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Why Christians should support Shorter-Workweek legislation

by William McGaughey


While we are living in this world, work is or ought to be the moral foundation for economic well being. The apostle Paul bluntly declared: “If a man will not work, neither will he eat.”

A problem arises, however, when there is a persistent imbalance between the number of jobs and the number of people available to take them. Today it is alleged that five people are in line for each available job. The national unemployment rate stands at 9.8 percent; and many others have dropped out of the work force, have become retired, or take odd jobs now and then. Many young people who have graduated from college have moved back with their parents, unable to finance independent living.

Our social policy today is not to let unemployed people starve but give them some money even if they do not work. The Democrats pushed for extended unemployment benefits in the compromise tax package. Is this the best we can do? Yes, we have relieved some people’s immediate suffering, but there were other suffering people who did not qualify for the benefits. Is welfare the best we can do?

No, the better way is to get serious about long-term employment problems and fix what is broken. Sad to say, it will take government to fix the problems since they will not be fixed on their own. Specifically, it will take federal legislation. That is the plain truth.

What needs to be fixed? The first problem is unemployment due to automation. Over the course of many years, the introduction of technology and better business methods has improved the efficiency of labor, meaning that more can be produced with fewer people. In technical terms, (labor) productivity has increased. There has been a steady improvement in productivity over the years with the result that people once employed in certain industries have lost their jobs. Labor has been displaced to areas of less productive enterprise such as gambling, crime and punishment, wars, lawsuits, medicine, and financial management.

The second problem is that American workers are now competing with people in developing countries who will work for a fraction of the wage that Americans require. What business manager would want to pay an American factory worker $15 an hour when a worker in south China will do the same kind of work for $.50 an hour? Our system of “free trade” lets production escape to low-wage countries while the goods are sold in the high-wage United States. We cannot compete on that basis, even if currency rates are substantially adjusted. The United States runs large, persistent trade deficits with east Asian countries, with no end in sight.

There is a way to deal with the type of unemployment due to automation: Reduce the hours of work. During the 19th Century, labor unions in America and Europe pushed for an eight-hour work day. The two-day weekend (five-day week) was introduced in the 1920s and 1930s, again with labor support. But now the trade-union movement in the United States has effectively collapsed; or, at least, it is no longer focused on hours reductions. Big business is focused on short-term financial results. That leaves mainly government that could bring about shorter work hours.

With respect to competition from low-wage areas, protective tariffs could be a cost equalizer. That was U.S. policy from the beginning of our nation through the years of the Great Depression. We prospered when trade was not “free”. However, the United States is now bound by a web of trade agreements that would be difficult to break. It will take many years of international discussion to create a new trading order that protects our nation from the extreme disparities in wages and living standards around the world. We should let other nations advance economically without allowing ours to collapse.

proposal for a shorter workweek

The best, most achievable option at this time is to shorten work hours through federal legislation. Specifically, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 needs to be amended to suit the conditions of our time. An appropriate goal would be to seek a 4-day, 32-hour workweek to replace the 40-hour workweek that we have now.

Two changes to this law, in particular, need to be made: First, the standard workweek - the point at which overtime begins - should be changed in the statute from forty hours to thirty-two hours. Second, the overtime premium for weekly hours worked beyond the standard should not be paid to the overtime worker; it should be taxed away. The employer should be penalized for scheduling work beyond the standard hours, but the employee should not be rewarded. The purpose of the law is to reduce the level of hours so more people can work, not create a wage windfall for long-hours workers.

The reality is, of course, that we find ourselves in a recession - one which may not be as temporary as recessions in the past. Some employers, especially governments, have used employee furloughs to bring their budgets back into balance. The general approach is called “work sharing”. Workers are forced to reduce hours with a corresponding cut in pay.

The amendment proposed above would not force employers or employees to do anything; it would merely create a financial incentive for employers to schedule thirty-two hours of work a week without creating an incentive for employees to do otherwise. If people are worried about the long-term impact of shorter hours on wages and economic growth, a possible solution would be to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act on a temporary or provisional basis. Put the changes into effect immediately and keep them so long as the national unemployment rate exceeds 6 percent. If it drops below that percentage, we could go back to the forty hour week.

Despite the conventional wisdom, however, shorter work hours are usually accompanied by wage increases if implemented over the long term. Economist Paul Douglas of the University of Chicago, later a U.S. Senator, did the definitive study of U.S. wages and hours between 1890 and 1926, when changes were actually taking place. He found a positive correlation between wages and reduced hours. Today, however, academic economists, having no experience of actual conditions, tell us that such results are “fallacious”.

Not so in east Asia where work hours are continuing to come down even their economies grow at a rapid pace. The Japanese government made a commitment to bring down hours in the late 1980s and has kept its promise. China eliminated weekend work in 1995 and has since become an economic powerhouse. At the present time, South Korea is in the process of consolidating its forty-hour week.

The U.S. shorter workweek movement was derailed at the start of the Great Depression. The U.S. Senate actually passed a 30-hour workweek bill in April, 1933, but Congressional insiders such as Leon Keyserling (an aide to Sen. Robert Wagner of New York) marshaled opposition within the incoming Roosevelt administration. These people did not want Americans to become addicted to leisure. They wanted to keep the great money-making machine intact to finance whatever projects government wished to pursue. The main project turned out to be war.

As a result, government turned to deficit spending to revive the economy rather than reduced hours. The idea was advanced that the pursuit of leisure was defeatist. Instead, we needed to pursue economic growth (in financial rather than real terms). A mile stone in that campaign was the National Security Council’s position paper adopted in 1950, NSC-68, which proposed increased military spending as a stimulus program. The military budget would be quadrupled, producing a “growth dividend.”

A man who actually knew what the military was about, Dwight D. Eisenhower, opposed that approach. He called it “inflationary”. Candidate Eisenhower said in 1952: “There is in certain quarters the view that national prosperity depends on the production of armaments and that any reduction in arms output might bring on another recession. Does this mean, then that the continued failure of our foreign policy is the only way to pay for the failure of our fiscal policy?” Upon leaving office, President Eisenhower warned of the dangers of a “military-industrial complex”.

Yet, we have continued on the course of increased government spending, higher and higher deficits, and more vigorous military engagement around the world. Do we need to keep the “growth” bubble inflating in this way or is there a better alternative?

the choice for Christians

So much for the economic and political considerations surrounding our policies of work and leisure. What are the religious implications?

Some pundits would have us believe that American “greatness” has been achieved by adherence to a “work ethic” and that this ethic was instilled through Protestant Christianity. Such connections were established in Max Weber’s influential book, “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”, published in 1904. The basic idea was the Protestants were driven to work hard and accumulate money as a sign that they were among God’s elect. The more they devoted themselves to materialistic pursuits, the more righteous they believed themselves to be. They were “driven” to make more and more money.

The choice for Christians today is whether to follow Weber, a German sociologist, or to follow Jesus, who was not in favor of accumulating material possessions. Although Jesus made no statements on public policy, he did express a general attitude toward leisure and work. He said:

“ No servant can be the slave of two masters; for either he will hate the first and love the second, or he will be devoted to the first and think nothing of the second. You cannot serve God and Money. Therefore I bid you put away anxious thoughts about food and drink to keep you alive, and clothes to cover your body. Surely life is more than food, the body more than clothes. Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow and reap and store in barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. You are worth more than the birds! ... Consider how the lilies grow in the fields; they do not work, they do not spin; and yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his splendor was not attired like one of these ... No, do not ask anxiously, ‘What are we to eat? What are we to drink? What shall we wear?’ All these are things for the heathen to run after, not for you.” (Matthew 6: 24-32)

One can reasonably infer that Jesus would not have condemned working people who sought more leisure as “lazy” or lacking a “work ethic”. Jesus and the early Christians would not have approved growing military budgets to maintain and increase employment; they were pacifists, not pillars of political empire. No, if anything, Jesus would have wanted people to spend more time worshiping God. He correctly characterized the decision that people had to make: “You cannot serve (both) God and Money.”

Today, it is the empires of money and the people in charge of them who want to keep Americans working long hours so they will be earners of wages and payers of taxes, hopefully on an ever increasing scale. And because Wall Street controls Congress and the President, that is our national policy as well. We must keep GDP growing to paper over our past spending excesses, bring in increased tax revenue, and finance a series of wars. The interests of Money, not God, are here being served.

Remember that the Jewish Sabbath was the first “shorter workweek”, so to speak. God through Moses drew the line between the hours of the week devoted to religious worship and to secular pursuits. The spirit of that decision was not to restrict leisure to one day of the week but to make sure that activities of the other six days would not to expanded to seven and encroach upon that which belonged to God.

The proposal here is, for economic reasons, to draw a new line between the two domains. Four days would be devoted to work, and three to leisure (which is free time available for activities that the relieved worker would choose). These could be three days to worship God more completely, or three days to eat pizza and watch television. The new challenge would be to encourage people with more free time to spend that time in the right way. Predictably, such decisions would be better made by working people themselves than by the government.

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