Why reducing the work week is better than basic income

by Jehu

If you follow my blog regularly, you know I am a stubborn opponent of universal basic income. For reasons I won’t bother to go into here, including support for this dumb idea by people everyone knows have no desire to see the working class’s material position improved, I have concluded UBI is just a bad idea. The alternative I have championed is a general reduction of hours of labor; a policy that by its very nature cannot be used to the advantage of the capitalist class.

Let me make the case for reducing hours of labor and why less labor is far superior to even a generous basic income proposal

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If each worker works eight hours per day and five days per week, they contribute a total of forty hours per week. Opposition to reducing hours of labor rests on several fallacies which need to be refuted.

First, economists and the capitalists want us to believe that forty hours is a “normal” social work week. For whatever reason they want us to believe a job cannot be broken up into smaller or larger packets. Work weeks cannot, for instance, be fifty hours, seventy-two hours, thirty hours or twenty hours. But is this true? No one in history ever worked longer than forty hours? Of course not. Work weeks have been as long as seventy-two hours.

Yes we have worked longer than forty hours, but what about fewer hours?  Is a thirty hours or twenty hours work week economically impossible? The question is relevant because with a massive unemployed population of workers, who are mostly black, brown, women and younger, with a twenty hours work week, one worker working a forty hour job can be replaced by two workers each working twenty hours. Since jobs do not come in indivisible forty hours packets, there is no reason we can’t dramatically reduce unemployment among, for instance, African American youth by reducing hours and drawing the vast reserve army of labor (numbering perhaps as many as 100 million persons) into productive employment. And we can do this without erecting border walls or expelling migrant workers.

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Additionally, as many writers have observed, reducing unemployment has the benefit of reducing competition among workers to sell their labor power and facilitating union organization and combination among the working class. Since reducing hours of labor reduces unemployment, a shorter work week cannot help but upset the relations between the two classes in society in favor of the working class.

Speaking of the likely impact full employment has on organization of the working class, the darling of the Left, Kalecki, gives reduced competition as the reason why there is so much resistance to full employment among the capitalists:

“We have considered the political reasons for the opposition to the policy of creating employment by government spending. But even if this opposition were  overcome—as  it  may  well  be  under  the  pressure  of  the  masses—the maintenance of  full  employment  would  cause  social  and  political  changes which would give a new impetus to the opposition of the business leaders. Indeed,  under  a  regime  of  permanent  full  employment,  the  ‘sack’  would cease to play its role as a disciplinary measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of   the   working   class   would   grow.   Strikes   for   wage   increases   and improvements  in  conditions  of  work  would  create  political  tension.  It  is true that profits would be higher under a regime of full employment than they  are  on  the  average  under laissez-faire; and  even  the  rise  in  wage  rates resulting  from  the  stronger  bargaining  power  of  the  workers  is  less  likely  to reduce  profits  than  to  increase  prices,  and  thus  adversely  affects  only  the rentier interests. But ‘discipline in the factories’ and ‘political stability’ are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the ‘normal’ capitalist system.”

While I don’t completely agree with Kalecki’s argument for full employment, given the potential impact reduced competition for jobs has to upset the capitalist relations of production, it is easy to see why the political resistance of capital to any reduction of hours of labor is consistently determined. More important, however, is the fact that fewer hours of labor must, of itself, reduce the total profits of the capitalists in the short run because labor itself is the source of all profits. Less labor time for workers equals less profit for the capitalists.

With the prospect of greater combination among the workers and facing a potentially serious erosion of profits it is entirely understandable why the capitalist vociferously oppose a shorter work week. You can’t get this proletarian double whammy with basic income.

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What possible objection could there be on the Left to fighting for a reduction of the work week? To be honest, the Left has been anything but enthusiastic about the idea of fewer hours of labor. The answer to this puzzle might be found by looking at the most popular program on the Left: basic income.

With universal basic income, the objection to fewer hours of labor becomes a little more obvious. Wages have been declining for almost five decades now and poverty is relentlessly rising. Along comes this proposal to reduce hours of labor and the objection is obvious: Reduced hours of labor means a reduction in money wages. If I make ten dollars an hour and work forty hours a week, I earn $400 per week. Reduce my hours to twenty and I will only make $200 per week. With less money in my paycheck, what happens to my rent,  my car note, my credit card bills, my food, my clothing, etc.

Elsewhere I have argued that reducing hours of labor is deflationary — less work actually reduces capitalist prices of production — but that is not relevant to this discussion.

Suppose I  have bills of $350 per week and income of  $400. If the work week is reduced, my income will fall to only $200 per week if my hours are cut in half, while my cost of living is still  $350. This has to immediately occur to anyone who first hears of a proposal to reduce hours of labor. It is a completely understandable objection, that has to be acknowledged: poverty makes fewer hours of labor appear financially difficult.

On the other hand, millions of black, brown, women and youth are completely locked out of productive employment and have no income at all. I see no reason to privilege the financial concerns of the presently employed over the unemployed. We need to figure out how to address this concern, but the bills of those who have jobs today should not be our first concern and we need to state that directly. The employed do not get a veto over efforts to improve the material conditions of the whole class.

It would be the worse sort of racism and sexism to privilege those who have jobs over those who do not; not to mention utter stupidity to lock the most energetic young workers out employment for years and deny them work experience. After all, who is going to take care of us in our senior years, if our children remain outside of the labor force for decades?

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A solution of sorts does exist to the objection that we are too poor to work less and this solution should appeal to even the most committed Left advocate for UBI: A reduction of the work week to twenty hours should be accompanied by the abolition of all taxes on wages and consumption.

In the above argument, I assumed a worker making  $400 a week took home $400. Of course we all know this isn’t true: the worker only gets what’s left in her paycheck after the fascists get their share. If, while reducing the work week, we eliminate all federal, state and local taxes on wages and consumption, this would greatly ease the problem that we are too poor to work less.

Eliminating all taxes on wages and consumption fixes another big issue about which the Left has long complained: tax cuts for the rich: if the fascists want to fund their fascism, let them tax the capitalists like the Left keeps hoping. The demand for fewer hours of labor has long included the demand for no cut in pay in wages. With a huge and growing share of GDP going to the public sector the demand for less work without a reduction of wages is easy to satisfy.

Finally, the best part of ending all taxes on wages is that it is satisfied at the expense of the combined national security state — the largest single budget item in Washington and another issue the Left has long struggled against. If the fascists want to fund their foreign wars of aggression, let them garnish Trump’s profits to pay for it.

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Unlike the far more popular demand for UBI, with a reduction of hours of labor we can:

  1. end all unemployment;
  2. hurt the profits of capital;
  3. reduce prices of goods and services;
  4. increase the unity, organization and class consciousness of the working class; and,
  5. convert currently unconstrained military and police spending directly into free time.

Let me see you accomplish all that with basic income.

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