« Dr. Freud, Your Slip is Showing... | Main | Let The Judgement Begin »

February 10, 2014

Choosing Income Inequality

In a post bizarrely entitled, "Why Do Republicans Want Us to Work All the Time?", a professor of leisure studies makes an excellent point about the relationship between working and prosperity. Over time, the number of hours we all work to deliver the same standard of living has gone down, drastically:

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.

Most Americans approved, counting work reductions as the better half of industrial progress (higher wages and shorter hours). No one expected this progress would end. Quite the contrary. Through the last century, observers such as John Maynard Keynes, Julien Huxley, Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Eric Sevareid regularly predicted that soon America would enter an age of leisure in which we would chose to devote more and more of our lives to the “pursuit of happiness” promised in the Declaration of Independence. As technology created “labor-saving” machines and the economy grew, they reasoned, we would gradually be able to buy back more of our time from our jobs, preferring leisure to new goods and services that we had never needed, or even seen before.

What gets left out of this analysis is that midway through the 20th Century, the government began confiscating the wages of some workers and giving them to other people, some of whom work and some don't, in the form of welfare, unemployment checks, and other "entitlements". Past some point, the continued decline in hours worked to deliver the same standard of living was driven, not by industrial or technological progress, but by confiscating wages earned by some workers and giving them to others.

Which begs two questions:

1. It's one thing to speak of "economic justice" when income inequality is argued to be largely involuntary and beyond the control of most individuals. But what happens when otherwise able people deliberately choose to make less than others? If this is a voluntary choice, where's the injustice?

Under what moral rationale does the government punish one set of voluntary choices (self-sufficiency and hard work) and reward another set of voluntary choices (voluntarily increasing income inequality by choosing to work part time ...or not at all)?

2. What happens to the pot of redistributable income when more people choose to work fewer hours?

All of this reminds the Editorial Staff of an old joke:

The population of the United States was 180 million at the time of writing, but there are 64 million over 60 years of age, leaving 116 million to do the work.

People under 21 total 59 million which leaves 57 million people to do the work.

Because of the 31 million government employees, there are only 26 million left to do the work.

Six million in the armed forces leave twenty million workers.

Deduct 17 million State, county, and city employees, and we are left with three million to do the work.

There are 2,500,000 people in hospitals, asylums, and treatment facilities leaving half a million workers.

However, 450,000 of these are bums or others who will not work, leaving 50,000 to do the work.

Now, it may interest you to know that there are 49,998 people in jail so that leaves just 2 people to do all the work, and that is you and me, and I'm getting tired of doing everything myself!

Posted by Cassandra at February 10, 2014 08:10 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


To think I was being accused of telling an old joke! That one must date to the '70s. The prison population now is 2.5 million.

Posted by: Grim at February 10, 2014 11:09 AM

Actually, I really liked your joke :)

Meant to say that, but got distracted.

Posted by: Cass at February 10, 2014 11:24 AM

Been a *very* long time since we've had 6 million in uniform . . .

Posted by: CAPT Mike at February 13, 2014 12:13 AM