Home Economics Bryce Covert Hasn't The Slightest Clue About Working Hours

Bryce Covert Hasn’t The Slightest Clue About Working Hours

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That someone doesn’t understand the nuts and bolts of an economic issue is fine – there’s much that you and or I don’t know about as well. I know little of tampon application methods other than some apparently exist and absolutely nothing about the fueling of model train sets. No doubt there are – unless your name is Richard Murphy – lacunae in your own knowledge.

On the other hand I tend not to write articles about either model trains or tampon application methods. Which is where Bruce Covert has gone wrong, in that she’s tried to write an article about the nuts and bolts of an economic issue without understanding anything about that issue.

She wants to tell us about working hours. Without grasping he essential even starting points about working hours:

If everyone worked less, though, it would be easier to spread the work out evenly to more people. If white-collar professionals were no longer expected or required to log 60 hours a week but 30 instead, that would be a whole extra job for someone else. That would allow more people into positions with middle-class incomes, particularly young people looking to put college educations to use. We could even guarantee everyone a floor, a certain number of hours, at the same time that we lower the ceiling. That would push low-wage employers to fully use the people they have and not treat them as interchangeable cogs to be called upon or turned away whenever demand necessitates.

No, that’s to make one particular error – to think that workers are exchangeable. Which, above a certain level of task complexity they’re not. We’re in a world of the division and specialisation of labour. OK – that means that certain people are specialised at certain tasks. Which means that we cannot switch people across tasks. Or, at least, at a certain level of specialisation we can’t.

Yes, OK, wiping bottoms in a child care facility and wiping bottoms in an elderly care centre, those might well be something we can switch a unit of labour between pretty easily. How about writing a column for the New York Times? Actually, we can’t even switch Binjamin Applebaum and Bryce Covert to do different halves of the same column because they each misunderstand different bits of economics. Paul Krugman would at least understand these points even if he doesn’t have them at the forefront of his mind currently.

The reason that we can’t “spread the work” is because the work is specialised. Meaning it can only be done by those who specialise in it. Well, unless we then want to have much of the work being done by those not specialist which is, as above, probably fine with bottom wiping, unlikely to be appealing with brain surgery and the New York Times is what we get when we do.

This is not, though, the only mistake here.

But as we start to fumble our way back to some sort of normal, it’s not enough for employees to demand that our hours return to what they were. Pre-pandemic, nearly a third of Americans clocked 45 hours or more every week, with around 8 million putting in 60 or more. While Europeans have decreased their work hours by about 30 percent over the past half century, ours have steadily increased. We have long needed better work-life balance, but despite constantly trying to hack our lives by waking up before dawn or exercising during lunch, that can be achieved only by actually working less. To Americans, who log 7 to 19 percent more time on the job than our European peers, that may sound heretical. But we should heed the other countries that have come to this realisation.

This is nonsense. Because it’s entirely missing the most basic fact about “work”. We all work in the household. Caring for children, cleaning, cooking, fixing the car – heck, washing it – these are all work. It’s unpaid work, we do it in the household, but it’s still work. Most of us also go out and work for The Man for money. One is “household labour” the other is “market labour”. Total working hours are the sum of the two.

The basic human economic unit is the household and every household has some household labour in it and most have some market. Sure, there are gender differences in who does what for how many hours and all that. Which the feminists are quick to point out – we’re currently getting a wave of insistences that because women do more household labour they then miss out on careers because they don’t have the opportunity to do longer market working hours. Who knows, that could even be true – but it’s obviously also an insistence that there are those two different forms of work.

Americans have a different division between household and market working hours than Europeans, true enough. As Ed Prescott – Nobel Laureate – has pointed out this could be to do with the higher taxes on labour income in Europe. Why not make your own saurkraut if the tax on going to work to then buy saurkraut is really high? And there is careful work out there stating that German married women actually work shorter market hours, longer household, to a total weekly working week longer than American women.

Nothing, at all, makes sense about working hours without considering that home labour. Thus a discussion which doesn’t is in error. And this brings us to the biggie:

A reduction in work doesn’t have to mean a reduction in anyone’s living standards. In 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030, we would need to work only 15 hours a week. Technological advances and increasing productivity and prosperity would mean we could have everything we needed by doing less. But while Keynes underestimated the jump in technology and wealth we would experience in the intervening years, instead of working less, we’re working harder than ever.

Jeez, Keyenes even mentions the charlady in that essay. The charlady that simply doesn’t exist any more and therefore doesn’t need to look forward to an eternity of doing nothing forever and ever. We have Rhoombas now – and washing machines a microwaves and vacuum cleaners and gas or electric – not coal – stoves and take out food and chilled/prepared food and, and, and. We have, to a very large part, automated household labour now.

Actually, a reasonable estimate is that we’ve brought it down from a 60 hour to a 15 hour week since the 1930s. Exactly in line with Keynes’s surmise. And it is exactly this which has led to the economic liberation of women of course. Now that a household doesn’t require 60 hours a week of labour done within it this frees women – righteously and justly – to go and parade their ignorance of matters economic in the New York Times. That last perhaps being something of a mixed belssing.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. So instead of one middle-income lawyer we get two low-income lawyers. That sounds eminently fair to me.

    As a pensioner I still do some work to pay the liquor bill. I live at a humble standard roughly equal to how my grandparents lived in the 1930s and for that I work about ten hours a week. So Keynes was right.

  2. The vast majority of American workers choose how many hours they work based on their desires. I worked for one of the big international accounting firms and we had a healthy mix of driven, 50-plus hour per week go-getters, 40-ish hours per week workers who were content with what they brought and quite a few part-time or flexible schedule employees. Absolutley nobody had to work 50 hours a week, never mind 60.

    Re: Keynes 15 hours per week, if you’re willing to accept 1930 living standards – no TV or internet, 1930s medical care, etc. you can probably get by on 10.

    There is a reason why some people in any profession (CPAs, writers, actors) are in greater demand than others and you can’t just swap them out and get the same results.

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