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If productivity has tripled, why are we working ever longer hours?

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More specifically, if worker productivity has tripled in the last 53 years, why are Americans working longer hours than any time since 1938?


Yes, it’s true:  U.S. labor productivity has tripled over the last 53 years.

Source: http://www.dallasfed.org/eyi/free/0406product.html


Even more remarkably, productivity in Denmark has tripled over the last 40 years:



One might respond to the title question by simply answering that Americans have chosen to enjoy more consumer goods than ever before.  Most of our homes are considerably larger than they were in the mid-to-late 1950s, and our automobiles have much greater quality, durability and life expectancy.  In addition, the amount of home electronics and appliances most of us possess is many times larger than what we had access to back then.  So what’s the beef?

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The ‘beef’ is that a growing majority of Americans have real incomes that purchase less housing, less college education, and less health care than they did 40 or 50 years ago.  Until very recently, the minimum wage purchased less, generally, than it did 30 years ago, and still purchases less in the way of basic goods and services like health care, college education, and housing.  Working class couples now work (both of them) so as to be able to make mortgage payments on houses that were once paid for by one person, the head of the family.  This was 40 years ago – back in the days when physicians would come to your home if you were sick, and college tuition was much less than today.


But in spite of their reduced buying power as regards basic goods and services, most Americans (and other members of the ‘first world’ including those in Europe and Japan) consume ever more.  Even though they comprise only 20% of the world’s population, they use up 80% of the world’s resources, and are responsible, along with rapidly developing countries like China and India, for producing 95% of the world’s noxious and climate-altering greenhouse gasses.


So what can we say to that small minority of environmentally conscientious, leisure loving people who want to consume less and work less – especially work less at the corporations and manufacturing companies that are largely responsible for this hyperproduction and hyperconsumption and all the pollution and greenhouse gasses thereby produced?  One thing we can say is that if these environmentally conscientious workers were ever given the opportunity to work no more hours than they wished, and were not penalized for cutting back, a great many of them would do precisely that. 


So why don’t they all just find part-time jobs, you might ask.  Obviously the reason they don’t is that their hourly pay would then be much less, as would be their chances for: advancement, ever higher hourly rates of pay, keeping their health care benefits, etc. 


But what if we could find a way to allow them to work shorter hours without losing their power to acquire good housing, health care and education?  Would most of them take advantage of such an opportunity?  Of course they would – at least the great majority of them would.  And they wouldn’t be the only ones – for there are millions of other Americans who, while not being especially conscientious re: the environment and global warming, do in fact hate the humdrum jobs that increasingly rob them of so much of their time – time they could be spending with their families and on their various other interests.  If these folks, too, could find an economic opportunity that would allow them to acquire much better housing, health care and education than is currently available to them by way of their relatively low-paid, long-hour jobs, most would jump at the chance.  And what an enormous benefit to the health of our environment and ourselves that could turn out to be!


So, specifically, what would such an economic opportunity program look like?  How would it be organized and administered, and by whom?


Before answering that question, let’s first look at somewhat similar programs from decades past.  Specifically let’s look at the major economic and employment opportunities that were created by the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s.  The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is still a federally-owned corporation in the United States, which was created by congressional charter in May 1933 to provide navigation, flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing, and economic development in the Tennessee Valley, a region particularly impacted by the Great Depression.  The TVA was envisioned not only as an electricity provider, but also as a regional economic development agency that would use federal experts and electricity to rapidly modernize the region's economy and society.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tennessee_Valley_Authority


The TVA's jurisdiction covered, and still covers, most of Tennessee, parts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky, and small slices of Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia.  It is a political entity with a territory the size of a major state, and with some state powers (such as eminent domain), but unlike a state, it has no citizenry or elected officials.  It was the first large regional planning agency of the federal government and remains the largest.  


Most city and county governments in Tennessee formed not-for-profit electrical utilities which began buying power from TVA and selling it to consumers at a cost far below that of competitors.  As a result, the use of electrical power in Tennessee skyrocketed.  


In addition, the federal government developed an experimental community in Cumberland County known as the Cumberland Homesteads.  The structures are still there, and can be viewed by going to the link below.  At the same time, the Works Progress Adminstration (WPA) built roads and airports, and made many park improvements.  Finally, several parts of the state got new courthouses and post offices.

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Several years after receiving my M.A. in social science (interdisciplinary studies) I was an instructor at S.F. State University for a year, but then went back to designing automated machinery, and then tech writing, in Silicon Valley. I've (more...)

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