Why Aren’t We Talking About the Work Week?

Job flight to poor countries isn’t the only reason so many of our citizens can’t find work. The major reason, aside from greed, is modernization, which has been ongoing since Luddites broke up the new weaving machines with sledgehammers in 1811. Today it’s crucial.

Studies of the longterm unemployed poor find their numbers steadily increasing, along with homelessness, partly because their jobs shipped out, but also because computers and robots do so much of the work today that millions of jobs no longer exist. It’s not just the poor who are affected. Even top corporate officers can lose out.

If you look at the neighborhood corners in most cities you will find small stores every block or two. These were mom and pop stores, mostly empty now. Back in the day, these stores had two employee-owners, mom and pop, and they often lived upstairs, or in rooms at the back.

The store might be open 10 hours a day, six days a week. Customers came in and said what they wanted, mom or pop got it, weighed it, put it in paper and tied up the package with string. When corporate stores came along mid-century the work week dropped to 40 hours, although the stores were open longer than the mom and pop stores, and packages tied with string went away. Mom and pop could not match the hours those stores were open.

Many of the jobs that made a modern store efficient at midcentury have been replaced by software. A store employing 100 people might now need, say, 75, and the other 25 jobs vaporized.

In essence, counting those already unemployed, the de facto work week has dropped to 20 hours. But instead of Congress recognizing that and modernizing, the 40-hour week drags on, exacerbating unemployment. Almost no one is talking about the de facto 20-hour work week. It’s de facto because the total work hours needed divided by the number of people needing work comes to 20 hours or so. That’s just my guess, but it agrees with what John Maynard Keynes predicted would happen back in the 1930s.

It would be unwise to fight job flight by disallowing job migration to poor countries. There are ways to lure jobs back to the US, with new Government terms that would be attractive. Among these might be requiring certain products to be modernized, much the way organic foods are certified. Manufactured goods might be required to have enhanced safety and raw material requirements. (Remember the Chinese baby formula that killed babies?) Such requirements would result in safer and healthier products for US Americans, and would boost employment in the US.

Moving corporate headquarters to Ireland or some other place for tax purposes should result in a requirement that all such foreign corporations pay a duty for their products sold in the US, as well as infrastructure fees. National health care insurance would provide a major advantage to US businesses that compete with places that have national care. Corporations with overseas headquarters should not be allowed to use US national health care. Foreign corporations are already disallowed from exercising political influence in the US. But they do, and ending this lobbying would eliminate a big source of corruption and reduce purchase of legislation by the super-rich.

But the best thing we could do is to make the work week 20 hours. If we did, we would automatically have full employment. In fact we would have greater than full employment, because some people who have been so discouraged they dropped out of the labor market would return. How would we make 20 hours the official work week? Easy, we would require every hour above 20 to be paid at 150% of the employee’s wage, and the same for a secondary job.

To understand how this works, imagine what would happen if we established a longer work week. If the present 40-hour week were increased to 60 hours, each two employees would do the work of three people. That third person, now unemployed, would increase unemployment by 50%. The 20-hour work week takes us the opposite direction; that’s why it makes sense.

A problem immediately arises when the work week is shortened: what should the wage be? We need to preserve some sort of living wage, but can’t suddenly double what people make so they can work half as much. It’s not a new problem. Before the 40-hour week there was the 60-hour week, yet somehow we got the 40-hour week. The 20-hour week is also doable. Failure to adopt it will lead to even more inequality and poverty.

A partial solution comes from the realization that a satisfactory life isn’t entirely dependent on how many dollars we bring home. There is a growing realization that super-sized McMansions, pricey cars, and all the other elements of conspicuous consumption don’t really improve our lives. In addition, we don’t typically make use of our local community. For example, our local “Next Door” internet group regularly features a request to borrow something they will use only once, or wanting to give away something useful.

We already have many ways to assist with housing costs, including cooperative housing, city-financed homes, veteran benefits, and more. National health insurance would cut health costs in half, which is like a 7% raise in pay. Municipal transportation is improving, which has already made a second car unnecessary for many. Self-driving taxis may soon make any car unnecessary. Various other community efforts can potentially reduce other common costs.

A satisfying life is what’s important, and great wealth is literally irrelevant to that. But right now it is the very wealthy who control government, and they do it for their own endlessly increasing wealth, totally useless greed that has the effect of reducing everybody else’s wealth. This should not be the purpose of government in a democracy.

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’m starting to wonder; Is the US of A really a Democracy?

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  2. Not according to some.

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  3. Brilliant. And what if we raised the price of petrol by a factor of ten. Then it would become so expensive to drive people would have to shop in their local area and small businesses would increase.

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    • If we just removed the unnecessary oil executive public bonuses (subsidies) the price of gas would rise to its natural level.

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