7 December 2008
Flawed Reasoning to Change to a
Thirty Hour Work Week
As much as I would like to work a thirty-hour work week and receive the same compensation as Barbara Brandt proposes in “Less is More A Call for Shorter Work Hours,” her basic assumptions are flawed which in turn invalidates her conclusion to shorten the workweek. Brandt incorrectly assumes that Americans do not have a choice in the number of hours they work over the required hours. While maintaining that we are in a “crisis” because of America’s overwork, she does not support her statements and the past seventeen years point to that we are not in a crisis state. Lastly her conclusion that our “overwork” is causing a “breakdown of social ties and community” does not take into consideration that the so-called breakdown is a multivariable problem that overwork may, or may not, be a variable.
Brandt’s argument is flawed because Americans are not to overwork rather they choose to work more than is required. A fundamental element of the American business system is fluidity in general and labor fluidity in specific. As a fluid moves from one point to another with a minimum of friction, American labor may flow from high working hour positions to lower hour positions if they choose to. Brandy may argue that employees, perhaps even laborers if you will, are not able to move from job to job because of so-called “obstacles” such as their children’s school, friends, or housing. However, the workers have made that these hindrances prohibit, in their minds, taking another less-time intensive job.
I believe that Brandt is arguing that Americans work, in her opinion, excessive hours as they are “struggling to meet their economic commitments.” Again, what she is ignoring is American’s choice to undertake these commitments. No mandates exist that requires one to have a Lake Tahoe second home (that they may only use three weeks a year), to send their children to private school or summer camp, to own a 52-inch plasma television, or to drink wine with dinner. People that do not have the means to buy these products, be them luxuries or necessities, out right make the choice to work more than the required number of hours which directly leads to greater compensation for the hourly worker or the hoped for advancement, and therefore greater compensation, for the non-hourly worker.
Brandt may argue that some workers may be struggling however just to meet their basic day-to-day needs much less the luxury items above. During the times of full employment, granted which the second half of 2008 is not, labor force dynamics dictate that employers must pay their employees sufficiently to meet at least their basic economic commitments. If employers are not providing enough compensation, the worker may choose to transition to another position and the position will remain unfilled.
An apparent assumption in Brandt’s piece is that a significant number, perhaps a majority, of Americans are working more than a “full 40 hours a week.” Unfortunately, she has not clearly defined the population that she is writing about. Therefore, one must assume that her population is the aggregate defined as the “total private” worker category by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS data do not support her claim in regards to this population.
The earliest publication of “Less is More” that I found is in July/August 1990 Utne Reader (Matthaei). Consequently Brandt had access to labor statistics through 1990 at the latest. In that year, the average “total private” worker worked 34.3 hours a week and was paid $10.20 an hour for an average weekly earnings of $349.75. As of 1990 when I assume she wrote her piece, the “total private” hours worked had actually decreased by from a local maximum, as the BLS data date back to 1964, in 1965 of 38.6 hours, $2.63 per hour, and a weekly earnings of $101.52. However despite the apparent ongoing seventeen year “crisis,” which implies a call to arms, she claims, the average number of hours worked had actually decreased from 1990 to 2008 by 30 minutes (-1.5%) while average weekly earnings have increased to $589.72 (+68%) (U.S. Department of Labor).
The Consumer Price Index (CPI), which I am using as an assumed value representing Brandt’s undefined “economic commitments,” rose at the same time from 31.5 to 130.7 representing a 315% increase versus an average weekly earnings rise of 244% (U.S. Department of Labor). It is possible to argue that despite a decrease in real purchasing power, measured as a function of average weekly earnings and CPI, Americans are actually choosing to work less. Potential flaws in this argument are: 1) the workers’ hours are actually being reduced by their employers; and, 2) the workers could not work more hours even if they opted to.
Regardless Brandt’s hypothesis that “America is suffering from overwork,” apparently defined as working more than 40 hours a week, is flawed in its assumptions and should be restated.
Brandt stated in 1991 that we are in a “crisis,” a tipping point, and Americans should have reacted to this challenge by now if, indeed, we were in a crisis (Gladwell). However since it has been a minimum of seventeen years since she published the piece, one must question the use of the wod “crisis.” Consider that the American investment community has become increasingly focused on the quarterly and yearly outlooks and returns, an event directly impacting the American business environment and lasting seventeen years cannot be legitimately considered a crisis.
If it we were in a in a crisis state, America would have elected politicians that would have legislated a reduction in work hours. I do not recall this being an issue raised by any significant candidate in the 2008 elections much less any of the elections since 1990.
Lastly, Brandt has not established a causal relationship between America’s “overwork” and the vaguely described problems that she believes overwork leads to. She believes that our society is experiencing “the breakdown of social ties and community in American life” that we react to by employing more police and psychiatrists. These hirings imply that America was in 1990 experiencing an increase in both crime and mental health issues. As the Crime Index has decreased from 5,820.3 in 1990 to 3,730.4 (-35%) while the avearge number of hours worked has remained essentially constant, American’s “overwork” is not entirely responsible for the increase in crime that was occurring in 1990 (Rothstein Associates Inc.).
If one accepts the Crime Index as being a valid metric for measuring crime, Steven Levitt proposes that it was that not permitting American women the ability to make their own choice that was responsible for the increase in the crime rate of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Levitt proposes, and supports, that elective abortions, which became available due to Roe v. Wade in 1973, reduced the number of potential criminals that were becoming of age during that time (Levitt and Dubner). Unfortunately Brandt does not consider the time period’s social problems to be caused by a number of issues of which one may, or may not be, the number of hours that a parent is working.
Ms. Brandt proposes several interesting ideas to shorten the work week. Unfortunately she made incorrect assumptions in building her hyptothesis. Because of the flawed assumptions, I must reject her call for shorter work weeks.
Brandt, Barbara. "Less Is More: A Call for Shorter Work Hours." Cooley, Michael eds. Making Choices: Reading Issues In Context. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997. 191-98.
Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York: Back Bay Books, 2002.
Levitt, Steven D. and Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics [Revised and Expanded]: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York: William Morrow, 2006.
Matthaei, Julie. Course Description and Syllabus. 2003. 1 December 2008 .
Rothstein Associates Inc. "United States Crime Rates 1960 - 2007." 5 December 2008. The Disaster Center. 7 December 2008 .
U.S. Department of Labor. "Consumer Price Index." 7 December 2008. The U.S. Department of Labor Home Page, Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao. 7 December 2008 .
—. "Establishment Data Historical Hours and Earnings." 7 December 2008. The U.S. Department of Labor Home Page, Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao. 7 December 2008 .