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Time Out

Vishnu Ramachandran sent me this link to a BBC report on this new study.

Here’s an open letter to the study’s co-author, Anne Coote, who is quoted in the BBC report:

Ms Anna Coote
New Economics Foundation
London, UK

Dear Ms Coote:

The BBC reports on a newly released study in which you and your co-authors endorse a 21-hour workweek (“Cut working week to 21 hours, urges think tank,” Feb. 13).  You’re quoted by the BBC: “So many of us live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume, and our consumption habits are squandering the earth’s natural resources…. [With a 21-hour workweek] We could even become better employees – less stressed, more in control, happier in our jobs and more productive.”

Intrigued, I read your study on line.  I’ve many questions; here are four.

First, if a shorter workweek makes people more productive in their paid jobs, how do you know that they won’t the “squander the earth’s natural resources” at a faster pace than they’re doing now?

Second, even if a 21-hour work week results in less “squandering of the earth’s natural resources” while at paid jobs, why are you so sure that the total amount of resource “squandering” won’t rise as a result of all the “unpaid labour” that you are so keen that folks do with their time away from paid work?  Driving Granny on Friday to a holiday in the Cotswolds might “squander” more resources than staying in London to work for pay that day.

Third, because much paid work is devoted to discovering new resources, new supplies of resources, and new ways to get more output from each unit of resource, how do you know that shortening the workweek won’t result in lower supplies of the earth’s natural resources?  For example, BP’s recent discovery of a huge oil supply at its Tiber Prospect in the Gulf of Mexico increased the relevant supplies of the earth’s natural resources.  After all, resources that remain unknown to humans are effectively non-existent: these ‘resources’ might not be “squandered,” but being unavailable for use as resources today and forever means that, economically, they don’t exist – they’re not resources in any meaningful sense.

Fourth, you choose 21 hours because it’s close to the average amount of time each week that working-age Brits (employed and unemployed) work for pay.  So what?  If I work 42 hours a week and my unemployed neighbor works zero hours, why does the average of 21 hours of paid work between us present itself as the ideal length of the workweek – especially given your goal of reducing the total number of hours that people spend “squandering the earth’s natural resources” while working for pay?  Why not, say, a ten-hour workweek?  Because you merely presume that most people will be happier with Britain’s workweek shortened from 35 to 21 hours, why not presume that they’d be downright euphoric by being allowed to work no more than ten hours weekly?

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030