Thursday, January 8, 2009

Good Jobs? Green Jobs? Shorter Hours!

by the Sandwichman

A contest announcement arrived in the Sandwichman's inbox yesterday. It was from Working America, the "community affiliate" of the AFL-CIO:
Working America is going to be sending two grand prize winners and up to three honorable mention winners to the Good Jobs, Green Jobs National Conference, to be held Feb. 4–6, 2009, in Washington, D.C. Winners won't just get a free trip (up to a value of $1,500), they'll get an opportunity to hear from activists and experts from around the country on how we can create jobs and help the environment at the same time.

To enter, go here and answer the question: "Why do you want to fight for a green jobs economy and why are you the right person to represent Working America's members at the Good Jobs, Green Jobs National Conference?"

So the Sandwichman visited the conference website and perused the agenda. M.S., B.S., Phd. (more of the same BS piled higher and deeper). To remedy the apparent lack of analysis besetting the GJGJ conference, the Sandwichman is offering a prize of his own to contest entrants pointing out the contribution that the reduction of working time can make to a greener economy (see for example, the CEPR paper by David Rosnick and Mark Weisbrot and "Are Shorter Work Hours Good for the Environment? A Comparison of U.S. and European Energy Consumption").

The Sandwichman will award copies of Peter Victor's book, Managing Without Growth: Slower by design, not disaster to up to six contest entrants who make the environmental case for shorter hours. One of those prizes will go to the entry I like the best and up to five book prizes will go to any shorter hours entries that are selected as finalists by Working America. Just send a copy of your entry to the Sandwichman at "lumpoflabor(remove this)at(this too)telus(ditto)dot(ditto)net".

By the way, entries arguing against shorter working time will also be eligible for the prize, if anyone is so inclined! Here's the Sandwichman's own entry (not eligible for the prize):

The name "Good Jobs, Green Jobs" rings a bell. It recalls the theme of an issue of the Canadian environmental magazine, Alternatives, from 2001: "Green Jobs, Good Work." One of the articles, "Good Work, Less Toil" by Anders Hayden, explored the relationship between work, consumerism and the environment. As Hayden pointed out, "much of our work today feeds unsustainable forms of production that torment the planet." That article was concerned with more than just the tension between the slogan of "jobs, jobs, jobs" and the environment. It also addressed the time famine that many over-worked North Americans endure even while others remain underemployed or out of work. Sharing the work is thus an indispensable part of sparing the planet.

The dream of cleanly, efficiently and renewably retrofitting an economy addicted to unlimited growth is seductive but futile. As the 19th economist W. Stanley Jevons predicted -- and American experience in the wake of the energy crisis of the 1970s confirmed -- increasing energy efficiency alone leads to more, not less, total consumption. Similarly, green technologies can indeed lower emissions of greenhouse gases per dollar of output. But it is total emissions -- not just the intensity of emissions -- that need to be reduced. Urgent targets for reducing total emissions are only achievable by combining greener technology with slower or no economic growth.

In Managing Without Growth, Peter Victor, an ecological economist at York University in Canada modeled the effects on the environment, poverty and unemployment of various economic-growth scenarios. If we rely on economic growth averaging 2.5 percent annually to supply jobs, greenhouse gas emissions will increase by around 75 percent over the next 30 years even if the intensity of emissions continues to decline at a rate consistent with the historical trend. Even so, poverty and unemployment will creep upward. Simply ceasing economic growth, however, would result in catastrophic increases in poverty and unemployment. Only by slowing economic growth, reducing working time and targeting investment and regulatory policy on greenhouse gas reductions in combination can the goals of environmental protection and reduction of poverty and unemployment be approached simultaneously.

But how does the reduction of working time square with the goal of creating good jobs? Eighty years ago, economist Raymond Henry Mussey wrote that, "no student of American labor history can fail to be struck with the extraordinary importance of the eight-hour issue in union thinking during the formative years of the American Federation of Labor." Mussey affirmed that the shorter hours theory ideally fit the organizational needs of the labor movement. Indeed, in the face of the depression of the 1930s and concerns about job loss to automation in the 1950s and 1960s, the labor movement returned again and again to the issue of the shorter workweek. Today, what needs above all to be understood is that the reduction of working time creates opportunity for greater freedom and enjoyment through leisure and not a grim necessity to be borne with regret and resignation.


Myrtle Blackwood said...

"Only by slowing economic growth, reducing working time and targeting investment and regulatory policy on greenhouse gas reductions in combination can the goals of environmental protection and reduction of poverty and unemployment be approached simultaneously."

Sandwichman, thanks for this interesting article. The term 'economic growth' needs to be defined, I believe. To make it very clear that ordinary people are not giving away anything by eliminating the cancerous growth of dollars that are used to destroy native forests, overfish and waste life in the oceans, produce toxic chemicals whose use has never been justified by disciplined scientific studies, overpay corporate executives whose ability and integrity are questionable to start with...and so on.

However, I can't help but think that the reduction in working hours will need to go hand-in-hand with a much more equitable sharing of the world's resources; land in particular. At present though, there is a massive corporate land grab happening on a global scale.

Ken Houghton said...

I can tell you the model that would work and make the case; someone else feel free to build it.

Work four(4) 9.5-hour days. Total 38 hours.

Compare with five (5) 8-hour days.

I'll give you odds that the productivity of the beginning and end of each day is lower than the middle, and that the decline is less steep in the first scenario than the second.

That is, I'll give odds that productivity would be higher with a four-day 38-hour week than a five-day 40-hour one.

Increases L (l' = l-2, plus the gain of one less commute, since commuting is absurdly treated as "leisure" in most models), increase overall production, and make things easier all around on the environment (commutes reduced, firms able to re-engineer their power usage to a generally-lower and certainly more cost effective level, etc.) and it doesn't require a major change in society, if you're willing to assume that the worker really will be paid her MPL.*

*The rest of us will laugh at you, to be sure, but as part of an economic model, the production increases, and therefore people should be paid more for working fewer but better hours.

Sandwichman said...


I try not to belabor Marx's analysis of working time but, simply put, excessive hours of work are the cause of increasing inequality. This is at the core of his analysis of surplus value and is a perspective he inherits from the "anonymous" author of "The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties." In other words, if there is enough of a reduction of working time, there doesn't have to be any "extra" measures to address the inequity.

Ken, If we had taken 1/2 of the productivity gains since the 1970s in working time reduction, we could have been working 18 hours a week by the beginning of the 21st century. That would be three six-hour days, thank you very much.

TheTrucker said...

I think that Linda Rosser got this one right: "The term 'economic growth' needs to be defined".

If we look at the classical economists we find stuff like this:

"Political economy, considered as a branch of the science of statesman or legislator, proposes two distinct objects: first, to provide a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people, or more properly to enable them to provide such a revenue or subsistence for themselves; and secondly, to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue sufficient for the public services. It proposes to enrich both the people and the sovereign." -- Adam Smith

Of course in the latter day republics the people are "sovereign" and so the objective is to enrich the common people only. Productivity is anywhere and everywhere the objective. It is not more "stuff". It is a better life. We should not be working this much. Let there be growth in leisure. THAT, is economic growth.

"Those are my opinions and you can't have em" -- Bart Simpson

Eleanor said...

Sandwichman -- Have you read Istvan Meszaros? I am struggling with The Challenge and Burden of Historic Time. I find his style very difficult and opaque, but interesting ideas about time in capitalist society float to the surface now and then. I keep thinking of your work as I read him.

Sandwichman said...

I've read some short pieces by Meszaros and found him interesting but highly academic.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

Sandwichman, my understanding is that the number of hours of work (as calculated as a mean over national populations) has decreased across the globe. There has been a steady increase in unemployment and under-employment. [correct me if I'm wrong.]

From this observation one could conclude that it is not the drop in working hours that has caused the rising inequality. Rather it is a refusal to distribute income and assets (such as land) more equitably.

Sandwichman said...


It's the standard number of hours worked by a full-time worker that has historically been the focus of the debate, not the total number of hours worked divided by the total number of workers (per capita hours worked). The latter figure is held down by unemployment and underemployment.

Marx's analysis of surplus value doesn't proceed directly from an empirical observation to a conclusion. Let's see if Marc Linder's summary of Marx's argument will help explain:

"Karl Marx provided an economic analysis of this regime [of overtime work] in the 1860s. Assuming that the average workweek consisted of six 12-hour days and that 10 of those 12 hours were devoted to creating the value that reproduced the worker, leaving the capitalist with tow hours of surplus value, Marx set a hypothetical case in which the workday was extended by one hour or six hours weekly. Since these six hours were all devoted to creating surplus value, the capitalist was getting a very good deal: otherwise he would have to pay wages to an additional worker for three days or three additional workers for one day to extract six hours of surplus value."

In other words, if you assume that the cost of reproducing the worker remains constant, an increase in the hours of work for the typical full-time worker accrues to the capitalist. Furthermore, if the hourly wage is understood as a function of the cost of reproduction of the worker, rather than as an "exogenous variable", then an increase in standard working time will operate to thwart wage increases.

The above is an extreme simplification of the argument just to indicate the direction it goes in. If you want to follow up on the analysis, I can give you references. I don't think it's particularly useful to argue directly from statistical averages to matter-of-fact conclusions.

Sandwichman said...

And, by the way, the Marxian analysis of the relationship of working time to inequality is only one of at least four that I could cite, the others being Chapman's, Steward's and Dilke's, which come at the issue from different angles but arrive at similar conclusions. Triangulation.

Meanwhile, the "mainstream" position on wage, working time and employment equilibrium is based on assuming the perfectly competitive free market arrives at an optimal solution through the rational behavior of agents with perfect information.

Eleanor said...

Isn't the mainstream position like the joke about the physicists who present a paper on running a dairy, which begins,"Assume a spherical cow of uniform density?"

I keep thinking, when I read about the quants, "Assume a spherical market of uniform density." But the same thing could be thought of much economics.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

Sandwichman, I would be interested in looking into this argument further. so the references you offered would be most gratefully received.

First impressions:
"Assuming that the average workweek consisted of six 12-hour days and that 10 of those 12 hours were devoted to creating the value that reproduced the worker...

Except that many (maybe most) workers are busy at jobs that entail the eventual destruction of things necessary for continued reproduction. For example, the water becomes contaminated by toxins (in hair dye that a hairdresser uses, by pesticides that the farmer employs, etc). Whole towns choke on smoke from industrial forestry burnoffs set off by forestry workers putting match to napalm in native forests.

[there's been a 35% increase in all cancers, other than skin cancer, in Tasmania in the last 10 years.]

"..if you assume that the cost of reproducing the worker remains constant...

Why would that be a fair assumption?

"if the hourly wage is understood as a function of the cost of reproduction of the worker...

That would depend on who sets the criteria for wages. I can't see much evidence that wages, in general, are determined by any serious consideration of the cost of living for workers.

" increase in standard working time will operate to thwart wage increases....

I can see that many workers may benefit by working shorter hours when their worker benefits (17% holiday leave loading, medical insurance etc) are kept intact; and when workers can utilise the extra time to greater wealth effect than they can in the workplace. But I can't see the benefit following from the logic that you've quoted from Marx.

Sandwichman said...


For Ira Steward and Chapman, all you have to do is search this blog. For Dilke, google "source and remedy of the national difficulties" and perhaps "disposable time" for precision.

Except that many (maybe most) workers are busy at jobs that entail the eventual destruction of things necessary for continued reproduction.

Be that as it may, somebody has to produce the value that reproduces the workers and somebody has to pay the workers for their "value-destroying" work. I think there is a place for such qualifications later on in the analysis but if one jumps directly to all the contradictions before even considering the simple case, we'll never get there.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

"...somebody has to produce the value that reproduces the workers...if the hourly wage is understood as a function of the cost of reproduction of the worker...

I'm not so sure that one should accept the basic premises first and add qualifications later on.

As a mother and gardener I can appreciate a different tale regarding the reproduction of a worker. I can't automatically accredit a capitalist paradigm for producing the 'value' that reproduces 'the worker'. The food, oxygen, water, materials for tool making comes from the earth, as do those that created 'the worker'. The inclination and energy to nurture and care comes from nature.

Capitalists, on the other hand, merely create a social framework. It is questionable IMHO as to whether capitalists create 'value' at all.

Capitalism: An economic system characterized by the following: private property ownership exists for an increasingly smaller segment of the population. Individuals and companies are asserted to be allowed to compete for their own economic gain but in reality competition is avoided whenever possible. Free market forces are claimed to be responsible for determining the prices of goods and services. Privilege, power, consumer culture and monopoly rents are much commoner determinants of price, however.

Such a system as capitalism is said to be based on the premise of separating the state and business activities. However, global corporations, in particular, are dependent on the state to protect their unearned privileges and extend their reach.

Capitalists say that markets are efficient and should thus function without interference. At the same time the more powerful capitalists turn a blind eye to the state's destruction of family and individual enterprise; those very businesses that can compete effectively against the inefficient large corporation in key industries such as agriculture, housing, education, medicine and others.

The role of the state in pure capitalism is to regulate capitalist enterprise without undue concern for the 'externalities' of their operations and to protect vested and powerful interests.