Despite all the talk about economic recovery, the U.S. remains mired in slow growth and persistent unemployment. Though Maine’s unemployment rate is slightly below the national average, unemployment remains a persistent problem with serious long-term consequences.
Joel Johnson and Garrett Martin of the Maine Center for Economic Policy highlighted the condition of Mainers age 25-54 in a recent BDN OpEd. “The percentage of Mainers age 25 to 54 with jobs has not increased at all since the end of the recession,” they wrote. “These are the men and women in their prime working years and who are most likely to be raising children and saving for their families’ future.” With federal and state governments bent on continued or increased fiscal austerity, the fate of these unemployed seems likely to remain dire if alternative policies are not implemented.
How might we move closer to full employment without relying on speculative bubbles, easy money or more robust federal spending? And what do we mean by full employment? Must this be defined as providing every healthy worker the promise of 40 hours per week throughout his or her working life?
Europe can be one source of inspiration on both of these questions.
Dean Baker has pointed out that despite a growth rate generally no higher than the U.S., Germany has managed to keep unemployment rates lower than ours: Under the German work sharing system, if a firm’s decline in orders requires a 20 percent cut in work time, rather than lay off a fifth of its workforce, it cuts each worker’s hours 20 percent. “Under work sharing, if firms cut back a worker’s hours by 20 percent, the government makes up roughly half of the lost wages (10 percent of the total wage in this case). That leaves the worker putting in 20 percent fewer hours and getting 10 percent less pay. This is likely a much better alternative to being unemployed.”
U.S. law includes provisions that make such work sharing practices more attractive, but Baker points out that these options have not been well publicized. Here in Maine, where many of the lost jobs have been in the public sector, government could set a positive example by emphasizing work sharing rather than conventional workforce reductions.
In the medium and longer terms, a politics of hours reduction could also be a key to addressing the environmental and ethical inadequacies of contemporary capitalism. With productivity steadily increasing in all modern industrial economies, unemployment rises unless consumer demand continues to grow commensurately.
Orthodox economists assert that consumer demands are insatiable and that we work hard to meet those demands. Yet long work hours coupled with the U.S. practice that increases in productivity can be taken only in the form of higher wages rather than shorter hours may encourage an emphasis on more consumption. And as working hours in ever more inegalitarian workplaces have increased, the pressures for conspicuous consumption have grown. (Witness the recent Kia ad that tells us that luxury is a function of how we feel about a product and how “it makes others feel about you.”) At the very least long-hour jobs give workers few opportunities to experience satisfactions other than more commodities.
University of Leeds economist David Spencer also wonders about the broader spiritual ethos encouraged by a society where some are workaholics and others are permanently unemployed. Should we “be asking society to tolerate long work hours for some and zero hours for others? Surely we can achieve a more equitable allocation that offers everyone enough time to work and enough time to do what they want?”
And a world of extreme work for some and no work for others can also be associated with the demonization and racialization of the unemployed, an ugly feature of our politics. Inner doubts lodged in the minds of workaholics about what all this work is for and about the work-and-spend treadmill can be stilled by demonizing those who do not or cannot find work. Nonetheless, when compulsive workaholics experience some time off and formerly unemployed have some work opportunities, the urge to demonize the poor and the unemployed may diminish.
Curbing an obsession with consumption while also enhancing the ability to collaborate on nonmarket solutions to common problems is likely to become all the more imperative as the global climate crisis intensifies. Work sharing is a short-term imperative with the potential both to grow and to encourage other positive changes in our political economy.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor. He is a columnist for The Progressive Populist. His most recent book is “Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.”