Monday, July 13, 2015

Dear Jeb—Bite Me

An open letter to former Florida governor and current Republican presidential hopeful John Ellis "Jeb" Bush
When I was small, during the Rah-Rah Reagan years, the band Alabama hit number one on Billboard’s country charts with their song “40 Hour Week.” They sang explicit praises for the kind of people too infrequently praised in American pop culture. They acknowledged jobs famous for long hours and bad pay, including assembly line workers, waitresses, and truckers. Importantly, they praised the idea that forty hours was enough.

I recalled this song late last week when you, Jeb Bush, proclaimed that “people need to work longer hours.” That phrase got abstracted from a longer, far less controversial statement about improving the economy, so I’m willing to extend limited forgiveness. Like Mitt Romney’s “I like being able to fire people,” it’s arguable whether this statement really reflects its speaker’s intent. This could all be a terrible mistake.

John Ellis "Jeb" Bush

Except it’s consistent with statements economic reactionaries have embraced for years. Back in 2011, Herman Cain barked: “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.” Donald Trump claims Americans could get rich if, like him, they’d forego sleep. (Forbes magazine, hardly a liberal propaganda rag, identifies Trump’s wealth as roughly a 50-50 mix of self-made and inheritance. Born with a silver head up his ass.)

You’ve carefully clarified, Jeb, that your statement meant getting underemployed Americans back working, not wringing longer hours from full-time workers. I agree. But your unredacted statement rings consistent with economic libertarians, at least back to Ayn Rand, that hard work and long hours cause wealth. Because, duh, wealthy people work long. Ask yourself, then: do you really believe everyone who works long gets wealthy?

Back during my factory days, I regularly volunteered for overtime. I pulled six- and seven-day weeks regularly, even when it wasn’t mandatory. Being raised Republican, listening to country acts like Alabama laud sweat-of-your-brow perseverance, I cannot shake the belief that doing more earns more reward. It certainly earned me time-and-a-half. But I kept watching people working shorter, less productive hours, nevertheless getting promoted over my head.

Rewards went, not to workers who did more, but to workers who connected better with management. Those better able to josh friendly, to remain in management’s good graces and therefore in their memory, got promoted to positions of higher pay and autonomy. They often enjoyed such promotions despite lower work hours, less demonstrated competency, and strictly expedient work ethic. This forced me to realize something deeply uncomfortable:

If I want to get ahead, doing my job is an inefficient use of my time.

America isn’t suffering because people aren’t working enough. Americans, overall, work more than any other nation, at less rewarding rates, for smaller rewards. Both anecdote and statistics bear this out. Working longer hours differs from getting more done. History and science prove that, if we give workers forty hours' pay for thirty hours' work, more work gets done overall, while we increase gender parity at work and home.

Henry Ford first introduced the forty-hour work week, nearly a century ago, not because he felt warmly toward his workers, but to increase productivity. Back then, twelve-hour days and six-day weeks were standard. But Ford’s money men discovered that forty hours appeared to be the point where boredom and fatigue set in, causing workers to lose judgement, make costly mistakes, and undercut Ford’s bottom line. Reducing hours increased company productivity.

Henry Ford
Serious labor commentators suggest something similar now, reviving the Depression-era call for a thirty-hour work week. Though still a tiny minority, these activists recognize that unequal distribution of hours, lack of autonomy, and plain old exhaustion currently cost America’s economy greatly. Despite some fringe demands for basic universal income, nobody seriously campaigns today to abolish work. We just want to see work valued appropriately.

Your statement, Jeb, reflects that you, like me, grew up believing that work translates, necessarily, into reward. Unlike me, you’ve probably never hammered nails or assembled car parts to pay your rent. Before politics, you worked in banking, real estate development, and management consultancy. Sure, being born connected helped. So did never seeing your life dwindle to weekly checks because you needed the money.

Country music isn’t Marxist utopianism, Jeb. Acts like Alabama reflect Americans’ belief that work should imbue workers with dignity, meaning, and stability. But between underemployment for some, and underpay for others, forty hours seems a distant memory. Telling Americans to work longer doesn’t just make you look out of touch, as some have suggested. It makes you look unaware of what work actually is anymore.

No comments:

Post a Comment