The Call for a Four-day Work Week
Some years ago, I visited some old lefty friends, who both just happened to have MBAs. A periodic recession was happening then and we started talking about macro-economics. Being lefties, they advocated cutting the work week to four days in order to make room for more jobs and thus lowering the rate of unemployment. Being an evil curmudgeon, I asked them if they would gladly accept a 20% cut in their own incomes in order for this to happen. They looked at each other and said “Of course not.”
It seems that arithmetic is a lost art. The only reason business owners hire workers is to help the company make more money. Economically illiterate “progressives” think of wealth as something that gets redistributed, much like water through evaporation and precipitation. However, wealth, unlike water, is both created and destroyed. War, natural disasters and bad business decisions destroy wealth. Harvesting a crop and bringing it to market creates wealth.
A primary demonstration of the pervasive economic ignorance of the American Left was broadcast by then Speaker of the House Nancy “Stretch” Pelosi during the 2008 recession. She confidently justified the major increase in unemployment benefits by saying that for every dollar in payments to non-workers, the U.S. economy expanded by $1.25. Were this to be even remotely true, we’d be so much better off if more of us just stayed home, watched TV, and drank beer. But, then, who would produce the TV shows and brew the beer?
The seven-day calendar week is the invention of the ancient Hebrews, as described in Genesis, with all Creation happening in six days, the seventh being God’s day of rest (whew!). In addition to the year, the season, the month, and the day, the seven-day week significantly enhanced the perceived rhythm of life.
Until the end of the 19th century, the toiling masses only got the Sabbath for a day off. The British “leisure” classes also took Wednesdays off. That was until Lord Arthur Balfour sort of “invented” the weekend. According to Barbara Tuchman in The Proud Tower, Balfour loved to play golf up in his native Scotland -- but only one day free of other responsibilities was not enough time to make the train trip up north and back to his parliamentary duties. Hence, the weekend fit much better into his lifestyle.
Precursor to the call for the four-day work week is the U.S. invention of the three-day holiday weekend. Memorial Day being the final Monday of May and Labor Day being the first Monday of September were the beginning. Then, during the Nixon administration, Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays were combined into Presidents’ Day on the third Monday of February. Many consider this to be a bone that was tossed to the ski resort industry to add a convenient and lucrative end to the winter sports season.
There are a few inexorable trends over the entirety of human existence. One being the mechanization of agriculture and the growth of cities. Another being the advancements of technology and the improvement of the common standard of living. Around the year 1200 AD the horse collar emerged as a preferred means to more efficiently harness equine power in order to plow fields. Centuries later, the proliferation of electricity made manufacturing considerably more efficient -- as well as ordinary life. Humans live better now than they ever have before. And it’s not because jerks like Bernie Sanders jawboned those greedy capitalistic fat cats into coughing up more money for workers.
Nowadays there’s much concern over the impact Artificial Intelligence (AI) is going to have on the modern work environment. A similar technologic change occurred over the 1990s with the advent of desktop computers and efficient operating systems such as Windows. Middle management took a serious hit… but new fields of endeavor in such fields as telecommunications absorbed much of the damage. Others fear the replacement of workers with robots… but ATMs have already done that to bank tellers. There should be no complaint about replacing dangerous and monotonous tasks with robots -- but the demagogues of the Left will still take the bait.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the one constant we can count on is change. Residential neighborhoods used to rely on corner stores for groceries, etc. The proliferation of automobiles led to the development of more distant shopping centers with spacious parking lots. Advances in medical technology has both increased our life spans and our concern over access to treatment.
One constant that has not changed is the importance of markets in the sorting-out between supply and demand. The Left, in abject futility, tries to ignore their importance. But markets still remain the final arbiter of pricing in spite of government edicts. Ambitious entrepreneurs somehow manage to come up with work-arounds when numbskull authoritarians interfere with reality.
Demographics plays a huge part as well. The enormous cohort also known as “the goat in the python” -- the baby boomers -- has been reducing the talent pool in the work force through its retirement en masse. The continuing decline in the quality of public education has exacerbated this trend as well. Could the push for AI be a consequence of this process? The H1B visa program definitely is. Pervasive staffing shortages can only be considered anathematic to the push for the four-day work week. Bottom line: stuff needs to get done, and somebody has to do it.