Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Krugman and Stross: Making America More Like France

After their conversation, the floor is opened to questions from the audience. The first goes something like this:

One of the things that science fiction used to promise us was that robots would do all the work and one of the social problems we'd have to deal with would be what to do with all the leisure time. Do you think the fact that we're still working 40 hours a week is a technical issue, a social issue, an economic issue, or what?

One thing notable about Krugman is that I think he really does know better. He's a very accomplished economist. He knows that free markets, free trade, etc. really do bring enormous value to great masses of people. But he's also become a totem for the left, so he can't be entirely honest. I think this is why his answers are such careful nonsense. He starts out:

The stuff that can be automated is at this point still quite limited. We used to need to have 90% of the population tilling the soil just to feed us. At this point in the United States there are fewer farmers than there are playing World of Warcraft.

From his very first example, it sounds like automation isn't limited at all! Less than 1% of the population of the United States is involved in agriculture. That's a two-orders-of-magnitude improvement in productivity. So what are those 89% of people who used to farm doing? At first, manufacturing:

And in manufacturing, we have very few people working assembly lines now, and yet manufacturing output is a lot bigger than you might think, even in America, despite all the de-industrialization. But we have not found ways to have robots doing most of the things that involve interacting with complex physical environments.... Go out for an early morning walk and you'll see lots of short men from Central America taking care of the garden, right? Things that involve actual physical labor, most medical procedures, technology has done very little so far to be labor saving.

I can scarcely believe this is an economist speaking. Those "short men from Central America" are not going around with garden shears and push mowers - they're using gas-powered edgers and riding mowers, and they're using them because - guess what? - they save labor! The same number of men can do more in less time with that technology. The same is true in medicine in a different way. Remember my grandfather who was laid up in bed for six weeks? That's six weeks of lost labor from him, plus his care while in the hospital. With me, I lost one day of work and didn't spend a single night in the hospital. That's a huge labor savings.

Krugman makes up for it a bit with a good followup point:

Human wants tend to be infinitely extensible: it's not as if there's a fixed amount of stuff we want. If people had been willing to stop at a 1955 standard of living, we could all be working 20 hour weeks, but in fact, one way or another, people wanted more.

Correct. We are much more productive, but we also want more stuff. Furthermore, the premise (that we haven't gained in leisure time) is wrong. Krugman again:

In the United States, up until about 1970, we did take part of our gain in productivity in the form of increased leisure time: shorter work hours, growing vacations. And that did actually continue in Europe, but in the United States it just stalled, and we still are taking on average about two weeks of vacation.

Right again, sort of. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was not uncommon to work 60-80 hours a week, with no vacation. Americans have made a different trade-off between leisure and stuff than Europeans, but that's all we can really say. But Krugman is only "sort of" right because Americans working full time actually get an average of 3.9 weeks of paid vacation and holidays per year. The French get an average of 7 weeks. It's worth remembering these numbers when both he and Stross start exaggerating them later on.

Stross perhaps goes a bit too far here: "If you want Utopia, just move to France. Thirty-five hour working week, 8-10 weeks vacation a year, and their overall productivity is equal to anyone in America." Aside from the fact that Stross's numbers are wrong, the problem is the mandatory nature of vacation. In America, you have at least some choice about your leisure/work balance. In France, the work week and vacation time is mandatory. That's Utopia? Maybe in America we prefer to work more and take more expensive, shorter vacations than the French. Is this obviously a bad idea?

But do we have a choice in America? A later questioner brings this up and Krugman has more to say:

Effectively it's not possible for an individual to say, "All right, I think 20 hours of work a week is enough to provide everything I want." The world is not geared to 20 hour work weeks, there are all kinds of signaling aspects. There's an element where people want you to prove that you're committed, and so you can't actually work humane hours, because if you do then you must not really care. So what you do in a place like France is that there are 35-hour legal work weeks, there are mandated vacations, all of these things which enable them to collectively move to a position of working shorter hours and some indication that that does lead to more personal satisfaction.

So the 40-hour work week we have in America is inhumane, but the 35-hour weeks in France are humane? I admit I don't get it. The average Frenchman works 25-30% fewer hours per year than the average American. This is far less than the difference between the average American today and the average American a century ago. Krugman is just riffing to a receptive audience here.

And does it lead to more personal satisfaction? There may be "some indication" that it does, but there is also plenty indication that it does not. The world map of happiness shows the U.S. ranked 23rd out of 178 nations surveyed (and the highest-ranked really large nation). France comes in 62nd. "Industry is the enemy of melancholy," said William F. Buckley. Why should we assume that more leisure equals more happiness?

If an individual American wants to work less and earn less, then I certainly hope he can find a way to do so, even if that means emigrating to France. But I equally hope that we don't try Krugman's proposal of "collective action" to force us all to do so. Americans are choosing to forego even the vacation time they do get, so it isn't like we're chafing for more and being thwarted by our corporate paymasters.

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