Tag Archives: Leisure

The Quest for a Life of Leisure: Prisoner’s Dilemma in Food Production

In a conversation about “vegan food in the workplace,” I heard a thoughtful comment that reminded me of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Before I paraphrase the comment, here’s a quick video to refresh your memory on the Prisoner’s Dilemma:

So, now that we have a better understanding of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, let’s get back to the comment. Essentially, the person was making the argument that large-scale commercial agriculture and farming is unsustainable, harmful to plants, and harmful to animals. The person was making the point that this problem stemmed from the business models/practices required to sustain them (and not the animals/plants themselves). Further to the person’s point, they explained that we also play a part in this by the way we purchase food. Regardless of whether we buy local, wild-caught food or buy large-scale commercialized food, there’s still an impact on the environment.

Upon hearing this comment, the first thing I thought of was the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Let me explain. There’s a demand for food. Consequently, businesses will satisfy that demand by supplying food. [Econ 101, amirite?] But how businesses satisfy that demand is where things get tricky. They could do so in a number of ways, but let’s simplify it into two: large-scale commercial agricultural production or small-scale local farming. If businesses were to focus on small-scale local farming, they’d be supplying food for the town (or maybe the town and some neighbouring towns). Businesses that focus on large-scale commercial agricultural production aren’t supplying food for a town, they’re supplying food for a country or – countries.

The two-by-two that I see here is that if businesses “cooperated,” they’d be supplying food for the local town(s) and “everyone” would be satisfied (consumers get food, businesses make money, environment is ‘harmed’ as little as possible, etc.). The possible hitch here is that businesses see an opportunity to make more money, so they scale up production into a major agricultural conglomerate (i.e. food for countries). That’s not to imply that this is “bad,” just that the opportunity exists and many businesses seek to seize it. In so doing, that provokes other businesses to do the same – the businesses are “betraying” each other, leading to externalities borne out by things like the environment. [NOTE: I’m aware that this example is very oversimplified and does not represent the state of food in all countries, especially where food shortages exist.]

The irony of the race-to-the-bottom is that, often times, the people running these businesses are all in it for the same thing:

An American businessman was standing at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish.

“How long it took you to catch them?” The American asked.

“Only a little while.” The Mexican replied.

“Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” The American then asked.

“I have enough to support my family’s immediate needs.” The Mexican said.

“But,” The American then asked, “What do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life, senor.”

The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds you buy a bigger boat, and with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats.”

“Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the consumers, eventually opening your own can factory. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But senor, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15-20 years.”

“But what then, senor?”

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO (Initial Public Offering) and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”

“Millions, senor? Then what?”

The American said slowly, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos…”

And maybe that life of leisure is closer than we think or, maybe, as the above parable suggests, we had that lifestyle before we “betrayed” each other in the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In an article I read recently in The Atlantic [Emphasis Added]:

The Ju/’hoansi [of Namibia] not only managed to feed themselves better than many in the industrialized world, but that they did so on the basis of only around two hours foraging a day, and cheerfully spent the rest of their time on more leisurely pursuits such as napping, playing games, and making art.


Over time, a more sophisticated picture of the Ju/’hoansi’s affluence emerged—one I saw firsthand living in southern Africa for 25 years and one I describe in my recent book. The Ju/’hoansi had an unyielding confidence in the providence of their environment and in their knowledge of how to exploit it. This meant that the Ju/’hoansi, like other hunter-gatherers, focused almost myopically on the short term—if the environment always supplied food and materials and the seasons were broadly predictable, what point was there in worrying about the future? This confidence also meant that the Ju/’hoansi did not store food for more than a few days and only expended energy on securing just enough to meet their immediate needs.

The Ju/’hoansi shared their food with one another according to a set of social prescriptions that ensured pretty much everyone, including the young, old, or disabled, got a share. As a result the Ju/’hoansi were also thoroughly egalitarian, mercilessly ribbing anyone that developed delusions of grandeur and seeing no point in accumulating wealth or formalizing systems of exchange.

NOTE: This was cross-posted.

How Does a 25-Hour Workweek Sound to You?

Vocation is a very important part of our lives in today’s society. Vocation, usually, gives our lives a sense of purpose. At times, however, our vocation can get in the way of our lives. How? Overwork. This past summer, I linked to a couple of articles at The Atlantic that illustrate this point quite perfectly. The first: No-Vacation Nation: Why Don’t Americans Know How to Take a Break?. And the second: The Case for Vacation: Why Science Says Breaks Are Good for Productivity.

There’s a really important graphic from the first link. I’ve included it below, (but if it’s too hard to read, click on it and it will take you to a bigger version of it).

If you’ll notice, the US is absolute last on this list of OECD countries. Certainly not something that the US should be proud of.

Earlier this fall, I posted a TEDTalk of someone from the New Economics Foundation arguing for a 21-hour workweek. A couple of weeks ago, I came across a news release that the head of the Max Planck research centre was arguing for a 25-hour workweek. There are some key points:

When you’re 20, you would rather spend more time with your friends. When you’re 35, you want time with your kids. But then when you reach 70, you have far too much time on your hands.

This scenario probably sounds familiar to many people today. But there are good arguments for changing this. We should aim for more leisure time in our youth and instead work a bit more when we get older.

”There is strong evidence that elderly people who work part-time are healthier than those who don’t work at all and just sit at home. This is simply because working improves people’s health,” he says.

“The benefits are not just psychological because being an active part of society makes you people feel good about themselves, but also physically, since you use both your brain and your body when you’re working.”

There are also some good interpersonal arguments in support of spreading our working hours over a longer period in our lives.

”The main argument is that this would give young people aged 20-30 more time to care for their children, do sports and other important activities that improve their lives,” says the professor.

”The way it is today, young people are slaving their way through work, looking forward to a long retirement. But why not move that retirement period around a bit so that young people get more valuable time off work?”

How does all of that sound?

The thing is, there’s a culture of overworking. Working 60+ hours a week should not be a badge of honor — it should be a badge of ludicrousness (save for some extreme examples). Vocation is important, yes, but so are other things in life. And, if productivity is what you’re after, it’s important to understand that overworking one’s self is the perfect way to limit productivity. Remember that second link I share above:

It’s typical for families to celebrate the month of August by shutting down the computer and skipping town. From a raw numbers perspective, this counts as lost work. But that’s a short-sighted view, psychologists now say. In fact, by serving as the least productive month for millions of workers, August unexpectedly serves as a productivity-booster.

Just as small breaks improve concentration, long breaks replenish job performance. Vacation deprivation increases mistakes and resentment at co-workers, Businessweek reported in 2007. “The impact that taking a vacation has on one’s mental health is profound,” said Francine Lederer, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles specializing told ABC News. “Most people have better life perspective and are more motivated to achieve their goals after a vacation, even if it is a 24-hour time-out.”

As with most things in business and in life, understanding the different between long-term gains and short-term profits is of the utmost importance with regard to the issue of the workweek.