Monday, August 4, 2014

Free Clubs

When I design a game that only uses standard components (in this case, a deck of playing cards), I like to give away the rules for free. Here are the rules for a three-player trick-taking card game with a fun strategic twist!


Like Spades, Hearts, and Bridge, Clubs is a trick-taking game, where on each turn (or "trick"), each player puts down one card from a large hand, and all players compete to try to make sure their card is the highest card played that turn, winning (or "taking") the trick. 

Unlike most other trick-taking games, Clubs is designed for exactly three people. Also, most other trick-taking games let players guess how many tricks they are going to take, with bonuses for guessing well and penalties for promising more than you can deliver. 

By contrast, Clubs has a fixed target: 7 out of 10 tricks. Whoever wins the bidding in a hand of Clubs must win at least 7 tricks in order to avoid a big penalty. Instead of moving that number up or down, players bid to see what kinds of handicaps they can give themselves without falling short of 7 tricks. For example, a player might say that she can win even after discarding a high card, or that she can win even after passing a high card to her neighbor.

The player who accepts the harshest and most dangerous handicaps will win the auction and get to collect the 'treasure chest' of bonus playing cards. The other two players will then usually try to stop the first player from reaching 7 tricks, although every trick is valuable, so the other two players may also compete among themselves to collect their own tricks!

Play continues for several hands until someone has collected at least 250 points (which represents about 3 solidly won hands). Then, whoever has the most points is the winner.


Start with a standard deck of 52 cards, plus 2 Jokers, for a total of 54 cards. Take the Jokers, Kings, Queens, Jacks, and 10s (18 cards total), and shuffle them together, dealing out 6 cards per player. These are known as the "auction" cards. 

Then, take the remaining 36 cards (Aces, twos, threes, fours, fives, sixes, sevens, eights, and nines) and shuffle them together (do not mix them with the face cards). Deal out 10 cards to each player; these are known as the "primary" cards. Set the remaining 6 playing cards aside face-down; these cards are called the "treasure chest."

Order and Meaning of the Cards

Ace  -- Lowest Primary Card; loses to any higher card of the same suit.
Two through Eight  -- Middle Primary Cards; higher numbers are better.
Nine -- Highest Playing Card; beats any Primary card except a trump
Ace through Nine of Clubs -- Trump Primary Cards; beat all non-trump primary cards.
Ten of Spades -- Lowest Auction Card; opens the auction and means you must discard one spades primary card of your choice (usually the lowest).
Other Tens -- Low Auction Card; means you must discard one primary card of that suit of your choice (usually the lowest).
Jacks -- Middle Auction Card; means you must discard your highest primary card in that suit.
Queens -- High Auction Card; means that you must pass your highest primary card in the suit to the neighbor on your left. For example, if you played the Queen of Hearts, and you had [A, 3, 6, 8, J] of Hearts in your hand, you would have to pass the 8 of Hearts to your left (the Jack is an auction card, not a Primary card).
King -- Very High Auction Card; means that you must discard your three highest primary cards in the suit. For example, if you played the King of Spades, and you had [2, 4, 5, 9, 10] of Spades in your hand, you would have to discard the 4, 5, and 9 of Spades (the ten is an auction card, not a primary card). If you do not have enough primary cards in suit, just discard all the primary cards in that suit. For example, if you had [2, 4, 10] in Spades, you would discard the 2 and the 4.
Joker -- Highest Auction Card; means that you form a partnership with whoever bid most recently. Instead of you alone needing to take 7 tricks, the two of you together need to take all 10 tricks, or you both suffer the penalty for breaking your contract. Whoever bids the Joker wins the auction immediately, ending the auction and collecting the treasure chest. Both players in the partnership must keep and enforce their handicaps from the auction.


After the cards are dealt out, players take turns (going clockwise from the first bidder) bidding with their auction cards to try to win the playing cards stored in the treasure chest. The last player to make a bid will get to collect the playing cards in the treasure chest and use them as part of her hand during the main part of the game, which is a big advantage.

When bidding you must follow two rules:
(1) You can only bid a card that is more valuable than the most recent card that was bid, and
(2) You cannot jump up more than one 'level' on a single bid.

Jokers and then Kings are the most valuable auction cards, followed by Queens, then Jacks, and finally Tens. If two cards have the same 'number' or face card, the tie is broken using alphabetical order, with Clubs being most valuable and Spades being least valuable. For example, if the player to your right just bid a Jack of Diamonds, you could bid a Jack of Clubs, a Queen of Hearts, a Queen of Diamonds, or a Queen of Clubs. You cannot bid a Ten of Hearts or a Jack of Spades, because those are not more valuable than the Jack of Diamonds; that would violate Rule 1. Similarly, you cannot bid a King of Spades or a Joker, because that would jump up more than one level, violating Rule 2. The card one level up from a Jack is a Queen; that means the highest card you can play off of a Jack is a Queen. You cannot play a King until someone has played a Queen, and you cannot play a Joker unless someone has played a King.

Joker > KC > KD > KH > KS > QC > QD > QH > QS > JC > JD > JH > JS > 10C > 10D > 10H > 10S.

Whoever holds the 10 of Spades (the lowest auction card) opens the bidding by putting the 10 of Spades face up in front of her. Bidding then continues clockwise, with each player either bidding one card by putting it face up in front of him, or saying "pass." If you pass, you take no action, and the bidding continues clockwise. You may rejoin the auction if the bidding comes around to you again. However, if two players in a row both pass, then the auction is over, and the auction is won by the last person who bid a card. For example, suppose Jason, Eric, and Rachel are playing. If Jason bids the Jack of Clubs, Eric could pass. Rachel could then bid the Queen of Spades. Jason could pass, and then Eric could bid the King of Diamonds. If Rachel and then Jason both pass, Eric would win the auction. After Jason passes again, it is too late for Rachel to decide to rejoin the auction.
JC < pass < QS < pass < KD < pass < pass.
(KD wins)

The winner of the auction leaves any cards that she bid face-up in front of her, and then sets the remaining auction cards face-down out of play. All other players also discard all their auction cards face-down and out of play, whether they bid them or not. Then, the winner of the auction collects the playing cards from the treasure chest and mixes them in with the playing cards from his/her own hand. The winner of the auction will now have a hand of 16 playing cards, and the other two players will have a hand of 10 playing cards each.


After the auction is over but before the trick-taking begins, the player who won the auction (or both players who won the auction, if the auction ended with a Joker) must resolve all of their handicaps that go along with all of the cards they bid during the auction. For example, if the winner bid a 10 of Hearts and then a Jack of Diamonds, she must look at her hand (including the treasure chest) and discard her choice of heart. Usually you would want to discard your lowest heart. She would then look at her hand (including the treasure chest) and discard her highest diamond (usually the 7, 8, or 9). Note that you cannot discard auction cards to fulfill the requirements of a auction card. That would not make any sense. Instead, discard primary cards to fulfill the requirements of an auction card.

Finally, the Joker changes how many tricks the auction winner needs and adds a second player to the auction 'team.' Leave the Joker face up in front of you, and put the other Joker face up in front of your teammate, to remind all players of their roles. Both players on the Joker team have to discard primary cards based on their handicap bids, but only the player who bid the Joker wins the treasure chest.

If you did not win the auction, and you are not part of a Joker team, then put your bidding cards away -- you do not have to worry about any handicaps.


Immediately after resolving handicaps, but before play begins, each player chooses one card from his or her hand (including the treasure chest, if you have won it) and passes it to the player on his or her right.

Then, play begins with the player clockwise from the person who won the auction (in case of a Joker, play begins with the only person who lost the auction); that player chooses any card in her hand and plays it face-up near the center of the table, facing her. Then, the person to her right must choose any card in a matching suit and put it face-up near the center of the table, facing him. Finally, the third player (who in this case is the player who won the auction) chooses a card in a matching suit and puts it face-up near the center of the table. If you do not have any cards at all left in the current suit, you may choose any card from your hand, instead.

Ordinarily, the highest card played in the correct suit will 'win' the trick. Cards played in a non-matching suit, even if they are very high, are worthless for winning a trick. The winner of the trick collects all three of the cards that were just played and sets them aside in a face-down pile near his or her seat. Aces are low cards; they cannot win a trick unless they are played at the start of the trick and nobody else is able to follow suit.

The exception is Clubs, which are called trump cards. When a club is played after a non-club card, it 'trumps', or automatically beats, the non-club card. For example, the Two of Clubs will beat the Nine of Diamonds, even though nines are higher than twos. Keep in mind that you cannot play a trump card just because you feel like it -- you must have no cards of the current suit in your hand in order to play a non-matching card, be it trump or otherwise. If the first player in the trick chooses a club card (which is allowed), then clubs are the correct suit, so trump is not really an issue -- you either have a higher club to play, or you don't.

If you have no cards at all remaining in your hand, simply pass when it is your turn to play. If you win a trick with your last card, then the player to your right gets to play the lead card of the trick and choose the correct suit for that trick.

After the player who wins the trick collects the three cards, he or she then plays the lead card of the next trick. Play then continues for ten tricks total, or until at least two of the players are out of cards in their hand (whichever comes first). Players then count the cards they collected to see what they scored.


+10 points for each trick you personally won
- 50 points if you won the auction by yourself but you did not make 7 tricks
- 50 points if you were part of a Joker team but your team did not make 10 tricks
+ 20 points if you collected the most Diamonds as part of winning your tricks
          (in case of a tie, all tying players get +10 points)
+10 points if you collected the Ace of Hearts as part of winning your tricks
+5 points if you collected no spades at all as part of winning your tricks

As soon as one player has at least 250 points, whoever has the most points wins.

Penalties for Cheating

If you play a card that you are not allowed to play because of one of your handicaps, or because you are not yet out of the current suit, and someone notices the mistake before another card is played, you may pick up that card and choose a new one, with no penalty.

If you play a card that you are not allowed to play because of one of your handicaps, or because you are not yet out of the current suit, and the mistake is noticed after another card is played but before the trick is taken, you must leave the card you played on the table, and you forfeit that trick. If you would have won the trick, then instead the trick is won by whoever had the second-most powerful card on the table.

If you play a card that you are not allowed to play because of one of your handicaps, or because you are not yet out of the current suit, and the mistake is noticed after the trick is taken but before the next hand is dealt, you forfeit your positive points for the round. You can still get negative points if you failed to complete your contract, but you cannot get any positive points for any reason for that hand. Other players score as normal.

If you play a card that you are not allowed to play because of one of your handicaps, or because you are not yet out of the current suit, and the mistake is noticed after the next hand is dealt, there is no penalty. Seriously, whoever was pointing out that mistake needs to either pick up the pace or learn to forgive!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Catchup Mechanisms

A catch-up mechanism is a rule in a board game that tends to help whoever's currently losing, to help make sure that nobody falls hopelessly behind and that the game stays interesting and competitive for everyone. They can be tricky to get right! Power Grid probably has the most intrusive catch-up example of any popular game; whoever has the lowest score gets first pick of the new power plants and new commodities each turn. Settlers of Catan also has a minor catch-up mechanism because of the robber; players tend to send the robber to steal from the richest players, which gives the poorer players a chance to accumulate more resources. Risk, on the other hand, has a negative catchup mechanism; once you get a bit of a lead, the game gives you disproportionately more armies, and so you're likely to win all at once and crush your enemies into the dust as soon as you get your first significant advantage.

One interesting feature of a catchup mechanism is that they tend to exist for the benefit of the winners at least as much as the losers -- it's fun to win, but unless you're startlingly immature, it's not much fun to keep playing a game when everyone already knows you're going to win. It's more fun to have a modest advantage that still leaves your opponents with a sporting chance.

I mention all this because Lawrence H. Summers, former President of Harvard University, has written a surprisingly humble, fair, and insightful book review of Picketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century. If you're interested in how we could make sure that people who aren't born wealthy have a chance to catch up with their peers, but don't have time to slog through Picketty's treatise, you should check this out.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


Jonathan Chait over at New York magazine wrote an essay last week trying to defend Monopoly as an interesting, strategic game, claiming that "if you think the game is all luck and takes forever, you’re playing it wrong." According to Mr. Chait, we can speed up the game and show off our skill by making lots of trades and racing to make savvy investments with a high rate of return. The highlight of the article was a fancy chart showing exactly how long it takes for various investments to pay themselves off:

Of course, all of this information has long been available in somewhat less snazzy form in books like the Monopoly Companion,  in print since 1988.


Even if you use the charts, though, taking a 'strategic' approach to Monopoly doesn't save the game from being long and boring, because there's still only one good strategy: rush to get a light blue, orange, or magenta monopoly and put three houses on it. It's not hard to understand or apply this strategy, and whether you're able to pull it off has far more to do with the luck of the dice than with any decisions you make. 

As for 'creative' trading, I've tried it all, from free landings to joint ventures to option contracts, and mostly it just annoys my fellow gamers -- the time you spend trying to negotiate a complicated trade is time that other players want to spend rolling the dice and taking their turn. A well-designed game should be fun on its own terms; it shouldn't require massive creativity and effort from the players just to keep the game moderately interesting.

Also, hat tip to Forbeck for his list of other reasons why Monopoly violates all the principles of good modern game design.

Monopoly was an exciting game for the 1930s, and there's nothing wrong with appreciating it as a classic example of early board games, just like you might go to a museum to see a piece by Giotto or Donatello. Today, though (thank goodness!) we can do much better. If Monopoly had just been invented last year, though, and somebody tried to pass it off as a fun new state-of-the-art board game, it would be laughed off the shelves.

If you're looking for an exciting, strategic, mid-length game about auctions and collecting sets, try Modern Art, Ra, Acquire, or Cargo Noir -- they're all noticeably more fun than Monopoly and play in about half the time.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Injecting Common Sense into Identity Politics

          Much of what passes for political debate today is really a debate about psychology. Comparatively few people are arguing about who should get funding, or who should get land, or who should go to jail. Instead, the questions that interest people the most are questions about what words public figures should be allowed to say, or about who is allowed to express an opinion about certain topics. Should we boycott KFC for its executives’ homophobic remarks? Should we demand Donald Sterling’s head for his racist remarks?  Do we ever want to hear from Paula Deen again? What about Eliot Spitzer? Who has the most authentic take on the legacy of colonialism: a Seminole running a casino, a descendant of slaves on a cotton plantation, a recent immigrant from Bangladesh, a queer activist from Occupy Wall Street, or an Irish history professor? Should men have a say in what kinds of behavior get prosecuted as rape? Should fundamentalist Christians take care to keep their views on marriage tucked firmly within the four walls of their own churches?
            These questions all touch on extremely sensitive issues, and they all appear to deal with very important topics, such as slavery, equality, corruption, safety, and liberty. However, it is worth keeping in mind that offensive speech, in and of itself, is not the most important problem facing most Americans. People do not wander around thinking, “Well, I’ve got a good job, and a healthy family, and a nice neighborhood, and some fulfilling hobbies – now if only I could get those politically incorrect assholes to shut up, my life would be perfect.” On the contrary, people are drowning. People are sick, ignorant, indebted, lonely, and generally screwed.
            Reining in offensive speech, while useful, is not even a plausible first step toward solving people’s biggest problems. Even if we had a perfectly civil national conversation, where nobody ever used a racial slur, and where everyone always paused to consider how their words might affect people with different histories of privilege and oppression, we would still be sick, ignorant, indebted, lonely, and generally screwed. We would not own our homes, we would not own our farms, we would not know how to run an industrial society in way that takes care of peoples’ physical and mental health, and we would still be ferociously addicted to alcohol and meth and reality TV and narcissism and despair.
            For me, the interesting question is not, “Have you checked your privilege?” The interesting question is not, “Are you an ally of the oppressed?” For me, the most interesting question is, “What can we do to fix our society?” The enemy is not a class or a race or a gender or a political party; the enemy is the catastrophic inefficiency, purposelessness, and corruption of our institutions. The enemy is the fact that we get sick and die younger than we want to; the enemy is the fact that we spend so much of our short lives struggling to pay the bills; the enemy is the fact that we unconsciously follow scripts about how to relax, who to fuck, what to talk about with our friends, even though nobody drafted the scripts on purpose and nobody knows whether the scripts are any good for us.
            There are, of course, people who are suffering in some specific way because of one or another of colonialism’s evil legacies. There are people who feel physically unsafe in public, people who grew up without any decent role models, people who are unconsciously judged and rejected by most of their neighbors because of the way they look. If you are hurting, and you need help, ask for it. If someone is stealing from you, fight back. If you were handicapped, and you deserve a second chance, then by all means, demand it. But in making those demands, be careful not to change the subject from policy to psychology. When the public conversation drifts into a heated debate about everybody's feelings, we all lose, because the problem isn't our feelings, our feelings are just a symptom of this twisted, insufficient, arbitrary Universe we all find ourselves living in, and we're not going to beat that problem by being polite or pleasant or politically correct.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Unemployment is a Resource

Much of the industrialized world’s economic policy focuses on “creating jobs.” August councils of bankers peg their currencies and interest rates to an annual inflation index that’s designed to minimize unemployment; massive subsidies are directed at public education systems that are supposed to provide students with the skills they will need in the workplace; cities from St. Louis to Kisumu to Moscow build ‘technology hubs’ that foster new businesses that are expected to hire scads of engineers; the bragging rights of Germany and Brazil and Bangladesh focus primarily on the strength of their manufacturing sectors, i.e., on how many people can be put to work in ‘real’ factory jobs. Countries very seldom brag about how many artists and musicians and philosophers this industry can comfortably support.

Work vs. Usefulness

Yet, as Miya Tokumitsu thoughtfully pointed out on last week, most people do not love their work, if only because so much of the work that needs to get done is “repetitive, unintellectual, and undistinguished.” Certainly, many people find dignity in a task well done, or in earning enough money to pay the bills of their family. But the subtle compensations of work are surprisingly unsuited to (or even incompatible with) the kind of wholesale “maximization” practiced by today’s technocrats. People want to be useful, but, ironically, the more aggressively we seek to provide people with opportunities to be useful, the less likely it is that those opportunities will be perceived as authentically fulfilling. There is something deeply satisfying about digging a ditch because the ditch is needed to hold a grove of native vegetation needed to support the local ecosystem; there is nothing at all satisfying about digging a ditch because someone thought you looked bored. There is something deeply fulfilling about bringing in your crop because without your crop someone’s family will go hungry; there is nothing fulfilling about being denied access to food that is sitting and rotting on the supermarket shelf unless and until you agree to clean your neighbor’s toilets, especially when you know your neighbor is perfectly capable of cleaning her own damn toilets. Work can be manufactured in unlimited quantities; usefulness is a scarce resource.

Engineered Obsolecence

For better or worse, vast swaths of the industrial labor force have been caught up in jobs that are of little or no use to humanity. No doubt most people are useful to their individual companies and industries; there has been enough downsizing that people who do not even help generate a profit for their firm are now mostly unemployed. But profit is not a reliable indicator of usefulness; sometimes the two come into direct conflict. It is an open secret that our cars, computers, phones, furniture, and clothing are designed with engineered obsolescence in mind; things wear out faster than any reasonable utilitarian calculus would allow, because the company that sells them will generate more profit by selling you a replacement than they could gain from building a durable product that improves their reputation. People will pay more money for a jacket that lasts twice as long, but they will not pay twice as much money for it, and so the company would rather sell you two (or even three) cheap jackets.

Bogus Product Development Cycles

It is another open secret that the ‘new and improved’ version of a product is rarely either of these things; products cycle in and out of fashion with only marginal improvements. The main idea is to get you to pay a premium for the illusion of progress, and not to actually invent a better mousetrap. Between 1982 and 2006, according to the October ‘06 issue of Car and Driver magazine, private automobiles improved their gas mileage from 22.2 mpg to 24.6 mpg, their interior volume from 106 to 112 cubic feet, and their 0-to-60 acceleration time from 14.4 seconds down to 9.5 seconds. The overall effect is in the neighborhood of a 1% improvement per year, but car companies still re-issue a brand new ‘model’ each year, incurring billions of dollars of costs for re-design, re-engineering, and re-marketing. Similar problems occur with, e.g., Microsoft Word, or Adobe Flash – both of which have gone through at least ten versions in the last twelve years without any noticeable improvements. And don’t even get me started on toothpaste. The alternative – waiting until engineers have actually come up with a significant technical advance before releasing a new product – is not even seriously considered.

Useless Industries

What is perhaps less well-understood is the extent to which entire industries are saturated with social uselessness. Obviously, some medical spending is useful – vaccines work, as do appendectomies and certain antibiotics. But, at the margins, it is extremely likely that medical care offers zero or even negative health benefits. Robin Hanson’s “Cut Medicine in Half” blog post surveys the relevant literature, and demolishes the argument that spending money on more medical care leads to better health. We like to believe that medical care is useful, because we like the idea of doctors as heroes, and we don’t like to think that diseases can kill or cripple us in ways that we are powerless to prevent. But reality doesn’t turn on what weprefer to believe – there is no reason why we must live in a reality where going to medical school will result in additional lives saved, and in point of fact the evidence suggests that we don’t.

There is nothing particularly unique about health care – we like to think that teachers help the young, and so we assume that education and literacy have the power to raise the quality of people’s lives – but there is precious little evidence that education itself leads to happiness, productivity, health, sanity, or anything else worth having. Schools often serve as a social safety net, providing nutrition, vaccines, and a peer group to those who might otherwise not have such things, and this is certainly useful. And, of course, people who are willing and able to invest years of effort in acquiring degrees with little intrinsic value are also likely to be smarter, healthier, and more resilient than comparable peers; this selection bias often tempts researchers into comparing a group of successful, educated people with a group of unsuccessful, uneducated people, and assuming that education is the cause of success. But the assumption is just that – for all we know, people acquire an education and then lead a successful life because of some unseen third cause, such as genetics, or class privilege, or good parenting.

A similar analysis can be applied to most of the public and semi-public projects of society. On average, jails do not reduce the rate of recidivism, highway construction does not reduce the rate of traffic congestion, neither gun control nor gun ownership does anything to promote your safety, and fund managers do not outperform the market index. The problem transcends the usual debate about whether such tasks should be handled by government bureaucracies or the private market: put simply, neither alternative is likely to accomplish anything especially useful, because our world is so phenomenally complicated that any given project can stumble upon any of dozens of ways to go irretrievably wrong, and it usually will.

Self-Sustaining Deflation

The picture grows grimmer still when we consider how many people spend their time supporting folks who are working in socially useless industries. If the stockbroker realized that his efforts were useless and he stopped working 60-hour weeks, he would regain the time and energy to, e.g., cook for himself, and to bike to his destinations, depriving a fast food clerk and a taxi driver of their livelihoods. The fast food clerk and taxi driver, in turn, no doubt require the services of several other people in order to perform their jobs; when we cut back the hours of the laundromat technician who helps the fast food clerk clean her uniforms, and the hours of the gas station attendant who watches the taxi driver re-fill his cab, we trigger a deflationary spiral – decreased employment in one industry leads to decreased demand in another, which leads to decreased employment in that industry, and so on until very few jobs are left at all.

Makeshift Work?

And so we are at last confronted squarely with a question that society has been dodging for the last 100 years or so: do we want most people to have jobs? Not just because it’s convenient, not just because we want some tasks to get done, but do we want to organize our society around the principle of salaried work for its own sake, as a good unto itself? It is easy enough to insist on re-employment campaigns when the unemployed are a small minority; society abhors aberrations, and we like to fix each other. But what happens when, sooner or later, we realize that only a tiny fraction of the population has to work at all to support our actual needs – to synthesize the vaccines and grow the food and construct the apartments and manufacture the guitars? Do we send a majority of the adult population to work at makeshift jobs simply for the sake of maintaining the status quo? Even though, at some level, we will know that we are fooling ourselves; we will know that the most precious part of the status quo – the authentic need to serve – has not really been maintained? Will we insist that people who used to work because they had to (thereby achieving great fulfillment) continue to work in artificial jobs (drawing very little fulfillment) simply in order to shield ourselves from acknowledging the possibility of a world built around something other than work?

We might. Such a world is terrifying in its novelty. Since at least the dawn of agriculture, most people in most places have lived most of their lives quite near the bleeding edge of starvation. If any significant number of people stopped working, a clan would lose the ability to feed and clothe and house itself at anything like the population density it had achieved; transitioning to a lower population density was not really an option because (on top of the absurd mass casualties that implied during the transition), a high population density was needed to hold military control over the land against hungry, expansionist neighbors. Human culture, morals, mores, stories, all evolved to reinforce the message that hard work pays off and that other virtues – like continence, mindfulness, innovation, persistence, duty, and honor – are useful largely because they help you get your job done.

Culture without Work

Work is so fundamental to our conception of what human life is about that we have trouble imagining how a life without work could even have value. We are not, obviously, immune to the charms of permanent vacation. People indulge fantasies about spending their life at the golf course, or the beach house, or the nightclub. And there have always been a privileged few – an aristocracy – who really could afford to pursue such lifestyles by exploiting less powerful neighbors and extracting a surplus from their labor. Some aristocrats have even managed to convince themselves that it was the natural order of things – a good thing – for them to play while others worked. What we have such difficulty imagining is a world that is good becauseeveryone in it is relieved of work. From Homer’s hallucinogenic island of the Lotus-Eaters inOdysseus, to Cervantes’s dream-addled Don Quixote, to Pinocchio’s metamorphic Donkey Island, to Asimov’s robot-supported Solarians, Western literature has consistently depicted cultures that entirely relieve themselves of work as effete, weird, and doomed.

Yet just as past societies were forced to promote work or else founder and succumb to invasion at the hands of more industrious neighbors, in the near future we may have to choose between sharply limiting the scope of paid work and sharply limiting the joy of actually being useful. Whether we like it or not, technological advances and the accumulation of capital will continue to make each worker more productive, whereas the material goods that any one person can reasonably desire to consume will remain relatively constant. We are no more capable of limiting our technology or destroying our capital than ancient civilizations were of depressing their population density; any segments of society that tried it would rapidly lose power and influence to the segments who made full use of their abilities. And so whether we will it or no, the era when the human desire to be useful roughly matched up with the economic need to do work will soon end.

Our best chance for thriving in the new era will be to celebrate our freedom from the need to do work – to see unemployment as a resource, and as a milestone of success. Every person who does not have to till a field, or turn an assembly line, is another person who can cultivate a garden, or tinker with a new toy. Every person who does not have to write advertising copy is another person who can write poetry and song lyrics. Every person who does not have to perform needless surgeries is another person who can offer soothing massages. Higher and higher productivity means that fewer and fewer people can do ‘real’ work without any decrease in our material quality of life. All that remains to be done is to cast off the mindset of a bygone era, to acknowledge that lack of work is a function of vast economic trends rather than personal laziness, and to find a way to equitably share the fruits of society’s production. The question of distribution is not trivial, but it will be made easier as continued material progress helps to eliminate material scarcities: it is much, much easier to share 20 dinners among 20 people than it is to share 19 dinners among 20 people. The future is not heroic, it is not manly, and it is perhaps not quite what we would have wished for – but for all that, if we embrace it, the future can be a wonderful place to live.