Historical Note

It may be that the critical decision not to pursue shorter work hours in our national policy came in the late 1950s. Most have forgotten, for instance, that the youthful Richard Nixon, in the heat of the 1956 presidential campaign, spoke enthusiastically of the day, “not too far distant”, when Americans would be working only four days a week and “family life will be even more fully enjoyed by every American.” (The Eisenhower administration dismissed this speech as "an unstaffed idea.") The prospect that American workers would be increasingly displaced by technological innovation and investment in “labor-saving” equipment caused policymakers to consider whether reduced work hours might help to maintain balance in the job market.

In 1959, the U.S. Senate established a ‘Senate Special Committee on Unemployment”, chaired by Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, to consider policies that might alleviate potential problems of unemployment brought about by automation and technological change. Although this committee considered the shorter-workweek option, it was not then recommended because committee members thought that other, less pervasive options ought to be tried first. Policymakers in the future could always come back to this, the committee felt, if need be. That never happened.

Labor policies were then thought to be subject to tripartite decisionmaking. Business, labor, and government were the key players. The business community was, as always, implacably set against this kind of proposal. Labor, if it could convince the government, could have tipped the scales in that direction. The problem was that rank-and-file union members had lost their appetite for idealistic struggles to shorten the workweek. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, with its provision for time-and-a-half pay for overtime work, created a perverse incentive for workers to seek long hours in the interest of earning more money. Without union support, the proposal for shorter work hours would go nowhere.

What’s more, government was also against this proposal. In the early 1960s, during the Kennedy administration, the federal government was settling into its new role of building an empire to fight the Cold War. If there was a “missile gap”, it, of course, had to be filled. Vice President Johnson, when a U.S. Senator from Texas, had once commented: “Candor and frankness compel me to tell you that, in my opinion, the 40-hour week will not produce missiles.“ Kennedy’s Secretary of Labor, Arthur Goldberg, said: “It is my considered view that the effect of a general reduction in the workweek at the present time would be to impair adversely our present stable price structure by adding increased costs that industry as a whole cannot bear.” In short: We have other plans.

After the military insurgency in Vietnam progressed from a “brushfire” into a full-scale military conflict involving a massive commitment of personnel and logistical support, U.S. policymakers were all the more convinced that we could not afford to let working people have more leisure time. These people had to be kept working long and hard to pay for all the new government commitments along with the social programs of the “Great Society”. Guns and butter were what leaders of the federal government thought would be good for America, not additional free time for the nation’s working people.

The Vietnam commitment became a quagmire which consumed the Presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. No longer young and idealistic, President Nixon was beset on all sides by enemies and new challenges. He was no longer in a position to promise the American worker anything even if he had been so inclined. The same was true of the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations, and of the administrations of their successors. By this time, the labor movement was a shadow of its former self. Government commitments weighed heavily upon the society. Presidential libraries were more in vogue than promises to the American worker.

However, there was one man who had not forgotten. That was the former chair of the 1959 Senate Special Committee on Unemployment, Eugene McCarthy. Former Senator McCarthy, who had briefly been a monk at St. Johns University, was not much into monument building. As he had famously been opposed to the carnage in Vietnam, McCarthy remained concerned about waste in all its various forms fueling U.S. economic growth. Longer work hours were not going towards a better or greater society, he believed, but toward wasteful habits of consumption.

Therefore, reduced work hours remained a theme in McCarthy’s later political campaigns. I was privileged to have coauthored a book with the former Senator on this subject which came out in 1989. Its title was “Nonfinancial Economics: The Case for Shorter Hours of Work.” How could the economy grow without making people happier or more prosperous? That was the question we were addressing at this point in time. An opportunity had been missed.

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