Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Is Work Sharing A Viable Solution To The Unemployment Problem?"

Pat Garofalo at Think Progress Wonk Room:
Both Baker and Paul Krugman point to the example of Germany, which has a work sharing program, along with strong labor protections. As Krugman wrote, the measures "didn’t prevent a nasty recession, but Germany got through the recession with remarkably few job losses." Plus, as Peter Dorman at EconoSpeak noted, work sharing helps preserve human capital, as firms don’t have to re-hire and re-train workers down the line — they just increase their hours back to where they were previously.

All that said, this is still only a B- idea. (Krugman acknowledges this, calling it the "third-best" economic policy available, after committing to moderate inflation to lower interest rates or further fiscal stimulus.) In the absence of stronger stimulus measures, such as aid to states or a direct job program, it will do some good — and it may be the only thing that a deficit-crazed Congress is willing to consider. But it is inefficient, has the potential to be wasteful, and obviously does nothing for those already out of work. Work sharing isn’t terrible, but I’d like to think that we can do better.
Compared to utter failure, B minus looks like genius. In terms of "doing better" one first has to take stock of what "progress" might conceivably mean. I like to start with Adam Smith's summary of "what constitutes the real happiness of human life": ease of body and peace of mind. Then there is Thomas Jefferson's prescription, "If we can prevent government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy."

Down through the ages, philosophers, theologians and even economists (Mill, Marx, Marshall, Veblen, Keynes…) have extolled the virtues of leisure and downplayed the accumulation of material possessions. The trauma of the 1930s Depression and the subsequent World War II seem to have locked the American psyche into the fixed idea that economic growth — by whatever means necessary — is the holy grail. This has produced six decades of what Dwight Eisenhower called "false prosperity", that is to say increase of gross output, fueled by military spending and other wasteful indulgences, and heedless of its impact on the environment, the social fabric and the character of individuals.

Over 200 years ago, Benjamin Franklin observed,
"It has been computed by some political arithmetician, that if every man and woman would work for four hours each day on something useful, that labor would produce sufficient to procure all the necessaries and comforts of life ; want and misery would be banished out of the world, and the rest of the twenty-four hours might be leisure and pleasure."
Nearly a century ago, in the wake of World War I, Stephen Leacock observed, "The nerves of our industrial civilization are worn thin with the rattle of its own machinery," Leacock wrote, "The industrial world is restless, over-strained and quarrelsome. It seethes with furious discontent, and looks about it eagerly for a fight. It needs a rest." Leacock argued that reducing the hours of work "should be among the primary aims of social reform," and recommended "such a shortening as will strain the machine to a breaking point, but never break it." Keynes concurred with a vision of a 15-hour work week as a realistic prospect for the future.

Two months before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy mused, "we are going to find the workweek reduced, and we are going to find people wondering what they should do…" Two years later, his brother, Bobby, delivered a famous critique of the GNP inability to measure a country's health. The measure "counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them" but not "the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play." That speech, by the way, was cited by President Obama during the election campaign to illustrate his conviction that a "paradigm shift" was needed in economics before it became too late.

Just last March, the UK's Sustainable Development Commission issued a report, "Prosperity without Growth?", pointing out that the ongoing obsession with economic growth was making environmental catastrophe inevitable even as it was not delivering on its mythical promises of stability and reduction of poverty. The report called the continuing growth imperative a delusion.

Even if work-sharing is "still only a B- idea" it is at least a step in the right direction and, perhaps, the thin edge of a wedge that will ultimately pull down the temple of idolatry dedicated to economic growth. The growth imperative's ideological foundations in the Cold War NSC-68 doctrine and economic competition with the "Soviet Menace" have been long forgotten, even as their analytically-incoherent economic justifications have been elevated to the status of incontestable dogma.

An A+ idea would consist of consigning the entire putrefying economic paradigm to its appropriate dust bin. For now, we would do well to settle for B-.


Barkley Rosser said...

So, what does all this "leisure is great" stuff have to say to workaholics, which would have included Ben Franklin, despite his laudatory remarks about leisure and pleasure (and he was into pleasure, at least, as all the illegit kids he left scattered across the landscape showed)?

Walker said...

What it has to say to workaholics is that your individual decision to work has social consequences. The very short answer is that the mixing of an individual's labor power with socially-produced technology transforms the collective labor into something that would be called a "common pool resource" in Elinor Ostrom's terminology.

That is to say, if your job gives you some kind of privileged, exclusive or limited access to technological facilities that make your work X times more productive than it would be without that access then your decision to monopolize a larger portion of that access to the exclusion of somebody else is not strictly a personal choice between income and leisure. It is also a crowding out of what should be treated as common pool resources and leads to a less than optimal and unsustainable use of those resources. That's a very abbreviated version. The more fully articulated version is in my book and you'll just have to wait. It has to do with what the "lump of labor" really meant from the perspective of workers. Not a fixed amount of work, but a fair distribution of work that collectively optimized the welfare of the workers.

Anonymous said...


I think another answer to your question is that work is the exercise of human capacities - it is what makes us human. Shorter working time is not a limitation of this free human exercise.

Breaking the connection between productive work and consumption frees both of the limitations imposed by scarcity. This limitation is that production exists for itself alone, and consumption is purely limited to the requirements of this anti-human mode of production for the sake of production.

Freed from economic constraint work becomes a joyful exercise of our human capacities in which consumption, no longer bound to the crude intake of minimal requirements currently enjoyed by most of the population, becomes the human conclusion to productive activity - completing it.

Barkley Rosser said...


Sounds nice, but to some people it sounds like they are being told to go sit on a porch or they are some kind of evil negative externality monger.

Walker said...

"but to some people it sounds like they are being told..."

It would be a mistake to subordinate both policy and imagination to what could best be called the phantom of a "repressive superego". No doubt there are people who if you offer them the shirt off your back will jump to the conclusion that you are trying to infect them with lice. How far would the civil rights movement get if the "practical" question they kept asking themselves was, "how will the most intransigent racist react to this?"

If it "sounds nice" it just might be worth bucking the oppobrium of "what will other people think" -- especially if those other people don't actively think but only regurgitate well-worn certitudes.

Martin Langeland said...

Fear of boredom is a great marketing ploy. The disconnect that makes it work is the misplacement of responsibility. Marketing claims that boredom is caused by external reality and will disappear if you consume X, i.e.: it is not your fault. Another view is that boredom is an internal attitude which disengages one from experience, and therefore is amenable to personal acts. I suspect that fear of boredom is a major constituent of workaholism. Engagement in a socially recognized activity is an easy answer to 'What did you do yesterday?'
Another is the ceaseless pursuit of superior excellence: only the very best performance is acceptable. If one cannot play like Glen Gould or Rubenstein than there is no reason to play the piano. The act of walking -- or carving a stick, or any other activity deemed non-productive can be pleasurable. It will be more so if it is not professionalized.