blairite thing]

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                              • Thanks, that’s helpful… LSV certainly has a lot of baggage and is probably a bad term in itself as the Value they are after (Aristotle, Smith, Marx, etc) is really the value of the Product and not the value of the Enterprise.

                                So, rereading Wealth of Nations; yesterday in light of your comments, I was reminded how much of the book is concerned with understanding the Price of a Thing. And, in many ways, we’re all post-price and consider all value of things as subjective anyway…

                                I’ll give further thought to a less fraught term than Surplus Value of the Enterprise, because here we’re talking not about the sum of price the things produced but the political/economic relationship in the charter of limited liability.

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                            • , as someone with an interest in heterodox economic theory I recognized your proposal as Distributist in character. Like Georgism and Social Credit theories it has sound logic but manner of implementation is less than obvious. I agree that too many (most?) Distributists get hung up on the “small is beautiful” mantra and critiques of modern Capitalism-as-practiced to really get any traction. I’m sorry, but I’m not really that interested in being a small entrepreneur.

                              I’ve wondered for some time at a theory and mechanism for distributing the socially generated value of capital in the same way as Georgist distribution of the socially generated value of land. I read something once by a SV entrepreneur who noted that a company that goes public enjoys a liquidity premium of around 20% IIRC. IOW, by his reckoning, about 20% of the value of a publicly traded company is attributable to the bare fact that the company is publicly traded rather than privately held. That sure sounds like socially generated value to me.

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                              • Thanks, yeah, it’s “Distributish” but fundamentally oriented towards distributing the wealth where and as it is created as a “better” (if not perfect) way of addressing some barnacles on the barque of capitalism. Else, as I note way up at the tippy top, we’ll be bamboozled by UBI as a substitute Tax that the wealthy and influential maintain as an alternative to a more broadly distributed share in the creation of wealth.

                                Now there are indeed some distributists who are very keen on Georgist theories as well… I’m a little more skeptical than most on a few accounts 1) the math and logic seems to work pretty well in highly bought-up and utilized areas like, say, cities, or city-states like Singapore and Hong Kong, less so as the amount of improved land diminishes; 2) the appropriation of the surplus land value (ha!) as “common property” distinct from the state is an interesting concept but one which I fear has no practical application… so in effect all value is appropriated by the state, and that assumes (requires?) a certain level of trust that the State and Common Good are somewhat aligned, (Are they? Is that a monumental pre-req?)and 3) that it becomes a sort of weaponized land disposession as wealth from the city moves outwards (or in some circumstances simply relocates)… to say nothing of the pressure to abandon less efficient uses of land to perpetually more efficient – displacing perfectly good ongoing concerns with insufficient remedy for the loss of the concern.

                                Which is to say that it has all the markings of a well thought through modern economic option, but suffers (ironically) from working only in small, beautiful, high-trust societies.

                                But yes, I share your interest in heterodox economics and would happily revisit Georgist schemes as they are updated (perhaps already done) to address my concerns above.

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              • I’m curious, what is the threshold a construct has to reach before it is found to be a risk, or a non-risk.

                (I do understand this is a different concern than the one you made above about the risk of net worth being tied up in one place)

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                • Everything has some risk. As an individual, you want to manage those risks in a way that increase your exposure to upside while limiting your exposure to downside. When we force people into top-down, contrived schemes that we think are in their best interests, we should probably be mindful about the risks to which these schemes expose them.

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    • I’m a UBI sympathizer but skeptic for a variety of reasons. I think Erik Loomis on LGM is right that there are large aspects of American life and culture where people define their self-worth by work. This might not be healthy. The attitude might be changing bit by bit but it is a still a strong part of American culture.

      The people I know who support UBI are artists and academics stuck with day jobs that they would rather not have.

      This probably proves your point.

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  2. The big point that Chu states is culture and class. Keynes came from the British upper-class and they valued time over money and things. The reasons for this were in the article.

    Chu can limit his work because he is own boss. Most people can’t be their own boss and are not so lucky.

    Not every American values things over time but those who value time more often end up just sounding like “Come on guys, why can’t you be more like me.”

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  3. The global economy has made consumer items very cheap.

    But other things like rent and healthcare have not gotten cheaper, and have gotten more expensive.

    So millennials spend almost half their income on rent, whereas few decades ago it was around a third.
    Working fewer hours isn’t an option, even if you forego avocado toast.

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    • Saying rent is expensive is generally but not universally true. The rent in fashionable Brooklyn neighborhoods has skyrocketed. The rents in other neighborhoods has remained steady or declined. Sometimes these neighborhoods are known for violence and poverty. Other times, they are just very far from Midtown like Bay Ridge and Coney Island (though not as far as Dutchess County).

      But the problem with the anti-consumer crowd is that they don’t really have great rhetoric and it always sounds like pleading. They want everything to be gooey and sentimental in ways that look like diabetic-inducing sugar overloads to me.

      I do want a society that values people who dedicate their lives to public service and good work but my relationship to the world is still different. The people I know who became librarians want books to be cozy comforters. I want books to be a bit more elegant, sophisticated, and dangerous.

      Coziness is kind of dull and boring in my view. I don’t get the whole Hygge craze always. Or there was another word from the Fins about stripping down to your underwear, getting some booze, watching TV, and posting to social media. This is not for me.

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  4. I think you’ve nailed it.

    I make many, many, many, many jokes about moving to a nice trailerpark and having a minimalist trailer with high-speed internet, a VR rig, an 80-inch television, and a THC habit.

    But you know where would be an unpleasant place to live? In a trailerpark surrounded by unemployed potheads. (I’ll grant, probably not the *MOST* unpleasant place to live… but it wouldn’t be in the top quartile and I’d have to see the second and third quartiles to make an accurate guess about whether it’d be in the top half).

    You know what *MIGHT* be a nice place to live? Smack dab in the middle of a middle-class neighborhood near a small liberal arts college that is walking distance from downtown. You know what you can’t afford to do if you’re doing that? That’s right! Smoke pot. (Not “financially” not afford it. “Mentally” not afford it.)

    You gotta run as fast as you can just to stay where you are.

    This is The Rat Race. This is The Two Income Trap.

    This is Moloch.

    (That said, if you were willing to live with 1950’s-level amenities, you could probably get by with a 15-hour workweek in parts of the country. Maybe even support a (small) pot habit.)

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          • Ugh. Worse than that.

            “I call this strain Northern Moss due to its interesting dark green coloring with the hints of yellow and purple underneath. It’s a bit of an indica/sativa blend. It’s around 60/40. It begins bitter but has notes of mint and a bit of a citrusy aftertaste. If you cough, you’ll have notes of coffee on your tongue. The high itself begins with bursts of creativity (so use it near a notepad or easel) but mellows into a pleasant meditative state (with a side effect of couchlock). Try to enjoy it with a dark fruit juice like pomegranate or açaí or a black tea. I watched nature documentaries during the second half of the high and felt a deep and abiding oneness with myself and nature (I don’t think that comedies would work well with the high, but YMMV). Enjoy!”

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