Friday, February 25, 2011

Living to work

New York Times:

Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard, said he saw the hostility toward unions as a sign of decay in society. Some working-class people see so few possibilities for their lives that it is eroding the aspirational nature that has long been typical of Americans.

“It shows a hopelessness,” he said. “It used to be, ‘You have something I don’t have; I’ll go to my employer to get it, too. Now I don’t see any chance of getting it. I don’t want to be the lowest one on the totem pole, so I don’t want you to have it either.’ ”

An intrinsic feature of capitalism, compensating people for the work they do imposes costs on the profits necessary to sustain economic growth. In other words, your salary, benefits, and ability to retire; not to mention whatever communal goods like roads and bridges, schools and libraries -- these things will always exist in a state of potential conflict with the kind of concentrated wealth accumulation required by capitalism.

This is what we mean by class conflict: you would like to be compensated for your work by some standard appropriate to the productive capacity of your society; but your employer sees in your compensation an obstacle to their success. Accordingly, either you are persuaded by various means to accept their point of view, or you struggle to advance your own.

The standards by which any society regards itself are elastic. In the early industrial period, people (including children) regularly worked 16 hour days; by the mid-20th century, that standard was cut in half -- and yet people were compensated better. Those elements within US society that understood how this transpired sensibly proposed "a 4-hour day with no cut in pay." They did this by advocating the production of things that people needed as opposed to the production of wealth for an owning minority.

Today we are witnessing a slide back toward the living standards preferred not by the average person but by those interests engaged in wealth maximization for themselves. After all, if we agree that a decent salary, health benefits, and a retirement you can live on -- like those presently retained only by unionized, public sector workers -- are "overly generous," what are we spending more and more of our lives working for, really?


Charles F. Oxtrot said...

A few years back, in one of my prior blogging incarnations, I suggested solving the "jobs" problem with this simple solution:

Take one 40-hour job and turn it into two 20-hour jobs.

In most every workplace I've been outside The Good Slave Ship Corporate Law Firm, I have observed my co-workers doing no more than 20 hours of work in a 40 hour week. The great majority of people I know spend a lot of their "work" day browsing the Toobz, not actually "working".

Cut the job in two, each of the people will be more productive.

I think the reason people slack at work and do so little is because they hate their jobs. And they hate their jobs because they are imprisoned for 40 hours a week in a place they dislike doing a thing they dislike.

Most part-time workers I've known don't have that same issue because they have a bit more personal freedom.

I think the 20 hour work week is much more humane and easily could sustain this here American "economy" of ours -- either unrevolved (as-is) or overhauled, either way.

Ben There said...

Charles Foxtrot for president.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

If elected, my Secretary of Labor would be Bob Black.

Ben There said...

I retract my statement.

Bob Black for president!

almostinfamous said...

The party of 2 cranks? if i were allowed to vote, i would vote for them. at least it wouldn't be boring

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

There was a time when you couldn't start a car/truck motor without a good crank. Lots of motorcycles still require a stomp on the crank. And all piston motors have a crankshaft. Don't drive a Mazda rotary!

Brian M said...

But...but...the Chinese. and the Indians. You guys are all slackers, man.