An American Moment: Your Vision
Start right now. Share your vision for what America can be, where President-Elect Obama should lead this country. Where should we start together?
Here's Sandwichman's Vision:
On November 2, 1865 – one month before the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, abolishing slavery – the great antislavery activist and orator, Wendell Phillips, proclaimed his American vision from the platform of Faneuil Hall in Boston:
"Today one of your sons is born. He lies in his cradle as the child of a man without means, with a little education, and with less leisure. The favored child of the capitalist is borne up by every circumstance, as on the eagle's wings. The problem of today is how to make the chances of the two as equal as possible; and before this movement stops, every child born in America must have an equal chance in life."
The election of President Obama symbolizes progress that has been made in a century and a half toward fulfilling that vision. There is still far to go, though, before every child born in America has that equal chance in life. Wendell Phillips's devotion to the cause of labor shows the way – the "more American way."
In his Boston speech, Phillips addressed the Boston Eight-Hour League, which advocated adoption of an eight-hour working day. Seventy-three years later, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 made the eight-hour day and the 40-hour workweek the law of the land. Another 70 years have passed since passage of the FLSA but the standard workweek remains frozen at 40 hours despite immense improvements in productivity and profound demographic shifts in labor-force participation.
The great eight-hour movement didn't aspire to an eight-hour day merely for its own sake or as the ultimate goal. Eight hours was envisioned as a step on the path to a higher ideal. More leisure would allow for education and uplift, which would lead to more effective citizenship and political participation. Through higher wages and lower unemployment, eight hours would bring about a more equitable distribution of the products of industry. Achievement of the eight hour day would inspire a movement for the six-hour day and, eventually, to industrial co-operation: "In this final arrangement, every man will combine in his own person the laborer and the capitalist." (While Phillips's usage conformed with the old convention of "men" and "sons" his colleagues in the Anti-Slavery Society and the Eight-Hour League included the women's rights pioneers, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton).
The eight-hour theory articulated by Ira Steward, also an antislavery activist, was a uniquely American theory of social economy. It provided the philosophical foundation for the American Federation of Labor during its formative years. In the Depression of the 1930s, economist Dorothy W. Douglas considered the theory to be "strangely apposite" to the economic problems of that time. Historian Lawrence Glickman credited the eight-hour theorists with establishing the concepts of a living wage and a high standard of living for working people.
Ironically, in the 1930s big-business opponents of the Roosevelt New Deal hijacked Wendell Phillips's terminology of the better, nobler, "more American way." On 60,000 billboards erected across the country, the National Association of Manufacturers claimed credit for the "World's Highest Standard of Living", "World's Highest Wages" and "World's Shortest Hours of Work." A decade later, their Republican allies in Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act to enable rolling back those higher wages and shorter hours.
A century ago, Sydney J. Chapman, a star pupil of Alfred Marshall, the "father" of modern neoclassical economics, presented his theory of the hours of labor. That theory overturned what Lionel Robbins called "the naïve assumption that the connection between hours and output is one of direct variation." Coincidentally, it confirmed key elements of the theory proposed by the Boston machinist, Ira Steward. In the 1940s, economist John Maynard Keynes argued that reducing the hours of work was one of three ingredients of a cure for unemployment and, furthermore, that it was the "ultimate" cure.
Economists today, though, shun discussion of shorter hours like the plague. They disparage policies for reduced working time as being based on an imaginary "lump-of-labor fallacy." Few of them have heard of Ira Steward's theory or have any idea that respected economists like Sydney Chapman, John Maynard Keynes or John R. Commons also supported progressively reducing the hours of work. A veil of ignorance and arrogance has descended in textbook economics over the issue of the hours of work. Is it any wonder then, that in the face of the greatest economic challenge since the depression, economists can think of nothing better than to call for yet another fiscal stimulus package, yet another interest rate cut and yet more bailouts of banks and corporations?
It is unrealistic to think that the Obama administration would consider implementing a policy of reducing the hours of work in the absence of strong popular support for such an action. It would be my hope, though, that the new administration could at least research the notion and review, with an open mind, the historical and economic case for shorter working time. Then, as the same-old, same-old economic policies of fiscal stimulus, interest rate cuts and bailouts prove their futility – which they will – and as unemployment continues to mount month after month, an in-depth understanding of the "strangely apposite" theories of Ira Steward and Sydney Chapman might ultimately prove useful in formulating substantive, innovative responses to the economic emergency.
Inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is the Bible verse, "Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof." The phrase comes from Leviticus 25:10 in the Old Testament and refers to the ancient custom of the Jubilee year in which slaves were freed and land returned to former occupants who had lost it through indebtedness. Abolitionists in the 1830s adopted it as their slogan and gave the bell its current name. In 1868, when Congress passed a law establishing an eight-hour day for laborers, mechanics and other workers in federal government employment, it was hailed a a "Jubilee of Labor."
My American vision foresees resuming the progressive reduction of the hours of work – with its associated increases in leisure and wages and decreases in unemployment and insecurity, as the surest way to "Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof" and to ensure that "every child born in America must have an equal chance in life."