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Bernie Sanders and the 32-Hour Workweek

Extra! Extra! Socialist wants equal misery for all.

In the recessions of the late 1950s and early 1960s, labor leaders and activists championed the 32- and 35-hour work weeks to address rising unemployment since employers would be forced to hire workers to mitigate lost productivity. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) might have read about it recently and realized this is about 20 hours more than his current schedule. He may have also thought the yesteryear scheme would be an exceptional idea for the present inflationary economy. But is there a needle of promise in this haystack of interventionism?

Bernie Sanders Wants to Work Less

The senator announced on March 13 that he would introduce legislation establishing a national standard 32-hour workweek in the United States without any loss in pay. The objective is to grapple with the real challenges facing today’s generation of workers, mainly artificial intelligence and automation. The bill aims to shorten the workweek to 32 hours before employees are owed overtime and prohibit employers from cutting their income and benefits to offset their diminished hours. Put simply, a three-day weekend would be the new public policy.

“Moving to a 32-hour workweek with no loss of pay is not a radical idea,” he said in a statement. “Today, American workers are over 400 percent more productive than they were in the 1940s. And yet, millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages than they were decades ago.”

In recent years, research has shown broad support for a 32-hour or four-day workweek. Of course, who would not want to work less and earn the same? A 2021 Ipsos survey found that 64% of Americans endorse the plan, including 73% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans. Additionally, recent data from employment firm Robert Half found that most managers endorse a four-day workweek for their team. Do the economics support such a transition?

Digging Deeper

The US has a long history of hard work. Until the Roaring Twenties, it was common for many Americans to clock in 70 to 80 hours per week. It was not until September 1926 that Ford Motor Companies introduced a five-day, 40-hour workweek. The idea was that a healthy and rested worker was a happy and productive employee. This gained momentum and prompted more organizations to adopt similar workplace policies and compete for labor. Interventionists will argue that the Fair Labor Standards Act, implemented in 1938 and amended in 1940, was the catalyst for change in the number of hours people worked. However, like workplace accidents, the data highlights that the average number of hours had already declined heading into the New Deal-era legislation.

GettyImages-1689509157 office workers

(Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Fast forward to today: The average employee in the private sector works less than 35 hours a week. While this metric can be skewed by unpaid absenteeism or part-time work (which has dramatically climbed in the past year), it still paints a picture of many people working far less than they did a century ago.

Now, to the senator’s primary arguments for worker productivity and wages. Bernie Sanders is right on two fronts. First, labor productivity (output per hour) has spiked about 350% since 1950, fostered by employers’ immense capital investments (factors and technologies, for example). Second, hourly wages have not kept up with productivity (it is unclear if he means nominal or inflation-adjusted). This has been a mixed issue because the Federal Reserve has destroyed the population’s purchasing power, which cheap imports and technological innovation have helped offset.

Would the Bernie Sanders plan of slashing the workweek by eight hours suddenly make the nation wealthier and eradicate price inflation? Would working fewer hours from Monday to Friday make more households prosperous? Unlikely. There are potentially a few unintended consequences behind this idea.

Employers would refrain from allowing employees to earn overtime pay and instead hire part-time workers. This means current staff will not be given money for nothing, no matter how much politicians make these promises. Now, if companies do keep permitting their personnel to work overtime and, as a result, earn a bigger paycheck, they will pass the cost onto the consumer and exacerbate price pressures. In both instances, the concept would add to operating expenses in an already challenging economic climate. Put simply, you work less for the same pay, which will equal a higher price for the same output level.

Like the minimum wage, it might feel good on the surface, but mandates hardly produce success.

War on Work

In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that people would work only 15 hours per week by 2030 because of technological developments. Based on the acceleration of AI in the last couple of years, it is safe to assume that many folks will work less in the coming decades. Economists will debate whether this will lead to more wealth, but it might also ignite another conversation: the war on work.

The latest proposal unveiled by Bernie Sanders is the further vilification of work. Unfortunately, wokeology has turned it into a dirty word, citing asinine arguments from white supremacy to the patriarchy. However, work has always been the bedrock of civilization. In addition to economic advancement, work provides many individuals with meaning. It was seen how imperative working is during the coronavirus pandemic when governments everywhere instituted lockdowns and handed out free money as millions suffered from alcoholism, drug abuse, and mental health deterioration.

Policymakers would be better served by using their resources to fight central banks and governments that destroy the public’s purchasing power, tax their citizens to death, and disincentivize work. The marketplace is evolving, so officials and bureaucrats need to allow the invisible hand, the division of labor, and spontaneous order to establish norms and conventions.

Read More From Andrew Moran

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