What Cost Variety?

In 1930 Keynes famously predicted that by 2030 we’d be four to eight times more productive, and we’d use those gains to work far fewer hours. Though we could get by on less, we might work fifteen hours a week just to feel useful.

It is clear now that this won’t happen. But it is interesting to wonder what sort of lifestyle we could manage if we worked three to ten times fewer hours on average. And it occurs to me that we could probably work far less, and still have just as much stuff, of just as high a quality, if only we’d sacrifice product variety.

Imagine that we made just as many cars, houses, clothes, meals, furniture, etc., each one just as big with just as high quality materials and craftsmanship. But instead of the making these in the stupefying variety that we do today, imagine that we made only a few standard variations, and didn’t update those variations as often. A few standard cars, standard clothes, standard meals, etc. Enough variety to handle different climates, body sizes, and food allergies, but not remotely enough to let each person look unique. (An exception might be made for variety in music, books, movies, etc., since these are such a tiny fraction of total costs.)

I’d guess that this alternative could plausibly cost three to ten times or more less than what we pay now. Let me explain.

First, most products have fixed costs of production. That is, not only does it cost more to make more items, it costs to be ready to make that kind of item. For example, in addition to costing more to give you another gallon of gas, it costs to make a gas station and have it ready to sell you gas. With product variety, there is usually an added fixed cost for each new product variation.

Second, industry has worked hard to enable “mass customization,” i.e., product variety, by lowering fixed costs at the expense of increased per-item costs. Without product variety, industry would instead work hard to reduce per-item costs, at the expense of higher fixed costs.

Third, there is a lot of learning during most production processes, learning that makes it cheaper to make more items, even when the scale of the production process doesn’t change. A typical estimate is that costs fall in half when ten times as many items are made. So with a thousand times less product variety, costs would be eight times lower.

Fourth, there are lots of ways to save on costs when you produce at larger scales. For example, for most chemical processing, like making gas from oil, the cost of a production plant goes roughly as the surface area of its devices, while the amount processed goes roughly as the volume of the devices. Since volumes grow faster than surface areas, the per-volume cost goes down. There are also lots of ways to save on costs when you distribute and store more standardized items.

Even with a lot of bad management, the early communist revolution in Russia was still able to make impressive gains in output by using these scale economies. They didn’t have much variety, but they did make a lot of cars, etc.

What fraction of us would prefer to live in a world where they work only 10% as many hours, have just as much high quality stuff, but lose most of our product variety. If many of us would rather switch to this alternate world, then we may suffer from a coordination failure, of failing to switch together to more standard products.

I suspect that status competition is the problem here. We see those who don’t use distinctive products as lower status, either because they can’t afford them, or don’t have enough taste to pick ones well matched to them. Consider the distain expressed in the famous Pete Seeger Malvina Reynolds song Little Boxes for houses that look the same, and people who act similar. Consider the horror two women might feel to arrive at a party wearing the same dress. Or how folks at a restaurant are reluctant to order an item chosen by someone else at their table.

It isn’t like we are each born with detailed preferences for varied products, so I must own a tall white leather couch while you must own a short red cotton one. Instead we each try to construct a product-use-identity that is the right distance from other identities around us, and that well matches our few distinctive features. The more different others around us are from each other, the more different we must also be to not seem low status.

But it isn’t clear we are any happier, or that our lives have more meaning. This seems to just be part of the human status treadmill. A treadmill we don’t seem able or even much inclined to coordinate to avoid. Welcome to the human condition.

Added 20Feb: See a nice quote from Murray’s Coming Apart on increasing variety.

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  • Nemo Semret

    Variety also provides others benefits – innovation, robustness.

    • It isn’t at all obvious that innovation proceeds faster with product variety. And my best guess is that it hurts innovation overall.

      • rorysutherland

        The fundamental question here: economists like to believe that capitalism works because it is efficient. But an evolutionary biologist might argue that, like nature itself, capitalism is incredibly inefficient: its virtue is that it is adaptive, and the inefficiency is the price you pay for this ultimately more important feature.

      • Nemo Semret

        Yes. I was thinking of the biological analogy on both innovation and robustness. There’s no a priori distinction between superficial and profound mutations, is there? I personally find much of the variety in many products frivolous but I’m not sure we’d be better off with less variety overall.

      • Telnar

        A number of posters have made points in the vicinity of needing to distinguish between variety which is eliminated by producer collusion and variety which is eliminated by consumer indifference to most sources of stylistic variation without quite saying that.

        Economic theory and history gives us strong reasons to believe that collusion wouldn’t be beneficial for innovation.

        Consumer indifference to style variation is more complicated to analyze. My guess is that it would reduce total effort on innovation by increasing the minimum efficient scale of each industry and therefore leaving fewer niches that disruptive innovators could use to enter the market. That said, almost all of that innovation effort would be focused in directions with the potential to increase long term productivity, so I would expect total output to increase faster than it does today.

        While I would prefer the world with less variety and more productivity, I’m not in favor of trying to coordinate to get there. I think it’s too likely that we would get the collusion outcome as a result of any realistic coordination process.

  • Dikran Karagueuzian

    The opportunity to work less (by a factor of 3-10) exists as an *individual* choice in first world countries today. Books have been written advocating this choice, and explaining how it can efficiently be pursued. (Example: Early Retirement Extreme.)

    Of course very few people choose this option, sometimes not even the authors of the aforementioned books.

    Perhaps certain career choices might be interpreted as a socially acceptable way to work less.

    • IMASBA

      You seem to have an unrealistic view of the first world… Working 3-10x less would leave most working people in the first world unable to pay the rent and food.

      • Dikran Karagueuzian

        There is a wide choice of food to eat and rent to pay. Some choices are much cheaper than others. This is discussed the many books on the topic, one of which I mentioned in my previous comment.

        A brief caricature of the cited book is this: it is possible for a middle-class couple in the USA (say, nurse and police officer) to have a combined income of $250,000 per year. Their combined living expenses could be as little as $25,000 per year. Such a couple could retire very early, having worked less than 1/3 the norm.

        There is a large literature on the topic and this is just one avenue to Robin’s “work less by 3x-10x”.

      • IMASBA

        “There is a wide choice of food to eat and rent to pay.”

        Not really, there are legal standards that have to be obeyed and the prices of necessities are largely a function of median income.

        “it is possible for a middle-class couple in the USA (say, nurse and police officer) to have a combined income of $250,000 per year.”

        The median household income in the US is ~50k per year. $250k is not typical or readily attainable at all, least of all to a nurse and a police officer.

      • Dikran Karagueuzian

        A wide range of apartment rents in most areas can be seen, for example, on Craigslist. A wide range of food prices can be observed by visiting Wal-Mart and Whole Foods.

        The $250K remark comes from the economist Scott Sumner, whose blog I recommend. But salaries in major metropolitan areas are verifiable with work. For example, at SF General, an RN can make $50 per hour, plus shift differential and overtime. So for the nurse, $125K is certainly possible. I leave the details of the police officer’s salary to you.

        While few couples achieve this $250K income, it is very clear that it is possible.

        Even if you don’t believe any of this, the argument of “Early Retirement Extreme” requires only income significantly in excess of living expenses. This is possible even with a much lower income. Further, books in this genre offer many other suggestions to implement Robin’s “work less”.

        As I noted, very few people implement these suggestions, and it would be interesting to identify the constraints, whether economic or social, that prevent them from doing so.

  • The Keynes prediction about leisure failed, but what about productivity? How much more productive are we now than in 1930?

    Also: It’s often hard to distinguish work and leisure. Some people just love their jobs too much.

    • rorysutherland

      The Keynes assumption is also that people can choose how hard they work, with a linear relationship between hours worked and income. There are remarkably few jobs (taxi drivers, say) where this really applies. In most jobs the answer to the question “how hard should I work” is “a bit harder than the person next to me”.

      • The relation might not be linear, but it is still possible work work a lot less and earn a comparably less amount. Early retirement is one way.

      • Creutzer

        That reduces the amount of work-hours per lifetime, but that is a wholly different thing from reducing work-hours per day.

      • Joe Teicher

        I agree. It seems like Keynes didn’t account for the fixed costs involved. If I worked 1/3 as many hours/day, my commute doesn’t get any shorter. My healthcare costs don’t go down. The effort required to train/manage me doesn’t go down. All these factors make full time employment a lot more efficient.

        But in terms of lifetime hours worked (at least as a fraction of lifespan), I am not sure Keynes was so far off. People take a lot longer on average to enter the workforce than they did in 1930. They spend a lot more of life being retired than they did in 1930. There are a higher percentage of white collar workers than there were in 1930 and a lot of those workers consume a lot of leisure at work. The time we spend at home is more leisurely and less like work since we have more labor saving devices and consume less homemade food and stuff like that.

      • But I never mentioned hours per day.

      • rorysutherland

        I don’t really want that. Doing nothing is as unappealing to me as being too busy!

      • IMASBA

        People can sort of choose to work less, through unions and elections. Of course this is not realistic in this age of globalization and most people are on some level sensible enough to acknowledge that.

  • Chris Hibbert

    The hidden benefit of variety is competition, without which we won’t actually get the lower prices you’re hoping for. Fewer competitors means less striving to produce cheaper products. We’d still have princess phones in every living room and no phones in pockets if we hadn’t found a way to unleash competition in telecommunication and computing.

    I’ll take the hectic pace of modern life and forego the extra leisure you’re hoping for in exchange for the constant innovation on all fronts. 3-d printing, driverless cars, light-weight quick-dry clothing, and so on in every corner of consumer and industrial goods.

    • There need be no less competition with less product variety. Firms usually make variety as a way to avoid competition – more distinct products give more local market power regarding those products.

  • Noumenon72

    It’s partly from the production side. All kinds of people want to raise their status by creating their own game, customized leather luggage, car company, or whatever. The world doesn’t need another brand of organic burrito but there are fifty hippies trying to bring one to the world anyway.

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  • sabril

    I disagree — consider products which have been cranked out in large numbers for a long time, for example the 1911-style 45 caliber pistol or Levi’s 501 jeans. Yes, these things are cheaper than a lot of more customized products but not lots cheaper.

    Going back to your gas station analogy, I can agree that gas will be a lot cheaper to provide at a 10 million-gallon-a-year gas station than a thousand-gallon-a-year station. But what about a 20 million-gallon-a-year station? At that point, the capital costs of the station are pretty small compared to the price of gasoline.

    TL;DR version: Your proposal is likely to face a problem of diminishing returns.

    • RedneckCryonicist

      the 1911-style 45 caliber pistol

      Which goes to show that progress in firearms has stagnated over the past 100 years. Just about every gun magazine I see on the rack in supermarkets has articles on some random tweak to John Browning’s Edwardian/Georgian era pistol innovation.

  • Lalartu

    USSR gave the answer: low variety means shitty quality and more often higher, not lower prices.

    • Hannes

      Monopoly and no market discipline means shitty quality and higher prices. It is not the variety per se. Think of a market where a lot of producers do indistinguishable products.

      • Lalartu

        Many producers gain nothing from producing similar products, because economy of scale does not apply in this case. Choice is between variety and monopoly.

  • rorysutherland

    What you are suggesting is to some extent supported by the model adopted by European deep-discount grocery retailers such as Aldi, Netto and Lidl – who achieve lower prices not through compromising quality but through dramatically reducing choice, which allows them extraordinary negotiating power.

    You might also argue that one function of advertising is to encourage consumer taste to coalesce to a degree to which economies of scale become possible.

    In many areas, variety seem to bring considerable hidden benefits: alongside wider choice, it seems to bring robustness and innovation. Most innovations seem to spring from the eccentric fringes of a market, not from the mass-market centre. And at some complicated level, we do not know what we want in advance of its existence. Noone could have foreseen the popularity of denim as a fabric.

    But are there areas where the profusion of choice has spiralled out of control (female fashion, say, or pension provision)? I’d find it difficult to argue against this. Fashion has been described as “innovation without improvement”.

    • I don’t think the academic literature on innovation supports the claim that variety results in more long term innovation. More short term fashion changes maybe.

      • rorysutherland

        Darwin might disagree!

    • rajesh

      Costco here does that (lower choices, better prices). They amplify this effect by also a) increasing volume – i will buy say 280 Tylenol pills at Costco (only size available) compared to bottle of 36 i would pick at CVS. b) They have membership, group buying and group mentality also helps coalesce taste to buy certain type of products (just like advt could).


    “In 1930 Keynes famously predicted that by 2030 we’d be four to eight times more productive, and we’d use those gains to work far fewer hours. Though we could get by on less, we might work fifteen hours a week just to feel useful.

    It is clear now that this won’t happen.”

    It seems Keynes believed globalization would be over and environmental problems fixed by 2030. That won’t be the case in 2030, but someday it will be and I wouldn’t be surprised if the typical work week would become a lot shorter then.

    “I’d guess that this alternative could plausibly cost three to ten times or more less than what we pay now.”

    I don’t know: a lot of items are far less customizable than they may appear. The ultimate example would be the same cans with the same beer made in the same distillery but with different tickets and sold as different brands, or alliances in the automobile industry where manufacturers belonging to the same alliance use each other’s coachworks. It seems humanity already found ways of minimizing costs while keeping items appear diverse enough to serve the social function of variety.

    “A typical estimate is that costs fall in half when ten times as many items are made. So with a thousand times less product variety, costs would be eight times lower.”

    As with economies of scale the advantage has to saturate at some point: just because the price falls in half with 10 times less variety doesn’t mean it will drop 7/8 with 1000 times less variety (and I bet that on average there aren’t even 1000 different choices for any one item in any one market or perhaps even the world).

    “But it isn’t clear we are any happier, or that our lives have more meaning. This seems to just be part of the human status treadmill.”

    Yes, it’s mostly a treadmill that arises from a lack of coordination. You’d have to adjust the boundary conditions of society to do something about it, perhaps we’ll manage that one day by simply demanding a shorter work week (meaning a living wage is to be paid for working less than 40 hours per week, or some combination of that and a basic income) and item variety falling into line to help make that shorter work week possible (this can work because when you make it a conscious choice between more money and more spare time most people would choose more spare time).

  • DavidRHenderson

    Robin, It’s physically impossible to work three to ten times fewer hours. You can work less than zero.

    • Huh? If X is hours worked, X/3 is three times fewer. If X = -6, X/3 = -2.

      • DavidRHenderson

        No. X/3 is 2/3 times fewer.

  • Joe Teicher

    > So with a thousand times less product variety, costs would be eight times lower.

    doesn’t this assume that each product has 1/1000th of the market? If a few of the products have most of the market share, shouldn’t those products have already gotten almost all of the economies of scale that are possible? If Ferarri made 1000X the number of cars it does, I’m sure it could reduce costs substantially. But could Toyota do the same thing? They already make 10M cars/year (out of about 80M new cars sold). Isn’t it likely that at this point they are close to maxed out in terms of efficiency, at least on their biggest selling cars?

    I think that the situation is similar for a lot of goods. There are tons of different brands/models of various consumer electronics, but aren’t a lot of them made out of a smaller number of commodity components? It just seems unlikely that Vizio TVs could get a lot cheaper if Sony dropped out of the market or whatever. For food, I’m sure Alinea could get more efficient if it scaled up to the size of mcdonalds, but could get mcdonalds get more efficient? Probably not much.

    If you seek out low volume/niche products in order to feel special, you can definitely spend a lot relative to the quality of what you get. But if you buy mostly mass-market products its not clear to me that the cost savings you suggest are possible.

    • The more useful definition of “product variety” takes varying market shares into account.

    • Lord

      It certainly is doubtful there is a factor of 1000 to be found in anything.

      • I’d say there are easily far more than 1000 types of clothing. And meals.

  • rajesh

    I hear you but this is a lot of wishful thinking. For this alternate reality to happen, i.e Ford would have let Toyota serve up the all of the small car market, that is assuming Toyota is willing to share their future plans with Ford and that again assuming Toyota has a crystal ball to find out when Rajesh will be just ready to buy the car.. The example of monopolistic economy (USSR) also leads to a different type of problem – single point of failure. In this age of car recalls, if that Toyota were to have the famous “brake fail episode” and if it were real and then brace yourself. Last but not the least, the value we associate with products changes over time. Growing up, i had a couple of trousers and the sole purpose was to cover, warmth and hell everyone seems to have one. Today, for me it has a perceptive value – I have to look professional to establish “Expert Fallacy” Clearly, shorts and flip flops will not work if I am trying to close a big deal, unless if I am “counter signaling” for which I am yet to reach a certain pinacle of success and ego. (86% of content here are compliments to RORY SUTHERLAND).

  • awp

    What if it is not lower hours worked, but fewer years worked. If I had stayed an engineer and committed myself to the 1930s living standard, I probably would have only had to work ten years, fifteen at most.

    I still would have had worked my 50-60 hours of week, thus shortening years worked, but that is because of the fixed cost of hiring engineering labor, i.e. office space, computer, software licenses, health insurance.

  • Lord

    Considering this as a function of where we spend our money, manufacturing is not that significant. The really expensive items are positional, like housing, service, like medicine and education, financial, like retirement, energy, where there is little distinction, all of which have little economy of scale to begin with though they could probably be improved. Even food is less than 10% of budgets though we could have fewer restaurants. I do expect emerging markets to take this approach and to gain a modestly comfortable material living long before they can ever afford expensive items (cell phones rather than running water), but if they are giving up two thirds of income, they will be giving up most expensive items. They will adopt those with most utility but running water will still be expensive.

    • IMASBA

      Housing is a really bad example: we pay for land because our society distributes land through auctioning. Land does however not require man hours to be made, so the money we spend on land does not factor into productivity or length of the work week. Simply put if we worked less hours there’d still be the same amount of land and the price of land as expressed in money would automatically adjust. The same goes for all natural resources that are taken from nature effortlessly or almost effortlessly (like drinking water from a river).

      • Lord

        A really bad example for the argument variety costs or a really good example that it costs greatly but is unavoidable and buys us little?

      • IMASBA

        Robin argued that variety uses up man hours, not necessarily money.

      • Lord

        So a really good argument the greatest variety takes no man hours to produce so none can be saved but cost a great deal of money, though one could argue it is not a cost at all but just an investment that represents future consumption. If you want to minimize man hours, you would want to minimize services since they have the greatest variety of all. In this, manufactured variety actually tends to economize on them though some of them will be your own that aren’t measured.

      • IMASBA

        Making services less varied would indeed cut the most man hours.

        What I was talking about was something different though. You first said a lot of people’s income goes to housing and since people really need housing we can’t cut that. You implied that that means we can’t cut man hours by a lot. I replied that any income spent on buying or renting land doesn’t represent any man hours at all: it’s not the price in money you should be looking at but the man hours that go into it. Sometimes something cheap and unimportant takes up a lot of man hours and sometimes something expensive and important takes up (almost) no man hours. If a shorter work week became common no one would have to compromise on the size of their home any more than they do now and Robin argues we might not have to compromise much on other stuff either if we’re content with less variety (and since your neighbor would have less variety to choose from as well you do not have to lose any status either).

      • Lord

        That’s the problem though. We are in a prisoners dilemma. Everyone wants everyone else to work less so they can work less, but won’t work less unless everyone else does, and a little bit less than that for good measure. Nearly the entirety of women working has gone to positional goods or we only now count what they used to do as housework. The former would mean no less at all while the latter highlights a measurement problem, one that less variety could easily result in. If eliminating Chipolte led their customers to each cook their own, the savings is illusory.

      • IMASBA

        It’s not really a prisoner’s dilemma: the minimum wage in most countries is legally based on a certain length of the workweek, that length has been changed in the past and can change again. Basically what you have to do to make the standard workweek 20 hours long is change the law so that minimum wage is paid for 20 hours of work. Then you have to give civil servants, government contractors and semi-government workers 20 hour-per-week contracts to speed up the adoption of a 20 hour workweek throughout society. This strategy has been carried out successfully in many countries over the last century.

        “If eliminating Chipolte led their customers to each cook their own, the savings is illusory.”

        Yeah, but if there are 15 brands of Chipotle then removing 10 of them would not be a problem (there are probably only 3 or 4 parent companies behind all those brands anyway so fears for less competition are unfounded).

      • JW Ogden

        Land cannot be made but inaccessible land can be made accessible through the building of roads and this is important. Living space can also be made by building up.

      • IMASBA

        Sure, but that’s usually (skyscrapers are exceptions) not where most of the cost goes. People do spend a substantial amount of their incomes on just outbidding other people to own a certain surface area that has always been there and will always be there.

  • Grotesquely exaggerated variety is a major defect of capitalism. (An additional inefficiency is the resulting decision fatigue; see “Societal implications of ego-depletion theory — http://tinyurl.com/cgnt4lq )

    But socialists haven’t emphasized it. (Trotsky advised U.S. Marxists to promote socialism by promising workers more neckties.)

  • guest

    Why is that prediction from 1930 wrong? I’d bet money we can work 10-20 hours a week to support ourselves if we forgo those new items that were invented or became commonplace since the prediction was made 80 years ago. No Tv, no car, no phone, no health insurance, no ipod, meat as a treat, low quality food, living in a shared room or small, small house etc. Yes, we could do that easily. These are all things that we could give up but choose not to, and all these things started as unnecessary variety and still are unnecessary variety.

    But why stop there, living is much cheaper when you get rid of all
    the unnecessary things and only go with the bare essentials required to live. These things are unnecessary variety. For example, in southern california and a lot of tropical areas most people don’t even need clothing or shoes at all. That’s a lot of saved cost.

    Perhaps the author is dismayed at consumerism, but this article is
    utterly asinine. An analysis of consumer education, income inequality and correctly pricing or even being aware of the true
    environmental/society costs of items would be a more constructive
    proposal to ameliorate the impacts of consumerism.

    And he cites communist Russia as a role model of production…. And who decides what is unnecessary variety? Even weirder to consider is without variety, how would people spend their extra 30+ hrs?

    • IMASBA

      If you dial back technology you’ll also dial back productivity and you end up working just as many hours, if not more for a lower standard of living. Aside from that there’s the simple fact we need modern technology to feed 7 billion people and we need even more technology to do it in an environmentally sustainable fashion.

      Also, less variety would not mean monopolies, zero variety would mean monopolies.

  • guest

    And if there is no variety in how can there be competition? Why would there be? One company would have a monopoly. Cars for example. And if not, if there were multiple competing firms because somehow the totalitarian government forced all companies to share their plans and produce the exact same car. But then there would be unnecessary capital costs due to each company making it’s own factory, and the quality would be garbage because the only way to make a profit would be to cut corners. Yeah it’s a reductio ad absurdum but you really haven’t quantified what you mean by variety, and the reason we work 40 hours a week is not variety.

  • Jason Young

    A simpler explanation for all the surplus variety is the strong and widespread demand for novelty, which induces producers to continually manufacture variations on the old that are just different enough to qualify as ”new”. Trendhoppers chase around shiny new things and leave in their wake a trail of passe and forgotten junk, much of it not even recyclable. In consequence we’re left with a profusion of “once liked” things that retired trendhoppers (30yo+) now purchase out of habit.

    Reality contradicts the claim that people try to maximize their uniqueness within identity space. I mean, when I notice my friend has a red IKEA couch I might go buy a black IKEA couch. i emphatically do not buy a leather chippendale sofa or decide to plunk down a bale of hay in my living room. I have to buy something *similar* to what’s expected, but not so similar that others can infer the exact rule I’m using to decide what to buy.

  • Anonymous

    If it was an option, I would gladly work less even if it meant having less income. However, it is not an option in my current job. I either keep my job and work hard or I don’t work hard and I lose my job. There are fixed costs for my employer for hiring someone so it’s better to keep few people working long hours. There is also another purpose for me working hard: it signals that I take my job seriously, which is required for me to keep the job.

    Of course I could switch my job to something that would allow me to work less for less money, but those jobs tend to be uninteresting low skill and low pay jobs.

    My ideal job would have three properties: short hours, interesting and meaningful work and high pay. I can easily combine high pay and interesting work, but I can’t combine interesting work and short hours. I don’t think It’s very easy to combine short hours and high pay either. Somehow in this “choose two” problem short hours takes “two spots” whereas.

  • Philon

    with our economy’s present devotion to variety I find that many of my tastes are not
    catered for. Even among products
    that I have liked and used, many have become unavailable because so few other people like and
    use them. Given that my tastes are
    apparently so outré, I fear that I would be a big loser in a transition to the
    greater uniformity that you are championing. That is why I do not find your program attractive.

    • I’m wondering about the specifics: what taste do you have that is so important to satisfy exactly that you wouldn’t trade a 60% reduction in necessary labor time?

      • Philon

        It’s not one big taste; it’s lots and lots of little ones.

  • Philon

    Greater variety leads to progress in the longer run; it is
    part of our great “experiment in living.”

    Your post smacks of dirigisme, a mode of thought that
    consistently underestimates experimentation.

  • consider

    Guys, it isn’t 2030 yet…

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  • dan


  • DanT

    The Affordable Care Act may drive an increase in the number of employees in part-time worker status, and that might be a good thing.

    Employers with more than 50 employees must provide health care to most full-time employees. Employers who have fewer part-time employees will not need to provide as much health care coverage. An employer could structure his business to have no full-time workers.

    A shift to part-time work may increase quality of life and productivity. It would certainly alleviate traffic congestion (public good) and provide more leisure time (private good). Individuals having multiple part-time jobs would have more variety of life experiences while reducing the negative impact of losing one job.

    A President wanting to ‘nudge’ the US to more part-time work would incentivize businesses to do so through legislation such as the ACA. Part-time work is currently defined as 30 hours per week; but since that is a regulation, the President could lower it in the future without congressional action – nudging the norm to fewer hours of part-time work.
    This would also reduce the downward-inelasticity of worker salaries which has been an issue for business (and economic models).

    • IMASBA

      That’s not a shorter workweek, that’s the same workweek and with more time spend commuting. A real shorter workweek would change the definition of part-time work. If a 20 hour workweek became the norm then minimum wage would be paid for 20 hours of work instead of 40 and we would not view 20 hours as part-time any more than we view 40 hours as part-time today (the standard workweek was longer than 40 hours until the early 20th century). The ACA would require employers to provide health insurance coverage to employees who work more than 15 hours per week.


    I’m wondering how a shorter standard workweek would work for schools and colleges/universities. All the personnel would work fewer hours but we can’t just cut education hours. From the personnel side this is easily fixed by hiring more personnel, but what would it be like for the students who know they have to put in way more hours than people with jobs (a society where parents cannot tell their kids to stop complaining about school and homework since you actually get more spare time when you get a job)? Or is there a way to bring time spend on classes in line with the short standard workweek while still producing qualified graduates?

  • Danny

    I thiought the last paragraph about the human status treadmill was inspired. Much time and effort in our lives is devoted to trying to maintain/improve our status, and we wouldn’t have to bother if we all agreed not to do it.
    And yes we do have to do it now, by any reasonable definition, given our inherited imperatives, and the extremely high costs of being very low status.

  • Paul McKaskle

    Factual error: Malvina Reynolds, not Pete Seeger wrote Little Boxeas– a reflection on the landscape of Daly City, CA

  • Karl Keefer

    Doesn’t this ignore the way that variety creates room for improvements? The high-quality products of today largely wouldn’t have been possible without the variation that led to their invention at earlier stages.

    I’d think the same is true for the “just as high of quality” products of the future, as well.

    • This doesn’t make much sense to me. Do you have some data or theory that supports this claim?

      • Karl Keefer

        I suppose the theory behind my comment is that every improvement to a given invention is in some respect a variation on the original invention. Some variations prove to be almost universally accepted additions to the original invention, but others don’t. Without the variety, though, people would be stuck improving the process of building the currently-best version of an invention, without much room to improve upon it, since each improvement would mean greater variety in the product landscape, and an increase in per-unit costs.

        Yearly changes to the every car model seem excessive and incur unneeded costs, but of all of those variations, many prove to be useful, and are eventually incorporated back into other car models, whether it’s a safety feature or an improvement to the drivetrain, or something else entirely.

        Without the large variety of the market, I think we’d stumble upon far fewer of these improvements.

        If innovation is limited to the production process, then costs go down but the quality of the end product is static.

        Thanks for taking the time to read & respond to my original comment.

      • While by definition attempts at innovation are “variations”, most attempts to vary a product in order to let customers express their differing identities are not useful for long term accumulating innovation. Most attempts to make cars different, for example, aren’t new safety features or drivetrains, they are new body shapes and colors and decorating styles.

      • mardukofbabylon

        two things:
        1) rate of mutation – most will be harmful
        2) number of offspring.- aleast some mutations per generation will be beneficial
        Modelling product variations using evolutionary theory may be useful.

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  • Philip Goetz

    This is kinda pointless speculation. We don’t work fewer hours because, when we are more productive, consumer costs rise back to the point where a forty-hour week provides a socially-acceptable lifestyle. It seems pretty clear by now that some law of economics ensures that, in a free market, employees will always have to work as many hours as they can work, and only cultural standards (in which the whole labor force is a kind of super-union) can hold that down to, say, 40-hour work weeks and 5 work days.

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