A Lazy Worker is a Productive Worker

Could this be the seminal economic text of our time? 

In 1880, Paul Lafargue wrote a 40-page pamphlet that defended the “right to be lazy.” If his name doesn’t ring any bells, he was the Cuban-born son-in-law of Karl Marx. Lafargue’s slogan was later picked up by members of the Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”), especially in Australia. Aussie Wobs reprinted Lafargue’s pamphlet in 1917, and the right to be lazy soon became an IWW catch phrase. As the Wobblies saw it, humans were not born to toil. The ultimate goal of labor is to produce more free time; in fact, a life devoted to work was simply slavery under a different guise.

It turns out that Lafargue and the Wobblies were on to something. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Edward and Robert Skidelsky reveal that obsession with hard work played a big role in precipitating the current financial crisis. They’ve looked at the emphasis capitalist economists from Adam Smith (conservative) through John Maynard Keynes (liberal) placed on leisure, and argue that theories of economic growth without a corresponding focus on leisure trap economic systems into endless cycles of boom and bust. They also found a historical correlation between healthy economies and leisurely workers–GDP rises hand-in-hand with increased leisure time. This is because mere growth divorced from purpose is inherently alienating–we don’t know why we’re working. Ultimately, labor separated from leisure becomes irrational. We might work harder, accumulate more material objects, and (in theory) create greater social and cultural opportunities, but we don’t have the time or the ethos that allows us to enjoy them. Without time off or a leisure mentality, we drive ourselves in the purposeless task of seeking wealth, a pursuit that leads us to attempt to increase output long after it is useful or possible to do so. In other words, we work until we break the system! The Skidelskys’ remedy for boom-and-bust cycles isn’t likely to taught at the Wharton School of Business in the near future, but maybe it should be: demand less of workers and channel them into more leisure opportunities. When workers know why they work–to gain access to leisure and the fruits of their labor–they become more productive and efficient on the job.

So there you have it–listen to the Wobblies instead of the capitalists. You’ve got a right to be lazy and asserting that right will make you happier and more productive when you do work. The next time the economy starts to falter, prop your feet up and take a snooze. When you wake up, head for the beach. You’ve got better data on your side than the venture capitalists, so do your bit for the Dow Jones by basking in the sun.


Boy an Offbeat (and uneven) Delight

BOY (2010)
Directed by Taika Waititi
New Zealand Film Commission, 88 minutes, in Maori and English

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The lovable James Rolleston in the title role of this offbeat New Zealand film. 

1984 turned out to be the year the world danced to Michael Jackson’s Thriller  instead of cowering in fear from the arrival of George Orwell’s dystopia. Jackson eventually became a self-parodying cartoon character dogged by allegations of drug use, pedophilia, and botched plastic surgery, but in 1984 his dance moves and cultural clout made him an inspiration to people of color around the globe. Even impoverished Māori kids in a remote New Zealand pa (village) knew of Michael.

Or perhaps I should say especially Māori kids. The early 1980s were an important time for Māori identity. By then, protest movements aimed at reversing second-class citizenship had begun to bear fruit. North Americans generally know little about events and agreements such as the 1971 Waitangi Day protest, the 1975 Land March, the Waitangi Tribunal, or the 1981 Springbok protest, but each was a signal event for Māori wishing to claim their place at the New Zealand table. Think of the 1980s as akin to the sort of racial awakening experienced by African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance, or the Négritude movement among French-speaking colonials.

Do you need to know any of this to appreciate Boy, a film that had the highest opening gross of any New Zealand-made film in the nation’s history? It wouldn’t hurt, but you could just enjoy it as a quirky coming-of-age film in the tradition of Whale Rider (2002). Boy isn’t as polished, gripping, or packed with symbolism as Whale Rider but it is, in places, wildly imaginative, offbeat, funny, and poignant. Boy, its eponymous central character, is an eleven-year-old who lives amidst the stark contrasts of the storied beauty of the New Zealand coastline and the grinding poverty of the pa. Things are changing, but mostly on the inspirational level rather than the material. People in the pa are more likely to sport names such as Rocky, Chardonnay, Dallas, Weirdo, or Ju Ju as anything traditional, and they speak Māori as their second language; after all, the schools, TV shows, and advertisements are in English. Like kids everywhere, Māori youngsters live in a world that’s shaped as much by pop culture and fantasy as by reality. Boy’s brother Rocky, for instance, thinks he has superpowers, though they’re defective and only occasionally work. He also draws his sorrows–including the fact that his mother died giving birth to him–and those drawings (and Boy’s imagination) come to life–one of the film’s more clever devices.

Boy and Rocky live with a herd of cousins with their grandmother–Dad was sent to prison for petty theft when each was too young to remember him clearly, but not long ago enough to prevent Boy from constructing fanciful images of the old paterfamilias. The film follows a single week, when Gran leaves the kids alone to attend a funeral and Alamein, the father, unexpectedly appears at the pa. How much damage can he do in a week? Quite a lot as it turns out. Alamein–named for a World War II battle and played by director Taika Waititi–is a perpetual adolescent. He dresses like a mash between Super Fly and a dime-store Michael Jackson, and fancies himself the leader of Crazy Horse, a two-person posse that’s possibly the most incompetent group of criminals in New Zealand history. Alamein has enough flash to dazzle amidst the poverty of the pa and to give a to Boy glimmer of exotic hope, but he lacks the intellect or substance to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes for very long.

The film’s strengths are its fine performances, especially by the thoroughly lovable James Rolleston in the title role, and of Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu as younger brother Rocky. Waititi is also delicious fun as the father–who wouldn’t love getting to chew as much scenery as he does? Like Waititi’s previous film Eagle vs. Shark  (2007), the movie’s plot can best be described as a likable, often predictable mess punctuated by periods of occasional genius. I’ll merely note that a goat, a village idiot, an offbeat aunt, buried loot, and marijuana factor in. For all of the film’s obvious flaws, it is often reach-for-the-tissues sad, laugh-out-loud hysterical, and thought provoking. Moreover, it’s the best kind of coming-of-age film in that it offers no easy answers or cheap resolutions, but leaves you with just enough insight into Boy and Rocky to give you hope that they will escape both Jackson’s 1984 and Orwell’s. --Rob Weir  


Leave It to Beavers

Building better ecosystems--one beaver at a time! 

I live in an expanding western Massachusetts town that’s short on available housing stock. As in all such towns, this has sprouted new developments on lands that for centuries have been meadows and forest, many of which are bounded by wetlands. New suburbanites generally like the idea of living in sylvan developments, but they often have trouble with the reality of deer munching their rhododendrons, foxes carrying off Fluffy the cat, or black bears taking down bird feeders and frightening little Joey. But nothing seems to inspire their ire quite like beavers, those buck-toothed, pancake-tailed varmints who build domed dams that  (very occasionally) cause water levels to rise to the point where suburbanites living nearby get wet basements. God forbid the trunk of a prized magnolia–a non-native invasive species–ends up on the dam. That leads to demands for poisoning the beavers. (Note to complainers: Install a sump pump or move to an in-town condo!)

I live on a street that was once woodlands, so I steadfastly refuse to sign all neighborhood petitions for any sort of wildlife control. That certainly extends to beavers. Hell’s bells, developers cut down thousands of trees to build the houses on my street and those that adjoin it, so it would the height of hypocrisy to get bent out of shape by a few rodents taking down some saplings. Courtesy of the Spokane-based Lands Council, I now have ammunition at my disposal other than principled crankiness the next time the Beaver Posse comes to my neck of the (radically thinned) woods.

These days we speak of the “environmental” movement. I’m fine with that, but back in the late 1960s the term of choice was “ecology.”  Ecology is a stronger word in that it sees the earth as a series of interconnected systems, not merely a mindset about nature. Ecological research shows that each species–plants and animals alike–live in interdependent relationships within specific natural environments. Those of you who are science fiction fans (or anthropologists) have no doubt encountered some variant of the “butterfly effect,” which derives from ecology. In simplest terms it says that you can’t change one thing within a system without inadvertently changing a whole lot of other things. To boil it down ecologically, you shouldn’t mess with Mother Nature, and Mom likes beavers.

The Lands Council has pretty convincing data–some of which goes back to the 1920s–that shows that removing beavers from an ecosystem increases the likelihood of erosion, drought, and floods. The latter was an eye-opener. To put it in suburban terms, all those wet basement homeowners who want to run Bucky the Beaver off the pond are actually increasing the odds of devastating floods. Beavers not only prefer wetlands, their dam-building activities build and preserve them. Those wetlands, in turn, retain rainwater and snow melt, and give them somewhere to go when they come in abnormal amounts. They also raise the water levels that sustain vegetation. Therein lies the irony; remove the beavers that are chewing your trees and you’ll eventually end up with fewer trees, not more. Your grass, bushes, and flowers won’t grow as well either, and your soil will deplete its nutrients. Shrink the watersheds and all that water once absorbed in them will find a new home. Ask Smith College, which responded to beaver damage by cutting down hundreds of trees along Paradise Pond, which is now silting at alarming rates due to bank erosion. Ask New Orleans, which drained wetlands decades ago that would have diverted much of the floodwater unleashed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Idaho is embarked on a project that would cause some of my neighbors to see red: it’s parachuting beavers into ecosystems in an attempt to rebuild colonies. Washington has reestablished 50,000 beavers in the eastern part of the state. Mountainous areas of New Mexico hope to do the same. My town recently had the good sense to build a few water-diverting culverts that appeased the Beaver Posse at one of the new developments. Let’s hope that practice continues here and everywhere else; the fate of our ecosystems rests (in part) in the paws of Castor Canadensis.