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what are you worth?

I’ve been thinking a fair bit lately about the disconnect between the “wealth” of the West in the past 30 or 40 years, and actual “reality.” I argued here that our wealth is a fantasy because: it is based on unsustainably cheap credit (most famously the subprime mess, but endemic throughout the economy), and “exporting” poverty and cheap labour/manufacturing to other countries, notably China. And my larger point was that the fundamental principle of our modern economy, limitless growth, can’t be viable in the long term. I don’t know what that means, but it’s scary.

There has been some work done that establishes the geographic footprint of the average North American, that is, the amount of land (including land for water, food, energy etc) needed to support your average North American life. This data suggests that in 1900 the average was about 2 acres per person, by 1950. 5 acres per person and in 1995, 12 acres per person. I’d be willing to be that in 2008 we’re up around 18-20 acres… does anyone have any recent data?

One thing I notice just in my family is how little value things have compared to when I was a kid. We buy things now with the intention of throwing them out; that wasn’t the case 25 years ago; certainly not 50 years ago. So what’s changed? Culture plays a role, but the underlying reason for the cultural shift is that the relative cost of “things” compared with our incomes has been dropping steadily. Part of that has to do with better technologies, the efficiencies that come with global trade, but just as significant is the cheap credit and exportation of poverty/cheap manufacturing that’s been fueling our economy recently.

That got me thinking about the people behind all this. And I have a question: how many people work full time to sustain the average North American individual.

That is, given, say a yearly income of, say. $70,000, what is the equivalent number of people working around the world to produce all the things that such an individual buys in the course of a year?

For instance:
-Joe buys 10 shirts, 5 pairs of pants, 2 pairs of shoes, and one jacket a year.
-For each item, what is the total number of human hours of work that went into the item that he buys?

This includes a number of stops along the production chain. For one shirt that would be: cultivation and shipping of cotton, manufacture, dying and shipping of textile, design and manufacture of shirt, shipping of shirt, storing and selling of shirt, and the taxi Joe takes to and from the store.

So for the purchase of one shirt, probably something like 8 people (and likely many more) would be involved in getting that shirt from cotton seed to Joe’s closet. But Joe’s shirt would be only a tiny fraction of their yearly work. If you talley up all those fractions, for each of Joe’s shirts, and all his pants, shoes, and all the food he eats and TVs he buys and trips in the car he makes and furniture he purchases etc etc…

So, add all that up, and what would be the total hours of human work that went into sustaining Joe’s life? What is the equivalent number of people working full-time to sustain Joe’s lifestyle?

I bet it’s much higher than you’d expect, and here’s the question I ask: is Joe’s contribution to the world valuable enough that he should be able to (effectively) employ a full-time staff of X people?

Has anyone seen any numbers like this? I’m curious to see what they look like.


  1. mir mir 2008-06-29

    hey there,

    That’s funny I was going to leave a comment on your iphone post about this until the sheer unpleasantness of the thread set me scampering.

    First: re your question about ordinary things I can recommend a book that I may have already recommended to you:

    It’s great, very insightful about this idea of wealth and value.

    Second: what I wanted to say in the data-plan discussion, and forgive me if I too, come off sounding a bit preachy and pedantic, is that what bothers me about all the fuss about the iphone in Canada is that it sounds ( and again, I am not accusing anyone, this is just the noise of the movement to the untrained ear) like a pack of spoiled technocrats whining about something that is fundamentally unimportant compared to real politics. It’s wealth and privilege up against corporate power, oh excuse me, yawn.

    I would prefer it if all the people who are so mad at Rogers and thinking of (GASP!) not getting an iphone, would take the cost of a three year plan and pledge that money to a better cause. That strikes me as a much better form of protest than starting petitions under the (excuse my language ) enormously petty rubric “fuck you rogers”.

    So yeah, I don’t really see the point of all the battles, just don’t use an iphone. Look at your wealth as being invested in political engagement as well, not just what and how we get for our dollars but what we can do with them.

    Oh and for the record what I was going to say about the iPhone post was::

    “boys boys, put your phones back in your pants and calm down. No-one needs to get hurt about a piece of technology that costs as much as a Filipina family makes in a year driving their jeepney around downtown manila”

    So as you can see, it kinda relates :)

  2. been sean been sean 2008-06-30

    ..this reminds me of the definition of ‘intellectual’ – one who projects his private neurosis into international crisis. what if some guy in china gets paid relatively little in Canadian dollars to make your shoes? would it be better if he had no income at all? is your notion of his poverty just an anthropomorphic projection?

    seems that the world is a pretty fantastic place right now and it has constantly been getting better since the dawn of civilization.

  3. Hugh Hugh 2008-06-30

    @been sean … thanks for the note… So the question I’m asking isn’t whether it’s *good* or not that some guy in China gets paid little or a lot for my shoes. What I’d like to know is how many people in aggregate work, full-time, in order to make the things I purchase in a year.

    so: it’s not a moral question I’m asking but rather an economic one. my premise is that the economic “value” we’re creating is not necessarily commensurate with the value we’re extracting from the system. but i’d like a better way to measure that than GDP and dollars all of which are abstract notions. but an hour of human work is an hour of work no matter where it happens, even if the results might be different.

    But I have no idea what the number would be of hours of work that go into keeping my lifestyle afloat. i’ve seen reasonable stats about the geographic footprint of western lives, but not … human work stats.

    and behind the question is this idea that part of what’s been keeping us wealthy is borrowing tons of money (individuals, companies, and governments), which, obviously gives a phony experience of wealth, unless you can pay it all back.

    as for whether the world is a pretty fantastic place right now that has constantly been getting better since the dawn of civilization, one thing to keep in mind is that lots of civilizations have come and gone (romans, aztecs, mongols), all of which had legitimate claims that they had made things better than ever… so again, in aggregate you might be right (tho we could probably debate that), but a larger question is: why did those other civilizations disappear, and is there any chance that we might visit the same fate upon ourselves?

    so at its core the reason behind my question is a selfish one: i’d like the society i live in to survive, and asking questions about it’s health and long-term prospects (rather than just celebrating what we’ve done so far and where we are now) is a good way to try to keep it healthy in the long term.

    [also, I couldn’t figure out what you meant by this: “is your notion of his poverty just an anthropomorphic projection?” … could you clarify? do you mean I assume that poor for me is equivalent to poor for him, when in fact we mean different things by poor because of where we come from?]

  4. mir mir 2008-06-30

    “seems that the world is a pretty fantastic place right now and it has constantly been getting better since the dawn of civilization.”

    I am not going to debate whether I am an ‘intellectual’ – one who projects his private neurosis into international crisis.

    or an ‘intellectual’ – one who looks beyond the immediate present to see whether the future/other people’s lives look as rosy as his/her present is right now.

    But seriously “fantastic place”? According to the Globe and Mail we are a bunch of super-depressed anxiety ridden workaholics :

    And last time I checked if someone was getting lead poisoned to make my fancy runners it was in fact, a moral issue and maybe the world needs a bit of tweaking.

    Yes Sean, fantastic, but also fantastically in need of brave people who are willing to make it better, not sit around telling smart people to stop being ‘neurotic’.


  5. Hugh Hugh 2008-06-30

    @mir: I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can tell you more explicitly what outrages me (and, note, I don’t and didn’t have any plans to buy an iphone): as someone who has been trying to harness technology in useful and socially constructive ways, with success or not (eg: librivox – making knowledge free and accessible in a new format; atwater media project – getting kids to discover the wonder of creation; datalibre – urging the government to make data about our lives available so that we can help improve our country; earideas – bringing intellectually stimulating audio to a wider audience), I am frustrated that the tools of innovation are getting blocked by a monopolistic, greedy pricing plan.

    i don’t know what people can do with web enabled mobile devices, but there’s a good case that it will be a significant, maybe revolutionary change in how we interact with information. Certainly that is the impression i get from the bits of interesting tech reading I’ve been doing of late, the art that’s made me think most, and discussions I’ve had with people either thinking about or actually working in the interesting mobile space. and I (probably many others) have an intuition that the changes will make the web look archaic.

    now, given my interest in technology has little to do with geewhiz gadgetry, and more with trying to do interesting/useful/constructive things with it, I am still pissed off at rogers. why?

    because canada – or at least my canada – has been excluded from exploring and experimenting with the mobile web because data plans are exorbitant, and totally out of whack with the rest of the world. so if there are interesting and exciting things that might come out of the mobile web, the sorts of things I’d like to see (whatever they might be) or I would like to work on, they are not going to come out of canada because it’s just too expensive. they won’t come from friends of mine, they won’t come from me.

    that sucks.

    the buzz around the iphone/rogers plan (in my circles) was: finally, canada (rogers) will be forced to make reasonable data plans because there’s a big business to be had selling these gadgets. which is good for canadian gadget nuts, and at least encouraging for canadian innovation, because for the first time we won’t be totally excluded from maybe the most important area of communications innovation in the coming decade.

    so, spoiled rich kids aside, that’s my concern, and why i was pissed at rogers. because we’ve been waiting for this innovation space to open, and finally thought it would, but it didn’t.

    now: as for having people put their iphone money towards a “better cause,” well, you know you might as well write an anti-glacier book. and while you’re at it sell your mac, and get cheap glasses and only wear clothes you find on the street. and get rid of your internet connection at home. and donate all your savings to charities. etc. and further i’m not convinced that in the long run a bunch of spoiled rich kids giving 3k to “good” causes will do much more than make a little blip of fatter budgets in charities in the world. a good thing, i guess, but that doesn’t have a whit of impact on the actual structures of our country, while, in fact, having innovative developments on new platforms might.

    People get outraged about things that the perceive to have impacts on their own lives, or the lives they would like to live. I find it interesting to list the issues I have complained about over the past few years via email to governments etc. the ones I can remember include: copyright, renaming Park Avenue, the interdiction against the flower lady on Bernard Street, data plans. Probably there were others; but they basically I’ve complained about encroachments on the actual place where I live, and on the space where I work.

    Now perhaps I should get more pissed off about other things, but what can you do. One cannot manufacture outrage, it’s either there or it isn’t; if it’s there, it’s there for a reason, and probably worth doing something about.

    PS thanks for the book recommendation.

  6. mir mir 2008-06-30

    Thanks Hugh that’s a very succinct response.

    As much as I do wish one could manufacture outrage. ( I seem to be able to for myself, why I can’t do it to anyone else is one of the greatest mysteries of my life – ha ha)

    What I find sad about today and it is true of myself as much as anyone else, is that there is a lack of global empathy. What effect would a decision to drastically reduce my carbon/material footprint do for the people who make the stuff I wear and use, perhaps not much, but at least it would signal a certain amount of concern(perhaps empathy) for problems that are global/local, in the sense that it is my purchase behavior that directs global markets as much as anything else.

    I do think there is a moral obligation in the west to stop consuming at such an alarming rate. I am as invested in stuff as the next person, it’s an addiction worse then smoking, and the worst thing is no-one but no-one would say, “I get a certain high from buying stuff” but IMHO many of us do.

    So that’s where I sit and that’s why I am so pleased to hear that you won’t be buying (in) to the randomness of the iphone thing.

    I do not know enough about how stifled Canadian innovation is, so I can’t really speak to your point on that.

    A really tetchy part of me wants to say innovation spaces don’t open – you make them, I just came back from a great conference in Detroit and it seemed what was really firing up the ‘Mericans wasn’t that they have affordable wireless but that they are watching their civil liberties erode slowly but surely.

    Lastly I think the giving money to charity is a cop-out idea is absolute BS. Think about all the trouble the DLP has been having raising money, and think about how if we could get two potential iphone consumers to give us the cost of their 3 year plans, that’d fund a workshop and leave 1k leftover to write some more grants. 7 iphone plans and we’d be good for a year.

    I guess I am one of those people who is going to get more radical as I get older, I’ll probably also own lots of house-pets and start wearing clothes I find on the street ( oh no wait I already have done that – shit).

  7. hugh hugh 2008-06-30

    “A really tetchy part of me wants to say innovation spaces don’t open – you make them, I just came back from a great conference in Detroit and it seemed what was really firing up the ‘Mericans wasn’t that they have affordable wireless but that they are watching their civil liberties erode slowly but surely.”

    I guess a partial answer to this is that these things are not all unrelated. at it’s most abstract, canadian data rates have to do with how accessible information is; accessible information and its manipulation (in a broad sense) is central to how open a society is; openness in a society is correlated to civil liberties and human rights etc. there’s no one to one relation of course, but the principles of free information flow underpin our ideas of democracy. they are not sufficient of course, but in general they are necessary for justice as I think define it anyway.

    re: the additional 3k per iphone whiner to charities … my point is not that it won’t make a short-term difference, but rather that it doesn nothing to address any fundamental structural changes. and it’s a red herring anyway, since you could replace “money spent on iphone” with whatever you like, and it really isn’t relevant to whether cheap data plans are important or not.

  8. mir mir 2008-06-30

    hmm I think we should just go for a beer this summer and hash it out.. saves all this nasty typing.

  9. been sean been sean 2008-06-30

    I enjoyed your post and respect that you’re trying to come up with some groundbreaking new terminological stuff.

    But don’t deny that your whole research is clearly aimed at confirming your feelings of gloomy doomy.

    You can’t hide behind the claim that scientific research is pure and unbiased, a hypothesis seeks to confirm an unmeasured hunch- denying that is like Rushton saying that he was innocent for whipping out the measuring tape around black penises and oriental brains. So since you’re obviously guilty of being a gloom and doom pessimist, let’s just ask this – what’s wrong with borrowing? People have massive sums of wealth just sitting around and they want to generate a bit of income off it, thus the money flows, it gets to the hands that need it – at a great price for several years now btw – just like all good things: infotainment, education, Brazillian beef in cans, cash now flows freely.

    Other civilizations have perished but each civilization built upon the last and we’re at a point where the life span is long and people have amazing conveniences and scientifically-based knowledge about how to best go about things. Our machines are much better than the Aztecs machines, in case you haven’t noticed, as too are our vaccines and other such stuff.

    No point in being gloomy at this juncture in history, it’s not the right time for it.

  10. mir mir 2008-06-30

    Sean I recently read an article in the Globe and Mail about a different ( I imagine) Sean who has been treated for a very untreatable depression by having DBS:

    “With deep brain stimulation (DBS), surgeons implant metal rods that aim steady pulses of electrical current at the faulty neural circuits believed to underlie mental illness. Spaghetti-thin, the rods connect to a cable that snakes invisibly down the neck to a cookie-sized, battery-operated regulator embedded just south of the collarbone.”

    Do you mind if I ask; is a procedure such as that keeping you so irrepressibly on the sunny side of the street?

    Hugh, have you considered perhaps electronically stimulating the parts of your brain that are wary of giant mind-boggling debts floating free of any global regulation?

  11. been sean been sean 2008-07-01

    I suggest you 2 recalibrate your analyses to be in synch with the various recent research on happiness and what inspires such a state in the human species.

    Yes it’s possible that some sort of catastrophe that you gravely predict looms over one of these upcoming horizons but even bad events come, people would still be enchanted, fall in love, enjoy the taste of fresh lettuce and learn to dance the waltz. Happiness is not directly dictated by material wealth or even order, it’s an entirely different recipe.

    You guys sound like you’re sitting in the basement worrying about ‘something wrong on the internet’ while the rest of the world enjoys this short life that we have here.

    I have a few children. That’s my secret to happiness.

  12. Hugh Hugh 2008-07-02

    sean, i doubt we’ll convince each other of anything, but, i’d propose that human societies need gloomy pessimists to gnash teeth about potential problems, and chronic optimists to forge blindly ahead. mix them together, along with those in the middle, and you probably get a system that’s more stable in the long run. that is, if everything is always “just fine” there’s no need to find better solutions to problems, or worry about problems at all, ie no need to innovate; and if everything is always a catastrophe, we’ll spend all our energy in risk management and no time on day to day needs. mix the two together, and force them to negotiate with each other (as, say, democracy does – and maybe even blog comments) and you’ll end up with better day-to-day results, and better long term decision-making. nature, truly, is a wonder.

    But, all this is a distraction from my initial question/proposal, which was: to look at economic inputs/outputs in a new way (maybe someone has done this already?), using hours of human work, rather than abstract dollars, or even natural resources, as the measure. Whatever my political agenda is, I’m just genuinely curious to know the answer. Aren’t you?

  13. been sean been sean 2008-07-02

    I agree fully with your first point. The range of pessimistics and optimists – or more usefully, corporate supporters and protest style rebels – helps create checks and balances on a system that ultimately ensures some good things happen.

    I don’t understand why you’re so interested in how a Chinaman spends the hours of his day. If he wasn’t working maybe he’d be sitting around a hut grabbing a few plants from the field to eat. What’s the difference? Time might have intrinsic value for north americans but time ain’t money everywhere on the globe.

  14. Hugh Hugh 2008-07-02

    i’m interested to know how many hours of actual human work is represented in the purchases of the average north american, the average zimbabwean, the average indonesian etc. for the same reason that people think it’s interesting to know what the GDP of Russia is, or the inflation rate in Argentina, or unemployment rates in Montreal, or AIDS infection rates in Southern Africa. For all those things, you might ask the same question: what’s the difference? And I’d just have to shrug my shoulders. Just because I’m not interested in some particular fact or stat, it doesn’t follow that no one should be.

    Which raises some more curiosity in me: why are you intent on convincing me not to find the answer to the question?

  15. been sean been sean 2008-07-02

    Becuase you’re a smart guy who should be chasing down real questions rather than trying to seek glory by coining a new category of statistic.

    I can’t imagine any point in knowing this statisticoid other than being able to stare at people wearing Wal Mart T shirt and sneering that they deprived some Chinese woman of 6 hours with her kid on a Sunday afternoon.

  16. Hugh Hugh 2008-07-02

    I think you’ve completely missed the point of the question.

  17. been sean been sean 2008-07-02

    I think not.

  18. mir mir 2008-07-03

    oy gevalt Sean,

    Hugh’s ideas aren’t new or zany. They are in circulation through out discourses ( that means ‘talking’ to pointy-heads) on development, sustainability and rights-based initiatives.

    For one thing; you’ve got your environmental performance index;

    and for another you’ve got economists like Marilyn Waring interviewed here;

    Waring is an economist who did really ground-breaking research on people’s actual use of their time and discovered that most time spent laboring by citizens does not appear on any national or global economic index.

    So Hugh if I were you I’d watch ‘Who’s Counting’ the film about Waring, which is an NFB film you can probably beg/borrow from someone you know.

  19. been sean been sean 2008-07-05

    “Ground breaking research” eh… hmm…isn’t all research by definition ground breaking?

    I guess it has a catchier ring to it than “incredibly obscure research.”

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