A transcript of Episode 23 of The Politics of Everything, “Against Remote Work”

Laura Marsh: If you do an office job,
there’s a good chance you spent a lot of the last year staring at your
colleagues on Zoom, working at a table somewhere in your home, maybe wearing
sweatpants. In April 2020, 62 percent of American workers were doing their jobs
remotely. Some companies have even closed their office spaces permanently. 

Today we’re talking about remote work.

Alex Pareene: How was it invented?

Laura:  Why didn’t it catch on earlier?

Alex: And later we’ll be talking about giving
up work altogether.

Laura: I’m Laura Marsh. I’m the
literary editor at The New Republic.

Alex: And I’m Alex Pareene. I’m a
staff writer at the magazine.

Laura: This is The Politics of Everything.

So, despite doing this podcast together over the last several
months, I don’t think we’ve seen each other for a long time.

Alex: We have not seen each other
face-to-face for quite a while.

Laura: When was the last time you were
in the office?

Alex: I mean, March. It was right
when New York officially went to that very first lockdown.

Laura: So you haven’t seen your desk
space since then?

Alex: I haven’t, no. I think my
actual work-provided computer has been sitting on my desk at work this entire

Laura: Well, I had a lot of desk plants.
I had a whole thing going, like trailing ivy and everything. For the first couple
of months, I kept thinking, “Maybe I’ll be able to go back to work in time to
save these?” And recently, a colleague who’s gone in like once or twice emailed
me to ask me if she can throw them out. So that’s the end of that.

Alex: Oh, what a
sad end!

Laura: Well, today, we’re talking
with Richard Cooke, who’s written about remote work in the new issue of The New Republic. Richard, thanks for
coming on the show.

Richard: Thanks, Laura. It’s a pleasure
to be here.

Laura: We’re coming up for nearly a
year of a lot of people taking part in this kind of unprecedented experiment of
working from home, and I think we’ve learned a lot. Some of us have discovered
that it’s wonderful and liberating, and then some of us have discovered things
that don’t work that well about it. So something I wanted to talk to you about
is the idea that this is not a new experience, that this ability to work from
home has existed for a really long time. Could you start us off by telling me
where this idea comes from?

Richard: So the thumbnail version that
gets repeated is that the concept of telework was invented by a guy called Jack
Nilles, who was a NASA engineer who’s actually still alive. I tried to contact
him many, many times without success. He’s now in his nineties. And he’s a bit
more circumspect about this “father of telework” title—he understands that it
was a process that was already taking place, that other people were involved. But
like a lot of ideas of this kind, it came from California. It came from people
like NASA engineers, sitting in traffic, thinking that there’s got to be a
better way to do this. And especially when the oil crisis struck in the 1970s,
that really prodded them in the direction of trying to figure out how to do it.
People put some money into it, and there were kind of prototypes of this telework.

Alex: What did they think the future
of work would inevitably be? Or what did they want it to look like?

Richard: So Arthur C. Clarke is
sometimes credited with inventing at least the idea of the telecommunications
satellite, and he put a lot of investment in the idea that face-to-face
communication was increasingly outmoded, that people would be able to speak to
each other through these electronic conduits, if you like, and that that would
have huge ramifications for people going to offices, especially; that, essentially,
middle-class people would be able to be in charge of their own time and
communicate with others from home like we’re doing now.

Laura: Some of the ideas you’re
talking about, they are first being proposed or developed in the ’70s and ’80s, so in the aftermath of the oil crisis, but also at a time when lots
of people are living in suburbs. So you necessarily are either going to be
taking a train into a city or driving to some office, maybe outside of town. So
I can see why there’s a real incentive to cut that part of the day out.

But I’m curious how you thought it was going to work, because
right now we are so reliant on instant messaging, Zoom, and email, and none of
those things really existed. I mean, maybe in some very, very early forms in
really high-tech companies, but the average worker did not have access to that
stuff. So how was this meant to actually function?

Alex: NASA had a remote work solution
as early as the 1960s, right?

Richard: Yeah. I mean, there were certainly early facsimile links between different NASA contractors, for
example, and in the U.K. I mean, we don’t think now about the U.K. as being a
place that does massive amounts of technological innovation, but they,
through the post office, set up this proprietary system, which was kind of like
a TV studio for your office.

[Clip from Confravision ad]

It was very expensive, it was fairly cumbersome, but their
concept was that it would be cheaper than business travel. And it turned out
that people like business travel, and they didn’t like Confravision, which is
what it was called.

Alex: Confravision is such a perfect ’70s retro-futuristic name.

Richard: One thing which was
really surprising to me—I sort of had an inkling of this before, but not how
much—all this stuff we think of as brand-new technology (maybe we don’t
think of faxes as brand new anymore, but they certainly seem part of the
information age), but faxes and video phones are much, much older than we think
they are. It’s just that they were so expensive and so cumbersome that people
didn’t see their social purpose for a long, long time.

Laura: Well, it’s interesting—in the
ads I saw for Confravision, or these early informational videos, they compare Confravision
to Concord, which was also something that the U.K. and France had developed at
that time—both of these were meant to be services that would make the
world smaller, superfuturistic, and would promote British and French
transatlantic businesses. Concord no longer exists; in my lifetime they decided that was too
expensive to keep running, but it feels like Confravision has
lived on in some ways. How different is it from Zoom? Like, it’s the same idea.

Richard: It’s very much the same idea.
And I guess we, in our lifetimes, have seen this, as well. When you watch an old science fiction show where people have videophones, they’re on them
all the time. Even when they’re on an alien planet, you make a video call. And
what happens now is that everyone has a videophone in their pocket, and most of
us rarely use them outside. You know, people send texts instead, they call; a
video call would be your last option because the video element is a nuisance.

Alex: Yeah, because you would have to
hold the video in front of your face while you’re trying to do something. But, actually, that gets to what you’re saying about Confravision—they were like, “Well,
this is going to be expensive, but it’s going to be cheaper than business
travel.” And it turned out people like business travel because you get to go
somewhere; people want to see someone face-to-face to develop a rapport with
them, get a drink with them. Even the limitations of remote work were apparent
as it was being invented, it seems.

Richard: A hundred percent. And in the
Jack Nilles version, especially during the energy crisis, people were literally
just making equations of energy expended going to work, energy saved not going
to work, cost of energy, and just doing it like a sum. But even then, they were
saying, “It may be that people need to be together in ways that we don’t realize; there might be social resistance to this.” And the history of remote work is
really the history of that social resistance. You know, you would expect it to
be led by technological innovation, and in fact, it’s not like that at all. Technology
often makes very little difference to how quickly it’s taken up.

Laura: A statistic I found absolutely
astonishing in your piece is that in 1980, 2.3 percent of workers had moved
into some form of telecommuting arrangement. And by 2018, a huge number of
technological innovations later, the number is only 5.3 percent. It’s such a
tiny, tiny increase in proportion to the increase in the technology that should
allow this.

Richard: That time in the 1980s is also a time when other innovations are being made: Hedge funds start to come into
their own, management consultancy, people are happy to drive a plow through
their payroll and get the credit of being a slaughterer of their own employees; this idea that you would look after your employees kind of goes by the wayside. That’s got to be a feature here—that even if the technology is there, no
one wants to say, “Oh, I’m going to be working at home for a few weeks,”
because you’ll get fired. And people did get fired.

Laura: So the idea is, in the
era of mass layoffs, the person who is most present, who is in front of the
manager most often, is maybe the least likely to get laid off—or at least
that’s the superstition, that’s what you hope if you’re trying to be that
person who keeps their job.

Richard: I mean, it’s wildly incompatible
with presenteeism culture.

Laura: Oh, I like that, what a great word. 

Alex: You describe how there were
companies like IBM where there was a culture of remote work, and then you also
talk about how Yahoo, at one point, was like, “We’re going to do remote work,”
and then completely did a turnaround. But part of it was that people just
assumed that if you weren’t in the office, you were being lazy, right? You
weren’t actually working as hard as everyone else.

Richard: Absolutely. And even if you
were working as hard as other people, how would they know?  I mean, let’s face it, most people at work
are not working hard. They’re just appearing to work hard. And if you’re remote
working, you can’t appear to work hard.

Laura: I want to
talk for a minute about some of the benefits of remote working for those people
who did do it early on. My dad worked from home my whole childhood. We had a
spare room that had these huge computers in them, and when the phone rang, I
would have to answer it—as a seven-year-old—with the name of his company, and
ask if I could direct the call. Like, I’d have to pretend to be a
receptionist. Where some kids would get paid to do chores, like mowing the
lawn, I’d get my pocket money if I went through the filing cabinets. I should
put that on my résumé! I never thought, “Oh, when I grow up, I’ll also work out
of the spare room”—that didn’t cross my mind. But I do remember it being so
incredibly important to my dad that he had this freedom. You know, he’d wake up
at, like, six in the morning and go in there—he has a very technical job, he’s
an engineer, so he’d just be designing things all day—and then at six he would
leave the spare room and come out to everyone. And while I was aware that it
was an unusual way to work, it did seem like it had real benefits.

Richard: That is the most heartwarming
story of child labor I’ve ever heard. There are all kinds of categories of
workers and people for whom remote work has been fantastic, the most obvious
being disabled people who for decades were told that their workplaces couldn’t be
accommodating to their needs, and it turns out all it needed was a global
pandemic, and everyone can work with the conditions that they were requesting
for such a long time. I guess the point of my piece is that those benefits have
been unevenly distributed. And just as often, employers have worked out ways to
make people work harder from home. That sort of demarcation that your dad
had—in at six, out at six—is much more difficult when you then start getting
emails at seven, for example.

Alex: Right. It’s a setup that works
really well for particular jobs, and those particular jobs require particular
credentials and skills. If you’re your own boss, obviously you can set the
rules, but when you add bosses and the managerial aspect, that changes the
dynamic completely.

Richard: Yeah, absolutely.

Laura: It must’ve been the golden age
of working from home in the 1990s, because you could communicate just enough to
get the work done, but think how hard it would be to micromanage someone who’s
working from home—like, every time a fax came through, that was five minutes
of the phone ringing, and then it would slowly print the message. So that’s
what I was trying to say: It was this wonderful era, it was technically
impossible for a boss to breathe down your neck. If you had that kind of job
where, if the output was clear, you’re going to turn in the assignment,
then that was all that mattered. Whereas now I think those benefits have
disappeared because the technology exists not only for managers to contact you
constantly, but with something like Microsoft Teams and other productivity
software, for keystrokes to be logged, for screen-sharing, where someone could
see what websites you’re accessing. So that kind of autonomy that I think
seemed like such a huge benefit of working from home, in many cases, would no
longer exist, or if a company didn’t want it to exist, they could very easily
remove it.

Richard: And with spyware, effectively
the surveillance software that sends reports of how long your calls were and
who you spoke to, when, some of it can do things like tell when your mouse is
moving. That is an incredibly insidious level of scrutiny. Your boss is not just
breathing down your neck, they’re living under your shirt. That’s intolerable
for a lot of people, I think.

Alex: We’ve talked about how remote
work did not follow the technology advances, but I wonder if, in some sense, it
followed these surveillance technology advances.

Richard: I mean, it’s kind of hard to
tell because we have this coincidence where the technology gets good and
widespread at the same time that we’re having this Covid lockdown worldwide,
but that is demand-driven—as soon as people were working from home, the
companies that make this managerial software were fielding inquiry after
inquiry about how people could monitor their employees. So it certainly seems
to be the main thrust that management is interested in.

Laura: It seems like a really hard
time to be assessing how effective work from home is or what the benefits are,
because I can think of a lot of people who would love to work from home and
think it would make them way more productive and happier, but maybe they’re
also having to supervise two children who are in school right now. There are so
many other services that they can’t access that ordinarily would allow work
from home to feel wonderful. Going back to my dad, when he was working from
home, we also had my mum at home, who didn’t work and who was taking care of
the children—that’s why I was able to answer the phone and pretend to be a
receptionist rather than storm in on him and constantly interrupt when he was
trying to get stuff done. So it feels like a hard time to say, “Does this work?”

Richard: Yeah. And also because a whole
lot of stuff is normalized. There’s this “We’re all in it together” feeling, where if the boss is working from home, you can too. And you’re hearing all kinds
of different experiences—some people love it, some people hate it. Anecdotally,
the category of people that I’ve heard have struggled with it the most—I’ve
heard this from a few different people—are white male bosses, middle-aged
bosses who like doing these, kind of, dominance performances every day. And those
people are often not the boss at home, as it were. And I’ve heard stories of
those people, you know, almost literally begging to go back into the office
just because they hate working from home so much.

Alex: They just want to physically be
somewhere where they’re in charge of everyone.

Richard: Right, exactly. Rather than
just looking into the abyss of Zoom.

Alex: Did you work from home prior to
Covid-19? What was your work setup before all this?

Richard: So I’ve been a freelance writer
for quite a long time. I’ve had periods where I would work in an office on TV
productions, and I remember distinctly this feeling of going out at 11 a.m., early
on in my freelancing career, and there just kind of being nobody around. It’s a
sensation which is almost like guilt—you’re out of step with the rest of how
things work, you’re out of that diurnal commute, the only other people around are old people or unemployed people, and you almost feel like other
office workers start to think that what you do is not real. And that sort of
illegitimacy—well, that’s one of the things that I loved about it: I didn’t
want to have the feeling of having a real job—but then the times when I did go
to an office, I’d sometimes realize almost retrospectively that I’d been lonely
for a period, and you have this almost elation of talking to colleagues. I
think people who do work from home are familiar with those feelings.

Alex: My experience has been just
that maybe we should try to be more flexible in general, and not make it
an all-or-nothing.

Richard: That’s right. And I mean, the
history of remote work is littered with incorrect predictions, so we might as
well add some more, but—

Alex: Let’s add some more.

Richard: That seems to be what’s going
to happen. I don’t think everybody is going to jump into remote work full-time
when they have the option. It’s just that things like working from home when
you need to or want to are going to become more socially acceptable, and that
should be beneficial, depending on how much surveillance is involved.

Alex: That’s the optimistic future.
And I think you’ve described very well how these things that are pitched as
things that will help liberate the employee, like a policy of saying you can
work from home when you want to or need to, these things can then be turned
right around by bosses and turned into another way to heavily monitor what the
employee does.

Laura: Right. I was also thinking, so
many people were actually already working from home before the pandemic, but
they were also working a full day at the office, too. There was an incredible
statistic I read that before the great recession, it was incredibly rare for someone
to check email before they went into the office. And after, something like 50
percent of people who answered the survey said they checked email before they
got out of bed. If that isn’t working from home, what is?

Richard: Yeah, and it’s almost always
unpaid working from home. People aren’t submitting a time sheet at the end of
that week, saying, I spent all this time checking emails in bed, on my
but that is work.

Laura: Right, and you wonder if this
surveillance software that tracks you between nine and five, if it counted some
of the stuff that you do on the train and in bed in the morning, then it might
not look so good for the employer. You might be owed overtime.

Richard: One of the weirdest things
about some of this surveillance and team management software—this is true of
Microsoft Teams—is that some of it has started to introduce what is
effectively a commute into remote working. People are still performing
commuting behaviors of having time, a few minutes, before their work starts. I
have seen people, and I’ve read stories, about people who do stuff like put on a
suit, get in their car, drive around the block, come home, and then go into
their home office.

Alex: The early clerk’s office had fireplaces and easy chairs to resemble a home, right? That stuck out to me
because it reminded me of big tech company offices that have essentially
recreated some version of that, where it’s fun to go to the office. So when I
think about the future of work from home, I remember that Facebook, to use one
example, has not just held onto their Manhattan real estate, but they’ve rented
more Manhattan real estate. Do you think that that is a harbinger of, like,
this is not the beginning of the work-from-home era?

Richard: I mean, with tech companies, this
was part of the reason why Yahoo got spooked into spiking a lot of their remote
work. They were looking at companies like Google, where there’s an electronic
drum kit and a pool table. Anna Wiener’s book, Silicon Valley, is, is full of these incredible details, where
she’ll go into the office, and there’s just, like, a guy with no shoes on
strumming an acoustic guitar, and there always seems to be someone mixing
cocktails. It’s almost like, in her life, people are going home to get work done
and going to the office to hang out. And part of the thinking behind that comes
from this sort of frat bro mentality, where if you set up a sort of dorm room
session with the right people, their ideas will spring off each other. And at
Google that was taken seriously enough that my understanding is they did things
like made sure that there was a little queue for food so that people didn’t get
their food from the canteen too quickly, because that way you would have this
incidental contact, where you start sharing ideas and, you know, Watson would
meet Crick. The story of technology is full of these kind of meet-cutes—people
just happening to run into each other, working on a similar thing. And those corridor
conversations were what they were trying to generate.

Alex: Again, if we’re talking about
how this is going to look in a few years, I think the unequally distributed
future is it, because people who work for companies like Google are going to
have the freedom to choose how they decide to work. And for other people, I
think it’s going to be a lot more limited going forward.

Richard: You can already see that
split if you think about the difference between working at an Amazon campus–style
office and working in an Amazon warehouse. The amount of initiative and leisure
afforded to one versus the sort of mechanization of the other—those are very,
very extreme differences now.

Alex: Well, thank you so much for
talking to us today, Richard.

Richard: It’s a pleasure, Alex.

Alex: Richard Cooke’s article is
called “The Perpetual Disappointment of Working From Home,” and you can find it
on NewRepublic.com.

Laura: After a short break, we’ll be
back to talk to Katie McDonough about the seductive fantasy of early

Alex: The U.S. has a contradictory relationship
with work. Our civic religion valorizes working hard, and our popular culture
romanticizes slackers. Today, the American economy seems to demand perpetual
hustle. Many young people have no real expectation of ever enjoying a
comfortable retirement. But what if leaving work behind weren’t such an
impossible dream? What if you could retire decades before you qualify for
social security? More leisure time and a decent retirement have been central
demands of the labor movement basically since it came into existence. In recent
years, though, a loosely affiliated group has turned the collective demand of
freedom from work into something more like a collection of life hacks.

We’re joined now by Katie McDonough, a deputy editor at The New Republic who recently wrote about
fantasies of retiring early.

Hi Katie. Thanks for coming on the show.

Katie McDonough: Hi,
thanks for having me.

Alex: You wrote about this whole sort
of cottage industry that’s grown up around giving people financial advice about
how to retire early. It has an acronym to describe it, FIRE, which stands for “financial
independence, retire early.” So before we get into your own dreams of
retirement, give us an idea of what FIRE is about. What does the successful FIRE retiree’s lifestyle look like?

Katie: So one thing that I heard in
response to my piece, and that I will tell you, is that there are so many
varieties of FIRE, and it’s really reductive to say that they are only one
thing. So some people do genuinely really emphasize the FI part: The financial
independence part ends up being the main goal; the retire early ends up becoming
kind of secondary. And so you see different people, based on where their
interests are, do different things. Some people are retiring early because they
made hundreds of millions of dollars at scammy startups, and they spend their
days microdosing in and around San Francisco, and it seems really fun. Other
people move to parts of the country with comparatively low costs of living and
they seem to, like, blog a lot. It seems like FIRE becomes almost their second
job because so much of this is self-help advice and podcast-blog industry, in
addition to the financial advice itself. And so it varies depending on what you
want from it, but it’s a set of advice that supposedly everyone can access
equally. It’s meant to be a code that, once you have the tools and ingredients,
it’s just completely democratic and everybody can do it.

Alex: How does everyone do it? What
are the basics of how you get to do it?

Katie: There’s really practical stuff
that makes sense. It’s like: Don’t eat takeout, maybe ride your bike instead of
paying for gas, other things like that. And if it works for you, that’s great.
There’s nothing wrong with that. But then there’s this really specialized
investment part that is the actual thing that unlocks the wealth that’s wildly
inaccessible. Maybe I’m just projecting my own deficiencies onto much of the
rest of the country, but it feels like something that’s very difficult to master
and is actually really time-consuming and needs a lot of expert insight—financial
consultancies and other things like that. Not the kind of thing that you can
figure out on your own.

Laura: But you talk in the article
about fat and lean versions of this. What was the difference between those two,
and what kinds of income are you looking at if you’re on the fat version versus
the lean version?

Katie: I think it varies so much
depending on where in the country you live, but the lean version is that you
look at what the average person spends in the United States annually, and
you’re supposed to go way under that. There are some FIRE people who are like, “I
have two children, I spend $16,000 a year,” by making really lean budgets for
themselves. And then there’s fat FIRE, which is more of the type of
person who made many millions of dollars and can just live well because they
actually don’t have to think too much about their spending because they just
have what seems like endless reserves of money.

Laura: You also talk about two sort of
cultures among the early retirees. One is a kind of tech bro type, and then
another is a sort of gentler, more wholesome version of this. How would you
characterize them?

Katie: I think the first variety involves
a lot of ketamine. It’s just people taking drugs and living in nice apartments
and going on vacations and living what seems like very well. And then there is
the version that is more commonly associated with the genre—but
websites that aggregate a lot of these stories tend to just include them
together—but the more wholesome version is someone who retired at 50
and spends more time with their kids. And there are actually these really
reassuring and warm and appealing narratives about what it means to reclaim
more of your time. I would call it the soft genre: “I ride my bike a lot, I
read books more.”

Alex: It seems
like this advice just assumes you have a paycheck large enough to sock away a
portion of it that is significant and that you’re not then spending that entire
portion on servicing your own debt, right?

Laura: Yeah,
there are a lot of people who are not buying lattes, and
they’re also not getting to save that money.

Katie: I think what
gets regarded as, “Oh, look at this amazing frugality, look at us making responsible
choices” is really just what it is to live with really low income, right? You
actually don’t get to do a lot of things, like eat out nice dinners or buy big
houses or take cabs everywhere. The kind of comic version of it that gets
repeated a lot is, “Oh, millennials and their avocado toast or their
lattes,” or something. But this level of discretionary spending—a lot of people
aren’t buying those kinds of things and they stay broke because they started

Alex: Every three or four months, you know, a Wall Street Journal or Business Insider
piece will go around Twitter that’s like, “This 26-year-old just bought his
first house: Here’s how.” Paragraph one is like, “Stopped going out to the
Paragraph 15 is like, “Parents gave him a loan.”

Laura: It seems to me to fit in with a
couple of other trends. One is the tiny house 
trend, one is van life—like, these ideas that you can just escape from
the usual system that everyone’s in and go off and define yourself. Do
you think that those forms of behavior are a response to something bigger? What
do they tell you about the economy?

Alex: I wonder if there’s a sort of
unconscious nostalgia here. That’s what made me think about the tiny house
thing, because there actually was a time in living memory in the United States
when you didn’t need a large income to get by, as it were. It was
actually possible for much of the twentieth century to have a modest income and live
modestly but have no debts. You didn’t have to strive to be rising up some
ladder, but just the basic necessities of housing, health care, and food—the
things you need to stay alive—were attainable at this very low level. So I do
wonder if part of this is trying to recreate that, but now it requires
accumulating a base of capital first before you can then recreate that

Katie: I think that’s right. And I also
think that’s where the part where, if you apply these same critiques and then
incorporate a structural analysis, it becomes the liberatory project that exists

Alex: You should start a FIRE
newsletter or podcast that slowly begins introducing that. You’ve got to get
them to think structurally. But what would the substantive version of FIRE look
like? The one that actually involved the critique you’re talking about?

Katie: The gentlest entry point is basic
social democracy, right? Reinvesting in public pensions and retirement,
increased wages, reduced work hours across the board, a robust labor movement
that can achieve these things. They have these critiques of, “We work too hard
here, we’re in the rat race,” but there’s no sense of the ways in which leisure
and autonomy are systematically denied people, too. So, very structurally, being
a Black woman worker who’s doing home health care versus being a tech worker
living in San Francisco—the means through which you can do cost-cutting and
savings and investment from those two positions are quite different. Not only
even the means that you have to build wealth but the kind of daily experience
of your labor being fundamentally different. It doesn’t really come into the literature.

Alex: None of the FIRE blogs have
that chart that shows productivity and wages diverging in the ’70s and
just getting further and further apart?

Katie: Maybe you can join me in this

Alex: And then we can retire early

Laura: One question on that, though—I
mean, I’ve seen that graph, and we all know that real wages have been going
down since the 1970s; household incomes have been going down, even though
usually a two-person household now has double the income because maybe the
woman is working too. We know all of that, but it’s a very long road from
knowing that to actually having any kind of change based on that knowledge. And
FIRE is like, you read this one book and maybe you could start to do it for yourself.
Isn’t that the appeal, that it’s something you can actually enact? You don’t
have to wait for Congress.

Katie: Oh, totally. I think people enter
into the literature from so many different places that it’s very
reasonable to expect—and you see this reflected in some of the people writing
about their journeys to financial independence—but it very much was born of a
place of, I am never going to get this any other way, the only thing that I can
do is this, so here I am kind of trying to take my piece of it. And so it’s not
as if I think that a person can’t practice different financial habits while
also having these larger structural critiques or participating in collective
movements that would help accelerate the process through which more of us can
get more of that. But I think that as a genre, it doesn’t really account for
any of that. In a lot of these blogs, there’s an almost entire absence of
politics. It’s as if there is no president in FIRE world, there is no Congress.
I think that’s a really interesting absence.

Alex: That’s funny—thinking about it
in another way, FIRE, “financial independence retire early,” as a sort of blog
and podcast trend, it’s very individualistic. But if you would just imagine
that same phrase as a demand from a political movement, it’s revolutionary,
like independence from the market is actually sort of

Katie Yes!

Laura: But then isn’t that a different
acronym? That’s UBI.

Katie: I mean, there are a lot of
different versions of what this has looked like historically. “Eight hours for
work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what you will” is one version of an
articulation of, like, “Your entire day should not be consumed with labor.” So, yeah, I think part of what I’m so drawn to, or just fascinated by, is that the
things being articulated through this writing do feel almost like a funhouse-mirror
version of left ideas or left critique of the way that we live, and how we’re
expected to live. But then the answer is, “Well, just figure your way out of it, and you’ll be fine.”

Alex: Katie, thank you so much for
talking to us today.

Katie: Thank you so much for having me.
And also, this is my notice of resignation from The New Republic. I’ve accumulated millions in savings and I’m

Alex: Well, congratulations! Katie’s
article, “The Long Plot to Escape From Work,” is part of Work Sucks Month at The New Republic, a series exploring how
and why we work and why we don’t want to. You can read Katie’s piece and others
in the series at newrepublic.com.

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