People Aren’t Lazy (Including You!)

A guest post by Rachael Meager and Karl T. Muth

In order to highlight some thinkers I think could use a bigger platform and more attention, I’m going to be doing semi-regular guest posts — maybe one a month or so. Today’s post is by economists Rachael Meager of the London School of Economics and Karl T. Muth of Chicago Booth Business School. I highly recommend following both on Twitter.

In today’s guest post, Meager and Muth argue that the concept of laziness is not a useful concept. I’m not completely convinced — I think that heckling people for being lazy, while annoying, might sometimes act as a way of changing those people’s preferences so they don’t mind work as much. But Meager and Muth make a strong case.

People Aren’t Lazy (Including You!)

Rachael Meager, The London School of Economics (@economeager)

Karl T. Muth, The University of Chicago (@karlmuth)

Who is lazy? It always seems to be someone we don’t like and whom we hold responsible for bad outcomes, including ourselves. Such people are implied to be highly effective if only they would apply themselves, and thereby intentionally withholding their effort from society (either in quality or quantity) in some nefarious ploy. A horrible yet succinct example is the “Schrodinger's immigrants” lineage of humor, wherein immigrants are stereotyped as simultaneously stealing your job and too lazy to work.

So where does “laziness” show up in economics? Why aren’t there robust economic models that have “laziness discounts” or “laziness exceptions” to workforce participation if laziness is such a well-known and widely-accepted human attribute?

We argue laziness doesn’t exist at all.

To be more precise: In this piece we contend that laziness, at least in its classical conception of sloth for sloth’s sake, simply does not exist in any quantity deserving of policy or economic concern. Both fundamentally and empirically, laziness is easy to imagine but difficult to pinpoint. It is oft-invoked to oppose new ideas such as universal basic income, more on the basis of fear than fact.

Above: Two consecutive Google results within a week highlight “laziness” as an apparent major concern in the context of UBI implementation, which invites one to ask: is laziness a policy ratchet in that government policy can only make people lazy but cannot make people industrious?

Instead, we argue laziness is simply the demonstrating of unpopular preferences, perhaps under non-obvious constraints, and, as such, labeling someone as lazy is more slur than observation.

Existing definitions of laziness abound, but do not seem to capture the way people actually use the word. One might define laziness as simply the overconsumption of leisure (leisure is, in its most basic labour economics definition, “time spent doing stuff other than working”). But this negative definition, that laziness is “too much not working” makes no sense, as leisure already describes 100% of the time one spends not working (the concepts of leisure and laziness have often been related, confused, or even intertwined; otiosus means laziness in Latin, from otium, meaning leisure). In any case, people often accuse themselves and others of laziness even when they don’t seem to particularly enjoy the activities they engage in instead; it is hard to conceive of “procrastination” or “persistent self-recrimination” as colloquial “leisure.”

Perhaps laziness is what’s happening when jobs are vacant and people are unemployed (currently, in the United States, about 8.5M people are seeking jobs and the market contains about 10M vacancies), but we doubt anyone would seriously argue that; this is more likely the product of a skills mismatch between candidates and vacancies than symptomatic of laziness among job-seekers. Maybe laziness is observed in some appreciable portion of frictional unemployment, but this would mean chunks of the population suddenly become lazy or not lazy (seemingly inconsistent with the idea that laziness is an inherent, perhaps even immutable, trait).

The way people actually use the word laziness offers clues. Most often, when promising new or progressive ideas are presented in policy and economics, the retort is, “Aha! But then the lazy person might win!” Or “a person near to, or related to, or the same colour as, or in the same neighbourhood as a lazy person might win!” This leads down the regrettable road toward Twitter threads where a person expresses deep concern that a child whose family is poor–but not absolutely destitute–might enjoy a discounted or free school lunch.

Above: An illustration from Robert Eisenberger’s 1992 paper “Learned Industriousness”; Eisenberger and his colleagues popularised the idea of “learned industriousness” as a durable personal trait that could be supported or enhanced. The inverse analysis of laziness (or anti-industriousness) is unsurprisingly sparse.

The laziness society imagines is negatively defined; it is the inverse of a specific puritanical productivity ideal. And this idea (or ideal) of maximizing productivity in this sense is short-sighted. Another easy-to-imagine but hard-to-find-in-the-real-world phenomenon provides a framework for thinking about how laziness is often envisioned: universal basic income.

The universal basic income debate is perhaps the corner of the public square where “laziness” is most-often murmured nowadays. Sometimes whispered as a “but welfare queens…” Reaganesque commentary, sometimes amplified as a Tory policy argument.

The implication is always that applying less pressure to workers (sometimes also called “people”) will make the world worse. Yet in a not-so-long-ago world, Michelangelo (a part-time painter of ceilings) received a fixed income from Lorenzo de’ Medici and Pope Leo X. Donatello (a part-time sculptor of nude men) received a similar arrangement from Cosmio de’ Medici. Leonardo (part-time failed helicopter designer) received a fixed wage for any project from architecture to engineering he deemed worthwhile, authorised by King Francis I.

Universal basic income to fuel individuals’ industriousness, creativity, and entrepreneurship is a state administration of a patronage relationship previously only available to namesakes of ninja turtles.

One of the popular arguments against universal basic income is that it would (inexplicably) trigger a sudden “laziness epidemic,” that workforce productivity would disastrously decline in proportion to the provision of reliable income from public funds. Yet recent research (shout out to Damon Jones and Ioana Marinescu!) suggests universal and permanent cash transfers do not destroy individuals’ willingness to work. In that study, transfers had no significant effect on aggregate employment and part-time work actually increased.

We assert work on other worthwhile ideas and projects not detectable as work might also increase (remember the dabbling part-time Florentine aerospace engineer?).

How should we think about this?

Segment the workforce in your head by role and consider the workforce of baristas under this condition: We provide a universal basic income sufficient for no person to be a barista except for those passionate about making coffee for others; countless people (who are baristas in the current version of the simulation) start interesting businesses, new technologies and processes, gain further skills or education, and so forth.

Yes, some would prefer to spend more time at the park with their dogs or master certain skills in cooking or in videogames. But the net gains from the sum of these activities (if one in one thousand baristas starts a venture one thousandth the size of Google, we’re all demonstrably better off… not to mention the contributions of the other 999 in both pecuniary and qualitative terms…) are significant.

“Aha,” say the laziness-policers, “you admit some of these worthless layabouts would play with their dogs or play videogames rather than getting back to work!”

Indeed, we concede some former baristas will not thirst for a night shift at the Dickensian shoe polish factory!

Some will prefer other (as we say in economics, “derive utility from other”) activities. But it is not that people with different preferences (or “utility functions,” in economese) are lazy; in fact, the utility functions individuals adopt are arbitrary, as are the accusations of laziness. A person who says playing catch with your child is not lazy but playing catch with your friends or your dog is lazy, or that playing with a dog is not lazy but playing videogames is lazy, is simply making arbitrary judgments about which expenditures of time are most meritorious.

It is important to recognize that the “sorting” economists refer to (or “matching” in some contexts) in the labour market is wildly different from the hierarchical sorting social class discussions contain. The latter sorting proceeds as follows: the unemployed are lazy; those not working a full workweek are lazy compared to those working forty hours; those working forty hours are lazy compared to the more industrious. The ranking of work is one wherein nearly everyone is lazy relative to the hard-working speaker of the laziness complaint. This codification is not one of calculating relative value, but one of righteous self-congratulation.

But the outward-looking lens of this flawed framework, which treats the individual’s preferences as the ultimate driver of their behaviour, is the real problem. The fact is that most people do not get to choose their full ranges of professional or personal activities.

The sorting mechanism of the labour market fails many participants, most of whom are mere recipients of these economic outcomes; it is hard to envision an equitable system that would judge frictional unemployment among similar (ostensibly interchangeable) workers as a symptom of laziness; these people are simply today’s lottery losers in their stratum of the workforce.

In the postwar years, “looking for work” became a British euphemism for unemployment, but it is accurate and important; it is enormously better for the individual, the employer, and the society that an individual be carefully looking for work (and hence finding a “better match”) than being failed by the prevailing wholesale matching algorithm and doing a job she hates, and poorly.

Blaming people who are looking for work for not finding it is like blaming someone who dies on the list of prospective kidney recipients for not living longer. Most people in labour markets are price-takers operating in limited information environments; to imagine otherwise is fantasy. People upset about matching problems in the labour market (and people are right to puzzle at the figures that U.S. presently has 10M job openings and 8.5M unemployed and actively looking for work!) have valid concerns, but should not look first to the laziness of their compatriots as an explanation.

Nor, for the same reasons, should the employed be congratulated. And yet, by and large, society deems toiling away at a job one hates to be more meritorious than patiently waiting for a job one likes, which is almost always a job in which one will be more productive and effective. Obviously, we collectively pay for unemployment benefits -- but we also collectively pay a price for the bad, inadequate work done by people who hate their jobs and lives.

And that is only the economic cost! The cost of the lived experience to these people, and all those around them, is far larger.

Interestingly enough, in addition to describing the impossible overconsumption of leisure, laziness can also refer to inadequate consumption.

People who live in economical apartment blocks, derive pleasure from street food, or enjoy weekends with lots of down time must do so because they are lazy, per mainstream cultural norms. This is because, normatively, everyone must aspire to suffocation by a mortgage in a southwest London postcode, derive pleasure only from expensive cuisine, travel places that are “enviable” yet only moderately enjoyable and intermittently photogenic, and spend the weekend in town practicing parochial posture at a jacket-required establishment.

So, we built this city on rock and roll, but only so we could return to neo-Edwardian templates for institutions and achievement.

The unhappiness of any person who fails to exhibit these correct leisure preferences is usually attributed to that person’s own moral failings, laziness often chief among these. The unhappiness of those who conform to the social standards is seen as a tragedy or maybe even an emergency, but certainly not their fault.

When pressed, thoughtful people may admit they do not really mean that “laziness” is doing nothing. In fact, it is “not doing enough.” But this “not doing enough” is a foggy middle ground quickly dispelled with a few additional questions.

“Enough,” of course, is the precise number of socially-accepted, normatively-valued activities the person speaking (“laziness accuser”) partakes in. This is why, in modern life, “laziness” is less a classification and more an accusation.

To call someone else lazy requires less humility, less empathy, and less introspection than admitting one’s own anger and disdain at the prospect that someone else might be enjoying herself. In this sense, if “laziness” is wrong, the sin involved is not the sloth of the accused, but the envy of the accuser.

The political consequences of using laziness as a rhetorical cudgel are clear. The personal consequences are more nebulous, but are revealed in how we speak to and about not only ourselves, but also those around us struggling with constraints we may not be able to see.

When we fail to complete work we aspire to, and blame this on our own laziness, we lay bare the incoherence in the concept of laziness: people with a pure preference for leisure would never berate themselves for consuming it. Everyone struggles sometimes with the gap between our ideals and our realities, the challenges of the soul that yearns to perform unconstrained optimization in a constrained world. Deriding ourselves and the situation feels more comfortable than accepting ourselves and the situation–and we often fear that if we accept who we are and the situation we are in, we won’t feel enough pressure to improve. Rather, it may just be that the opposite is true.

Let’s be honest empiricists: berating yourself (and others) doesn’t seem to be producing hyperperformance and fantastic wellbeing all around, does it? In shutting down engagement with the struggles we face in life by dismissing failures to produce the first-best outcome in a second-best world as “laziness,” we prevent introspection about what we truly want and of what we might truly be capable.

The truth is that you are not lazy, at least not in the way you’ve been using the word, and neither is anyone else. Rather, people are allocating their time as best they can given the difficult and often non-obvious constraints they are under in the modern economy. And if you can’t recognize that, well, that’s a lack of consideration for and interest in others that might just be considered a little bit intellectually… lazy.