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Economics 1a

Economics 1b

Economics 2

Economics 2a

Economics 3

Economics 4

Economics 5


Useful Tools and Pleasant Luxuries

A useful tool is something whose use increases idleness more than it decreases it. It always costs time and energy to make and maintain any tool, and this decreases idleness. But in use, a tool may often generate more idle time than it cost to make it. It may take a few hours or days to make a tool like an axe or a hammer which will, over its lifetime, save many hours of work in cutting down trees or chopping up logs.

Humans make and use an enormous variety of tools, whose utility lies in the amount of idle time they save or produce. But at the same time, they make a great many other things which do not save any time at all. Prototype tools, before they have been perfected, very often cost more to make than the time they save in use. Such tools are useless tools, or luxuries. They consume idle time rather than produce it. But very often these luxuries are wanted for their own sake, or for the pleasure and amusement that they provide.

It is almost entirely through the use of tools that humans increase their idleness. Humans are in many ways themselves the original and most adaptable useful tools. They can perform almost any task. And human society, which increases its members' idleness through its division of labour and economies of scale, may also be regarded as a useful tool. And so also are food and shelter, and axes, and ropes, and baskets. Vehicles of every kind, as well as roads and canals, speed the transportation of goods and people.

Apart from such physical objects, knowledge itself is a useful tool. Mathematical skills enable calculations to be made more rapidly and more accurately. A knowledge of language speeds communication. The ability to read and to write opens up a wealth of further knowledge. The acquisition of a particular trade skill increases trade productivity. A knowledge of history and of literature brings the insights of past authors.

The utility of all these goods is to be found in the working time that they save, not from the pleasure or satisfaction they provide. Such pleasures are to be found in luxuries and amusements and pastimes of one sort or other, most of which save no work at all.

Food and Shelter

Greek athlete eating a string of sausagesHumans are primarily energy consumers. They run on food energy in the form of carbohydrates and fats which are broken down in the human body into sugars which are burned to produce mechanical energy and heat, but at a far lower temperature. The release of heat in the human body keeps core body temperature at about 37 degrees Centigrade. This heat is lost to the external environment through skin conduction and through moist air exhalation at about the same rate at which it is internally generated. When humans become more physically active, and perform more physical work, their internal heat production increases, and their skin becomes flushed as warm blood is brought to the skin surface, and they start to breathe faster, and they may remove layers of insulating garments to increase their rate of heat loss.

Food is a useful tool. A loaf of bread contains some amount of stored energy, and this energy will, when eaten, power human life for some period of time. A standard loaf weighing about one pound, or 450 gms, and containing 5000 KJ of energy will power a human using 100 watts of energy/second for nearly 14 hours. And in Idle Theory, the value of a loaf of bread is 14 hours of continued life.

Strictly speaking, it is not food that provides energy, but its combustion in the presence of oxygen. And the human body must also work to acquire oxygen, by breathing it in from the atmosphere. And this is extra physical work. However it is not work that requires conscious supervision. The continual process of breathing using lungs, or pumping blood using heart, is largely under automatic control. And so its performance does not count towards being 'busy' in Idle Theory's terms.

Clothing and shelter are also useful tools. They serve to regulate the rate at which heat is lost from the human body. If body heat is lost rapidly in a cold environment, the result can be a fall in body core temperature, which may result in death. Equally, if heat is lost too slowly in a hot environment, body core temperature may rise, and this also can result in death. In many environments, clothing and shelter is essential to maintain life, and is as important in this respect as food.

The absence of food brings the pain of hunger, and of clothing and shelter the pain of cold, long before they bring death. Physical pain entails the interruption of an imperious demand to remove the source of pain, and this interruption is itself a form of work. To the extent that food relieves the pain of hunger, and clothing and shelter prevent the pain of cold, they serve to reduce work.

The Cost and Value of Useful Tools.

Tools almost invariably require work to be done to first make them. And this work entails a period of reduced idleness. The value of such tools is that they increase idleness over their lifetime - before they break or wear out. The cost of such tools is the time it takes to make them. While their value exceeds their cost, they are useful idleness-increasing tools. When their cost exceeds their value, they are useless idleness-decreasing impediments or luxuries.

This decrease in idleness attendant upon working to make some tool, and the increase in idleness gained from its use, can be expressed graphically as changes in idleness over time. Expressed as increases or decreases in idleness above or below some existing degree of idleness, the work that is needed to make some tool can be represented by a decrease in idleness over some period, and the consequent value gained from using the tool can be represented as an increase in idleness. Once the tool has been made and used, idleness returns to its initial level.

An individual who makes some tool - house, garment, knife, bag - has reduced idleness while he works to make it, and subsequently enjoys increased idleness while he uses it over its lifetime. If he always makes sure that he has a replacement ready for when a tool is worn out or broken, he will enjoy an increased level of idleness while he continues to make and use this tool. Where V is the value of the tool, and C its cost of production, and L its lifetime, increased idleness I will be:

I = ( V - C ) / L

It may quite often be that some tools have fixed production times, and can't be made quickly like axes or baskets. Someone who is 'making' timber will have to wait for trees to grow to full size. The same is usually true of farmers who 'make' wheat or cattle. A great many production processes may require waiting for something to grow or to mature before they are ready to be used.

The production cost of the same generic tool - a jacket or a basket - will vary from producer to producer. Some producers will be more skilled than others, and make the same tool more quickly. Equally, some producers may have tools which help them to make other tools faster. e.g. a tailor who makes clothes may use a sewing needle and a thimble.

Skilled workers will generally produce a better 'quality' product, where better quality means more long-lasting, or saving more time, or both. The value of tools may vary from person to person, so that the same tool is of different value when put to different uses. General-purpose tools - e.g. hammers - may be used for a great many purposes, and have a broad distribution of values to their various users, being of little value to some people, and of great value to others. Tools made for a specific purpose - for example potato peelers - will generally have a much narrower range of values. And some tools may simply save on the use of other tools: joining pieces of wood together with glue may save joining them with nails or screws.

But even though the value of tools may vary from one individual to another, their value is not subjective: the tools will save an objective amount of labour time.

When additional tools are used in unrelated activities further increases in idleness may be added. So someone who uses an axe to cut down trees, and a saw to remove branches, and a rope to drag logs of wood away, will be using 3 tools, and gaining idle time from each one additively.

It should be added that the actual cost and value and lifetime of any tool are probabilistic in nature. They aren't known for sure. It may usually take a basketmaker a day to make a basket. But on occasion it may take two days, or sometimes even three. And while this basket may remain a useful tool for many months and years, it will seldom be some exact period of time. And in the same way, the value gained from using a basket in carrying things may be highly variable.

Economic Growth

Economic growth may be conceived of as growth in idleness from some historically low level in past human history. It is of course possible that human idleness may fall as well as rise.

The addition of new tools, and the improvement of existing tools, by either lowering their production cost, or increasing their value, or both, will result in steady stepwise increases in idleness. Maximum idleness is 1, or 100% idleness. In practice, such perfect idleness can never be achieved, because it must become harder and harder to make further gains in idleness at very high levels of idleness. For at high levels of idleness, the increases of idleness that can possibly be gained become very small, and accordingly the value of tools equally small, while tool production costs may even rise. The result is that the further development of tool technologies is quite likely to cease after some high level of idleness has been attained. Equally, at very low levels of idleness - approaching zero -, there may be insufficient idle time to develop and manufacture tools, and so it may be very difficult to escape from the 'poverty trap' of low idleness. The result is that the Ideal Economic Growth Curve (right) will be an S-curve transition from a state of low idleness to one of high idleness.

While such technological innovation increases idleness, other factors may act to reduce idleness. Resources such as timber, coal, and oil may become relatively scarce, and require more work to be done to acquire them. The same may apply to deposits of metal ores of one sort or other. Climate changes may result, for example, in trees becoming more scarce, and so the costs of wood production to rise. Or trees may be replaced by other species of trees of less value than than earlier species.

It might be argued that technological systems are always adapted to a particular environmental circumstance, and that any change at all will result in falls in idleness. A fall in sea level may result in a sea port becoming stranded and useless miles inland. But equally a rise in sea level will likely result in the same sea port becoming submerged miles off shore. For such a port, there is likely to be an optimum sea level, above or below which the value the port falls fairly rapidly away.


Not all the goods that people make and use are useful tools. A great many of them may be luxuries and amusements of one sort or other, which neither save nor produce any idle time at all, but instead dispose of idle time. But there can only ever be as many luxuries as there is the idle time in which to make and use them.

It might be said that all tools start out as luxuries. Before the flint axe was perfected as a useful tool, early prototypes were probably next to useless. They were luxuries which used up more time in their production than they saved in their use.

Luxuries and amusements include all games, toys, fashion items, jewellery, art, music, architecture, decoration, literature, poetry, theatre, dance, sport, athletics, and the like.

Some goods may not fall into the category of being either useful idleness-increasing tools or enjoyable idleness-decreasing luxuries, but span both categories. A gourmet dinner will usually be both nutritious as well as enjoyable. A sports car such may be both a time-saving means of travel to and from work, and a status symbol and a pleasure to drive.

Luxury goods, amusements and pastimes, are also goods whose value is largely subjective. What one person enjoys, another person may not. An axe which can be used to cut down trees has an objective value: it saves a measurable amount of labour time, and in so doing creates that amount of idle time. But a painting or a novel or a poem has no such practical, objective value. The value of such things resides entirely in the eye of the beholder. They are subjectively valuable. Useful tools, by contrast, while objectively valuable, very often have little or no subjective value. Nobody buys them for their own sake, for the pleasure or enjoyment they afford, because they afford none.

The nature of all these luxuries, and anything that people enjoy for their own sake - like all the arts of music and literature and conversation - is that idle time is consumed both in making them and using them. Useful tools generate idle time; luxuries consume idle time.

The modern distinction between the arts and sciences, as described in C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures" might be comparable to the distinction between luxuries and useful tools. They are quite different things. While the one tries to do things as quickly as possible, the other very often tries to do them as slowly as possible.

It should be pointed out that while tools are needed to produce idle time, luxuries are not needed to dispose of idle time. Idle time passes at its own rate, regardless of whether an idle individual employs amusements and pastimes or not. It is simply that idle time may seem to pass more rapidly and enjoyably when someone is absorbed in some relatively intense activity.

A movie - a thriller - may be the subject of rapt attention over the hour or two that it lasts. A painting on a wall is seldom subject to such close attention (except in art galleries), and its value, in terms of the passing attention it receives, may be spread over many years, rather than compressed into a lifetime of an hour or two. Yet it may often be of greater net value than any thriller or bestseller.

Since both the production and the consumption of luxuries uses up idle time, it is always the case that there must be idle time already available before they can be made and enjoyed. It therefore follows that the least idle societies will have the fewest luxuries and amusements, because there is neither the idle time in such societies to make them nor to enjoy them. In the least idle societies, most goods will be useful tools. And in the most idle societies, most goods will generally be luxuries.

The idleness of societies may also influence the kinds of luxuries that are made and enjoyed in those societies. In the busiest societies, there may not be the idle time in which enjoy 'time-intensive' pleasures such as those afforded by movies or books or games, and luxuries may take the form of undemanding art and decoration and music which can be easily included into the schedule of a busy life. One may know of anyone who possesses a library that they are very likely to also have the idle time in which to read the books in it.

Given that useful tools increase idle time, and pleasurable luxuries use it up, they 'pull in opposite directions'. And this can result in conflict. In order to increase idleness, the work of eating food should be performed as rapidly as possible. But if eating food at dinner is a pleasure, then it merits being performed slowly, so as to prolong the pleasure. If the pleasures of food come to outweigh the nutritional value of food, then the idleness of a society may fall. Equally, if idle pastimes expand to take up time that should be devoted to work, necessary work will not be done, and idleness will fall. The recognition of this threat may sometimes result in a puritan disdain for pleasure of any sort whatsoever, because an addiction to smoking or drinking or dancing or any other pleasurable activity may pose a threat to the prosperity and security of society. But such a disdain for pleasure negates the aims of human society, which is to free people to do as they wish, rather than do as they must.

In Idle Theory, luxuries are regarded as secondary in nature. But this is not meant dismissively or contemptuously. Luxuries are what many people want and like most in life. And in highly idle societies, almost everything being made and exchanged will be a luxury of some sort. It is simply a matter of putting first things first, and seeing the primary idleness-generating economy as more important than the secondary idleness-consuming economy.

The Cost and Value of Luxuries.

The cost of luxuries and amusements is, as with useful tools, the time it takes to produce them. Apart from the pleasure they afford, the 'objective' value of such luxuries may be said to lie in the amount of idle time they consume while they are used or enjoyed over their lifetime. So both the cost and value of luxuries is expressed in reductions in idleness. The manufacture and use of a luxury will first entail some reduction in idleness during which it is made - its cost -, and a subsequent reduction in idleness over which it is enjoyed - its value.

But while some pleasurable pastime may consume idle time, it might not be true to say that it actually reduces idleness. If, in their idle hours, people play games of cards, they do not reduce their idleness in the process. Playing games of cards is a way of disposing of idle time, but not utterly negating it and converting it into work.

Pleasant pastimes can become work, however. A compulsory school game converts any game into a kind of work. And when athletes and sportsmen come to earn a living through their sport, as professional 'players' in front of paying crowds, the game they play becomes work. And when play is thus converted into work, its 'players' will naturally seek to shorten the hours of their work, rather than lengthen it as they would when it was a pleasure.

Sometimes amusements and pastimes are used with the express intention of 'killing time', making idle time pass - or seem to pass - more rapidly than it otherwise would. Time often seems to pass more quickly when people are busy doing something than when they are doing nothing, and so games and pastimes are often ways of artificially busying people so that time passes more quickly.

The difference between useful tools and enjoyable luxuries is one that is manifest in everyday life. An ordinary household is generally filled with both useful tools and enjoyable luxuries. Common household useful tools include kitchen pots and pans and knives and mixers and ovens, and also brushes and pans and mops and sprays, and maybe also a workshop's hammers and screwdrivers and drills. Its enjoyable luxuries include magazines, books, televisions, radios, computer game consoles, children's toys, wall paintings, decorative wallpapers, fashionable clothes, hairsprays and makeup. The possession and use of luxuries is an end in itself, but the use of tools usually entails some future end. For the most part, nobody looks forward to spending an enjoyable afternoon with a hammer and nails. Nor, for the most part, does anybody expect to see any future benefit from watching a movie on television. For the most part, when people use tools, it is not as an end in itself - because they enjoy hammering nails into wood. But when they watch a movie, this is an end in itself. But there are a variety of ordinary household goods which are both useful tools and enjoyable luxuries. A plate of steak and chips is useful in that it supplies the energy for someone to live another few days. But its consumption is very often also a pleasurable experience in itself (with the result that people who take great pleasure in food all too often eat far more of it than they need). The strict division of goods into useful but unenjoyable tools and useless but enjoyable luxuries is perhaps never total. A movie maker may well say that he hopes that people enjoy his movies, but he may also add that he hopes they learn something that he is trying to teach them, and that this will prove useful to them in their future lives. Equally, the manufacturer of pots and pans may hope that they prove to be useful tools to their users, but also that they are admired in themselves for their beauty, simplicity, and craftsmanship.

For the most part Idle Theory devotes little attention to secondary goods and luxuries, and concerns itself with the primary idleness-generating economy, in the tacit knowledge that some of the idle time produced may be disposed of in the production and consumption of enjoyable luxuries of one sort or other. The measure of anyone's wealth is not the number of luxuries they possess, but their degree of idleness. For all the luxuries and amusements of the world are the product of idle time foregone. The richest that anyone can be is to enjoy their whole life in perfect idleness (during which idle time they may be very busy).  

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Author: Chris Davis
First created: September 2008