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Many of the jobs that made a modern store efficient at midcentury have been replaced by software.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.

Dying For Lack of Opportunity

The death rate for white males in their middle years has skyrocketed because of suicide and drug overdose. These are people who have been denied the American dream. Their jobs disappeared, along with their house, their medical care, and their retirement. Their very lives.

People who have faced such depressing conditions become depressed, naturally. The longer it goes on, the more likely they will become dependent on alcohol or the other dangerous drugs that are so readily available everywhere. The longer they are depressed, the more likely it is they will kill themselves.

When these conditions affect the black population, self-righteous whites put on their church pins and tell them to man up. Get a job. They are not saying those things now, because the ones affected are white. There are no jobs of any kind in lots of places, other than a few part-time minimum wage gigs. Nothing you can live on.

Where did the jobs go? Many were shipped overseas by corporate bosses, where desperate people are forced to work under conditions that would be illegal here, and for pennies on the dollar.

But the other condition, which nobody is talking about, is the absorption of jobs by new robots and computers that aren’t paid a wage. We can’t even see this huge dilemma, because its onset has been insidious over decades, and it’s ubiquitous.

What began as a novelty is now the norm. Take the job of inventory of stock. Today’s young adults were not around to know that there were businesses whose sole purpose was to take inventory for companies that hired them. They came to work after a store was closed for the day, and a large crew counted everything in the store and wrote it down on paper. Later, the managers tallied these counts and presented their report to the store.

All those jobs are gone. Inventory today is continuous and invisible. Each new item is scanned into the computer, and each sold item is automatically deducted from the inventory count. If an item becomes depleted, the computer tells when to order more, or does it automatically. There’s no such thing as an independent inventory, and computers perform dozens of other business services that used to require employees.

Likewise, robots have taken over large parts of manufacturing in every realm. Even things like certain types of surgery are on the verge of being performed by robots, which are much faster than human surgeons.

This modernization came on over a long period, and the evidence is scattered, so it’s not easily seen with casual observation. But it’s everywhere.

Perhaps skilled laborers are the most heavily affected by this modernization, but in actuality, new machines are absorbing jobs at every level from unskilled labor to CEO, and some of the displaced from every kind of work end up on the street, helpless before the new reality.

This, I believe, is one of the reasons that homelessness is not being solved. Every year there are additional people forced from their homes and their former lives into the streets, into tents.

My belief is that there are two things we could do to help solve the condition. First, shorten the official work week to 30 hours or less, which would mean more people working. This is not a radical change. There were regular reductions of the 72-hour work week before we reached 40 hours. Second, require all employers to pay a living wage for 30 hours of work. High enough earnings to supply everything necessary. Living wage does not hurt business because employees must spend what they earn to survive, which is fed directly into the local economy.

The federal government could greatly help the nation’s people by passing several wise laws, such as improved Social Security and initiation of national health care, like every other nation did long ago. Note, however, that this modernization would make the insurance industry largely redundant. It’s also unlikely to happen any time soon because conservatives have labelled it “Socialism”, which they associate with Karl Marx and the USSR, whereas the proper model is the modern nations of Europe and Asia.

Until the cause of white decline is recognized, accepted, and conditions changed, we can expect more of the same: substance abuse, overdose, and suicide. It won’t go away by itself.

Our Unfinished Business on Earth

The question is not whether humankind has made progress. We have made astounding progress lately—that is, since science became a thing.

But we have eliminated very few of the things that plagued us 500 years ago. We still have wars and prejudices of all sorts. We have eliminated or controlled all kinds of diseases, but others have sprung up in their place.

The most serious question now is whether we can progress rapidly enough to survive the environmental catastrophe bearing down on us like a runaway train.

1. The outcome of the rapidly worsening environmental decline is the most important thing we will ever face. It will determine whether we survive at all, and if we do, under what conditions.

We have never faced worldwide catastrophe before. The closest we came was WWII, when 60 million people lost their lives over some eight years. Without profound changes in the way humankind does things, the death toll from environmental collapse could easily be measured in billions.

Global climate change has been obvious for at least 30 years, yet we have done almost nothing to correct it. In fact, the last time we might have avoided it came about 30 years ago, and that would even then have required instantly giving up fossil fuels. Today we can only learn to live with the consequences, even if we eliminate all fossil fuel use.

2. There is every reason to believe that the Sixth Great Extinction has begun. Elizabeth Kolbert’s disturbing book, The Sixth Extinction, presents the evidence, and what it means to us.

Few of us care much about the extinction of species, but we should. A lot. Just in our time we have witnessed extinction that progresses many times faster than “background” extinctions, and is equivalent to or exceeds the five great extinctions that preceded this one.

Consider what would happen if the honey bee should become extinct, which is a possibility because of wholesale death of honeybee hives, probably due to environmental chemicals we have created. This is called colony collapse disorder, and many beekeepers worldwide have lost 90% of their hives. Honeybees fertilize a large percentage of our food crops. You can look that up. Without them, these plants would not bear, including many fruits and veggies found in our markets. This is what we eat to survive. Yet, other extinctions are also scary.

3. The population problem has not gone away. The present head count is over 7.4 billion, twice what it was only 45 years ago. Take a look at the government population clock every few months. You will be astonished at how fast the numbers change. It increased by 100,000,000 just while I wrote this. But infinite population growth is impossible.

Now, the Earth can support 7.4 million people for a while. That’s not the problem. The problem is that food and wealth are not fairly distributed. Maldistribution of common wealth means that some part of the population will suffer the worst effects of poverty.

4. Gross maldistribution of the world’s goods must be moderated. Half the world’s wealth is in the hands of some 62 people, who have no possible way to spend it, but hoard it as if they could. This leaves billions of people at the other end of the scale to suffer simply because they don’t have enough money for a decent life.

Actual physical and mental wellbeing is injured by poverty. The only way to correct this is to redirect wealth so that everyone is able to function at their best. This means giving the poor enough, not making them wealthy.

Equitable distribution of wealth has a very positive effect on nearly every part of modern life, including many things you would not expect.

5. Computers and robots do an increasing percentage of the world’s work.

Robots and computers began displacing workers a half century ago. Each passing decade saw smarter computers that did increasingly sophisticated work. It reached into the middle class, then into middle management, and now there is no worker on the planet who could not be displaced, even the highest paid CEO.

This should be good news. If half the work is done by computers, either the work week could be reduced to twenty hours, or wealth could be redistributed to those who are unable to find work. 

Those are the two elements of inequality: maldistribution of the goods of the world, and failure to take advantage of robotic work to reduce the human work load. Without solving this problem we will remain on a downward trajectory.

6. Intolerance and violence are still too much with us in spite of their historical decrease. Both stem from ignorance.

The Republican Party finds scapegoats for the party faithful to blame for everything: African-Americans, Spanish speakers, and immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants. The current crop of presidential hopefuls promote outrageous hateful falsehoods that are accepted at face value by the party faithful. They promote their values in this amoral way, hoping to gain political advantage. This is how autocracies are built, by inventing a scapegoat to blame for imagined grievances.

The GOP claims that attacks by Muslims threaten every American. The recent murder of 14 ordinary Americans by a self-radicalized Muslim and his wife in San Bernardino, California led to hundreds of peaceful Muslim-Americans, even children, being targeted for attacks.

The 19 deaths on American soil by homegrown Muslim terrorists last year should be compared to accidental death from falling, poisoning, or traffic, each of which recorded between 30,000 and 38,000 deaths. The chance of dying from a Muslim terrorist attack in the US is in the realm of winning the lottery.

What we should be promoting is tolerance.

7. Fundamentalist and military violence are the real threat.

Fundamentalists of every faith believe they have the only real truth. They often think that they need to accelerate the conversion of the world to their cause by committing mass atrocities. So the German terrorists of the 1970s planted bombs and murdered people, as did American black nationalists, and various terrorists in other countries.

Radical Muslims have turned this effort into a science lately, and in recent decades have racked up an impressive record of murder of innocents and military personnel. Lest we believe they are the only ones, we have only to remember Timothy McVeigh, whose Kansas City bomb killed 168 government workers and children and wounded 600.

Meantime, the US government and their corporate masters are very much in favor of wars—that other people’s children fight. Washington’s standard response to political difficulties abroad is bombs and soldiers.

The profit from war is vast, and comes from everything that supplies our enormous military. But our wars generate hatred wherever we go. George W. Bush’s two endless and costly wars have generated a large share of recent Muslim retribution, without any real positive achievements.

In general, American history since the early 19th century has been one of bullying and unwarranted and amoral invasion of smaller countries. We would do well to end this habit, but, as Obama’s unsuccessful attempts to extract us from military involvement in the Middle East show us, once started, it’s not easy to quit. It would be better to mostly mind our own business in the first place.