Thursday, 4 August 2016

A waste of time

Thorstein Veblen coined the phrases “conspicuous consumption” and "conspicuous leisure" to describe how personal status is reflected in levels of consumption and leisure. He also described how high social status is reinforced by wasting the time of those unfortunate enough to be lower down the pecking order. In his day it was having servants to pour the drinks or open the carriage door. Today, wasting time has become vastly more complex and pervasive, so much so that we couldn’t do without it.

And so we naturally turn to dishwashers. When I switch on the dishwasher I save time, but not much. I could easily wash the dishes myself. Because I could wash the dishes myself and because the effort involved is small, it could be said that my use of the dishwasher wastes the time of numerous other people from the dishwasher manufacturer to the retailer to the electricity supplier and so on. Admittedly the waste is indirect, but the dishwasher is merely an example. Many people have to carry out many tasks merely because I prefer not to wash dishes.

Many of the things we buy are like that. We can afford it, other people have one and that’s a key measure of their utility and desirability. There is nothing wrong with buying whatever it is either, because that’s how a vital area of our economy works and we don’t want to drive around in Trabants, queue at government-run stores with empty shelves, or spend hours waiting for hospital consultants... oh hang on. Here in the UK the social boot is on the other foot in that last example.
Yet the waste mounts up and the worst aspect of it isn’t found in environmental mantras but in the waste of time, the waste of human life making, designing and selling goods and services we don’t need. Or political policies we don't need for that matter.

The problem is, this kind of thinking tends to be submerged in environmental rhetoric and mantras which sometimes make worthwhile points but tend to miss the big one – the time we waste. Clearly if we waste our time we waste our lives and we can’t go out and buy another one. 


Sam Vega said...

Excellent post.

One reason for the phenomenon is the fact that paid employment is considered as an almost unqualified good. Unless an activity or product is illegal or obviously ought to be so, doing it or making it is judged to be better than idleness. Your point plays on the difference betwen what is valuable because it is economic activity, and what is valuable in itself.

People who don't play the game - who opt out of that consumption and time-wasting - are exceptionally interesting, in ways that are often difficult to define. It might be because we think they know what is valuable in itself. And it certainly produces interesting trains of thought in us, when we decide not to buy some "desirable" item or other.

Sackerson said...

Dishwashers - I don't have one; I am one.

Demetrius said...

At the risk of being boring, when you buy a machine there is not just the cost of buying it. There are the added costs of maintenance and repairs, running costs and allowance for replacement cost, adjusted for inflation. Then there is the opportunity cost of what else the money might be spent on, whether that is a better deal or if you have the indefinable benefit of pleasure. For example buying better booze. Few people these days do these calculations, they just wave the credit card and in many cases will finish up paying more in interest than the actual purchase cost on top of that.

wiggiatlarge said...

The dishwasher, oh yes we have one a boon my wife says, yet certain items get exempted from the dishwashers ponderous cycle as the machine "doesn't clean them properly and/or it marks the surface" quote, this from a machine with all the German technology that can be thrown at it and costing a small fortune in salt and special detergents to run.

Still as a friend in Africa whilst we were visiting said to my wife when asking if he had a washing machine she could use, he's standing over there, guess who washes up the non participating dishwasher items, exactly.

James Higham said...

Wasting time becomes increasingly an issue as we near the ... [er, think it best to just stop here].

A K Haart said...

Sam - I agree, but people who opt out can be surprisingly dull too. One thinks they ought to have a fascinating philosophy yet they don't, or don't explain it, or just assume it's all so obvious.

Sackers - we are only recent converts. Have you tried nitrile gloves? They last for ages, much better than Marigolds.

Demetrius - as a recent convert, I still have the indefinable benefit of pleasure when I close the door and let the machine get on with it.

Wiggia - our cooking is fairly simple and there is very little the dishwasher doesn't handle.

James - or as one might say...

Sackerson said...

No, no gloves. Nitrile - the ones they use in hospital?

A K Haart said...

Sackers - they would probably do although the cuffs are a little short for washing up.