Thursday, April 24, 2008


by the Sandwichman

Wendell Berry has an essay in the May Harper's Magazine, "Faustian Economics: Hell hath no limits." The concluding paragraph reads, in part:

"Whichever way we turn, from now on, we are going to find a limit beyond which there will be no more. To hit these limits at top speed is not a rational choice. To start slowing down, with the idea of avoiding catastrophe, is a rational choice, and a viable one if we can recover the necessary political sanity."

I glanced at the title and on the way home, before reading Berry's essay, was thinking about those limits Hell (and growth economics) hath none of. Closest to home for me is the "only so much work to go 'round" of the infamous lump-of-labor fallacy. "Sharing the work" has always only one side of an equation the other side of which was limiting the hours of labor. English factory inspector, R.J. Saunders, observed in 1848, "Further steps toward a reformation of society can never be carried out with any hope of success, unless the hours of labour be limited, and the prescribed limit strictly enforced.

For some reason, something that an English factory inspector had the temerity to suggest 160 years ago, when the condition of the working class left a whole lot to be desired, is something most Americans know they "just can't afford" today. I don't get it. Unless it's a case of that knowledge without wisdom, which, to quote Berry paraphrasing John Milton's Archangel Raphael in Paradise Lost. "is not worth a fart..."


reason said...

I don't agree. Its just that extra hours shouldn't be free for the employer. Penalty rates need to be steep.

Shag from Brookline said...

Berry is concerned that too much progress may be digressive. Yes, haste makes waste. But he who hesitates may be lost. How to balance? Berry had "debated" Prof. Edward O. Wilson back in 2001 on the subject. Berry is a gentleman farmer who wrote "Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition" back in 2000. Being currently in the geezer category (78 in August), as I read the book I recalled the story of the young bull and the old bull grazing at the dairy farm, when the young bull said to the old bull "Look, the gate to the pasture is open. Let's run down and get a cow!" "Take it easy, son," said the wise old bull, "let's walk down and get them all." The old bull's wisdom may be worth all the methane he produces. I think I'll take a walk.

Sandwichman said...

Its just that extra hours shouldn't be free for the employer. Penalty rates need to be steep.

I used to agree until I learned that they are thought of as "premiums" more than they are as penalties. Rather than discouraging overtime, premiums create an incentive for it. And they can indeed be free for the employer no matter what the rate. Just think in terms of a weekly wage rather than an hourly one.

Jack said...

Reading the quote from this fellow R.J., it is not immediately clear that he was making reference to a need top reduce work hours so as to create a greater number of jobs for individual workers in a context of a fixed amount of needed labor. Is it not possible that R.J. was thinking in a more enlightened manner and suggesting that workers were being expected to stay on a job a god awful length of hours, and that those workers had no real life outside of the factory. In the early stages of English factory development, weren't workers being virtually worked to death and in personal need of work hours reduction having nothing to do with the concept of making jobs for others by spreading out the fallacious lump?