As the saying goes, time is money, so let’s get to it. In this piece Nathan Palmer introduces us to a magical genie with something to offer you.
Walking along the beach one bright morning you trip over a hidden piece of driftwood. On all fours, a bright metallic spark of light escapes from the sand below searing your eyes. Like a blinded archeologist you clench your eyelids together while sweeping away the warm sticky yellow grains until your hand settles on something hot and smooth.
“Are you done rubbing my lamp or should I come back later?” You whip your head around. A lumpy blue cloud with arms and a smiling face stands above you.
“My god you’re… you’re a…”
“I’m a genie, yes. Now how about you stand up and let’s talk about what I can do for you.”
“Do I get three wishes?”
“Nope. Not that kind of genie. Get up. Brush yourself off and get ready to listen carefully.” Rising to your feet you subtly grab a a piece of you hip and pinch down hard. You don’t wake up. This is happening.
“As the saying goes kid, time is money.” Genie says arms folded. He starts in while you brush yourself clean. “I have been to the future and I know how you will live your life and how it will come to an end- well for our purposes here, the more important point is that I know *when* it will end.”
“Wait, how I die?” Genie raises his hand.
“Can’t give you that. Plus, knowing your fate only imprisons the rest of your life; just ask Oedipus and Cronus. What I offer you is the opposite of that. I want to give you… freedom.”
“I am prepared to give you all of the money you will earn over the rest of your life. Take this offer and you’ll never have to sell another hour of your life to your employer. I will return ten more times over the remainder of your life each time with 1/10 of the money you are set to earn over the remainder of your career.”
“Accept my offer and you are free to do anything you like with your time on Earth. Keep working if you like. Volunteer, travel, paint, or binge watch Netflix, it’s up to you. You would finally be truly free to do what you want. However in return, every time you see me, before I give you your money, I’m going to painlessly remove one of your fingers.”
“So, do we have a deal?”
Would You Take The Deal?
What would you do? Think deeply about why you chose your answer. Write on a piece of paper or say aloud the reasoning behind your choice.
I have asked nearly 2,000 students to consider this offer and almost all of them have said they’d turn it down. The most common theme running through all the reasons they give me for saying no can roughly be summarized as, “I need my fingers to live a quality life and I once they’re gone they can’t be replaced.”
But couldn’t we say the exact same thing for your time and many of you sell that for almost nothing.
Thinking About How We Think About Work
An ideology is a way of thinking. We use our ideologies every second of the day to make decisions and understand why things are the way they are. However, despite how often we rely on them, seeing your own ideologies can be very hard.
We aren’t born with ideologies. We learn them from our community and the institutions that surround us. Karl Marx argued that the economy determines our ideologies and every other aspect of society (Marx 1978). In a society with a capitalist economy, Marx argues, that each member will be given a set of ideologies needed to make sense of capitalism. A group of sociologists called Critical Theorists agreed with Marx and added that we learn capitalist ideologies from messages embedded in the goods we purchase, the media we consume, and the symbols that are at the heart of culture (e.g. Marcuse 1964).
As a capitalist society, how do we think about selling our time? Do we think about it like we think about selling our bodies? No. We hold an ideology that selling your body, as a sex worker for instance, is shameful (Scambler and Paoli 2008). Selling our time, on the other hand, is thought of as a respectable thing to do. Max Weber (1958) takes this a step further and argues that in capitalist societies we view hard work as a holy and moral act.
My point here is that selling your time, especially for a small amount, could be thought of as a shameful thing to do. We could hold interventions for workaholics and demand that they wake up and realize that they are supposed to “work to live” and not “live to work”. CNN could run a news exposé about the horror of career-centered Americans. Instead we champion their efforts and hold them up as role models.
A capitalist economy can only work if there are enough people willing to sell their labor. Our economy needs workers willing to give their employer the majority of the profits their labor creates. This need is met when we take on the ideology that selling our labor is normal and a thing to be proud of.
- Would you accept the Genie’s offer? Explain the reasons and thinking that went into the answer you chose.
- In the U.S. we collectively work more hours than any other country and take fewer vacations (Schor 1991; 2010). How might we explain this using the ideologies discussed in this essay?
- Research shows that we often complain to those around us about being “so busy” as a way to subtlety brag about how important we are (DeGreeff, Burnett, and Cooley 2010). Because only an important person would be busy. Imagine you live in a culture where being busy is seen in a negative light. How would this change the behavior of individuals and how we reacted to people who claim to be “so busy”?
- Watch this short clip about ideology and the 1980s movie They Live. Describe in your own words how Slavoj Žižek argues that ideology is hidden in advertisements and consumer goods.
- DeGreeff, Becky L., Ann Burnett, and Dennis Cooley. 2010. “Communicating and Philosophizing About Authenticity or Inauthenticity in a Fast-Paced World” Journal of Happiness Studies 11(4): 395–408
- Scambler, Graham and Frederique Paoli. 2008. “Health Work, Female Sex Workers and HIV/AIDS: Global and Local Dimensions of Stigma and Deviance As Barriers to Effective Interventions” Social Science & Medicine. 66: 1848–1862
- Schor, Juliet. 1991. The overworked American: the unexpected decline of leisure. [New York, N.Y.]: Basic Books.
- Schor, Juliet. 2010. Plenitude: the new economics of true wealth. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Press.
- Tucker, Robert C., Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels. 1978. The Marx-Engels reader. New York: Norton.
- Weber, Max. 1958. The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. New York: Scribner.
This answer also reveals how much we stigmatize people with disabilities. Many people do not have use of their hands, but live full rich lives. ↩