Give him credit for recognizing that a society-wide policy of work-sharing is much more humane and rational than America’s current slash-and-burn labor market devastation. Especially in light of the increased unemployment risk faced by minorities and youth, it would be much better for government to push companies to reduce hours rather than bodies. So far so good.
But this is not the main reason Germany has an institutionalized short-work (that’s the translation of Kurzarbeit) program. The Germans have this strange belief that working builds skill: you go through an apprenticeship, you work with master craftspeople, you learn the subtle ins and outs of the particular firm you are attached to (in German you work “with” and not “for”), and lo and behold you become more productive. The key purpose behind Kurzarbeit is to not lose this accumulation of human capital.
Oddly, Krugman writes, “Now, the usual objection to European-style employment policies is that they’re bad for long-run growth — that protecting jobs and encouraging work-sharing makes companies in expanding sectors less likely to hire and reduces the incentives for workers to move to more productive occupations. And in normal times there’s something to be said for American-style “free to lose” labor markets, in which employers can fire workers at will but also face few barriers to new hiring.....But these aren’t normal times.”
In normal times the US runs a massive trade deficit with Germany, unable to compete in industry after industry on quality-price comparisons. Labor in this country is strictly an expense, not an asset, and therefore quickly shed when sales go down. Note Krugman’s language: it is “occupations”, not workers who are productive. Even our most knowledgeable pundits can’t imagine an economy in which the skill of the average worker is the main competitive advantage, the last resource you would want to shove out the door.