Why National Programs Are Essential

We are moving toward a 20-hour work week. It is mostly unintentional, but it is happening nonetheless. This gives us an opportunity to make a 20-hour work week the standard, which potentially would improve the country in numerous ways and put us at the forefront of advanced nations. But it cannot be done without significant changes in how we pay workers and how we fund health care, retirement, and higher education. For these, only national programs can fulfill the need.

John Maynard Keynes suggested back in the 1930s that this would happen. Given advances in technology, as well as other improvements in efficiency, it is now possible to have the work week he foresaw. But getting from here to there is a big and politically difficult undertaking.

We are moving toward a 20-hour work week.

Capitalism is at once the cause of a shorter week and the thing that prevents its achievement. This is because workers cannot control their own working hours, have no stake in technology, and are usually underpaid. It is capitalists who own the machines of modernization, and Republicans who want to pay as little as possible, and for heaven’s sake, no “socialism” of national things like Medicare and Social Security.

Low-wage employers have for decades limited employee hours in order to stay under the benefits threshold. This is the McDonald’s/Walmart strategy. It has been disastrous for the poor who work these jobs, and the practice drains from government welfare programs that are forced to make up the difference between inadequate wages and crucial life needs. In practice it’s yet another transfer of wealth to the wealthy.

The McDonald’s/Walmart strategy
has been disastrous for the poor.

The economic inequality we have now came about because of the increasing misuse of wealth, and conservative insistence that minimum government and overpriced “free market” are the way to go. The many millions who are forced to survive on minimum wage are punished with poverty by this concept. Either we have to pay enough for workers to buy private health care et cetera for themselves, or we have to establish efficient government programs.

Capitalists and Republicans want it neither way. They would prefer that workers provide overpriced private services for themselves, but they have no interest in paying enough to make it possible. National programs are inherently more economical, and offer our only chance for good benefits at reasonable cost. That’s why they are found in every other advanced nation but ours.

Capitalists and Republicans
want workers to pay for private services,
but won’t pay enough to make it possible.

There is no rational objection to be made to such changes. There is only ideological political opposition, which centers around the false idea that less government and the “free market” are always better, and anything national is like Soviet communism. But those beliefs result in ever widening inequality, decline of security for wage workers, ever eroding democracy, and loss of corporate competitiveness.

Forty-hour jobs with good benefits are increasingly rare, and a big factor is that the cost of “free market” health care is literally double what it costs with superior national plans. Having to pay for private health care reduces international competitiveness for US corporations, who compete with workers covered by less expensive national care.

The three most obvious worker needs are health care, retirement funding, and higher educational financing, all of which are more efficient and far less costly under national programs.

National health care is the primary candidate, because a national plan would cut health care costs literally in half. This is the most important of the changes that would make the 20-hour week possible, and it’s hard to overestimate the value national health care would have for the country. It would greatly improve the health of the working population, which by itself would bring significant financial benefit to the nation, since every adverse health condition among the work force creates cascading public costs and loss of efficiency.

National health care
is the most important of the changes
that would make the 20-hour week possible.

Minimum wage needs to become Living Wage, and significant improvements need to be made to Social Security. SS is by default the entire retirement income of people who work low wage jobs, and would not be adequate under 20-hour Living Wage without improvements.

Education is the third underfunded major cost of life in the US. The number of advanced nations that provide free higher education is growing rapidly, and the US could easily to do the same thing. Many universities could do it immediately with no other changes. There are many benefits of high levels of education in the workforce, for workers and owners alike. 

An unrecognized consequence of good national programs is that take-home pay could be far lower, yet still adequate. Workers would pay significant sums for national programs, but in the end the cost would be lower because they would not have to pay for expensive private plans. Personal security would therefore be greatly improved.

Greater changes have been made in the past. The 72-hour work week with absolutely no benefits of any kind went the way of farming with horses and hand tools. The radical 40-hour work week that replaced it has outlived its usefulness. Improvements in technology have made a much shorter work week possible, and we should seize the earliest opportunity.

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