News & Politics

Trim the Workweek, Not the Workforce

We need to find a way to reduce work hours without reducing worker's income. And then there's the problem of health care costs.
A case for a shorter workweek was made many moons ago, long before a Republican-controlled Congress fought economic depression in the United States by cutting the federal government workweek to 48 hours in 1868.

It was the prophet Moses delivering God's commandments, not some socialist, who first argued for trimming the workweek instead of the work force. "Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God..." (Exodus 20:10).

Of course, Moses wasn't talking economic policy. He was declaring the sacred aspect of leisure time, implicitly refuting the profane notion that economic activity is the point of our individual and social existence.

More recently, Philip Hyde, who ran as an Independent Republican against Joe Kennedy in 1996, '98 and then against Ted Kennedy in 2000, injected into the body politic the idea of "timesizing" -- reducing the official full-time work week in a way that varies inversely with a comprehensively defined unemployment rate --as an alternative to downsizing.

The idea, he explained to me, is essentially about "spreading the work that is available... . It's easier (and probably more practical) to share skills and work than it is to share income or wealth."

Anticipating criticism from the libertarian right and socialist left, Hyde says both sides are naive about market regulation. Libertarians think regulation is the problem and socialists think regulation is the solution, he says.

But timesizing, Hyde insists, recognizes that while libertarians make a good point about market efficiency, there never has been a completely unregulated market society (and it's not at all clear that such a society would be desirable or practical). Timesizing says, "It's not regulation itself that matters -- it's the kind of regulation that matters."

Even though shorter workweeks have over the past century been promoted left and right -- from Republican icon Teddy Roosevelt to the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith -- there are economic problems that would have to be dealt with before widespread timesizing could be implemented.

As it stands now, millions of Americans aren't making enough money working 40 hours a week to make ends meet. In order for a shorter work week to be attractive to those who don't make enough to get by on, there would have to be a way to reduce work hours without reducing worker's income. And there is also the problem of health care costs.

If we stop ourselves from being seduced by the profane notion that humanity lives for bread alone in the supreme service of the god of economic growth then we ought to be able to find a way.

Brings to mind a fella by the name of Brian Czech. I met him in August at a brainstorming conference in Oberlin, Ohio. After we got to know each other a bit over several days, he gave me a book he wrote, called "Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train: Errant Economists, Shameful Spenders and a Plan to Stop Them All."

I highly recommend the book -- not only because Czech, a conservation biologist, challenges the "growth at any cost" philosophy of the late Julian Simon, but because he manages to combine entertainingly the insights of ecology and economics in laymen's terms.

One particular passage in Czech's book cuts to the heart of the matter:

"If you've ever purchased a train ticket, you can probably recall having two concerns: where the train was going, and how fast the train would take you there. And those concerns are clearly listed in order of importance. The direction of the train matters most; speed is only helpful if the direction is correct. If we find that we are going in the wrong direction, or worse yet on a runaway train regardless of direction, we might savor every clank of inefficiency the old train can impede itself with."

Many Americans are concerned about the no-limits-to-growth track our economic train has been barreling down, piloted by mainstream Republicans and Democrats. And some, who are troubled by an economic vision that has been fostering mindless consumption and a time-poor society, are organizing things like Take Back Your Time Day.

According to its organizers: "On Friday, Oct. 24, 2003, thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans will just say no to the overwork, over-scheduling and overstress that threaten to overwhelm our lives. They'll take the day or part of it off, and join in hundreds of activities to initiate a much-needed national conversation about work/life balance and how we can reclaim it. The date falls nine weeks before the end of the year, making the point that we Americans now work nine weeks more than Western Europeans do."

That train is heading in a new direction. Are you going to get your ticket?

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and a syndicated columnist. Email him at [email protected].
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