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  • Would Working Less Make Us Prosperous?

    In a recent New York Times column, a professor of economics argued that the reason we’re mired in economic malaise is that we’re too productive.

    Ever-increasing productivity means that if our economies don’t continue to expand, we risk putting people out of work.…What, then, should happen when, for one reason or another, growth just isn’t to be had anymore? Maybe it’s a financial crisis.

    It would be difficult to overstate the absurdity of this worldview. The idea that producing more with less is somehow bad for the economy is as backward as the idea that bloodletting heals the sick. As George Orwell once quipped, some ideas are so preposterous only an intellectual could believe them.

    Every age of advancement in human history—from the Stone Age, to the Bronze Age, to the Industrial Age, to the Information Age—has been the result of productivity gains. Yet no one argues that such advancement caused unemployment. Why would it now?

    Professor Tim Jackson might respond that higher productivity is vital long-term, but that in the short-term, when we have high unemployment, it’s more important to have jobs than productivity growth.

    The trouble with this argument is that it ignores the key to economic recovery: In recessionary times such as now, short-term productivity gains culminate in profits, which are re-invested and then put upward pressure on the demand for labor—converting that profit from investment to higher wages.  Put simply, the professor’s idea distorts the very recovery mechanisms of the free market.

    By increasing productivity, human labor is saved, freeing up workers to be employed elsewhere in the economy. Additionally, time is saved by employing the most productive means for accomplishing tasks: By cutting the grass with a lawnmower rather than a pair of scissors, a worker can use more time on another activity, such as leisure or additional work.

    Nevertheless, Jackson offers that we should work less as a solution to our productivity “problem”:

     One solution would be to accept the productivity increases, shorten the workweek and share the available work.…The New Economics Foundation, a British think tank, proposes a 21-hour workweek. It may not be the workaholic’s choice. But it’s certainly a strategy worth thinking about.

    But there’s another strategy for keeping people in work when demand stagnates.…By easing up on the gas pedal of efficiency and creating jobs in what are traditionally seen as “low productivity” sectors, we have within our grasp the means to maintain or increase employment, even when the economy stagnates.

    His solution, then, is either a voluntary reduction in wage growth or a halt to the profits-to-jobs linkage described above. If the goal is to create low-productivity jobs at the expense of economic growth and recovery, this recipe makes sense, but if the goal is job and wage growth in tandem with recovery, this recipe is entirely counterproductive.

    In sum, aiming for lower economic productivity is ultimately an anchor holding down the economy. The professor’s solutions impede natural recovery processes for the sake of creating low-productivity employment, and have no sound economic basis and no possible outcome other than stagnancy.

    Milton Friedman put it best. While travelling in another country, he observed workers using shovels to build a bridge. When he asked why the workers were using shovels rather than machinery, his host responded, “because using machinery would result in fewer jobs in the construction industry.” “Oh,” Dr. Friedman replied, “I thought you were interested in building a bridge. If you want to create more jobs, why not give the workers spoons instead of shovels?”

    Posted in Featured [slideshow_deploy]

    10 Responses to Would Working Less Make Us Prosperous?

    1. 46% of the population is on the public dole. The other 54% have to work that much harder to pay for the freebies.

    2. Bobbie says:

      of course working less makes us prosperous!! IN La LA LAND! This is the kind of sense we're dealing with. NON SENSE! The whole mess of America was all induced by the highly suspiciously criminal, unconstitutional behavior with more than stupid mindsets in government control and out of our reach. EITHER America gets COMMON SENSE going OR AMERICA COLLAPSES!!!!

    3. Take the brakes off of the private sector through tax cuts and reductions in useless regulations so the private sector can innovate and develop new products and create new jobs. Dab.

    4. Mike Tertoole says:

      Why is it that Politicians on both sides continue to ignore the most important things in America? Jobs and debt. America keeps spending and spending and spending. The country has run up a massive amount of debt… But what we hear over and over again is that much of this debt has been backed by China…. that they exert power over us, because we owe them so much money. Think again! In reality, it is China that owes… and it owes America close to $1 trillion. China has a secret: It owes American investors hundreds of billions of dollars.
      The Chinese government doesn't like to talk about it and the U.S. government doesn't want to raise it. But decades ago, Beijing defaulted on debt owed to Americans, as well as investors and governments around the world. In one case, it was paid. In the rest it was not. More than 20,000 American investors own this debt. The U.S. government also owns Chinese war debt, unpaid since World War II. Stand up America and demand that this debt be repaid! http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2012/05/18/149159/chinhttp://youtu.be/8tRaiOrJyk8

    5. Stirling says:

      Less people working = less people making money.. and less people paying taxes.. (American Model).

      "The New Economics Foundation, (British think tank)" – There is your problem, since Europe is esentially a socialist model, not the American Model.

      Since Europe is falling apart due to it's financial policies, can we stop trying to be like everyone else and more like the America that actually became a financial super-power. Following failure is a bad idea to anyone with comon sense. .

    6. Tim M says:

      Dave,

      You don’t really address the point the author is making while, ironically, falling into the very trap he foreshadows in the article.

      The takeaway you should have gotten is that we are so addicted to the concept of efficiency that we forget that in some instances being more “productive” actually hurts us rather than helps us. Do we really want to maximize the amount of patients one doctor can see in a day or cram as many kids as we can into one classroom? That might make us superficially more “efficient”, but does having a poorly educated, sicker society actually make us better off?

      Imagine a chef makes me a really nice dinner that took him an hour to prepare, but instead of thanking him for it, I demand that he make the same meal for me next time in 5 minutes. We don’t place enough economic value on the fact that I just got a really nice dinner that took someone a lot of time and attention to prepare. Attention, patience, and devotion are vices rather than virtues.

      Economists assume, often implicitly, that material wealth is what matters to an economy and if we want to maximize that wealth we need to be as productive as we possibly can. But the point is that many of these “low productive” activities could contribute valuable resources to a country and meaningful work…and especially in the cases of education and health care, probably more long run growth anyway.

      As a country, we might have more material wealth if we continue to focus solely on productivity gains. But as the author points out, “people often achieve a greater sense of well-being and fulfillment [in low productive activities], both as producers and consumers of such activities, than they ever do in the time-poor, materialistic supermarket economy in which most of our lives are spent.” If maximizing utility is the ultimate goal, then focusing solely on material wealth is a perverse measure of how “well off” a society really is. Perhaps that’s the reason for the idiom “money can’t buy you happiness.”

    7. Norm says:

      As a business person, if I cut the work week in half, and double the # of employees, the business is good. Are the socialists going to subsidize the people who had their paychecks cut in half. The unions will want the hourly rate doubled so we raise the costs of goods produced, and go out of business cause nobody can afford the new prices.

    8. Todd says:

      "In a recent New York Times column, a professor of economics argued … " It is no use reading after the opening line. Once the "expert" was identified as a professor, his credibility was gone! Just about 100% of any idea coming out of American academia these days is useless and designed to destroy instead of build/restore America.

    9. Rick says:

      A bit more intellectual rigor and honesty would have been welcome in David Weinberger's criticisms of Tim Jackson's arguments. It seems absurd to me that he sneers at one person's point of view because he is a professor of economics, and then uses the argument of another professor of economics, Milton Friedman, to counter the first.

      With regard to bridges, I suspect that Tim Jackson would be more concerned that we recognize that at some point we have enough bridges in the world, and that we spend our time developing and implementing ways of building replacement bridges for when the existing ones wear out, that require fewer and fewer natural resources. That way we could enjoy our prosperity with sustainability, and still have employment that we would enjoy.

    10. Rick says:

      A bit more intellectual rigor and honesty would have been welcome in David Weinberger's criticisms of Tim Jackson's arguments. It seems absurd to me that he sneers at one person's point of view because he is a professor of economics, and then uses the argument of another professor of economics, Milton Friedman, to counter the first.

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