Saturday, September 07, 2013

America Goes Part-time

One of my favorite topics is the decline in jobs in the US; my contention is that this is a secular trend that will continue (at least until a possible labor shortage in about 20 years), that this trend can and should be used to improve quality of life, and that politicians who pretend that more jobs are always needed are wrong, though no one ever criticizes them for that stance.  (I will grant that the US economy needed the fabrication of employment in the depths of the Great Crater, but we are now mostly out of that depression).

Obamacare and the Rise in Part-time Jobs
So now I am reading that some employers are converting some jobs to part-time in order to avoid a requirement of the Affordable Care Act that those who have more than 50 full-time employees (which has been defined, for purposes of this law's enforcement, as 30 or more hours per week) must offer health insurance or pay penalties.  This requirement's deadline has been postponed by the Obama administration because it does not want to be accused of reducing employment at this time (or any other time, probably); they are either stalling for time or looking for another approach.

I would like to suggest something.  Although I see this trend (to cut employees' hours so to dodge the requirement to provide health insurance) as a temporary phenomenon--eventually employers will decide if they want to stay small or go big, and those that choose the latter will inevitably need to pass that threshold and offer health insurance to their employees--the current trend is the right one, occurring for the wrong reason.  The problem is that all-or-nothing nature of the requirement; instead, all employers should derive a benefit from offering health insurance to their employees, and they should benefit whether the employers are full-time or part-time.  A simple suggestion, and an unequivocal one, but of course the devil would be in the details.  Something both Obamacare's supporters and its critics should be suggesting.

The fact that more employees are working less than full-time hours is not necessarily a problem, except to the extent that the reduction in hours causes deprivation, and for this problem of health insurance.  Gaining more people access to group health insurance plans is the best answer to the current uninsured dilemma (short of Medicare/Medicaid providing health insurance for all, and I'm afraid this country does not, and will not, have the dedication to do that).

For more of my posts on this topic from past years (I know you want them!), please see here, here, and my original essay on the topic, reprinted here.

Your Job is B.S.--No, You!
I ran across a related web dialogue the other day; I saw it on a blog sponsored by The Economist, and it derived from a posting on a site called "Strike" * by a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics named David Graeber.  Essentially what Graeber has provocatively charged is that most of the jobs that have been created in recent decades are service and administrative jobs that have no substance or creative/productive value.   Further, that most of the people in those jobs know their jobs are "bullshit", as he puts it, and that the corrosive impact of that on society is significant.

Now, Graeber is sufficiently self-aware to realize that he, as a professor of anthropology, is not superior to others in having a job that is indispensable to society, but still he is willing to downgrade most everone else's value--he makes exceptions for teachers, fire-fighters, and the disappearing classes of servants, farmers, and manufacturing jobs.  With the last one, though,  I would dispute the essential nature:  it is exactly the production of mass-produced objects of planned obsolescence (and I include guns, missiles, jet fighters among those) which are the most useless jobs, and the ones that I expect to be replaced rapidly by robotic means of production.  It is instead the providers of services, human services, whose work will be needed, and valued, into the future.

"R.A.", in The Economist jobs market forum, examines Graeber's arguments and points out that those manufacturing jobs were unpleasant, and that was why they needed to be paid higher in the earlier industrial ages.  I think Graeber is missing the real point, to which R.A. comes very close in the following:
The issue is that too little of the recent gains from technological advance and economic growth have gone toward giving people the time and resources to enjoy their lives outside work. Early in the industrial era real wages soared and hours worked declined. In the past generation, by contrast, real wages have grown slowly and workweeks haven't grown shorter.
What R.A. has hit upon is that the current trends are to pay less for overworked labor and to use less of it, with the result that society is being separated into the overworked and the underemployed. We need to push toward an economic system in which less hours of work are required to meet the standard of living which should be available for most or all--everywhere.  This is something within our power, but it is not something for which power is being applied to achieve.

*"Strike" magazine is an English publication--online and print, it seems--which describes itself as "anti-profit, radical" and lists its subjects in the top right of its home page as "Politics/Philosophy/Art/Subversion/Sedition".  I'd never heard of it before now.

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