Eternal Employment:  A Day Job Worth Keeping

what-would-you-like-to-do-if-money-were-no-object- alan-watts-quotes

“We will all be employed at Korsvägen.”

In a post on August 31, 2017, I pooh-poohed the question, “What would you do if money were no object?” “Baloney,” I said, “Money is always an object.” I take it all back. Now you have a real life opportunity to answer the question, and money truly is no object.

I first read about it in this Atlas Obscura article. Google “korsvägen train station job” for more. The job is whatever you want to do. That’s it. Your only duty is to clock in every day at the Korsvägen train station, currently under construction in Gothenburg, Sweden. Your salary is $2,320/month plus annual cost of living increases, benefits, vacations, a pension…. Why? To make an artistic and  political point about the economic and work issues we’ve been talking about in this blog.

“Titled ‘Eternal Employment,’ the project is both a social experiment and a serious political statement. In early 2017, Public Art Agency Sweden and the Swedish Transport Administration announced an international competition for artists interested in contributing to the new station’s design. The winner would get 7 million Swedish krona, the equivalent of around $750,000. Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby, a pair of Swedish artists whose previous work was inspired by offshore banking, entered and suggested eschewing the typical murals and sculptures that adorn most transit hubs.

“Instead, they wrote, they would use the prize money to pay one worker’s salary and give them absolutely nothing to do all day.

“‘In the face of mass automation and artificial intelligence, the impending threat/promise is that we will all become productively superfluous,’ their proposal said. ‘We will all be employed at Korsvägen, as it were.’

“The pair also cited French economist Thomas Piketty’s theory that accumulated wealth has typically grown at a rate that outpaces increases in workers’ wages. The result, Piketty argues, is an ever-widening gap between the extremely rich and everyone else. Using that same calculation, Goldin and Senneby predicted that by creating a foundation to prevent the prize money from being taxed, then investing it in the market, they would be able to keep paying that employee’s salary for ‘eternity’ — which they defined as 120 years.

“A 2017 financial analysis conducted by Sweden’s Erik Penser Bank, which the artists submitted as part of their application, concurred. The artists had proposed paying the worker 21,600 Swedish krona a month, the equivalent of roughly $2,312, or $27,744 a year. Factoring in annual salary increases of 3.2 percent, consistent with what Sweden’s public sector employees receive, the bankers concluded that there was a 75 percent chance that the prize money would earn enough interest from being invested in an equity fund to last for 120 years or more.

“‘In this sense the artwork can function as a measure of our growing inequality,’ Goldin and Senneby wrote.

“Deeming the idea to be humorous, innovative and ‘an artistic expression of great quality,’ the jury that had been convened to judge the competition decided to award them the prize.” [1]

“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence.”

Oscar Wilde

The politicians don’t appreciate either the irony or the economic analysis.

”There was an uproar in Sweden in October when officials announced that Goldin and Senneby’s proposal had won, Brian Kuan Wood, a board member for the Eternal Employment foundation, wrote in the art journal e-flux, with outrage coming from politicians on all sides.

“‘Old Social Democrats accused them of using financial realism to mock the transcendental accomplishments of the welfare state,’ he recalled. ‘Neoliberal progressives accused them of wasting taxpayers’ money to stage a nostalgic return to that same welfare state.’ Lars Hjälmered, a member of parliament from Gothenburg who belongs to Sweden’s center-right Moderate Party, decried the conceptual artwork as ‘stupidity’ in the news magazine Dagens Samhälle.

In their own writing, Goldin and Senneby fully acknowledge that paying someone to show up at a train station twice a day and punch a time clock is unproductive and thoroughly worthless. That’s the idea. Many people believe that art is supposed to be useless, they point out. They also suggest that the pointless job could lead to the creation of a new idiom expressing apathy, indolence and boredom: You’re working ‘as though you were at Korsvägen.’”[2]

I personally doubt the winner would be indifferent, lazy, or bored. I wouldn’t. Would you?

Mark your calendar:  applications open in 2025. Here’s the original job description. And here’s a more condensed version.

[1]An Experimental Swedish Art Project Will Pay You To Do Nothing For The Rest Of Your Life,” Washington Post (March 7, 2019).

[2] Op. cit.

Utopia For Realists Cont’d.

“Like humor and satire, utopias throw open the windows of the mind.”

Rutger Bregman

utopia for realistsContinuing  with Rutger Bregman’s analysis of utopian thinking that we began last week:

“Let’s first distinguish between two forms of utopian thought. The first is the most familiar, the utopia of the blueprint. Instead of abstract ideals, blueprints consist of immutable rules that tolerate no discussion.

“There is, however, another avenue of utopian thought, one that is all but forgotten. If the blueprint is a high-resolution photo, then this utopia is just a vague outline. It offers not solutions but guideposts. Instead of forcing us into a straitjacket, it inspires us to change. And it understands that, as Voltaire put it, the perfect is the enemy of the good. As one American philosopher has remarked, ‘any serious utopian thinker will be made uncomfortable by the very idea of the blueprint.’

“It was in this spirit that the British philosopher Thomas More literally wrote the book on utopia (and coined the term). More understood that utopia is dangerous when taken too seriously. ‘One needs to be believe passionately and also be able to see the absurdity of one’s own beliefs and laugh at them,’ observes philosopher and leading utopia expert Lyman Tower Sargent. Like humor and satire, utopias throw open the windows of the mind. And that’s vital. As people and societies get progressively older they become accustomed to the status quo, in which liberty can become a prison, and the truth can become lies. The modern creed — or worse, the belief that there’s nothing left to believe in — makes us blind to the shortsightedness and injustice that still surround us every day.”

Thus the lines are drawn between utopian blueprints grounded in dogma vs. utopian ideals arising from sympathy and compassion. Both begin with good intentions, but the pull of entropy is stronger with the former — at least, so says Rutger Bregman, and he’s got good company in Sir Thomas More and others. Blueprints require compliance, and its purveyors are zealously ready to enforce it. Ideals on the other hand inspire creativity, and creativity requires acting in the face of uncertainty, living with imperfection, responding with resourcefulness and resilience when best intentions don’t play out, and a lot of just plain showing up and grinding it out. I have a personal bias for coloring outside the lines, but I must confess that my own attempts to promote utopian workplace ideals have given me pause.

For years, I led interactive workshops designed to help people creatively engage with their big ideas about work and wellbeing — variously tailored for CLE ethics credits or for general audiences. I realized recently that, reduced to their essence, they employed the kinds of ideals advocated by beatnik-era philosopher and metaphysicist Alan Watts. (We met him several months ago — he’s the “What would you do if money were no object?” guy. )

alan watts cartoon

The workshops generated hundreds of heartwarming “this was life-changing” testimonies, but I could never quite get over this nagging feeling that the participants mostly hadn’t achieved escape velocity, and come next Monday they would be back to the despair of “But everybody knows you can’t earn any money that way.”

I especially wondered about the lawyers, for whom “I hate my job but love my paycheck” was a recurrent theme. The Post WWII neoliberal economic tide floated the legal profession’s boat, too, but prosperity has done little for lawyer happiness and well-being. True, we’re seeing substantial quality-of-life change in the profession recently (which I’ve blogged about in the past), but most have been around the edges, while overall lawyers’ workplace reality remains a bulwark of what one writer calls the “over-culture” — the overweening force of culturally-accepted norms about how things are and should be — and the legal over-culture has stepped in line with the worldwide workplace trend of favoring wealth over a sense of meaning and value.

Alan Watts’ ideals were widely adopted by the burgeoning self-help industry, which also rode the neoliberal tide to prosperous heights. Self-help tends to be long on inspiration and short on grinding, and sustainable creative change requires large doses of both. I served up both in the workshops, but still wonder if they were just too… well, um…beatnik … for the law profession. I’ll never know — the guy who promoted the workshops retired, and I quit doing them. If nothing else, writing this series has opened my eyes to how closely law practice mirrors worldwide economic and workplace dynamics.  We’ll look more at that in the coming weeks.

Reckoning

“What would you do if money were no object?”

Nonsense. Money is always an object. We always have to deal with it.

And now, more than ever, we need to deal with it from a fresh perspective, says University of Connecticut law professor James Kwak, whose book Economism warns kwakagainst “the pernicious influence of economism in contemporary society.” He defines “economism” as “a distorted worldview based on a misleading caricature of economic knowledge.” Most of us learned what we know about economics in Econ 101, he says, and haven’t moved on since then, while the world of economics has.

“The competitive market model can be a powerful tool, but it is only starting point in illuminating complex real-world issues, not the final word. In the real world, many other factors complicate the picture, sometimes beyond recognition.

“Still, the answer to econonism is not to reject economics altogether. Rather, the immediate antidote to economism’s simplistic model of reality is more and better economic analysis, which can help identify the fundamental drivers of social phenomena or select the most effective solutions to difficult problems.”

His fresh take on “more and better economic analysis” exposes the limitations of theoretical models, statistical analysis, empirical research, laments the academic turf wars fought over them, and acknowledges that the study of economics “does not provide a single, simple answer to all questions.” Still, he says, taking a fresh look at economics “ is a crucial step in throwing off the blinders of economism.”

We’ll hear more from Prof. Kwak in subsequent posts, but first we might consider where we stand on this perspective from Albert Camus:

“There exists an obvious fact that seems utterly moral:  namely, that a man is always prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them. One has to pay something.”

From The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1955)

Who am I to disagree with Albert Camus? But on this point I do:  I believe that exposing our truths is a critical first step to getting free from them. And I agree with James Kwak that it’s time we reckoned with the truths we hold about economics.

“Reckon” comes from Old English (ge)recenian — “to recount or relate” — and from Dutch rekenen and German rechnen, meaning “to count.” To reckon with our attitudes about money and work, happiness and meaning, means to bring our truths about those topics out into the open where we can evaluate whether they’re making us prey or setting us free. If we don’t do that, we’ll just keep mindlessly paying the price of holding them — wishing we could be Richard Cory, keeping ourselves in a state of meaningless malaise that sometimes — in the case of suicide — literally threatens our existence.

Lots more on economics coming up.

James Kwak is one of those guys:  before graduating from Yale law School, he earned a Ph.D. in Intellectual history from UC Berkeley and had a career as a management consultant and software entrepreneur. For a sense of his perspective, check out his article The Curse of Econ 101 from earlier this year.

alan watts cartoonAlan Watts bridged the East/West philosophical divide. Today, many of his quotes read like a treasure trove of pop psychology advice. The title of his book The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety is certainly as relevant for our time as it was when first published it in 1951.