The liberal allergy to work

Believe it or not, Iowan tax funds fund a Leisure Studies program at the University of Iowa.

That includes one of Iowa’s Leisure Studies professors, who wrote a column for Politico

This week, America’s political class has been consumed by an intense, vitriolic debate over a single number: 2.5 million.

That’s the amount by which, according to the Congressional Budget Office, President Obama’s signature health care law will effectively reduce the U.S. work force over the next decade.

The initial Republican reaction was predictable: Pundits filled the airwaves, Cassandra-like, to paint Obamacare as the ultimate job killer. Never mind that, reading the fine print, it’s clear the CBO was talking about workers voluntarily  reducing their hours in response to the law—not getting laid off or seeing their shifts scaled back.

And anyway, isn’t that supposed to be a good thing? …

The fuss will doubtless soon die down, but this bit of political theater has resurrected a very old debate about working hours, and could conceivably reawaken what I have called the forgotten American Dream. That dream has not always been just about striving to consume bigger houses, fancier clothes, faster cars. The idea that “full time” work is something foreordained and the bedrock of morality is new, mostly a product of the last century.

During the Industrial Revolution, Americans worked incredibly long hours. It was common for people to work from dawn to dusk, often into the night, six days a week—better than 60 to 70 hours a week with no vacation and few holidays. It was all very Dickensian— remember Bob Cratchit’s appeal to Scrooge for Christmas day off? That was America in the 19th century.

The birth of the labor movement changed that. Beginning in the 1820s, laborites began pressing for higher wages and shorter hours. For more than a century, and until about 40 years ago, unions, supported by numerous economists, pressed for shorter hours as one of the primary ways to deal with unemployment. They argued that as the economy improved, workers would need higher wages to buy what they produced and more free time to use all the new products.

For more than a century before 1930, the average American’s working hours were gradually reduced—cut nearly in half. Labor played a part in these reductions, but they were largely a product of the free market, reflecting individuals’ choices to work less and less. …

But instead of increasing leisure, since World War II, Americans have seen their average work hours stabilize at around 40 per week. Economists such as Juliet Schor have made a convincing case that our hours have lengthened recently, and that we now average about five weeks longer on the job each year than we did in 1976. Median incomes are stagnating, even as we work harder than ever.

What happened?

I have spent years trying to answer this question, one of the great mysteries of the modern age. Economists and historians have offered various explanations, from the rise of consumerism to changing technology to globalization to our fixation with economic growth above all else. I have argued that a new ideology, a new set of beliefs about work’s everlasting centrality, emerged with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Work is now viewed as an economic end in itself rather than a means to better purposes. Work for more work has become the organizing principle of society, embodied in public policy and in the politician’s mantra: JOBS, JOBS, JOBS.

The best explanation for the advent of work without end, I now believe, is a failure of imagination. We’ve forgotten that the purpose of life is to be happy, and to pass that happiness on to future generations—not simply to keep acquiring more stuff. Our forebears understood that.

… which Herman Cain takes apart:

His point, and that of other Democrats trying to spin this very unwelcome news about ObamaCare, is that people who were only working full-time because they had to in order to get health insurance can now make the choice not to.

But there are several problems with the economic theory behind that, although I wouldn’t expect a “professor of leisure studies” to recognize them.

First, it’s fine that certain people only work as much as they want or need to as long as they don’t become a burden on the rest of us. But to the extent they were only working full-time because they had to in order to get health insurance, there were much better ways than ObamaCare to solve that problem. We could have repealed the special tax treatment for employer-provided health insurance and given it to individual-purchased insurance instead. We could have expanded Health Savings Account tied to high-deductible policies so people wouldn’t be so dependent on employer-provided insurance paying every dime for every doctor visit.

If people were chained to jobs only for health insurance, there were much better ways to fix that.

But in a broader sense, yes, Mr. Professor of Leisure Studies, it’s better when people work more. When they work more, they earn more, the nation produces more and we create more wealth – which is necessary, by the way, to pay for elements of our gigantic public sector that includes jobs like the “professor of leisure studies” at the University of Iowa.

But the real reason Republicans want people working is that working empowers you to become the master of your economic destiny. It is the best way to succeed in the pursuit of happiness, and we Republicans want people to achieve their own happiness. Democrats would rather have people lay around doing what they learned in “leisure studies,” while the Department of Happy serves their happiness needs.

“The purpose in life is to be happy”? According to whom? (Not the Founding Fathers; the line from the Declaration of Independence is “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,”  not “happiness.” Ben Franklin said wine was “proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” but my favorite Founding Father didn’t live in the Age of Obama, where, to quote a phrase from the much easier ’80s, life’s a bitch, then you die.)

Leisure Studies, by the way, includes recreation and sport business, which is in fact a legitimate field of work. Tourism is traditionally one of Wisconsin’s top three businesses. The point here isn’t where the professor comes from; it’s his warped point of view.

Out of curiosity I checked the professor’s webpage. He appears to be ignoring his own advice based on the work he claims to have done over his academic career. On the other hand, the Ph.D. (figures, doesn’t it?) has been consistent in advocating working less and getting more time off. (Because we need more time to appreciate the stark death all around us this damnable winter.)

This dovetails with the supposed dissatisfaction of, reportedly, seven of 10 Americans with their  jobs. Which might explain why the U.S. economy sucks, if seven of 10 Americans are basically putting out the minimum effort required to remain employed. If that’s the case, they’re not bettering their employer, they’re not making the country a better place, and they’re certainly not bettering themselves. (That might also explain the disconnect between the unemployment rate and the number of vacant jobs considered by some too icky to work in or for businesses they don’t like.) Maybe they’re in a work situation they can’t get out of for some reason(s), but the economic reasons are tied to the presidential administration a majority of American voters twice chose.

Readers who own their own businesses probably can’t read this from shaking with derisive laughter. Business owners work nights, weekends and holidays. They do it for the purpose of serving their customers, to control their own destiny, and, yes, to make money, though the vast, vast, vast majority of business owners meet no realistic definition of “rich.” (The professor, who according to one online report makes $134,000 a year, is more “rich” than most business owners.) Farmers also don’t get days off for obvious reasons.

For that matter, I know a lot of people who work more than one job. Job number two (or three) might be because they need the money, or it might be because it provides an outlet that pays you, instead of a hobby that costs you money. It may be unfair that someone doesn’t make enough money from one job, but life is unfair, and it will never be fair. Most households with two parents have two working parents too.

I’m not one of those people who thinks someone needs to put in X hours of work, where X is 1.5 to 2.5 times greater than 40. Work should take as long as it takes to do it the right way, by the correctly high standards, particularly when your name is on the finished product. However, I am in a line of work where, in a print or electronic sense, things happen on nights and weekends and even holidays, and they must be covered, otherwise I’m not serving my “customers.”

I’ve written before here that we are intended to work — to achieve, to serve others, to produce something worthwhile. Essentially everyone who lives in the U.S. is here because our forebears wanted something better than what they were able to have in the old country. Those who came here and worked lived; those who didn’t work died, because there was no government cheese in the 19th century.

The professor seems to not grasp the concept that a lot of people might prefer working to doing something else. For one thing, vacations are overrated, if for no other reason than they’re only temporary escapes. I’d prefer a much warmer climate because of the weather, not because I think sitting on the beach all day drinking adult beverages is something I want to do every day. I know a lot of business owners who don’t believe they’ve worked a single day in their lives because they like their work that much, so why would they want to get away?

One of Cain’s commenters adds:

Work is one of the truly great blessings bestowed upon mankind by God. People who don’t work never know the blessings which come with rest. Rest for the worker is like a cool drink of water for the thirsty. Rest brings refreshment and rejuvenation and prepares us for more satisfying tasks. So, work is a magnificent blessing. Seems democrats promote laziness so they can finance the hungry and essentially purchase votes. Couch potatoes seldom take root, but are well endowed to produce crops of more couch potatoes.

There is an obvious difference between someone who doesn’t work because he or she can’t get a job (that number is far higher than the official unemployment statistics, but you knew that because you read this blog) or has responsibilities at home, and someone who is just too lazy to work. (That appears to be the new core Democratic constituency. Chris Matthews called the GOP the “daddy party” and the Democratic Party the “mommy party,” but maybe the GOP is now the Pay the Bills Party and the Democrats are now the Slacker Party — you know, the party whose androgynous supporters wear adult-size footie pajamas, drink hot cocoa and talk about how great Obamacare is.)

The claim is that no one ever on their deathbed regrets not working more. Is that the case, or do people regret not doing more, making more of themselves, achieving more regardless of the environment?

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