In the American mind, the real economy is always mixed up with the moral economy. This mix produces monsters. One of the monsters is the myth of “hard work’.
Occasionally, your American householder wakes up to the fact that the stratification of wealth in this country resembles one of those third world countries, like Zimbabwe or Indonesia. This does seem to put the keebosh on the American dream, which is of ever upward mobility. So Americans rummage around in their mental space, trying to explain themselves to themselves, and they inevitably end up preening over the idea of hard work.
Americans left and right love to evoke the idea of hard work. If you work hard, you should make a decent living. And if you work harder, so very very hard, you will become rich. Which is how it happens that all the rich are hard working.
Hard work counts in the economy neither in qualitative nor quantitative terms.
Properly, work is measured in heat. Watts and such. Calories. So, if we take the “hard’ in hard work to be a quantitative measure, we should measure the calories used up by work, and award accordingly.
This, however, quickly proves to be a non-starter. The calories burnt up by the road crew laying down asphalt are infinitely more than those burnt up by the hedgefund manager, poking his computer keyboard. But the hedgefund manager makes infinitely more than the road crew – in fact, the leading hedgefund managers may make, in a year, more than all the road crews put together.
This is a distressing result, from the point of view of hard work. So a new tub-thumping platitude is thrown out – that we should measure pay in terms of hours worked.
Now, this is proto-Marxist position (a fact that its advocates are blissfully unaware of), but it lacks a systematic sense of surplus labor value. And usually one finds it quickly mixed in with a qualitative sense of hard work. The hard work of the hedge fund manager is defended on the basis of the fact that it is brain work.
Of course, this won’t do. One of the notions economics has borrowed from physics is that of ‘efficiency.’ Just as light rays travel in the most efficient way – i.e., seek the shortest path – in a vacuum, so, too, does the value added of labor proceed by efficiency.. It is much harder work, as any high school algebra student knows, getting a math problem wrong. In fact, this can lead to hours of work. Whereas getting the problem right is efficient – it takes much less time.
Now, of course, in spite of the economist’s delusions, the social world is really not set up on efficient lines. Still, to defend the knowledge that we should award the hedgefunder a billion per year on the basis of his hard work, we have to invoke some measure of efficiency. We can’t just rely on all those extra hours – for the longer hours might just be the kind of thing put in by the team of Long-Term Capital management as it was making like Titanic in 1998.
It isn’t as if the hard work myth is always untrue. But it has become increasingly dysfunctional – even neurotic. In the sense that Freud’s patients with their mysterious paralyses, and their psychic lives dominated by repressing sexual desire, were neurotic. That is, it is a mental dysfunction. For the rewards of labor we see in the U.S. today have everything to do with the intensification of exploitation – or, rentseeking on the advantages given by superior financial positions held by the wealthier – than ‘hard work’.
When a candidate rolls out the standard platitude that if you do hard work, so and so, remember: to make work good is to make it, always, less hard.