Why Americans Don’t Work Less

Dean BakerDean Baker has long advocated a response to economic recessions that one never really hears about: work reductions. Suppose that there is a recession and a company decides that it needs to layoff 20% of its workforce. Instead of doing this and putting the laid-off workers on unemployment, the company could cut everyone’s work hours by 20%, and the government would make up the extra 20% in compensation. This would lead to a faster recovery where the company would again be running at full steam.

This is a system that works really well in other countries, most notably Germany. But it would be especially great in the United States because workers here are notoriously bad about taking time off. But the main thing is that it is just good economic policy. It provides more stability. And the truth is that our country produces far too much stuff anyway. Over the last many decades, other advanced economies have used increased productivity in the form of more leisure time. In the United States, at least for the last 35 years, we have used increase productivity to make the rich even richer.

Let’s think about the issue of leisure for a moment. When most people think of leisure, they imagine drinking a cold beer on a Caribbean beach. But the truth is that for most people, leisure is actually something else. Most people really do go by the old saying, “A change is better than a rest.” People putter in their gardens, they knit sweaters, they play with their children (which helps in their proper development). Leisure is not a lack of work, it is just a lack of pay. And that is why as a country we should embrace leisure. It isn’t wasted time. The only way you can see that is if they only thing that matters to you is making money. And although that might be true of the power elite, it shouldn’t be a worldview that the rest of us accept.

Today, Dean Baker wrote a wide ranging article about the problems we face today because of our lack of economic demand, High Asset Prices, the Savings Glut, Secular Stagnation, and Unemployment. After discussing the standard economic approaches to the demand problem, he notes that we could have full employment if everyone just decided to work less. For a great many people, this sounds like a great idea. And the fact is that most Americans work so much not because they need to, but because they are afraid that if they don’t work unreasonable numbers of hours, they will lose their jobs.

Still, there are a lot of people like me who do very much live to work. I’ve seen this a lot in the high tech industry where programmers just want to work ridiculous numbers of hours. But there is no reason why they need to do all that work for some company that frankly abuses such work ethics. These programmers could go home at 5:00 each night and code cool new apps or code controllers for fly sized drones.

But I don’t see us moving in this direction. And the reason is not that people wouldn’t like it. The reason is that the power elite love having a work force that is terrified of losing their jobs. So given the option of laying off 20% of a work force or cutting back hours by 20%, most owners would rather lay off the employees. For one thing, it is less disruptive to the company. But more important, it sends a message to the employees: stay in line, don’t ask for more money, work longer hours, and most of all, tenderly smooch my bottom.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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