President-Elect Donald Trump
725 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10022
Dear Mr. Trump:
Let me start by acknowledging the nastiness that has surrounded this election. Hysterical voices cry out for noncooperation with the incoming Trump administration. I am writing to suggest that the Trump administration can overcome the nastiness by having an undeniably successful administration in areas of policy and program important to us all. In other words, the focus should be upon the economy. It should be upon improving the job situation in the United States.
Opposition to the free trade agreement with Mexico is a good start. The reality is, however, that in the long term jobs are also threatened by improved labor productivity through mechanization of industry symbolized by robots. In my opinion, it is not desirable to try to reverse this trend. Rather, we should try to restore balance between the supply and demand for labor by cutting work hours as well as by stemming or reversing the export of jobs to foreign countries.
We are indeed seeing evidence of the fact that jobs are lost through increased labor productivity. A revolution in robotics, artificial intelligence, etc. is underway. As increasingly mechanized production takes hold, jobs will be lost for human labor regardless of attempts to regulate its supply. Even so, there will always be a need for some human labor and it is this that can be regulated to the advantage of Americans.
I was born in 1941. For my entire life, the standard workweek under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 has remained 40 hours. Meanwhile, labor productivity has increased by more than five times. That means that, in theory, five times as much product can be made in each hour that a person works today as 75 years ago. Are U.S. living standards, in fact, five times higher now than then? Are we, in fact, so much more prosperous? No, something else has happened. We have an increased volume of what I would call “economic waste”.
My proposal is that, in addition to protecting U.S. jobs through trade policy, the national government should consider reducing the hours of work. In theory, this would be an easy matter. Legislation could be enacted to change the standard workweek under the Fair Labor Standards Act to a smaller number of hours - say, 32 hours - from 40. This would facilitate a universal four-day workweek. We could also attempt to have other industrialized countries adopt such a standard. Working people would then receive a extra day off from work each week compared with the present situation to pursue their own interests and needs. It would be the very embodiment of freedom.
In 1981 I wrote and published "A Shorter Workweek in the 1980s" (ISBN 0-9605630-0-8, 308 pages softcover) which discussed technical issues related to this proposal. In 1989, Praeger published a book on this subject, "Nonfinancial Economics - the Case for Shorter Hours of Work" which I coauthored former U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy. (ISBN 0-275-92517-5). I also had a related Op-Ed article published in the New York Times on November 13, 1979. However, nothing has happened lately.
It would be a signature accomplishment of your incoming administration if the U.S. workweek were successfully reduced to 32 hours. Promising to be a work horse in support of increased leisure, I would offer my services in helping to develop information related to this policy.
(The following was written four days before Trump took office.)
Yes, I supported Donald Trump in the election and wish his incoming administration much success in developing national policy. Above all, we need policies in the employment area that will more fully utilize the skills of unemployed and underemployed Americans to the benefit of us all. We need, in other words, a good jobs program.
The possibility of reducing work hours is something our grandparents or great-grandparents might once have considered but no one talks about it anymore. The same used to be true of trade policy. Only backward-thinking persons would oppose free trade, it was thought. Economic policy is based on a science that cannot be questioned, it was thought. Everyone in the educated classes thought that way. But then Trump, a self-made billionaire businessman, came along challenging the orthodoxy. My ears perked up. Maybe he was for real. No one else talked sense on trade policy the way he did.
I don’t like the idea of a wall between us and Mexico but that’s symbolism for you. Being the simple-minded type, I can see the logic of U.S. job loss if businesses are able to produce in low-wage countries and sell in countries where high wages are paid and pocket the difference between prices and costs. It’s a recipe for job loss in the high-wage country. It’s also a recipe for high profits for those businesses and for the rewards their managers will receive for expertise in boosting profits.
To my knowledge, Donald Trump has not yet said anything about reducing the hours of work. Maybe he never will. Sooner or later, however, our economic policy makers must come to grips with the fact that increased productivity increases can be a curse rather than a blessing with respect to employment. Those increases in efficiency simply mean that we can produce more in an hour of work than before and, if we do not need the production, the surplus workers can be laid off. Alternatively, the production managers can cut everyone’s hours of work and let the free market adjust for income and employment. But then the economic priesthood entrenched in academia and elsewhere would chime in to say that such thinking is based on a fallacy - the “lump of labor fallacy”, it is called. (Remember that phrase for the test.)
Unmitigated ignorance can persist for only a certain period of time before some people start to question the assumptions behind it and even the persons or institutions involved. We need brash new thinking and brash individuals to jolt us into considering unpopular theories. That’s Donald Trump for you. Yes, he is occasionally, if not frequently, a rude, loudmouth celebrity who grew up in Queens before he struck it rich in Manhattan and went on to own casinos and host celebrity apprentice. He is a person who seems to succeed by breaking every rule. May his luck (or skill) continue.
Count me, then, as a Trump admirer and supporter, at least during this period before he takes office. My suspicions are that he will continue to do well in that office despite the screaming political class. I will meanwhile ignorantly continue to place my hopes in a superb performance by President Trump and his policymakers and administrative crew that may eventually lead to a new open-mindedness regarding work time.