The Times Answer to Recession Angst: "Weren't We Working Too Much, Anyway?"

Reporter Shaila Dewan played liberal sociologist in her front-page Sunday Week in Reviewstory"A Slowdown That May Slow Us Down." And that would be a good thing for the country, according to Dewan. While discussing some consequences of the recession in Atlanta, Dewan advocated that Americans work less and emulate enlightened European social democracies (with a corresponding lowering of living standards, although Dewan doesn't mention that part).

Among employers trying to stave off layoffs, "furlough" is the buzzword. State and local governments, universities, architectural firms and concrete factories are begging workers, or in many cases forcing them, to take unpaid time off. President Obama has praised "the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job." In California, 235,000 state workers are taking off two days a month. In Atlanta, City Hall is now closed on Fridays. In January, 6.9 million Americans were working part time "because of slack work or business conditions," more than double the number two years before, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet if these times were less freighted with economic anxiety, might not many workers starved for personal time jump at the deal Atlanta's nearly 5,000 employees have been given? They work one hour longer Monday through Thursday, and then they get a three-day weekend, reducing their work time, and pay, by 10 percent. Time is, after all, a form of wealth - but this country of workaholics accustomed to unbridled consumption has generally chosen money over time. Furloughs might work as a kind of recalibration - a market correction, if you will - of that age-old imbalance. Those who can afford them might actually come to like them....Setting aside, for a moment, acute financial worries, furloughs might also help answer larger questions underlying the economic crisis: What will America look like when it is over? Will we resume being a nation of spenders instead of savers? Will we be content with smaller houses and fewer things? Weren't we working too much, anyway?

Dewan quoted some liberals in support of her thesis:

Critics who support the idea of shorter workweeks in theory say a recession is not the time to force them on workers. Stagnant wages, said Thea Lee, policy director for the A.F.L.-C.I.O., have already made time off unaffordable....In an ideal world, said Juliet Schor, an economist at Boston College and the author of books on labor, leisure and consumerism, shorter working hours would be voluntary, and workers would be compensated for any increased productivity. But even forced furloughs could provide more time for family, community, learning and volunteering, unless people must scramble to fill the time with a second job. Smaller paychecks, she said, would "dampen down the competitive consumption that's associated with the high-hours economy," leading to a sustainable way of life.

Dewan seems quite convinced, based on thin, outdated evidence, that shorter work hours will somehow translate into greater work productivity, and pushed a liberal effort to make the United States more like socialist Europe:

Given the potential benefits in productivity and morale, why don't American companies embrace shorter hours? One major reason is health care, a per-worker expense, said William A. Niskanen, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute. "So much of the compensation these days is health care, and that's independent of how long you work, so the cost per hour goes up."....Unions and liberal economists have often focused their efforts on paid, not unpaid time off, to bring the United States in line with other Western countries. To that end, Dean Baker, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, has proposed a stimulus measure that would give companies two years of tax credits for offering more vacation, sick leave, maternity leave or personal time, of up to 10 percent of their normal work year, or $2,500.

Without such incentives, however, workers are still torn between wanting their pay and liking their time, said Gayla Dodson, another Atlanta employee, who manages solid-waste crews.