the wages of productivity

I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking about leisure and productivity, as I research and begin to draft an additional chapter for the millennial burnout book (Pre-order! I promise that’s the cover!). A lot of you sent me reading suggestions, and everything’s been useful in various ways, but there are two books that have shifted and clarified my thinking. (They’re both somewhat academic, but if you can develop a tolerance for overuse of the terms ‘rhetorical,’ ‘discursive,’ ‘performative,’ etc. you’ll find something interesting in there)

The first is Elizabeth Currid-Hackett’s The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class (Amazon / Indiebound), which argues that as economic class continues to disarticulate from education level (aka, people with PhDs can be barely making ends meet, and people with a high school education working in the trades, or owning their own businesses, can be solidly upper middle class) people increasingly signal their class status, or their aspirational class status, through “productive” leisure.

Before, you could announce your spot in the upper-middle class through the purchase of recognizable luxury brand items. Now, buying an item for its luxury status is conceived of as crass, or uncultured — a mark of new money. The real way to show that you’re cultured is to evidence (through conversation or Instagram) consumption of cultured things (podcasts, articles, award-winning books, quality television) and participation in cultured activities (pottery class, skiing, bread baking, endless numbers of self-optimizing physical activities).

This style of bourgeois signaling makes me think of the Portlandia skit in which the conversation over dinner circles around asking one another “did you read” [this longform article from this esteemed publication] without ever actually discussing the contents of the articles. What ultimately matters is being the sort of person who reads longform articles and talks about them at dinner, not actually reading them.

Currid-Hackett also points out that it’s not enough to just read the “best of” — to cultivate middlebrow taste, to watch all the Emmy and Oscar and National Book Award winners. That’s basic. The real way to mark your position is to evidence a cultural omnivorousness, an eclectic mix of high and low: attend the ballet, but also be familiar with the latest dances on TikTok; go to the opera and be a master at karaoke.

When people complain about “too much television,” this is part of what they’re complaining about: not that there’s an abundance of options, for all manner of tastes, available in the marketplace, but that the amount of consumption necessary to keep up at a dinner party, or on Twitter, or in the 21st century of the watercooler (aka, Slack) is exhausting.

Is watching movies, going to yoga, and listening to podcasts work? Of course not, not technically. A whole lot of people would love to feel pressure to watch more television instead of being forced to spend those hours in the workplace. But when it comes to feel like the only way to buy a ticket into your aspirational class, it doesn’t feel like a choice, but an obligation: a form, however unpaid, of labor. Which explains why “relaxing” by engaging in these activities can feel so exhausting, so unfulfilling, so unrestorative. 

The second book, Melissa Gregg’s Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy (Amazon / Indiebound) has totally refigured my understanding of productivity. Gregg, who currently works as a researcher at Intel, started collecting time management manuals, guides, and how-tos from the discount racks at bookstores years ago. And like any good researcher, she started to discern patterns, and spikes in popularity — and went backwards to try and figure out why, for instance, these manuals first started appearing in the ‘70s, and then again in the early ‘90s (see especially: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) and have found their contemporary iteration in late 2000s and 2010s in productivity apps.

The timing, of course, is not coincidental: each spike in the fetish for productivity aligns with a moment of mass anxiety over layoffs, downsizing, and general precarity in the workplace. Within office and knowledge jobs in particular, that precarity translates into a need to demonstrate one’s value — and the most straightforward way to do so is through productivity. (In today’s climate of freelancing, independent contracting, and general side-hustling, cultivating productivity is also a way to make ends meet, or beat others’s out for a contract).

It’s also no accident that the first office productivity manuals arrived as secretaries — once standardized in most work places — began to vanish, or at least vanish as a regular feature for most every (man) with an office job. Before, productivity was possible partly because all of the “mundane” labor of the workday, from typing to making dinner reservations, was offloaded to the paid and unpaid women in your life. And every productivity manual or app is a blueprint, in some way, to returning to this model of work, where the concerns and demands of others’ largely did not concern or demand of you.

Think about the most popular productivity modes right now: Inbox Zero, and turning off the internet entirely (through programs like Freedom from the Internet). When your goal, as you go through your emails, is simply getting rid of them, the results are often shitty, haphazard, incomplete. I delete things I can’t muster the energy to respond to. I forward things I don’t want to deal with. I write incomplete responses, or ask a question when I should be answering one. I create more work for others in the name of “productivity.” One thing marked off my to-do list, one thing on someone else’s.

Sequestering yourself also makes more work. I’m the first to argue that there’s too much expectation for connectivity and immediate availability. But when availability is woven into your company’s way of working, claiming the right to be unreachable can again make more work for others. (To be clear, there’s a difference between cultivating time when you’re regularly unreachable, and making sure all duties are attended to ahead of time, and sporadically absenting yourself in the name of self-preservation and productivity).

In this way, the cultivation of productivity becomes, in Gregg’s words, “a form of training through which workers become capable of the ever more daring acts of solitude and ruthlessness necessary to produce career competence.” It doesn’t matter if underlings, team members, spouses or children suffer under the weight of excess work, so long as your ostensibly productivity shines brightly.

And for those tasks and inefficiencies we can’t offload on coworkers and family, we now underpay others to perform them for us: TaskRabbits, Uber drivers, Instacart grocery shoppers, Trunk Club stylists, Blue Apron packagers, nannies, home organizers, Handy housecleaners, Amazon warehousers and drivers, Seamless delivery people. People have always paid other people to do the mundane, time-consuming things they can afford not to do. But the current price of those services makes them widely accessible in a different way.

We’re creating a new class bifurcation, between those who work so much, and are so conscious of squeezing productivity out of every hour, making enough money to offload all unproductive tasks, and those making very little in order to make that productivity possible.

So what’s the solution here? Most people I know don’t hate grocery shopping, or detest walking instead of Ubering, or loathe picking up trash bags. The problem is working so much, and cultivating such a hunger for total productivity, that the few hours we do have off, we’re desperate to preserve, in whatever small ways, for ourselves: to spend time with our children, to consume the products that announce our aspirational class, to sleep, to breathe.

In many Western countries and America in particular, working all the time has become so normalized that, despite an abundance of research to the contrary, the idea of working less (and living better, and actually becoming more productive during working hours as a result) seems radical. But as has become a refrain for me, it doesn’t have to be this way.

I’m currently working on a story that explores that idea, but for now, I’m collecting stories from people about their own relation to leisure, and productivity, and hobbies. You can find the survey here.


Side Note: I’m continuing/mindfully accelerating my decade’s long move towards vegetarianism, and I found the NYT’s meat-lover’s guide to eating less meat helpful. I also like this Wirecutter collection of way’s to reduce plastic waste, which is very frank about the fact that you don’t really need to buy a bunch of shit, including the stuff that they have on the page. With that said, I started using the beeswax saran-wrap replacement six months ago, thought it would suck, but now I don’t think I’ll ever buy saran wrap again. I like the Lily Bee ones, which you can find on Amazon (if you can, bulk order with other stuff!) or their own site.

This Week’s Things I Read and Loved:

Things I Wrote: Knives Out and the Revenge of the Pretty Good Movie

As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a weekish, forward it their way. You can access it online (and subscribe) here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Please forgive any typos or weird sentences; relative inattention to perfection is what allows me to make the mental space to get this out in the world.

presents to myself

I wrote a lot this past month — for BuzzFeed, in book edits, just not in this newsletter, which I hate, because this newsletter works as a sort of release valve for the stream of consciousness I’m forced to filter for my other writing. Like a lot of people, I feel unsettled during this so-called dead week, when it’s never clear how much you should be working, whether you should feel shame or glee about it. But it’s increasingly clear that my unsettledness has less to do with the actual structures of work and more to do with my increased antipathy towards ambient-always working. I want to work or not work, not have this melty liminal space that seeps into everything.

But I love new planners, and our New Year’s tradition of a massive Portuguese Fisherman’s Stew, and reflecting, generally, on the year — especially all of the truly excellent writing and thinking I read/consumed. You can see my favorite books below, but I’ve also collected a mishmash of favorites from the internet and quasi-categorized them below. As I wrote last year, with all the arbitrary energy around a new year, it feels important to spend time to allow the old, in all its sorrow and glory, to catch up with us.

Uncategorizable Favs:

Media criticism, broadly defined:

On Daily Life:

Profiles That’ve Stayed With Me:

Just Trust Me Again:

And some things I wrote this month:

I read 49 books this year. I set out with a goal of reading, well, a lot more. The aim was somewhere around 52, but really what I wanted was a return to that feeling of near-constant grounding in some book, any fiction book, amidst everything else. I read dozens more for work, and for my own book, but I don’t think of them — or the reading process — in the same way. These 49 books were read on planes, on beaches, on long Sunday afternoons, in hotels after a long day reporting, at night to take my mind elsewhere. They were presents to myself, and what you see above are a few of my favorites.

I’d love to hear what you also loved — and, as always, your suggestions for future reads and potential “Just Trust Mes.” Simply reply to this email — or find me at annehelenpetersen@gmail.com. You can follow me on Twitter here, and on Instagram here. And if you want to give someone a New Year’s present, or think they’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, just forward it their way. (You can subscribe here).

a privilege to eat slowly

I spent the weekend on Lummi Island, in the Salish Sea off Western Washington. It’s not far, nautically, from the San Juan Islands, but instead of taking a long ferry from Anacortas, you drive up to Bellingham, drive across Lummi Nation, and board a tiny, 22-vehicle ferry for the ten minute trip across the water. Like so many of the San Juans, there’s a fascinating mix between long-time islanders, retirees, artists, fisherman, and people who’ve farmed and raised animals on the land for decades. There’s a small convenience store, a cafe open a few days a week during the winter, and the Willows Inn, where the food is so good (and almost entirely locally sourced on the island, or nearby) and so famous that people fly from all over the place just to spend a night and enjoy the billion courses featuring things like elk heart. You get the picture.

There’s no gas station. There’s a very small elementary school. There’s slow internet. The pace of life is just different. During the week, the ferry runs quite regularly — people come back and forth, some to work, others doing errands, some kids coming onto the main land for school. But on the weekends, the ferry goes down to once an hour. My friend was telling me about the schedule early Sunday, as we were making plans to get me to the airport down in Seattle.

“Oh, that sucks that it only runs once an hour on Sundays,” I said.

“Actually, not really?” she replied.

And it’s true: there’s no reason, really, why you’d need a ferry more than once an hour. My automatic reaction was that there should be more: more convenience, easier, faster, on demand. But there’s nothing actually difficult about waiting for the hour to do whatever you need to do. (And yes, of course, the ferry can be summoned for emergencies; leaving the island to go to Trader Joe’s in Bellingham is not that).

My response made me think about all the areas in our lives in which we demand optimization, or think a service is less-than if it’s not immediately reactive to our demands. When I lived in New York, for example, I refused to get a microwave — there wasn’t space in my tiny kitchen. People were astounded by it, as if it was somehow offensive that I hadn’t acquired an item that would make my food instantly hot. But most things warm up just slightly less quickly on the stove.

We get mad when our internet signal isn’t as strong as we’d like — even when there’s no reason we should be able to access information, or dumb YouTube videos, instantaneously. People are always popping off in the reviews of hotels, including in very rural or isolated areas, when the WiFi goes in and out, or isn’t as fast as expected. I get that it’s a problem if you thought that you could perform a certain sort of work, and those plans are foiled because of it. But most of these people aren’t mad because the WiFi speed directly affected their lives in any meaningful way, but just because. Because it’s not what we’ve come to expect in every other moment of our lives. Because it doesn’t respond to our demands immediately, and thus, we’ve decided, it makes our lives worse.

In situations where the WiFi is bad, or the roads are slow, or the ferry only comes once an hour, I’ve watched more people and places work to set expectations: This is a rustic cabin down an isolated road, This is not a luxury resort, You are on an island, Please Be Aware That You, Yourself, Opted to Stay in Place.

They all seem to be trying to communicate: this place is not your everyday life, which is part of why you want to come here. They get that so-called “ease” usually produces its opposite, as connectivity and immediately ultimately makes a lot of things harder, especially real and true relaxation. Bad or nonexistent cell service cuts the tether between you and your phone, and the feeling of weird responsibility we’ve developed to maintain it through constant inbox refreshes, text responses, Instagram checks. And a ferry once an hour means you either catch it or you don’t, but you’ll still, eventually, get where you’re going. It’s liberating, in its way, to not be able to do every thing, at every time, in every place.

I’m not trying to fetishize a 17th century way of life, or an undeveloped one, in which life is really and truly arduous in sorts of back-breaking life-threatening ways. Yet the inverse fetish for on-demand services is so clearly a symptom of how we’ve overpacked our lives. We need overnight shipping because we didn’t have time to shop for gifts until the day before. We need a Lyft at our door right now because we’re trying to squeeze in a few extra minutes of work before heading to the airport. We need the food done in 20 seconds because we’re trying to feed kids and ourselves and the dog while also sorting the recycling and changing the laundry and making a grocery order on FreshDirect which, ugh, why can they only deliver at 6:45 pm tonight, not 5 pm the way I’d like? Busy-ness fosters a perception that the only way you can possibly survive is through convenience — and you’ll pay a considerable amount the money you make through that busy-ness to obtain it.

I’ve found that purposefully slowing down — continually subtracting from my life in all ways — to be transformative. Instead of making my life feel empty, or less efficient, it opens up space for what remains (friends, commitments, activities, hobbies, books, movies, whatever) to spread, grow richer, become more nourishing. It’s just not fewer physical objects, KonMari style, but less stuff pulling at me, eating up the open space in my brain — and, by extension, pushing me to opt for things that might be convenient, but are worse for me, and my family, and my neighborhood, and the world at large.

Sometimes you find yourself so desperately hungry that you eat a ton of food really quickly and realize that you’ve tasted nothing at all. I have to remind myself every day: how you feed yourself, in every sense of the word, and feed others — that’s the life you’re living. What a privilege, truly, to eat slowly.


DECEMBER BONUS: Gift guides are always weird and often make me feel alienated (who has Dads who like these sorts of things???). But I do like when people list some random recommendations, which is what I’ve done below with the books I’ve read and loved this year:

Book for a History Buff/True Crime Person: Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe

Book for a person who loves engrossing ‘literary’ fiction: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips; The Dutch House by Ann Patchett; The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead

Book for Someone Who Just Loves Beautiful Prose, Full-Stop: Red at the Bone, by Jacqueline Woodson

Book for Someone Who Likes Slightly Kooky Slightly Weird Women of a Certain Age: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Takorczuk or Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Book for Someone Looking to Channel Their Righteous Anger Against the Enduring Patriarchy: Women Talking by Miriam Toews or All the Rage by Darcy Lockman

Book for Someone Who is Always Trying to Have a Conversation That’s Kind of a On a Different Theoretical Plane Than You, and You Know They’re Smart, But They’re Also Maybe Sometimes an Asshole: The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

Book for Someone Who’s Actually Ready To Think Seriously About Addressing Their Burnout: How to Do Nothing, by Jenny Odell

Book for a Smart Women in Your Life Who Enjoys a Good Mind Fuck: Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi

Book for Someone Who’s Processing Grief, But Would Probably Never Buy Themselves a Book About Processing Grief: H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald

But also, This Week’s Things I Read and Loved:

If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can find the shareable, online version (and subscribe) here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and on Instagram here. Please excuse any weirdo sentences or typos; relative inattention to detail is what allows me to make the mental space to do this every week for free.

thanking me for a small cry

First off, tremendous thanks to each of you who sent me missives — between one sentence and multiple pages — on what parts of civilization you love paying for with your taxes. (If you missed last week’s newsletter, you can find it here). I was a true joy to find out so many others felt the same — even if a solid half of the hundreds who wrote back live in Canada and Europe, particularly in places where taxes are even higher. So much of our thinking about societal regulations and obligations is a matter of ideological upbringing, context, inculcation.

I thought a lot about that as I was reporting my most recent feature, on the fight between gun rights activists in Idaho who want to “firm up” (and expand) existing (permissive) gun laws and those who, following the never-ending string of shootings, want to curtail them. I’ve found that both sides of this debate really struggle to understand that the other side views the issue not just from a different moral stance, but a different ideological and logical one.

At least in Idaho, and with these activists, they absolutely believe that the way to have more safety in public spaces is to have more guns available — which is precisely why the Second Amendment, to their minds, codified that right. (That and the ability to protect themselves from tyranny, but that’s a secondary concern). To be unarmed in a public space is to open oneself to danger. You might not believe that yourself, but try and understand how that viewpoint might occupy someone else’s mind, especially if they’ve grown up, or worked, or served, in a place where carrying a weapon = safety.

Again, I’m not saying I necessarily personally believe that — but if you want to understand why gun rights advocates are successful, and intractable, it’s because of this line of thinking. And, to be fair, they consider the anti-gun-rights line of thinking just as alien and absurd as anti-guns-rights think of theirs. It’s a pretty stark divide: More guns = more safety vs. fewer guns = more safety. I get it, this might be hard to understand. It might feel like it flies in the face of logic. But accepted logic isn’t objective; it’s the way we think things work according to the information available and amendable to our thinking.

You can look at contemporary mass shooting stats and think BAN GUNS or you can look at it and think MORE GUNS, and I’ve tried, as best as I can, to articulate the ideologies that inform that thinking in this corner of Idaho — while also pointing to the fact that no law is absolute, or “logical,” or actually God-given, even when they’re in the Bill of Rights. We often frame laws that way, but laws are arbitrary and ideological and imminently changeable, which is, of course, why we’re constantly fighting over their interpretation. But regardless of what side of this conversation you’re on, it’s worth understanding the other side if you’re serious about changing their minds.

As a side note, I’m pleased that this has been widely read and shared on both sides of the political/ideological spectrum. My goal, particularly with features like this, is for everyone to have small quibbles, be slightly pissed that they didn’t come off better, but admit that it was fair. I know there are people who think that every piece of feature writing should be a piece of activism. I get it. Sometimes I want the same. But just as there’s a place for pieces that reconfirm what you already believe, there are also pieces that make you think more broadly about why you believe it.

Could I understand the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance just by listening to Facebook videos? A lot of it, sure. But what really made me understand their strategy and viewpoint was talking to them, and observing them, at length. And what made them talk to me was a lengthy back and forth about the fact that I was from Idaho, and that I wanted to keep reporting on the area, and had no interest in pulling a Sacha Baron Cohen on them, or giving them ammunition, for lack of a better word, for the idea that “liberal” journalists only produce fake news.

Will it matter? Will the people who’ve shared the article with “I never trust BuzzFeed but this is fair” synthesize that into their larger understanding of liberal fake news? I dunno, maybe, a few. That’s great. That’s part of what I’m going for. But certainly not all of it, or even the primary objective. When a journalist, or a politician, spends all of their time trying to convince mostly bad faith spectators of their legitimacy, the results just feel forced. My aim, again, with stories like these, is how can I tell it in a way that thrills none of the subjects, but also encourages begrudging respect?

Because what I’m really trying to do — and what serves the reader, not the subject — is elucidate the ideologies at work, with as much context as allowed before it turns into a book. And because I’m a culture writer, not a beat reporter, there’s always a kicker/so-what at the end that attempts to drive home the larger questions at stake, and why understanding this stuff, really understanding it, beyond a headline or a tweet, really matters. Yeah, a county is suing a city over the right to open carry at a musical festival. But so what? I hope you’ll read, and tell me what you think.

I also wrote about the Mister Rogers movie! This movie should not work, structurally/conceptually speaking, and I’m still kind of amazed that it came together. I do think there are faults, but the overall effect, like that of the Mister Rogers documentary, was to make me weep like a messy baby. I wrote about that deep ugly cry, and what I think is motivating it (hint: WE WORK ALL THE TIME AND ARE ALLERGIC TO OUR FEELINGS) and, unlike the Idaho piece, it is quite short.

The piece was also somehow picked up by Drudge, so if you need a small delightful thought for the weekend, please imagine my inbox, filled with older, Drudge-reading men, all of them with AOL email addresses they share with their wives, thanking me for a small cry.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

Random Recommendation of the Week:

  • Buying old postcards of your hometown/favorite place on eBay. Here’s one I’m currently eying from here in Montana, but no matter where you live, truly, there’s something to be found.

If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can find the shareable, online version (and subscribe) here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and on Instagram here. Please excuse any weirdo sentences or typos; relative inattention to detail is what allows me to make the mental space to do this every week for free.

paying for civilization

The other day I was walking the dogs along a favorite trail, turned a corner, and realized there’d been a significant re-routing. They’d closed a section of the old trail, which was rocky and treacherous and steep in winter, and rerouted a new, evenly graded trail to the side. A few yards down, they’d planted a new row of saplings, protecting them from the hungry deer with chicken wire. A bit farther down the trail, they’d opened up a once-fenced and densely wooded section of the trail to create a small sitting area overlooking a small, usually hidden reservoir. I actually gasped when I saw it. I was so surprised, happy, grateful. What a gift!

I use the word ‘they’ as if it were people, and of course people did the work. But in a way, I gave that gift to myself. Or everyone in Missoula gave that gift to me. A whole host of trail maintenance programs are funded by the Missoula Open Space Bond, which funds the conservation and maintenance of trails, rivers, and open spaces in the county. It helps restore busted habitats, and continues work on a project making it so that there’s a trailhead within ten minutes of everyone in the county — not just people who live in the more desirable areas. It’s regrading hills to make trails more accessible. It’s making civilization better, more livable. And I fucking love paying for it. That’s what I say every time I pay my taxes: I love paying for civilization.

I don’t know where the American attitude towards taxes came from. I do know that growing up, through some combination of pop culture and adult figures, I somehow internalized the idea that taxes are bad, and smart people spend a lot of money figuring out how not to pay them. It’s not tax evasion, it’s good business sense. Or something like that. Weirdly, that began to change when I actually started working. I didn’t make enough in my 20s to pay hardly any taxes. In fact, I was making so little for much of my grad school career that I became accustomed to large refunds at the end of every year, which felt like bonanzas, but made me feel sheepish: you don’t even make enough for us to really tax you.

After grad school, those refunds began to disappear. I moved to New York, where everyone bitches about the city taxes. But I also looked around me and saw marvels of the city everywhere. Every time I walked along the Brooklyn piers, or used a public drinking fountain, or watched the streets being cleaned of New York filth, or even riding the broken subway. Did I want the subway to be fixed? Of course! Was I nonetheless grateful for a marvel that transports 4.3 million people in the city every damn day? Yes. Again: I love paying for civilization.

I had to find a financial advisor earlier this year, mostly because I had a book advance and needed to come up with a strategy to pay down my still massive student loans. He’s a nice guy, very smart, but when we sat down, he immediately started telling me about the complex ways I could shelter my earnings from taxes. When I told him I was down with paying taxes, it was difficult to tell if he was just surprised or just thought I was stupid — which presupposes the idea that smart people pay less taxes. I’m not dumb, and I take deductions like everyone else. But I’ve also made a conscious decision to think of paying taxes not as a burden to get out of, but as a willingly performed obligation, a way of being a citizen in my community.

My property tax statement came in the mail last month. In Montana, it lists the specific allocation of every tax dollar, down to the penny. We’re spending $50.66 on the county library. $3.84 on “relationship violence services.” $14.08 on “aging services.” $519.98 on elementary schools, and $168.90 for “elementary equalization,” which goes towards school districts that don’t get the same $$$ in property taxes. $14.48 in weed control. $35.99 towards the beloved neighborhood park, where there’s a natural iceskating rink and hoards of children and so much room for the dogs to run. $7.68 in substance abuse prevention. And $56.70 towards the Open Space bond, which includes that regraded path and sitting area.

I don’t have kids, so I don’t personally “use” the public school system. I don’t have friends or family members in substance abuse programs, or in need of assistance fleeing domestic abuse. I don’t (yet) need aging services. But the idea that I should only pay for things that benefit me directly is anathema to me. Every single thing on that list benefits me in some way, because it benefits the community around me. Kids’ education matters not because they’re my kids, but because education matters, in general. I might not need rescue services in the woods out in the corner of the county, but some day, maybe I would. Maybe I would need help in some way that’s currently unimaginable to me. Paying taxes means caring for other people, even if their circumstances aren’t identical to your own. And for all of our best intentions, sometimes we need incentive to care about other people.

I’ve spent a lot of time reporting on and talking to libertarians and conservatives who object to nearly all forms of taxation and government spending, apart from roads. They believe that individuals should be able to decide which programs are important to them, and fund them accordingly — personally, through non-profits, through churches. I get the impulse; we work hard for our money and we’ve internalized a “right” to agency over where it’s directed. Within that model, there are all sorts of services that would fall through the cracks — and not just weed control. Just look at the GoFundMe model: if you have a cute kid, an incredibly tragic or melodramatic story, and a good marketing sense, your plea for assistance might go viral and be filled. But the vast majority go unfunded and unfound. Leaving services up to subjective giving means allowing so many people, and projects, to fall through the cracks. Taxes create a remove — and foils our very human, but very uneven, impulses.

Which isn’t to say that I like everything my taxes fund — military spending in particular. I don’t like bloat or waste; who does? But I also don’t think that entire programs and services should be cut, or cut to the bone, in the name of giving me $14.07 more a year. I support and vote for candidates who advocate for responsible spending — but spending nonetheless. I get annoyed at the hand-wringing over whether or not something like Elizabeth Warren’s health care plan will raise taxes on the middle class, because I’d much rather pay more taxes and far less in personal health care costs and premiums — while also reveling in the ways universal health care would liberate myself and others from “job lock,” and the constant fear of medical debt, and fear in general. How much is too much to pay to make life substantively better for so many people around you?

This all comes back to an idea I touched on a few weeks ago, thinking about how you can decrease burnout in others. One way is by not practicing burnout behaviors that affect everyone you encounter. Another is working to create and normalize social safety nets that take away even one massive burden and fear — for yourself, for your neighbors, for your coworkers, for people you’ll never meet but whose mental and physical contributions to society nevertheless matter.

I love that a huge truck comes by the first week of November and sucks up all the leaves from the street. I love my trails. I love that the roads get plowed, even when it takes a bit. I love that the bus is free, even though I’m going to keep voting for people who want more buses, more routes. I love the library — it doesn’t matter that I hardly use it; I love that it’s there for others, and that it’s always full. I love the weed control that prevents the forests from being overtaken by noxious invasive species. And I love all the projects that seemingly benefit me not at all, because they make life better and livable for someone else.

Think about all the things in your life and community that you help pay for every day. You create and maintain civilization, every day. Taxes! What a blessing, to be able to care for others in this way.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

Random Endorsements for the Week:

  • I’ve been looking for a daily face sunscreen that doesn’t feel like sunscreen for a very long time and finally found one I love from Glossier.

  • I’ve also been looking for good running gloves forever. These ones are great down to 20 degrees, water-repellent and good in rain, but not too hot when the temps are above freezing. All-around endorse.

  • Every Fall I tell everyone I know: Put parsnips in your homemade chicken noodle soup

As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can access the online, shareable version (and subscribe) here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and on Instagram here. Please excuse any weirdo sentences or typos; relative inattention to detail is what allows me to make the mental space to do this every week for free. I’d love to hear about what makes you love paying for civilization. Just reply to this email.

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