30-hour work week

Montreal philosopher says economic evolution

points clearly in the direction of a 30-hour week

John A. Matheson is a Montreal-based philosopher and musician who argues that the 30-hour week should be at the top of our agenda.
By John A. Matheson
True North Perspective
Time for another step forward
Image: Eight Hour Day Banner, Melbourne, 1856, courtesy Wikepedia.
Eight Hour Day Banner, Melbourne, Australia, 1856. Image via Wikipedia.

01 May 2014 It seems so obvious, and yet no one is mentioning it. All of the economic signs show that we need to sharply reduce the number of hours in the work week with no reduction in pay. Perhaps everyone is waiting for someone else to go first.

About three years ago there were significant protests about the economy under the OCCUPY banner. This seemed to be the antithesis which was rising up against the thesis of our current economic system. We can call it whatever names we like, but it is what it is. What could be the synthesis of these two factors? The only conclusion I can come up with after much thinking about the subject, is a 30-hour work week with no reduction in pay.

One big problem that has been identified with the current economic system is that all of the benefits of growth are accruing to the wealthy, leaving the 99% (the rest of us) behind. Wealth disparity is increasing, and it is economically inefficient. We do not need to make socialist arguments to show that if money is not circulating sufficiently, economic activity will be depressed. Despite massive stimuli by governments and central banks, economic growth is still sluggish. After a terrible recession like 2008, we should be strongly bouncing back to growth.

Why are we not?

The new money which is released in such stimuli very quickly winds up in corporate accounts, and corporations are not investing sufficiently to recirculate. They are not investing because they do not have to, or they can put it into usury in London, New York, and elsewhere offshore. The current situation is working fine for them.

In economic terms, what we need to do is to increase the velocity of money through the system, so there is more wealth created annually. The value of money is not in its amounts, but in its velocity, or the number of times it changes hands in a year. Hoarding piles of money does not work. Traditionally, when we see hoarding, we have to break it.

Forget about thinking of taxing them more. They will make all the unthinking people believe it is wrong, threaten to take away our jobs, and then they will make sure their accountants dodge the taxes anyway. We, the working people, need them to directly give the money back to us. We need to strike for it. If you are in a union, you now have your marching orders. There is no good argument not to do this.

A 30-hour work week with no reduction in pay. would be a significant shift of wealth back to the working people. On an hourly basis, we are demanding 4 hours pay for 3 hours work. Why so much? Because they did not let us participate in their economic growth from trade liberalization, open markets, and privatization. They could have cut us in over the last 40 years. Instead they kept all the benefits for themselves, while they pillaged the planet and kept people in poverty. They will sit in their mansions on the top of the hill, and no one will have any money to buy what they sell.

In the 1970s, the people who invented the idea of open markets and privatization (the teachers of people like Arthur Laffer) said that the left wing had it wrong about wealth creation, and the right wing had it wrong about wealth distribution. By getting government out of the market economy, supposedly, the economy would produce more wealth, which could then in turn get redistributed, and living standards would rise for all. This was supposed to replace the 'quasi-Stalinist' economic system of the post-World War II period, which had to be stimulated by defence spending because the capitalist countries lost huge market spaces with the advent of Comecon, the non-aligned movement, etc.

Originally the idea was pitched as a method to maximize government revenues, and move to an economy based on consumer spending and not government spending. Top income tax rates in the 1970s were high, and it was figured that if we reduced top rates of 80% and 95% to 50%, there would be more economic growth, and more money for the government. This was called the behaviouralist or behaviourist argument.

More money would circulate, and more would get done. The problem was, the spokespeople decided to start saying that no matter what tax rate it was, if you cut taxes the government revenues would go up. The original graph was a bell curve, which showed that when you get much under 50%, revenues for the government fall off. Now, governments do not have enough money to do what they need to do, and the politicians say that tax cuts are the only answer. They are wrong.

The next argument they used was that if you indiscriminately lower taxes, capital accumulates faster, driving up investment. All it does is increase share values, which accrue to the shareholders and the executives through options. Been there. Done that. Cutting taxes does not seem to increase investment. If it did, there would be no unemployment.

The real agenda is "Starve the Beast". Never leave the government with enough money to do what it needs to do, so you can always say it is ideologically ineffective. Crank up debt to huge levels, so that any future money the government does collect goes to interest payments, and not back to the people. It is no coincidence that social democrats do not like debt, and that the Right cranks it up at every opportunity. In the long run, we are all dead, right? The biggest bald-faced lie on the political Right is "Fiscal Conservative". You wonder how they can say it with a straight face. Notice how Jim Flaherty produced a balanced budget and had to resign. How will the Conservatives bribe Joe the Plumber with your money now? The Conservatives have an election to win. Balanced Budget be damned.

The Reagan-Thatcher-Mulroney restructuring deal was: get government out of business, cut top tax rates to around 50%, and bring in a guaranteed annual income, with a sufficient differential so as to retain the incentive to work. How's that GST/HST refund cheque going? Fortunately Canada has a distribution mechanism already in place. Now it is time to use it. Let us make Social Insurance what it was supposed to be. I kind of like the idea of SIN cards being like debit cards you could use in a pinch.

People would work because life would be better, not out of fear of poverty. Kind of like Germany today, which is by the way one of the world's largest creditor nations. Everyone is paid very well in Germany, and people all over the world owe them money. Why can't we compete with Germany? Because we are working our people too hard and for too little money, so they can't spend the time and money enjoying the things that the economy has to produce.

If you have no consumer spending, you have virtually no Gross Domestic Product. If I am spending 5 hours a day commuting because your urban planning sucks, how am I going to do any shopping? In Germany, even if you have a modest job, they treat you well. The people there are proud of their jobs, work, and lives. The difference is staggering. When they start at a job they get 4 weeks holiday, and it can go up to 8 weeks and more.

Why should we be slaves to money that is unanswerable to anybody? There are many reasons why we should be going to a 30-hour week with no reduction in pay.

1. We can produce much more than we used to, using computers and other technology.

2. There is not enough work to go around based on a 40-hour work week. If there is not enough work, we need to share it. If people do not have decent jobs to go to, they suffer psychological and emotional problems.

3. Parents would be able to greet their kids home from school, ending the social horror of unsupervised latch key children stuck in front of their TVs, computers, and video game consoles.

4. Families might be able to have dinner together for a change.

5. With more shifts, places like Toronto might enjoy the benefits of flextime which would mitigate the obscene traffic and transit situation there.

6. There would be more time for culture, arts, and recreation that would create even more jobs.

7. We might have some time to enjoy this beautiful country and people we have here.

This is what the unions should campaign for.

We have to bang the drums for this, people. It is not going to come without a fight. You know they used to make us work in the fields for 14 hours a day, and children would go down into the mines.

We like to think that the progress of history has been one where all can live their lives in peace and prosperity.

Gradually the number of hours in the working week declined in England especially, since the 1830s, with the Reform Act. They came out with a Lord's Day Act so people would not have to work Sundays. Labour standards came in as the work week dropped from 80 to 70 to 60 to 50 and finally 40 hours.

A 30-hour work week,with no reduction in pay, is a knock on the door from history. You know it is the right thing to do, and you can probably think of a dozen more reasons why we should.

There is nothing left to talk about or debate.

We should do it now.