Brad DeLong meanders out to the edge of the abyss of knowing but at the last minute pulls back in horror, clutching his standard model teddy bear to his breast...
The 1929-1950 period saw the last sharp decline in the American workweek--a decline that does not mean that the economy was depressed and performing poorly in 1959 or 1949 (or 1939) relative to 1929, but instead that Americans had decided to take a substantial part of their increased technological wealth and use it to buy increased leisure.Can you say A-N-A-C-H-R-O-N-I-S-M? The 1929-1950 period did indeed see the last sharp decline in the American workweek. But in what sense did Americans choose to buy increased leisure? They were, first of all, compelled by hardship to reduce their hours of work. They only chose shorter hours through work-sharing as an alternative to even greater unemployment. Secondly, Americans chose to legislatively impose shorter hours through the Fair Labor Standards Act. And if it wasn't for the strident objection of business they would have chosen the even shorter 30-hour workweek of the Black Connery bill. But the income/leisure choice standard model that Brad invokes doesn't approve of the imposition of shorter hours by legislation.
A second anomaly in Brad's historical interpretation that Americans decided to take increased wealth as leisure is that this choice mysteriously stopped occurring after the 1950s even though wealth continued to increase vigorously. Funny (peculiar) Americans somehow choose to take more of their "increased wealth" as leisure precisely at the time their wealth is decreasing precipitously and then choose not to take it as leisure when their wealth is actually increasing.
Wait a minute! Did I say Americans chose to take their increased wealth as leisure when their wealth was actually decreasing? But the standard model says... Can somebody help me out here? If wealth is decreasing, in what sense is it "increasing"? Brad?
"...Americans had decided to take a substantial part of their increased technological wealth and use it to buy increased leisure..."
I'm sure the math explains it double-plus good, though.
I do agree with Brad, however, that the sharp decline in the workweek, 1929-1950 was a good thing, at least in retrospect. Sometimes bad circumstances can impose necessities that turn out to be blessings. In this case, I would like to see an economist take on the proposition that the sharp decline in the workweek during the 1929-1950 period established a strong foundation upon which the post-war economy was built. I would love to see Brad DeLong or Paul Krugman take it on.
That hypothesis, by the way, is consistent with Keynes's view of the long-term problem of full employment and with Chapman's theory of the hours of labour.
If a sharp decline in the workweek can be (part of) the foundation of one exceptional period of prosperity, who is to say that another sharp decline in the workweek couldn't be part of the solution to the current crisis? For example, see Dean Baker's proposal for work time reduction as stimulus.