Monday, February 10, 2014

Work Work Work

Democrats and Republicans are arguing about the CBO report that notes Obamacare will lead to less work.  Republicans figure they can capitalize on this, while Democrats state the GOP misrepresents what's going on--that Obamacare frees people up to work less and follow other goals.  But all this fighting misses the bigger question, asked by professor of leisure studies at Iowa, Benjamin Kline Hunnicut: why shouldn't we want people to work less?  (Or as the headline to his piece has it: "Why do Republicans want us to work all the time?"  A poor title since both parties fall all over themselves claiming the most important thing they do is provide the public with jobs.)

For the first century or so of the Industrial Revolution, the general trend was people working fewer and fewer hours while getting paid more and more.  (I won't go into the Marxist claim about how wonderful life was before the Industrial Revolution--which amounted to greedy capitalists enslaving previously happy laborers--though you still see this sort of thought infecting some historians.)  It's understandable that quite a few experts in the past predicted with productivity going up and labor-saving devices sprouting everywhere, we'd soon be working very little and enjoying massive amounts of leisure time devoted to personal fulfillment--the "pursuit of happiness" that's our birthright.

Instead, the 40-hour week has become the norm, and has been for decades, while many work considerably more.  Why?  Here's Hunnicut's suggestion:

I have spent years trying to answer this question, one of the great mysteries of the modern age. Economists and historians have offered various explanations, from the rise of consumerism to changing technology to globalization to our fixation with economic growth above all else. I have argued that a new ideology, a new set of beliefs about work’s everlasting centrality, emerged with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Work is now viewed as an economic end in itself rather than a means to better purposes. Work for more work has become the organizing principle of society, embodied in public policy and in the politician’s mantra: JOBS, JOBS, JOBS.

The best explanation for the advent of work without end, I now believe, is a failure of imagination. We’ve forgotten that the purpose of life is to be happy, and to pass that happiness on to future generations—not simply to keep acquiring more stuff. Our forebears understood that.

There may be something to this, though I think he may be leaving something out of the equation. Starting with the New Deal, government has played an ever-larger role in taking care of us.  To pick some obvious examples:  Education is free K-12 (and soon pre-school?).  If you are out of work or become disabled, the government will help you out. If you don't make much money, the government will spring for some of your food bills.  Once you retire, you get a regular check and significant help with your medical expenses.  Then there's the costs of keeping up a large military.  And now, with Obamacare, the less you make the more your health insurance will be subsidized.

Now some or all of these things may be good programs, but they cost an awful lot.  To afford (or even to attempt to afford) this you need a solid tax base--a large portion of the population needs to be working an awful lot to make sure everything is paid for.  If people start dropping out of the economy because they figure the government will subsidize them, then you have an unstable system.  Perhaps it figures when you're building such a system that part of it is the understanding that there has to be a fair amount of full-time employment to keep it going.  Why would such a society not treat work as a necessity?

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Democrats see fewer working as a selling point of Obamacare. It's great that people are now afraid to be more productive or it'll cost them in health care costs. Even better, now it's easier than ever to leave your job and not be productive at all knowing that the taxpayers will take care of your health insurance.

12:30 AM, February 10, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

anon1: This is bad? I don't want to live in your world

3:47 AM, February 10, 2014  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

As you point out, it is unsustainable to have society provide primary support for a majority of society, or even a large minority. It is also folly to believe that people will not accept such support if it is offered (and abuse the systems that offer support to the extent they can get away with it), thus leading people to the rational choice to work less if society provides a free level of support that is sufficient to meet their wants and needs.

That said, the alternative of an "eat what you kill" world, (and die if you don't kill), is just as unsustainable to civilized minds. As with everything, we must find a happy medium. A society where people have the choice to work as much as they wish to, to enjoy the standard of living they desire.

There are some people for whom the work is the standard they strive for (love your job and you'll never work a day in your life). But those folks are rare and becoming rarer. In a world that offers so much enjoyment for leisure time, most people would choose a standard of living that allows for plenty of enjoyment away from work.

The problem with socialist systems is that they fail to recognize different people have many different standards of living that they will find acceptable. Socialism strives for equality of outcome - so that if some people are able to achieve their objectives working 35 hours a week, everybody should be able to do the same.

Obamacare, I believe, falls completely into this trap. It assumes everyone wants to have the same assurance and level of healthcare, when really, this is one of the many choices we make individually when deciding what jobs to take, how much fat to eat, whether to smoke, etc. etc. And again, trying to force an equality of health outcome means the people who wish to lead riskier lives (whether in diet or lack of insurance) will take advanatge of whatever is freely offered by society, causing the costs to rise substantially, and placing the burden on those who choose to a less risky existence.

7:39 AM, February 10, 2014  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 2: Yes, it is bad to live in a world where working harder is punished and working less is rewarded. Someone, somewhere has to do the work that all the others are living off, at least until we create all those machines on Star Trek that take care of those problems.

10:55 AM, February 10, 2014  

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