Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

The Saturated Citizen

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How do We the People let this happen? Every presidential campaign appears worse than the last. The debates are largely content-free exercises in posturing. Very little time is spent on serious issues that are important to the future of the country.

Well, how would we change it? Most of us have lives. We have to earn a living and function. Let’s look at where the time goes.

We’ll start with eight hours of sleep a day. Some people need more, some less.

If you have a salaried job, your employer didn’t put you on salary to only get 40 hours a week from you, but to get more than that at a fixed price. Let’s say our citizen works 45 hours/week, plus an hour for lunch.

The average commute is around 22 minutes/day one way, so round up to one hour a day spent commuting.

Add in some time for daily preparation, other meals and tasks to operate the household. Here is the full picture:

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun Total
Sleep 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 56
Work 9 9 9 9 9 45
Lunch 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 7
Commute 1 1 1 1 1 5
Daily prep + breakfast 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 14
Dinner 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 7
Household 1 1 1 1 1 4 1 10
Sub Total 23 23 23 23 23 16 13 144
Total Available Hours 24 24 24 24 24 24 24 168
Discretionary Hours 1 1 1 1 1 8 11 24

I haven’t even considered kids in this model. Kids will blow this all to hell.

Discretionary hours are those not already committed, and include:

  • Having a marital relationship;
  • Worship;
  • Social activities;
  • Reinvestment in your career (you had better, if you want to be able to compete for jobs ten years from now);
  • Continuing education requirements for any professional certifications you may have;
  • Personal interests;
  • Volunteer work;
  • Citizenship;
  • Entertainment.

That leaves 24 hours a week, on a week in which nothing goes wrong that you have to manage the project of fixing. Five of those hours are on weekdays; they will be the first to be dissipated when you come home from work completely fried and can’t concentrate on anything. So our model citizen has 19 quality hours a week to allocate among all the competing claims.

Yes, there are optimizations you can do. You can eat your lunch at your desk and read, unless your co-workers consider you fair game for interruptions as long as they can find you. You can learn to read faster. You can work on getting by with less sleep. But there are many people who don’t have these options.

Let’s say you want to understand more about the 2008 financial crisis. You’ve heard about The Big Short by Michael Lewis, so you decide to read that. It’s about 290 pages long. If you’re typical, you can read 20-30 pages of a non-technical quality paperback an hour. Lewis is readable and accessible, so his writing won’t slow you down further. Still, you are looking at between ten and fifteen hours to read the book. If you have to spread that over multiple weekends, the amount of information you retain drops off. It’s worse if you have to spread the reading out over a couple months.

And once you’re done, what are you going to do with your newly acquired learning? Are you doing to hear the detailed plans of the presidential candidates for managing systemic risk in banking? Forget that noise. Are you going to hear financial policy issues discussed in accurate detail on cable TV news? Not likely.

Where are you going to get the information you can use now that you have this new processing apparatus? Do you have contacts in the Federal Reserve or the Treasury that can tell you what’s really going on? If not, what are you left with? I mean, besides a spouse who is mad at you for “blowing two days reading that stupid book.”

Or, how about taking some time to learn more about the Middle East. Where do you start? How do you tell the belligerents apart? How do you get oriented? Do you remember hearing anything in school about Mohammad Mosaddegh, the Suez Crisis, the Six-Day War or Black September? The people who live in the Middle East have deep, if biased, knowledge of these matters. Like Art Spiegelman, their fathers bleed history.

So if you’re an ordinary person having to earn your own way and solve your problems without a personal assistant or a graduate student, how do you manage this cyclone of data with its appallingly low signal/noise ratio? Under the circumstances, withdrawing or making surface judgments on perceptions are rational responses within the guidelines of the problem. Confronted with limited access to information, untrustworthy sources and limited time to invest in a situation over which you have little influence anyway, what other choices do you have?

It takes a lot to blast people out of this zone of indifference, and when it happens, the people to whom it happens are usually rather angry. If they weren’t angry, they would still be off living their lives and paying no attention to politics. Many of the people who have come out to Tea Party rallies never saw themselves as politically involved. They became politicized because they found the political situation of the country increasingly intolerable to them, until it tripped a switch and caused them to reallocate their discretionary time. Like any people who are newly politicized, sometimes they say questionable things. I’m sure that, if you dug up a recording of me in my twenties speaking, some of the things I said would make me wince uncomfortably.

Politicization is a process. People who are already in the political process have staying power, and they count on those who would challenge them losing interest. Anyone remember Occupy Wall Street?

Time is a scarce resource, just like money. People have to make economic decisions how to allocate their time. Look at their positions as economic agents and consider their alternatives.

Citizen involvement is a difficult problem. The Republic requires the consent of the governed, and does not work right if the governed do not understand what it is to which they are consenting. The solution is not clear, but it does not include blaming ordinary working people for failure to devote time they don’t have to digesting information that is not available to them to make a more informed choice among bad alternatives.


Written by srojak

April 9, 2016 at 1:47 pm

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