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Brother, Can You Spare Some Time?

by Miriam Axel-Lute on February 16, 2012


“As people become wealthier, time becomes their major scarce resource. Suppose that you are very rich but have only a few hours a week of spare time. Give some examples of steps you can take to economize on your use of time. Compare time use of a wealthy person with that of a poor person.”

That is a discussion question at the end of the first chapter of the classic economics textbook by Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus, first edition 1948, my edition 2001.

While the chapter is full of flowery language about how economists apply “warm hearts but cool heads” to social problems to avoid unintended consequences, nowhere does it provide a cool-headed assessment, data, formula, or logic to back up its implications about the different amounts of time available to wealthy and poor people.

Now, the kindest interpretation is that they mean wealthy people’s time is scarce relative to money; they have a lot of money, so that isn’t scarce, while everyone’s time is fixed.

But as phrased the underlying assumption seems pretty clearly to be that being rich tends to mean you don’t have a lot of time and being poor means you do.

This seems . . . Romneyesque.

Or not to pick on Mitt Romney (or not just on him), it seems emblematic of a bunch of ideological assumptions that influence supposedly scientific neoclassical economists.

Let’s break this down: There’s no causal connection that an economist could graph between having more money and having less time. Some people are rich at least in part because they worked or work hard. Other people are rich without lifting a finger or brain cell. Other people are rich and retired, or rich and working but afforded the kind of schedule the rest of us working stiffs would love.

Now, the textbook doesn’t exactly say that poor people have lots of time on their hands, but the implied contrast is pretty damn clear. And that is even greater hogwash. It is very obvious that the person who wrote that question has never been poor or known anyone who was.

Even if we leave aside the vast ranks of the working poor, who struggle to keep up with multiple jobs, being poor in this society takes a lot of time: Making it to all your social services appointments on an inefficient transportation system, waiting in the long lines, arranging child care, and gathering the paperwork to constantly certify and recertify for support that doesn’t lift you over poverty line; proving you are looking for work or that you can’t work, making everyone’s deadlines line up, and tracking down and fixing all the ways in which the system screws up; trying to find the one dentist that takes Medicaid, or the one apartment where your Housing Choice Voucher will actually be accepted, and shopping on a microscopic budget in a neighborhood where no healthy food is sold. You get the idea.

I’m by no means the first to point this out. Most recently, on Jan. 26, the Occupy Albany Women’s Caucus made the point eloquently in the Albany DSS office. Before being led out of the waiting room, women took turns speaking out about corporate welfare being handed out freely to those who neither need it nor deserve it; and those who commit fraud and criminal acts and not only escape justice, but continue to feed freely from the public trough while people struggling to feed and house and their families (and keep them healthy) are subject to intense and constant scrutiny and suspicion, while their time is assumed to be worthless.

The action upset many who worked in the DSS office, who argued that the complaints should be taken to those who make the rules. They should, also. But much like the Occupy encampments were about changing the dialogue, speaking the unspoken, and empowering voices first, there is such a culture of shame and blame-the-victim that adheres to people receiving social services, that I think under two minutes where those affected get to stand up in that waiting room and put those experiences in context, out loud, was a powerful and appropriate action. It should have been a reminder to those in that office that they and their clients are actually the 99 percent together, both suffering from the sorts of things being protested. Sometimes symbolism has to come first.

This is a historical moment when a much wider range of the middle class recognizes that their interests are not actually aligned with the super wealthy. But within the 99 percent, the effects of this broken system fall much more heavily on some people’s heads. To keep an authentic, broad-based movement growing, Occupy will need to keep both of those facts front and center.