The Masculine Urge to build something Real
A YouTube video made me rethink my life...no, seriously...wait, where are you going...
For a number of years now, I have been cultivating an interest in architecture and urbanism. Not sure when it started, but it's been a welcome respite from endless political debates or 2am musings about the world and my place in it.
About 6 months ago, I stumbled upon a YouTube video about a rock climber spending a year during COVID buying an abandoned house in Catalonia, Spain and painstakingly renovating it. I was hooked. The house is gorgeous, the landscape is gorgeous, and I was jealous.
But I wasn't just jealous because I felt that he had a nice house and I live in a one-bedroom apartment in Techno-Babylo-, I mean, New York City.
I was jealous because he built it.
I think there is something primal-ly satisfying about creating something that can be passed down through the generations. To know you imagined something with your mind and then gave it form with your hands; that this thing you created has sufficient value that it can be passed down to your children, and then their children, and so on. To know something has a life that goes beyond just you. To take part in the grand landscape of human ancestry and tie yourself to the past and future.
Compared to the house-building rock climber, my work generates nothing of lasting value. I'm an excel monkey, staring at spreadsheets and proprietary databases for 12+ hours a day in an attempt to explain to rich people how to get richer.
There is a scene in the movie “Margin Call” (think a more dramatic, better version of “The Big Short”) where Stanley Tucci’s character delivers a monologue to Paul Bettany about a bridge he built and the immense material impact it had on the lives of the people who used it:
Of course, the subtext in the scene and its context in the movie is that Tucci’s character feels that his time as an engineer—when he was poorly compensated compared with his job on Wall Street—was when he had more meaningful effects on the lives of people. There was an immediacy. He could see what he had done.
On the other hand, in our hyper-bureaucratic and obfuscated world, it isn’t particularly clear what we are doing. Do financial markets actually work toward “proper” capital allocation, or is it all just a game, divorced from its underlying purpose? (My guess is Tucci’s character would argue the latter.)
For 40 hours a week or more, we are taken away from our families, friends, and community in order to do work that does not seem to contribute much at all. All around us there seems to be a massive proliferation of "Bullshit Jobs." Actual production/value created seems to take a back seat to busywork, bureaucracy, and rent-seeking.
And this isn't just a workplace phenomenon. As early as high school, busywork and useless assignments seemed to take up so much time, at the expense of actual learning. Bullshit Work is built into the system from an early point. When we evaluate the activities that take up so much of our waking hours, we need to be able to substantively answer the question "what are we contributing towards?" Today, we seem to just shrug and accept the grandiose Ponzi scheme that is the American economy.
Meaningful Work for a Meaningful Life
Part of a fulfilling life, of proper human flourishing, is making a meaningful impact/contribution to the world. This has been robbed from most of us, as we drown under layers of debt, sterile hedonism, and alienation.
Considering this, I must stress that GDP is a worthless measurement, as likely (if not more likely) to mislead us as it is to bring us greater understanding of the world and better predictions of the future.
It's time to focus on building an economy focused around human flourishing and stop making the patently absurd assumptions that either a) the market will allocate resources towards human flourishing, or b) that participating in the market is a more important element of human flourishing than being able to make a meaningful contribution to the world and being connected to your ancestors and descendants and your community.
This begins by looking at real, concrete measures of HUMAN conditions: "How many hours of work at minimum or median wages does it take to afford median rent in this town?", "Are people getting the medical attention they need?", "How healthy is the populace?", "Are people satisfied with their lives?", etc.
Next, we need to use these real, concrete measures to make clear distinctions between real productivity (creating value, etc.) and rent-seeking & busywork. If work improves concrete human conditions, one can reasonably consider this to be productive. If it simply extracts value from the commons, then it clearly is just rent-seeking. There's a whole lot of gray area in here, but I think that we can identify some rather massive financial parasites in the system.
And so we need to ask, do our economic activities actually improve our ability to live full lives? What does "human flourishing" mean, and how do we achieve it? The home that Nate Murphy built is one that he could pass down to his children. Each day he can wake up and look around at the product of his own hands. Even if not everyone is cut out to build their own home, I believe there is a longing for more meaningful work than what we have today. Re-orienting ourselves around human flourishing instead of vulgar productivism, around measures of human conditions instead of GDP, will require us to consider how we incentivize production in our economy and how we ensure that we build the healthiest society possible.
Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction— purpose and dignity—that afflicts us all.
Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. . . .
It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
And so, if we want to address the poverty of purpose and dignity that Robert Kennedy so eloquently described, we need to focus on building a society that truly allows for people to build lives worth living.
In the coming weeks, I will be devoting a number of posts towards tackling the issue of real productivity vs rent-seeking in the abstract, and applying this distinction to a number of areas (notably, housing, healthcare, and education). I hope to engage in fruitful discussions with readers, so please leave comments with your thoughts.
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(Thumbnail image source: The Spruce Crafts)