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Don't Slave Your Life Away: Why America Should Embrace a 4-Day Work Week

Workers today are expected to be on call 24/7.

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Over the past three decades, Western capitalism forgot the lessons the marketplace had learned during the painful leftist rebellions of the early 20th century—namely, that capitalism worked in society only if it was tempered by regulation designed to ensure that everyone got their share. Over the past 30 years, American business grew the unproductive financial services sector, pushed Washington to repeal or ignore nettlesome regulations, and failed to warn workers that the glories of globalization would be accompanied by the loss of millions of jobs here at home. The result has been widespread and nearlyunprecedented dissatisfaction with our financial establishment. As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moisés Naím put it, “America’s long, peaceful coexistence with income and wealth inequality is ending."

The danger of our new and unique class of alienated workers and the unemployed is not some kind of revolt but instead the real likelihood that the unemployed—fearful and discontented—will turn toward authoritarian, simple-solution leaders touting isolation, xenophobia, and contempt for the basic workings of democratic government. This is already happening. State legislatures are bearing down on unions and immigrants and advancing bills that secure gun ownership and restrict women’s health services while making it harder for the elderly and poor to vote. In the run-up to the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich sounded high-pitched “dog whistle” messages that stirred xenophobia and outright racism. One more shock—a terrorist attack; clear signs of a double-dip recession—and Americans could conceivably lurch so far right that infrastructure, foreign relations, and the cornerstones of what’s left of our egalitarian social safety net could be permanently disabled.

In the summer of 2011, the Financial Times opined that when it came to solving America’s continuing financial challenges, “Further short-term stimulus should be on the table.” Unfortunately, the obvious short-term fix for a flaccid employment picture—a government jobs program focused on infrastructure and education—is not only entirely off the table but, according to budget-slashing members of Congress, not even in the room. We’re left with no real response to a three-year old employment crisis that has morphed into a persistent low-grade flu.

We are living in the sad shadow of unfettered markets, of unquestioned confidence in an unregulated, little-taxed, corporate culture to provide a high quality of life for all.

Bill Ivey is the author of Arts, Inc. How Greed and Neglect have Destroyed our Cultural Rights, and Engaging Art: the Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life. He is the founding director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University.

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