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Bernie Sanders pushing 4 day work week

Senator Bernie Sanders wants everyone to get paid the same for doing less work. Many entrepreneurs throughout human history have wanted this same goal. In fact, they set their sights higher, wanting everyone to get paid more for doing less work. So they invented various labor-saving devices that allow humans to get more done in less time.

About 200 years ago, entrepreneurs in northwestern Europe really got going on these labor-saving devices and eventually spread them throughout the world. We now call this process, still playing out in poorer countries, the “industrial revolution.” It didn’t just make people twice as wealthy, or ten times as wealthy. Average people today are 30 times wealthier, in real terms, than they were before the industrial revolution.

That means that instead of having your entire family, including young children, working 80 or more hours a week on a farm just to grow enough food to not starve, you can work 40 hours a week while your spouse works part-time or not at all and your kids go to school until they’re at least 18, maybe 22 or older. And you aren’t doing any work that will cause injury; no, the greater health concerns for workers in modern industrialized countries relate to being too sedentary.

In many cases, you can do all this work that your ancestors wouldn’t even recognize as such while listening to music from any period of human history. You can do it in the comfort of air-conditioning, which follows you even while moving from place to place because you own a car that allows you to travel over long distances whenever you want. You can drive it to a grocery store with at minimum 30,000 different items in it, from all over the world, sold by people who look at a pack of name-brand English muffins (invented in the U.S. in 1894) selling for $4, say, “No, that’s too much,” and create their own generic-brand version for $1.50.

Was the unbelievable prosperity of the industrialized world inevitable? Absolutely not. A bunch of people over many years in many countries worked very hard to come up with new ideas and turn them into products and processes that would generate so much wealth that nobody has to be a peasant anymore.

There were lots of challenges along the way, including things such as pollution, dangerous working conditions, and cramped, unhygienic cities. But the industrial revolution has thrown off so much wealth that there’s enough left over to solve those problems too without sacrificing the higher living standards that come with it.

So what is Sanders’s plan to contribute to the great human endeavor of becoming wealthier while working less? Does he have an idea for the next automobile, a better management strategy, or the power loom for the 22nd century?

No, Sanders wants to write words on a page and have a couple hundred people vote for it. He has introduced a bill to mandate a 32-hour work week “with no loss in pay.” It would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to reduce the definition of full-time work from 40 hours per week to 32 hours. Pay wouldn’t go down because the bill says employers “may not reduce the total workweek compensation rate.”

That’s Sanders’s idea of progress. Pass a law that says everyone gets paid the same for doing less work, and then it happens. Done. Easy. The only reason it doesn’t happen is the greedy corporations.

“While CEOs are making nearly 350x as much as their employees, workers are missing their kids’ birthday parties and little league games…and many of them, STILL [sic] do not have enough money to pay the rent,” Sanders posted on social media in support of his bill.

Never mind that, according to a study published in 2018 in the Harvard Business Review, the super-wealthy CEOs working for major companies work 62.5 hours per week on average and work on 79 percent of weekend days and 70 percent of vacation days. If it’s really true that all we need to do to work less is pass a law, why is Sanders stopping at 32 hours?

If we only worked 30 hours a week for the same pay, we’d have even more time for birthday parties and little-league games. Sanders has noted, correctly, that American workers are 400 percent more productive today than they were in the 1940s. So why aren’t we only working eight hours per week? Is Sanders a corporate shill, forcing us all to still work 24 unnecessary hours per week to feed the greed of the C-suite?

People have been predicting short work weeks for years. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes thought we’d have 15-hour work weeks by now. In truth, we do work a little less. Average weekly working hours per worker has declined from about 39 in 1951 to about 34 today. But Keynes and everyone else who has made similar predictions forgets that humans have infinite wants.

We could easily produce 1950s levels of output only working a few hours per week. But that would mean 1950s levels of technology, 1950s levels of poverty, 1950s levels of housing, 1950s levels of air-conditioning, 1950s levels of food quality and variety — and it turns out nobody really wants that. So we keep working, and innovating, so we can be better off, not just as well off.

And more fundamentally, work isn’t something that humans put up with to get stuff. Yes, it’s something we strive to make easier. But working hard is a core part of being human. Maybe if you’re an 82-year-old socialist who has only worked in politics your entire life, you lose touch with what it means to be a productive member of society. But for the rest of us, we wouldn’t eliminate work even if we could.

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