Getting Some Mammoth


I just came across (on a T-shirt in an online ad, of all things) this much-retweeted item—13K retweets, 13K likes—from @existentialcoms:

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"An honest, brave, compassionate human being."

"No … I mean, how do you want to sell your labor?"

The message, I take it, is that we overemphasize what we do for a living—to the point of labeling that "what we are"—instead of how we behave towards others. (Checking the Twitter feed, which has a generally anti-free-market tone, supports that view.)

Now I appreciate that this is a witty way of putting the assertion, but it seems to me to miss the deeper point, which I've long framed in my mind as Getting Some Mammoth. (I've been thinking about this especially now that I have teenagers, so I wonder how they will get some mammoth themselves someday.)

Here's the problem: For my tribe to survive, we've got to go out there and kill mammoths. That's hard and dangerous work. It's not for everyone, and it's fine if you don't go on the mammoth hunt. (Indeed, maybe some tribes value the mammoth hunters a little too much, and more people go on the mammoth hunt than realy ought to.) But then you need to find something to do so people who do kill the mammoth are willing to give you some; you can call it "sell your labor," but you can also call it "pay your way."

Now you probably don't have to do that something all day every day. And there's nothing wrong with preferring, when possible, to do something that doesn't go towards Getting Some Mammoth.

Still, every week, you've got to set aside some time for Getting Some Mammoth (or, at a different stage of development or with different dietary preferences, Getting Some Potatoes), whether directly or by doing something that the mammoth-hunters will trade for. And if you want to respect yourself (and be respected by others), you shouldn't complain too much about it—because if you think you're entitled to get some of that mammoth and you haven't either hunted it yourself or given the hunters something in exchange for it, then (in most cases) you're kind of a schmuck.

True, you can be an honest and brave human being without Getting Some Mammoth the way I describe: For instance, some brave people get mammoth by Hunting the Mammoth-Hunters instead, which I don't endorse but which is often (though not always) a brave thing to do (and can involve being "honest" in the sense of "not untruthful," though not in the sense of "an honest living").

But to be honest, brave, and compassionate—including being compassionate to the people from whom you want to get some mammoth—actually you do need to figure out a way to sell your labor.

NEXT: "He's Just Not Worth It"

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  1. But Eugene, the shining star in the firmament, Ocasio-Cortez says that the government will provide for those unwilling to work. So why bother with labor?

    1. Sure. We can just print mammoth. Or take if from those who have unfairly hunted too many mammoths.

      1. Modern Mammoth Theory.

  2. I disagree. It’s not witty. These people are as humorless as the world’s strictest religious orders. They pretend to laugh only as an expression of derision toward others.

    They know they are far too good to work to serve their fellow humans. Why would you even suggest they engage in something so common, so beneath them?

  3. “[A]ctually you do need to figure out a way to sell your labor.”

    Thank you for posting this, but some here will not forgive you for pointing out the obvious.

  4. And that’s fine as far as it goes.

    As Matt Bruenig points out, and the joke highlights ? capitalism only provides a income for *some* of the ways one can provide labor to society. In particular, being a child, student or caregiver are very much reasonable states/ways to contribute ones time/labor, but do not get a (reasonable) share of income. There’s an overlap between prime years of child-bearing and mammoth-hunting. As well ? and I think especially in response to your point ? being elderly or disabled also generally don’t provide income, but certainly do not diminish the validity of one’s existence in society.

    1. What does “existing in society” have to do with this?

      (Or, Jesus, any of that?)

    2. Being a child or student doesn’t contribute your labor. That’s why you’re not paid for it. They’re things you are before contributing your labor, or sometimes at the same time as contributing your labor in a specific manner that’s not simply being a child or a student.

      Being a caregiver is a way of contributing your labor and people are paid for it, whether an actual salary or by being supported by your family.

      Being elderly doesn’t provide income, but some people still work and in modern times people have saved the fruits of their earlier labor. If you are disabled or elderly with no financial resources you are correct that it doesn’t invalidate your existence and as moral people we have some obligation to help you to continue you exist. If we’re doing the mammoth hunting analogy you might previously have helped hunt mammoth or it might just be charity.

    3. No, “being a child, student ..” do not in fact contribute to society. Both are still investments by other people into them – my twins are a long term investment in the species, and a short term investment in my happiness, but I produced more value before I had them, back when I worked 60-70 hour weeks.

      Caregivers you’ve similarly misclassified: while they do contribute to society, they already get a reasonable share of income – if they didn’t think it was reasonable, they’d stop doing it.

      1. You don’t think that people do caregiving work ? either as stay-at-home parents, or to the elderly, sick and infirm ? sometimes do so at great sacrifice to their “compensation”, due to a sense of obligation or duty?

        The whole “family leave” debate current ongoing is in no small part about that mismatch between the “20s” being both prime child-rearing and income-deriving time ? people *regularly* make choices between advancing their career or having children ? and how involved they are with their children, sometimes.

        I’m not saying it’s unworthy or not valuable, or certainly that it’s a decision that people don’t need to confront. I’m simply pointing out that when our primary socioeconomic frame is Capitalism, it does not provide factor payments / income to certain groups of people. Volokh’s (common) framing as “everyone must hunt the mammoth” in that system has particular limitations in addressing who can participate in those transactions, and who goes without compensation. Those people are not less valuable or worthy, the system does not have a way to provide well for them.

        1. “when our primary socioeconomic frame is Capitalism, it does not provide factor payments / income to certain groups of people”

          I don’t think that paying kids to take care of aged parents, or parents to raise their kids, is an essential part of any -ism. They might or might not – the Nazi’s, at least later on, made a big deal of mothers producing lots of cannon fodder, but I’m not sure Franco or Mussolini did. I don’t recall the Viet communists or the Khmer Rouge being particularly family friendly. The USSR might have said nice things about ‘to each according to his need’, but the Holodomor didn’t exactly live up to that slogan.

          1. Maybe not other -isms, but Capitalism does not provide income to people who are not in the labor market. And we:

            a/ have decided children are not a legitimate part of the labor market
            b/ have decided the elderly are (sometimes) not a legitimate part of the labor market
            c/ have decided the sick and the disabled are okay to be priced out of the labor market

            But those groups of people should still be supported by society.

            Thus the disconnect: capitalism is the primary economic organization, but it explicitly does not provide recourse for people who can not / should not “hunt the mammoth”.

            1. “Capitalism does not provide income to people who are not in the labor market.”

              We currently force workers to provide loads of income, 12% of most people’s wages, to the elderly. And just because the state doesn’t force people to “hunt the mammoth” for certain types of people doesn’t mean that society doesn’t provide for them. Most stay-at-home parents have another parent providing for them. Parents provide for their children. Etc.

            2. “it explicitly does not provide recourse for people who can not / should not “hunt the mammoth”.”

              Is there some -ism that does a better job than capitalism at providing for the aged/young/infirm?

              Over time we’re tried feudalism, fascism, communism, tribalism, anarchism, etc. My sense is that there are fewer deaths from starvation among the aged/young/infirm with capitalism than with any of the other -isms.

              It’s quite remarkable how well off we are. If you’re peddling some new -ism I think you need to carefully lay out how your new -ism is going to improve things instead of making them worse.

              1. Next we’re going to try Democratic Socialism. It’s like National Socialism, but with less Jew hatred*.

                * your results may vary.

  5. If Eugene Volokh saw a tee-shirt that read “Sometimes you have to stop and smell the roses”, he’d write a post about how someone had buy the land on which the roses are planted (and to pay taxes on the land), not to mention actually planting the roses, and watering and fertilizing them, and protecting them from insects. There is no such thing as a free rose, you damn hippie! And while you’re at it, get off my lawn!

    1. I see your point, but the t-shirt mentioned is making a specific philosophical point about work which is often discussed in non-t-shirt , not just a generic feel good statement.

      You could use “stop and smell the roses” as a lead into discussing work vs leisure too.

      But yes, the existence of the t-shirt is not significant it’s just an opening for what he really wants to discuss.

    2. More likely, some humorless lefty would say something like, “How can you be so insensitive to people who are allergic to roses and people who are unable to smell!?!? You are literally worse than Hitler!”

    3. There is no such thing as a free rose, you damn hippie! And while you’re at it, get off my lawn!

      A bit of courtesy toward Prof. Volokh in these circumstances would not hurt. His preferences have been rejected by most Americans throughout his lifetime. Nothing likely to reverse the course of American progress (and point it toward conservatism) is apparent on any horizon. Prof. Volokh is smart enough to recognize the consequences of losing the culture war. At a personal level, he knows that if he ever wishes to work in an academic environment in which his conservative views are popular and respected, he must join the faculty of a lesser-quality school.

      Cut him some slack. Victors can afford to be generous with the vanquished, particularly where the costs is relatively low.

      1. Besides, there are such things as wild roses, tended by no humans. Enjoy them if you will.

  6. “An honest, brave, compassionate human being.”

    Sigh. Why can’t we have more assholes who get rich by, say, discovering a cure for cancer, and use the money to buy yachts and screw pretty young women?

  7. We are no longer subsistence-based.

    Further, I wonder if even subsistence-based societies base identities around one’s food-gathering role. That’s not obvious to me.

    Because identity to oneself and utility to society are, and should be, different things.

    Lots of people, lawyers even as I recall from back in the day, define themselves via some other activity than their labor.

    Though younger generations do get more of a chance to pick their jobs, so I’d expect them to define themselves more by their jobs than older folks (thinking more the Greatest Gen) who could choose their hobbies but picked their job more from opportunity than anything else. My grandpa was a comedian more than a salesman.

    There’s an old saw Australia answers ‘what do you do’ with your hobby. Don’t think that’s true anymore, if it ever was, from what I hear.

    1. Princesses, noblemen and (sometimes) clergy define themselves outside of their labor to serve their fellow men and women. Also trophy wives and philosophers.

      The rest of us commoners and peasants go to work, serving our fellow men in the most valuable way we can, producing things and helping each other.

      If someone thinks work isn’t his or her thing, they’ve decided they are nobility of one of these types. Or a trophy wife. Or a grifter.

      1. I’m not arguing people aren’t idle, but that how you spend your idle time is arguably more interesting than how you work.

        1. Someone with accomplishments might identify himself to others based on those accomplishments.

          Declaring yourself brave and compassionate isn’t an accomplishment.

        2. It honestly isn’t. I’m sure most people would be more interested in my work than in my hobbies.

        3. I should say I myself am very excited about my work. It’s a bit hard to explain, but that’s mostly how I define myself.

          That being said, it’s interesting both of you answered were externally-facing in how you answered the question – what would someone else want to hear about you? Versus how you define yourself. Both valid ways to read that shirt; I got a bit more poetical about it I guess.

    2. “Lots of people, lawyers even as I recall from back in the day, define themselves via some other activity than their labor.”

      Actually, back in the day before we developed last names, the two most common adds to separate different people with the same given name were trade and place of origin.

      In fact, most European last names that go back that far, are either trades (smith) or places.

    3. “We are no longer subsistence-based”

      I dunno. I tend to thing that you’re either subsistence based, or hungry 🙂

      Eons ago maybe Ooog was one heck of a flint knapper and traded spear points to hunters for for mammoth steaks, and today programmers trade smart phone apps to farmers for high fructose corn syrup, but the fundamentals are the same.

      1. Subsistence-based means you cannot accumulate. Both collectively and individually we can accumulate resources.
        This accumulation means we needn’t spend all our time hunting the mammoth as we used to.

        That’s the distinction I’m making in that line.

        1. “…we needn’t spend all our time hunting the mammoth as we used to”

          I thought that the general consensus is that hunter gatherers typically had more leisure time than people today. Is your sense of that different?

          Also, hunter-gatherers routinely stockpiled food – smoking meat, for example.

          (from upthread) “how you spend your idle time is arguably more interesting than how you work”

          I surely agree that can be true for some people – perhaps an accountant with a passion for fly fishing, or carpenter who is also a Himalayan climber. It isn’t always true, though – suppose an astronaut spends their free time watching soap operas; I’d rather talk shop in that case :-).

          1. It depended on the individual society and obviously only the successful ones survived to the point where we could evaluate them.

            The !Kung tribe, a 1966 study of which provides much of the basis for hunter gatherer well-being claims, seems to have done better than other extant hunter gatherers and also must have had a good year, as within a few years they were starving. Their success required nature to be nice.

            They did have more free time, perhaps 30 hours per week, but much of that was spent wishing they had more food and the time working was more difficult and dangerous than our time now.

            1. I’m not sure ‘periodically starve’ and ‘have lots of leisure time’ are mutually exclusive (most of what I’ve read has been about the Eskimos, who conveniently were living a Stone Age life right up until they met people who kept written history. Let’s suppose that your population is starvation limited, and that limit happens along once a decade and kills a third of the population. Those episodic years of bad hunting would indeed be bleak, no leisure time years, consisting of endless unproductive hunts. But the other nine years, precisely because your population was now small relative to the available game, might be pretty bountiful. That might explain the !Kung as well.

              “the time working was more difficult and dangerous than our time now”

              Boy, howdy!

              1. For the purposes of the question in the OP, though, starving but idle is not super useful since then all you really are is starving, in my experience.

        2. Something like 80% of American workers live paycheck to paycheck, is that not the modern economic equivalent of subsistence hunting/farming?

          As you say, they cannot accumulate (save) and therefore cannot afford to have a bad paycheck (or hunt or harvest)

          1. Hard not to see the parallel there, but as a society we do have a social safety net that hunter-gatherers did not.

            Still, I’ll admit I was very much thinking of the middle class )which I presume most on this blog are) when I said ‘we.’

    4. “We are no longer subsistence-based”

      I’m not sure what this means. We still have to subsist, and to produce what we consume.

      1. Sorry, used some jargon without realizing it. 1:36PM has a more robust definition.

  8. Some people just don’t want to accept that what we do is a huge part of who we are – so much so, that a large portion of our names come from professions. People literally named themselves by what they did for a living.

    1. But our society has changed a lot.

  9. I prefer Venison or Bison. Mammoth is just overkill unless you have a really big tribe to feed.

    1. I never thought about that. What did they do with a whole mammoth? Did mammoth hunters preserve the meat somehow? Or did grifters come and scavenge the leftovers?
      I checked Wikipedia and it says there that “Few specimens show direct, unambiguous evidence of having been hunted by humans.” So, it seems that your ancestors probably agreed with you.

      1. Mastodons were almost definitely hunted but mammoths proper might it might not have been.

        I would guess that hunted mammoths were probably partially wasted or eaten over a short period of time.

      2. A coupe of random thoughts:

        1)IIUC the climate at the time, for half the year they could keep the leftover mammoth in the freezer 🙂

        2)Smoking, drying, etc. Native Americans at buffalo jumps would have mammoth … heh … quantities of bison all at once, and I think managed to preserve most of it. The coastal Indians who hunted whales presumably managed to preserve more than a deer’s worth of it, etc, etc.

  10. How many jobs contribute to society in as real a way as gathering food for people? What guy out there writes the front end for claims adjustment software and thinks, “Thanks to my labor the tribe of mankind feasts tonight!”

    Does EV think, as a law professor, that he’s providing the equivalent of life-giving sustenance?

    1. That’s what currency is for.

    2. There’s a bigger picture.

      Insurance allows us to spend our days doing productive work rather than dreaming up risk mitigation schemes to guard against unlikely events.

      Law and the civilization that comes with it allows us to go out and do productive work rather than staying home to guard our family and the home we built.

      1. But *this* guy didn’t create the insurance system. And it takes a lot of magic handwaving to say that this guy’s (potentially minimal to possibly negative) contribution to the insurance system is fairly proportional to the benefit he gets in salary.

        Yes, money exists and gets swapped for stuff, but that doesn’t make those swaps fair or reflective of “mammoth value.”

        1. “…but that doesn’t make those swaps fair or reflective of “mammoth value.”

          Why not? “mammoth value” is the amount of mammoth I can get for my dollar.

        2. If the value he added to the application was less than his salary his company wouldn’t employ him. The reason it adds to the application is because the application provides small benefit to a lot of people (otherwise they wouldn’t use it), out-weighing what he receives.

          It sounds like you’re trying to posit some kind of objective value that we should compare everything to in the form of food, but there is no objective value anywhere. Marx theorized one in the form of labor and clearly that didn’t work. Radical agrarians over centuries have done similar for food but those never lasted.

        3. Of all the people in the world, executives running insurance businesses are probably the least likely to use “magic handwaving” to determine the value of something. They know why they hired that guy. They expect to pay him less than what they gain from his efforts. His efforts help maintain insurance as a product and a concept.

          1. Yup. The nice thing about the free market is that you or I don’t have to worry about whether or not some schmoe at some insurance company is contributing enough value to justify the goods he consumes. Let the guys who pay him worry about that.

            1. So when John gave the IT contract to his old roommate Bob, who hired his old weed dealer to code the front end, what actually happened was a complex dance of value maximization performed at the upper limits of human reason?

              1. Making up stories is counterproductive to understanding.

                In your fantasy scenario, yes, it was all predestined by the time lords. They knew the claims adjustment programming work would ultimately save humanity from the vampire resurgence.

                1. Well, my story actually happens, fairly regularly.

                  How many mammoths have you hunted lately?

                  1. I hunt them all the time. Sadly, they are very elusive.

              2. “…what actually happened was a complex dance of value maximization performed at the upper limits of human reason?”

                I’m not sure either “actually happened” or “human reason” are concepts that belong in your scenario.

    3. Well, if it wasn’t for the guy who wrote the payroll software for John Deere, the farmer would be walking behind a mule :-).

  11. When, in the entire history of recorded mankind, were individuals not identified with what they do/did?

    Seems like you’re trying to compare apples and oranges here: a person’s livelihood with a person’s personality.

    They have no influence on each other.

    You can be a nice bum and a hardworking jerk (and vice versa).

    1. “They have no influence on each other.”

      I hope this is hyperbole, because it isn’t true. Personality does play a role in career choice.

  12. When I saw the article title I thought Professor Volokh was going to take a ski vacation.

  13. Here’s the problem: For my tribe to survive, we’ve got to go out there and kill mammoths.

    One of my favorite Family Guy lines — a caveman couple is standing in a cave, arguing.

    Caveman: I just killed a 600 pound lion with a rock and a stick!

    Cavewoman: That doesn’t make you a man, Gary!

    1. The number of social policy questions that Family Guy HASN’T answered correctly is vanishingly small.
      Plus they predicted that Bruce Jenner was a granny, and that Kevin Spacey is a gay child abuser.

      1. I didn’t know that Bruce Jenner was a granny.

  14. Sounds kinky. And dangerous. It would be safer to just get a job than to go around trying to “get some mammoth,” if you know what I mean (and if you know don’t tell me).

    1. That’s one of those phrases that sound dirty but really isn’t, like “shaking hands with Abraham Lincoln.”

  15. “An honest, brave, compassionate human being.”

    That clearly need to be said. Too many want to grow up to be dishonest, cowardly, and uncaring.

  16. Law blog comments are very different from math/sci blog comments.

  17. The perils of woolgathering. Tusk tusk.

  18. I think that I may have heard the same message(s) from Jordan B. Peterson and in a wider popular context.

  19. The special role for mammoth hunting (or any hunting) is an entirely arbitrary?and maybe ideologically driven?choice. One could as accurately say that the mammoth hunters owed sustenance to their mates for the care giving needed to raise the hunters, and their children?and as logically conclude that the dominant economic principle ought to be that everybody owes society for its care giving.

    More specifically, EV’s hunting preference seems rooted in ignorance (and maybe disdain) for the spectacular amount of work non-hunters accomplish in various less-developed cultures. For informative examples, read, Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War.

    1. “The special role for mammoth hunting (or any hunting) is an entirely arbitrary ?and maybe ideologically driven”

      Perhaps you missed the part that said “or with different dietary preferences, Getting Some Potatoes”. Because you need to get some mammoth, or potatoes, or arugula, or something. If you don’t obtain some form of food the whole raising the children thing becomes rather problematic.

      1. Absaroka, I’m just having trouble figuring out what privileges food procurement over other necessary activities. To note a point touched on above, food procurement and food preservation have often been separate roles?roles touched on repeatedly in the book I cited. On a year-round basis, do you have any basis to judge, culture by culture, and food type by food type, whether procurement or preservation makes a larger contribution to available calories? Have you asked yourself whether absent preservation, in which cases could sizable energy expenditures required for procurement make sense?

        Or to turn your own assertion around, if you don’t raise children, doesn’t the whole getting food thing becomes rather problematic.

        I’m kind of questioning the need for any hierarchy with regard to these categories. And questioning why anyone would be trying to create a seemingly arbitrary and muddled hierarchy.

        1. “Absaroka, I’m just having trouble figuring out what privileges food procurement over other necessary activities. ”

          Sigh. Nothing. He picked “getting mammoth” as an example of a necessary activity. You can use your own example if you wish. But if you want to benefit from other people’s mammoth hunting, or benefit from the fact that some other dude knows how to perform heard surgery, then you ought to be prepared to produce something in exchange. That’s the point.

        2. 1)’Hunting mammoth’ (or ‘hunting potatoes’) are euphemisms EV used for ‘doing something useful’. Like ‘bringing home the bacon’, for example.

          2)’whether procurement or preservation makes a larger contribution to available calories?’

          I think that trying to preserve what you have not procured is unlikely to work well.

          3)’if you don’t raise children, doesn’t the whole getting food thing becomes rather problematic.’

          Strategy 1: have children but don’t obtain food
          Strategy 2: obtain food but don’t have children

          I submit that societies that use strategy 2 will last at least 🙂 one generation longer than those that use #1.

          During the Holodomor the Ukrainians had a word for the too common sight of ‘an infant still trying to suckle on the breast of a dead from starvation mother’. Food matters.

          If you don’t have food (+water, air, a way to keep warm if in a cold climate) nothing else matters.

  20. “And if you want to respect yourself (and be respected by others), you shouldn’t complain too much about it — because if you think you’re entitled to get some of that mammoth and you haven’t either hunted it yourself or given the hunters something in exchange for it, then (in most cases) you’re kind of a schmuck.” – Well, athletes doesn’t create usefull thing and tend to consume resources that could go to a person with a real job, and I see a lot of people willing to give them money. So I don’t see the point of this article.

    1. You know, planting pot is more of a job than being an athlete.

    2. “Well, athletes doesn’t create usefull thing and tend to consume resources that could go to a person with a real job, and I see a lot of people willing to give them money.”

      People given them money because they are providing entertainment. That’s how a market works.

  21. The issue lies in the way the initial question was asked on the T-shirt. Had the question been “who do you want to be when you grow-up?” then a response discussing character traits would seem quite reasonable. Asking a young person who they want to be seems just as important as asking the more profession oriented what they want to be.

    We are quite fortunate in America that, generally speaking, we are not in constant fear of death due to the need to hunt mammoths on a regular basis for sustenance. As our basic needs have become easier to fulfill (a benefit of capitalism) we can devote more time to thinking about who we want to be.

    But seriously, don’t get injured on your mammoth hunt….the health care bill might kill you.

  22. I briefly had the credentials and worked as a school guidance counselor (in conjunction with drug and alcohol counseling duties) and part of the drill there was to drag out a huge career folio (aka dream book) and explore whether students had any inkling whatsoever what it might take to get to whatever career struck their fancy.

    Most, of course, did not. Explaining it to them had to be done gently. I always knew right off which ones had parents who had already been having “the talk” with them from an early age.

    The ones I felt most sorry for, in a way, were the ones who were dead certain they were destined for a spectacular celebrity career in music, athletics, drama, or were academically ambitious beyond their obviously under-used brains to become a doctor, veterinarian (popular rurally, or an engineer.) Many of them knew it would be hard work and were already working to the human limits of their ability. What they didn’t comprehend is how tough and numerous the competition will be.

    So I cautioned all mammoth hunters. Always have a Plan B. Maybe even a Plan C. Fishing for salmon maybe. Or learn to smoke any wild meat and barter it for profit.

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