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Economics 1a

Economics 1b

Economics 2

Economics 2a

Economics 3

Economics 4

Economics 5


1: Idleness, Energy, and Human society


Living creatures have to work to survive. This work takes time, and can consume a greater or lesser portion of the time available for it. The remaining time, after work is complete, is idle time which can be devoted to other activities than self-maintenance work. Idle Theory's 'idleness' is simply the fraction of their time that anyone enjoys as idle time. Someone who works all day for 6 days a week to earn a bare minimum existence, and who enjoys a day of uninterrupted rest on the seventh day, has an idleness of 1/7 or 0.14.

Work, Energy, and Idleness

All living things must work to survive. And this work always entails an expenditure of some amount of energy in order to acquire some greater amount of energy. A tiger that pursues and brings down a deer is performing a great deal of work as it sprints after its prey. But the reward it reaps is the far greater amount of food energy stored in the body of the deer, which may be sufficient to allow it to lie indolently sunning itself for days thereafter, until hunger sets it hunting again.

Yet even while it lies idly sunning itself between hunting expeditions, a tiger is still performing work. Its heart beats, and its lungs breathe. And every cell in its body is busy repairing or replacing itself. Any living creature continually performs some minimum amount of work, but only periodically performs a far greater amount of work to capture more energy. If the rate at which it continuously expends energy, its basal metabolic rate, is Pm, and the rate at which it can expend energy in acquiring food is Pe, and the rate at which it gains and stores energy while it does this is Pi, then when in net energy balance its income of energy will equal its net energy expenditures.

This balance can be shown diagrammatically as positive and negative energy expenditures. In the diagram at left, the continuous basal metabolic energy expenditure is the green area above zero, and the work it does acquiring energy is the red area above this, and the energy it gains is the blue area below zero. Given Pm and Pe and (Pi, it is possible to show that its idleness is given by:

I = 1 - ( Pm / (Pi - Pe))

Idleness can range between 0, busy all the time, and 1, idle all the time. And the zero of idleness is the threshold of death. A tiger that has to spend all its time hunting, because deer have become scarcer, has reached a point where if the deer get any scarcer it will not be able to get enough energy, and will starve and die. Values of I that fall outside the range of 0 to 1 indicate a life that is not viable.

Human Life

Human life is not essentially any different from any other form of natural life. Humans also have a metabolism that slowly ticks over, using energy, and they need to periodically set to work - using more energy in the process - to acquire more energy. And so humans will operate at some greater or lesser level of idleness.

It seems reasonable to suppose that, for much of the time after their first appearance, humans were no different from any other animal, and lived naked, and used their bare hands to gather the food they needed. And if they were able to live in this manner, it would seem that it must have been in a warm environment rich in fruits and other easily collected foods.

If humans lived for long ages in an environment that was 'flowing with milk and honey', and all the food they needed was to be readily plucked with bare hands or fingers, and humans lived largely idle lives, they would have not needed tools to prise open sea shells, or climb high trees, or to catch fleeing animals. For such tools serve to expedite the opening of shells, or the ascent of trees, or the capture of animals. If other foods are easier to find, why should anyone trouble themselves trying to get hold of hard-to-find food? Why pick the fruit off the top of a tree, if there are plenty to hand on its lower branches?

And if such idle humans had any need of trade and money, it would have been to exchange amusements and luxuries.

The economic problem begins when humans cease to enjoy such an idle life. It is not particularly difficult to imagine how this might happen. During an ice age, as air temperatures fall, and the natural fruits of the earth become scarce, life becomes a long round of gruelling toil, as a playground world becomes a workhouse world.

And so Idle Theory begins with a busy humanity which is seeking to become idle, rather than with an idle humanity busying itself making and trading luxuries and amusements.

Human society

It is usual to think of humans as social animals, who naturally form societies, if only because they enjoy each others' company. But such 'sociable' societies can only be enjoyed by idle humans, who have plenty of idle time to devote to each other, in games or dances and conversations, and every other way of amicably passing time together.

And such idle humans, able to support themselves by collecting and eating abundant fruits and foods, would have little need of organised, co-operative human society. Why bother to organise a hunting party, and equip it with spears and nets, if animals can be captured with bare hands after the briefest of pursuits? Why organise the collection of fruits, and store them in baskets for future consumption, if the trees in all directions are always laden with them?

Such convivial 'sociable' societies can only exist if there is enough idle time available for people to spend on one another. In a deepening ice age, as humans had to work harder to survive, they would have less and less time for feasting and dancing and playing games, and so such 'sociable' societies would have dwindled away.

But as such 'sociable' societies vanished, they would have likely been replaced by busy, working societies in which humans acted co-operatively out of necessity rather than choice. Instead of being societies of idle humans, they would have been composed of busy, working humans, all trying to increase their idleness to the levels formerly enjoyed.

In these busy, working societies co-operative effort would have been directed towards reducing the burden of work by sharing that burden. If it took an hour for someone to walk to some natural orchard, and another hour to collect enough food for their own consumption, and another hour to walk back - a total of three hours -, then rather than two people each separately taking a total of 6 hours to get food, one person might gather enough for two people in a 4-hour round trip, saving 2 hours of work in the process, and their two-person 'society' would be more idle for this co-operative effort, perhaps shared on alternate days.

And what applied to the collection of food would apply equally to the collection of water and firewood and every other useful good. Rather than each person going separately to a river or stream to drink, one person would collect enough water for all, and save them their journeys. Rather than each person separately collecting enough firewood to cook food, one person would collect enough for everybody.

And rather than each person separately cooking their own food in their own pot on their own fire, one person would cook for everybody in one big pot above one big fire, and save them all their individual efforts, as well as making economies of scale in the work of making pots and collecting firewood to burn under them.

Economies of Scale

Let us suppose that, in a 12-person community, an individual person needs one litre of cooked vegetables each day. And that each person has their own pot in which they cook their own food. Given that the volume of a sphere is 4/3.pi.r3. And the surface area of a sphere is 4.pi.2, an individual spherical pot of radius 6.2 cm has a volume of 1 litre, and a surface area of 483 square cm. Heat is lost from a cooking pot to the surrounding air at a rate which is proportional to the conductivity of the pot, the temperature difference between the pot's contents and the surrounding air, and the surface area of the pot. Water boils at 100oC, and if the surrounding air is at 0oC, the temperature difference is 100oC. Assuming unit conductivity, an hour of cooking will require an amount of heat equal to the temperature difference x surface area x seconds of cooking, or 100 x 483 x 60 x 60 Joules or 173 MJ of heat. And if twigs of wood each provide 1 MJ of heat, each pot will require 17 twigs to be burned under it. And if there are 12 people, they will have to gather a total of 208 twigs each day.

If all the food is cooked in one pot with a volume of 12 litres, the radius of this pot will be 14.2 cm, and it will have a surface area of 2534 square cm. And so the heat required to keep this pot boiling for an hour will be 100 x 2534 x 60 x 60 Joules or 912 MJ, or 91 twigs. So cooking all the food together in one big pot saves 208-91 or 117 twigs. If it takes one minute for someone to collect a twig, this is a saving of 117 minutes, or two hours.

If pots only last a couple of months before they get broken or cracked, and another one needs to be made, then if the time taken to make a pot varies with its surface area, by winding ribbons of clay in circles to form a sphere, at one minute per square cm, then a 1 litre pot will take 483 minutes to make, and a 12 litre pot will take 2534 minutes to make. But with 12 people each making one pot every 2 months, the total amount of time spent making pots is 12 x 483 or 5796 minutes. So using one big pot saves 5798 - 2534 or 3262 minutes every two months, or 54 minutes a day, which is nearly an hour a day.

And since each pot has to be watched and stirred and seasoned, then each of the individual pots will need to be tended by their owners for an hour each time they are used to cook food. And so a total of 12 hours of work stirring and adding twigs will be required with 12 individual pots. And if the big pot needs only one person to tend it, then only one hour of tending work needs doing - a net saving of 11 hours.

So the total saving of work from using one big pot is 11 hours of time spent tending cooking pots, and 2 hours of time spent collecting twigs, and 1 hour of making pots, which is a total of 14 hours a day, or over an hour of work each day for each person in a 12-person community.

The division of labour, and economies of scale, applied to every sort of activity, serve to increase the idleness of the individual members of a society, and this, rather than the pleasure of each other's company, is what underpins human society.

Human society, in this perspective, is a means to an end. Co-operative human society allows individual humans to live idler and freer lives than they would without it. And if, one day, human idleness were to rise to some high level, such that they have no further need for it, human society might well be dispensed with. Or at least only retained because of the pleasure and delight its company affords.

But if human society has benefits in the form of increased idleness, it also has costs. With co-operative human society there comes the need for its members to reliably perform routine duties, rather than simply do as they please. The cook whose task it is to prepare the evening meal for everyone else cannot be permitted to skip the task if the whim takes him. People must learn to consider not only the effects of what they do on themselves, but the effects on other people. There is a need for discipline in co-operative society. And in the least idle societies, that discipline may extend to almost everything that anyone does. Morality is concerned with idleness. What is good is what increases idleness, and what is bad is whatever decreases it.

And within co-operative human societies, there also arises a problem of how to distribute any increases in idleness within society. If, for example, one person is assigned the task of doing all the cooking, then this may mean that they do a lot more work than anyone else.

And should anyone be 'assigned' to such a task? For this is to suppose that human society is organised in a command structure like an army, in which individual people are given orders by superior officers. Instead of someone being ordered to act as cook, it might well be that one person voluntarily opens a restaurant that serves food to people who are prepared to pay for it.  

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Author: Chris Davis
First created: February 2009