Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"The right to a limited workweek"

A while back, I took Jared Bernstein to task for defending "the right to a limited workweek".

I was thinking some more about that recently, and I think it might be helpful to compare this to an analogous idea.  The right to a limited education.

Doesn't that sound very wrong?  But, what is the difference between these two statements?  Both work and education represent the outlay of effort for some personal gain.

The gains for work are mostly income, but also include experience, knowledge, and career advancement.

Since education doesn't benefit others directly, we usually don't receive income for education, so the benefits from education are limited to broadening experience and knowledge and career advancement.

Education is frequently described as a public good, even though it doesn't meet the strict economic definition of a public good, because we have some sense that self-improvement is beneficial to the broader community, and historical trends have tended toward public dispensation of some schooling.

Really, is there that much difference between self-improvement in our work and self-improvement in education?  I suspect that, at first, this idea seems a bit preposterous because there are two images in our heads:

But, we are simply importing a bunch of class issues that inform our intuition but that really create a confused set of goals and impressions about work and education.  Our uplifting ideas about education are influenced by an association between being a person of letters and being upper class.  In public debates about the value of education, it tends to be associated with getting a leg up or learning skills that can support a middle class lifestyle.  But, the young vessel up until 3am reading because he just discovered Peter Singer and the kid working nights at 7-Eleven so that we can pick up an associates degree in Computer Science at the local community college are engaged in two wildly different activities.  The fact that we use the same institutions to provide these services and that we call them both "education" leads to a tremendous amount of confusion when we impose our ideals about these services through public policy.

This problem, by the way, is an important reason why private dispensation of services - especially important services like education - should receive the benefit of the doubt over public dispensation.  Those two young students have no confusion about the activities they are engaging in.  The confusion is imposed through public policy.  And, that confusion, as it usually does, ends up trucking in a bunch of upper-middle class subsidies, if for no other reason than that upper middle class demands tend to be more expensive, and because much of education is dripping with signaling and status issues.  Exclusivity is intensely entwined with the motivations, actions, and expectations of that young Peter Singer enthusiast.  This is the human condition.  There is little point in debating the rightness or wrongness of this.  But there is value in understanding it, especially if we are in the business of imposing limits and compulsion through public policy.

It is probably more accurate for us to reverse those two pictures.  At every level of education where I have been a student, including the graduate level, the general lack of usefulness of the nuts and bolts of what students were doing was consistently confirmed by students' implicit and explicit reactions to the work.  Even at the Masters level, even in a subject that was highly focused on tangible skills in a focused industry, shirking was the norm.  Canceled classes were cheered.  We make clear which activities we value.

I didn't shirk at school.  I worked hard at it.  I tell myself that it is because I valued education.  But, it is probably more honest for me to believe it is because I did well, I tested well, and working hard at it was a way for me to distinguish myself and to get better at things where I had an advantage.  Or, maybe if I hadn't been that good at it, but maybe if I was some kid who knew that getting that Associates Degree in Computer Science was my best way to a better life, even if it was going to be difficult - a right to a limited education wouldn't have been much help to either of us.

Oddly, it is the immediate value of work that is its rhetorical Achilles heal.  While we support education because we expect it to have future benefits which are shared between ourselves and others, we have misgivings about work because it creates immediate benefits which are shared between ourselves and others.  Ironically, we are much more forgiving of the wasteful parts of education than we are of work that is productive, because the wasteful parts of education don't benefit anybody.  If the wasteful parts of education were useful enough that someone would be willing to pay us $6/hr to do them, there would be marching in the streets when people found out we were up at 2am cramming for a test.  It would be heinous exploitation.

Of course, in an age of fundamentalism, where everything that isn't prohibited is mandatory, this doesn't let education off the hook.  You have the right to a limited workweek and the right to compulsory education.  I was surprised when I learned that this was the actual terminology that is sometimes employed today.  But, I guess it is no more strange than the right to a limited workweek.

Other IW posts on education. 1 , 2 , 3

PS: Keep in mind, in the current rule change, we are talking about workers making $23,000 to $47,000.  We are not generally talking about indentured servants and monopsonists here.


  1. I believe in the right to limit the supply of housing in my neighborhood.

  2. While I accept much of your logic, it is difficult for me to believe that you are not in the pockets of the wealthy. I am not accusing you, just asking as a doubter. Almost all your ideas benefit those who are making hundreds of thousands of dollars and more per year, except for your views on need for more housing in closed access cities.

  3. This is a very good comparison. You have the same collective action problem where everyone has to put in more and more hours to get the same jobs. Students should be able to see from their student loans that someone is benefiting from their labor. I think I could actually get behind a version of the overtime bill that tried to reduce education. Kind of like the libertarian anti-licensing movement, but for all credentialism.

    It helps that school, despite being deeply unpleasant at procrastination time, is mainly enjoyable to do. Like, I spent completely unpaid time after work making flowcharts to help me do my hourly job, and even learned Android to make an app to help me with my job, but I didn't resent any of that time at all. Meanwhile, I'm still super bitter about mandatory (paid) overtime at that same job. Perhaps the people who sign up for jobs with unpaid overtime feel the same way about work that I do about learning? That it's just self-improvement they want to do? I think I see what you're getting at.

    1. Thanks, Noumenon. I appreciate your open-mindedness and your input.

      I see what you are saying about the collective action problem, and perhaps there is some truth to that in the workplace, just as there is in education. But, I think there is a sliding scale. As we move up the wage scale, the pressure on the employer to make sure the work is useful and the likelihood that the worker is aspirational (as opposed to being exploited due to extreme power imbalances) both increase. That is the problem with many policies like this. There is some justification for protections where someone might be working 70 hours/week for $25,000. But, as we expand the supposed protections, they not only become less useful - they actually start harming people. This removes an avenue for advancement for people who don't see education as an option. And, considering the bloated support for education that leads so many into 2 years of debt before they drop out without a degree, this seems like the last thing we need to do.

  4. There is no contradiction to the idea of a limited number of hours of education (and I guess you don't have kids or you'd realize that it most assuredly exists - or if you didn't get ready for a few hours of homework for your kindergartner) per week vs work, and that measured overtime regulations are the answer to an unscrupulous power balance between the owners and labor in both cases.

    1. Well, my point is that there are natural mitigating pressures on employers to utilize workers productively and to find a reasonable compromise between the needs of the firm and the demands of the labor pool. These mitigating forces don't occur so naturally in education. The same biases that lead us to underestimate this problem in education and overestimate it in employment also inform the public policies we demand. The reason this policy is popular is the same reason it is unnecessary. In general, I would say this is an example of the rule of thumb that public policy reflects the same biases that are already in action in private markets. So, as a first pass, the optimal public policy is roughly the opposite of the popular public policy.

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