Down With Overwork

Down With Overwork
America is getting killed in the slacking off race

Matt Yglesias reminds me of an argument I've been meaning to make for some time. Here he makes the case against reducing the supply of labor – that is, cutting the number of people who are employed and/or the hours they are working. This is happening thanks to the pandemic, and it's not great, he says:

If something happens that makes work much more unpleasant than it used to be, lots of people have some margin to become choosier about jobs. I’m not going to be a sociopath and say it’s bad that people aren’t at the edge of subsistence and that we should be forcing them into work. But what I do want to say is that the negative shock itself is bad. If the virus vanished tomorrow and all public health worries went away, that would be a positive development for the economy. And I think when you put it that way, it’s obviously true.

I'll grant the point about the pandemic. Lots of people probably would want to work but aren't doing it because of child care issues or fear of sickness and death, that's no good. But I disagree with the general argument about labor supply of all kinds. On the contrary, it should be a prime goal of economic policy to reduce average working hours basically as low as possible.

I wrote about this in my People's Policy Project paper The Leisure Agenda, which contains some pretty simple strategies for cutting down on work hours. Denmark, for instance, has five weeks of mandatory paid vacation, national paid family and sick leave, lots of holidays, and so on, and as a result its workers have about 11 more weeks of yearly vacation than Americans do on average. As the chart at the top shows, America is radically behind the trend in providing more leisure time for its people.

In the paper I took it for granted that having a ton of vacation time is good (see John Maynard Keynes). But considered properly, cutting work hours also connects with social justice and climate policy.

What you do is keep the economy running hot as often as possible, so that workers are in short supply and have a good bargaining position, while at the same time you gradually cram down working hours with Leisure Agenda policies. Those two things force labor demand down into the most disadvantaged demographics – ex-cons, people without educational credentials, racial minorities, people who are disabled but can still work to some degree, and so on. People who are "last hired, first fired" will do much better if workers are chronically scarce.

That also means additional productivity gains will gradually be taken in the form of more free time rather than more GDP. Western European countries generally have a bit lower GDP than the U.S., but similar GDP per hour worked. They are "less rich" in terms of income, but more rich in terms of time.

I think the degrowth crowd is mistaken about the best climate policy and their agenda is a political nonstarter, but they are right to say that other things equal, more GDP means more resource consumption. Even in a 100 percent green economy, more production means more mining for minerals for batteries, more land taken up with solar farms, and more trash cluttering up the place.

That's a sacrifice worth making to pull people out of poverty, in my view. But at a certain point surely we can start cutting back on consumption and prioritizing free time. Countries like Denmark or Norway seem pretty close to as good as you can get in terms of material comfort versus leisure time, while America is way, way overworked, and consumes way too much disposable crap. What's the point of being rich if you have no free time to enjoy it?

Anyway, I go into these topics in much more depth in my book, which is coming out January 25 – you can preorder here! You can also subscribe to this newsletter here or check out my latest podcast episode with historian Harvey Kaye, talking about Josh Hawley's book and the new Hitler apologia from a right-wing historian here. On to some articles!

Attorney General Merrick Garland is de facto aiding the Republican plot against democracy:

Garland's indication that he won't enforce laws against sedition and insurrection is already having toxic effects downstream. After the putsch, a number of big businesses announced that they would no longer donate to Republican politicians that voted to overturn the election. But a few months later, they quietly resumed donations. Of course, one reason for this is a total lack of principle. But a more important reason is Garland's refusal to prosecute. Leaders of these corporations likely assumed that Trump, for once, wouldn't get away with it, so they figured they'd cut him loose and burnish their reputations without suffering backlash. But the liberal establishment did let him get away with it, just like he got away with breaking gambling laws, construction contracts, and inheritance tax laws.

Ventilation has been underdiscussed in the fight against Covid:

If your home has central air or heating, you can simply buy a HEPA filter (only $170 or so for a decent model), and place it near the furnace intake, or get MERV-13 or better filters for the furnace (about $15-20 apiece), or place filters in individual rooms with poor circulation, or all three. Or in a pinch, you can even make a reasonably effective machine with four high-grade furnace filters, a box fan, some cardboard, and duct tape. Both expert opinion and initial research suggest that such devices do indeed capture most coronavirus particles. The better the ventilation and filtration, the safer the space.

The case against woo woo cranks like Dr. Oz:

Perhaps the key feature of the woo mindset is that it is entirely about vibes. It's about "wellness" and "mindset" and "natural remedies" and "energy." Rigorous thought and logical argument are totally absent. "Thinking has become a disease," writes New Ager Ekhart Tolle, also an Oprah protege. It's all about how you're feeling, man, not double-blind, randomly controlled studies so you can see if the "herbal" supplements you're taking actually do anything (they likely don't, and indeed may not even contain the advertised ingredients) or if vaccines actually caused your kid's autism (they didn't).

Public health bureaucrats need to knock off the noble lies:

They have repeatedly lied to the public, playing politics with the pandemic, and in the process undermined both the fight against COVID-19 and confidence in their own credibility. Their deception almost certainly got people killed, and it continues to do so this month, as the Omicron variant spreads and booster shots go unused.

Corrupt centrist Democrats deep-sixed a Biden nominee because their Big Finance paymasters told them to:

Corruption is the obvious explanation for the Omarova's exit. She's more than qualified for the comptroller job — as David Dayen writes at The American Prospect, she's been a top thinker on financial regulation for years, and she's not a secret Soviet. The only reason to oppose her nomination is that she'd conduct meaningful oversight of big banks, so Wall Street toadies like Tester and Democratic Sens. Mark Warner (Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), Mark Kelly (Ariz.), and John Hickenlooper (Colo.) blocked her from serving. They weren't subtle about it, either — The New York Times reports Tester and Warner "condemned [Omarova] for having opposed legislation they both supported to roll back parts of the regulations put in place by the Dodd-Frank Act in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis."

Biden has drastically scaled back the war on terror, but nobody has noticed:

Immediately after taking office, he set up a new system requiring White House approval for any strikes outside of active war zones (and later published Trump's loose rules that enabled so many civilian massacres). Now that the occupation of Afghanistan is over, that requirement applies almost everywhere, and it appears Biden is extremely reluctant to grant approval. Where Trump oversaw more than 1,600 air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria during his first 11 months in office, Airwars reports just four during Biden's term so far. Strikes in Somalia fell from roughly 75 last year to fewer than 10 this year, with no civilian casualties. And in Yemen, the annual total dropped from about 18 to maybe four, with fewer than 10 casualties of any kind.

Happy holidays, and stay safe out there!

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Jamie Larson