Padded prowess: a Veblenian interpretation of the long hours of salaried workers.

Author:Haight, Alan Day

It's Brooklyn, I know, but we hunt too.

- Willy Loman, Death of a Salesman (Miller 1949)

There is a widely perceived problem with the workweek in America. Juliet Schor [1991, 68-72] brought attention to this problem, noting that it is not confined to academia or corporate management, but is pervasive also at consulting firms, publishing houses, etc.(1) A Veblenian perspective on this situation seems appropriate because status anxieties may be influencing the self-reporting of work effort. As in Veblen's time, the ideal way to enhance status is by displaying unnecessary consumption, e.g., announcing that one is sailing one's ketch to Newfoundland (not to catch fish for eating, but to sketch people who do). For many people today, that kind of display can no longer be afforded, but salaried workers can still keep up appearances by concealing necessary work, e.g., understating the hours it takes to get a grant or make a sale.

Ancient myths of prowess reward those who give the appearance of affluence while doing little required drudgery. By discouraging individuals (particularly males) from being seen to work long hours, such myths of prowess function as de facto labor unions among wage workers. Much as a petroleum cartel is weakened when members produce more oil than they admit, so a de facto labor union is weakened when workers have the opportunity, under a salary (or commission) form of compensation, to conceal their extra work from their social rivals. A switch from wages to non-hourly compensation shifts the labor supply curve to the right, leading to longer hours and lower effective hourly compensation.

This paper outlines Veblenian and other theories regarding the origins of our conceptions of prowess. It describes the successful hunter or conqueror's understatement of effort (arguably the oldest status finesse) and the impact of such understatement on the modern workweek. It draws on the playwright Arthur Miller's account of one man's attempt to enhance perceptions of his prowess by understating his work effort. It also discusses situations where salaried workers have an incentive to overstate their work effort, like the conspicuous exhaustion of a rowing crew or an empty-handed hunter. It then considers the finesse that allows some people to gain respect on both the barbarian status scale that interested Veblen and the (seemingly conflicting) Protestant work ethic scale that interested Max Weber.

Origins of Myths of Prowess

Consider three mutually reinforcing explanations for the existence of a (primarily male) stigma against long hours of required work: Veblenian hunting myths, Freudian reproduction myths, and a functional explanation for the survival of a social institution. In the early state of society as imagined by Veblen [1924, 14-15], male hunters and warriors displayed their prowess in brief heroic exploits. They eschewed time-consuming tasks, such as processing and preparing the meat, because a man's usefulness to the community was measured strictly by his prowess at killing [Veblen, 1924, 17]. Meanwhile, a woman's usefulness to the community was judged by observing her long hours spent producing food, clothing, and shelter. The woman produced food (which took a long time), whereas the man killed game (which did not):

His work may conduce to the maintenance of the group, but it is felt that it does so through an excellence and an efficacy of a kind that cannot without derogation be compared with the uneventful diligence of the women [Veblen 1924, 5; emphasis added. See also Veblen 1964, 93-94].

This was speculative anthropology, but it was not unique to Veblen. Evidently, Veblen gave expression to a common conception (i.e., myth) of gender roles.(2) The purpose here is not to judge that myth, but rather to recognize its existence and examine its effect on the labor market.

A Freudian explanation of the myth of prowess (and the resulting stigma on explicitly required long hours) would focus on sexual reproduction. The biologically necessary contribution of the male to reproduction of human life is measurable in minutes, whereas the biologically necessary contribution and literally "labor" of the woman could not be reduced (until very recently) to less than nine months. This difference (which in fact is not "natural," but is socially conditioned, presuming as it does certain established gender roles in child care) may contribute to a widespread and influential myth of sexual prowess in which the male's supposedly "natural" work is seen as brief.

Regardless of whether the notion of male prowess is rooted primarily in Veblenian myths of hunting or primarily in Freudian myths of sexual reproduction, the male conception of "prowess" requires making an essential contribution in a short time. A man's prowess is to be demonstrated by work that is essential yet brief, while a woman's labor, in this myth, is never to be done.

Once established, such a status institution may survive less on whatever original merit it had than because it is functional for the group maintaining it. Men who share a disdain for long monitored hours (because such hours suggest to them reduced prowess and "women's work") share also the foundation for a de facto labor union: their disdain effectively restricts the hours of wage labor they supply, thereby driving up their wage. Presumably women are less intimidated by the reduced "prowess" associated with long hours of explicitly monitored labor, so they benefit less from a de facto labor union. This may be one factor contributing to the male-female wage gap.(3) Since brevity-oriented myths of prowess are functional (for men), such myths survive the primitive mode of production that conceived them.(4)

Note that this is not sociobiology. The de facto union obtains its solidarity from enduring social institutions (status rankings), not from any atavistic "male bonding" postulated as inherent in men's genes.(5)

"British" Understatement

In an early state of society, a hunter might be imagined to have worked under an arrangement that had a similarity to the modern salary (or commission or self-employment) contract:(6) the larger community would not explicitly monitor the working time of a hunter (or of a hunting group), but in return for that...

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