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Four-Day Work Week

As countries in Europe and North America emerge from lock-down and start trying to rebuild their devastated economies, the great concern is jobs.

Unemployment in the US and Canada is over 13%, a post-Second World War high. If it weren’t for subsidies that keep up to a fifth of the working population in paid ‘furloughs’ from their jobs, jobless rates in Europe would be as high or higher. That can’t go on forever, so there is a frantic search for job-saving strategies – and the ‘four-day work week’ keeps coming up.

Like that other proposed magic bullet, the guaranteed basic income, the notion of a four-day working week has been kicking around for a long time. The current emergency has given both ideas a second wind, and neither is nearly as radical or extreme as it sounds.

Less than a century ago the whole industrialised world transitioned from the traditional six-day working week (Saturdays included) to a five-day work-week, for the same pay, with no political upheaval and no significant loss of production. So why don’t we do that again, spread the work around, and save lots of jobs?

Because it doesn’t work like that. The four-day week is not about spreading the load. It is about finding ways for people who already have jobs to squeeze the same work into four 10-hour working days instead of five 8-hour days, or to work ‘smarter’ so that they can get the same work done (or more) in only four 8-hour days.

The 40-hour week done in four days is the only available option for most process workers on assembly lines or other repetitive physical tasks. Ten-hour workdays are even harder than they sound, but the prize is a three-day weekend and some people are willing to pay the price.

If everybody buys into that, then management can shut the plant down one extra day and save on power. If only some do, then management has the headache of scheduling some 10-hour shifts and other 8-hour shifts, plus the cost of the mistakes that may accumulate when exhausted people are approaching the end of a 10-hour shift. And no saving on electricity costs.

Nevertheless, it does make for a happier workforce, by all accounts, and maybe therefore a more efficient and productive one. There are already a few examples of this kind of four-day working in every industrial country, and now the prime ministers of Finland and New Zealand are both talking it up. Neither woman, however, is proposing to impose it nationally, and nobody is suggesting that it will create more jobs.

The four-day week is an easier and more attractive package for people in administrative and sales jobs, because everybody knows that there is a lot of wasted time in office work: social media, pointless emails, long boring meetings, etc. You could get the job done a lot quicker if everybody was motivated to concentrate on the bits that are actually useful and skip the rest.

So motivate them. Tell them that they can drop to four 8-hour days a week for the same pay as the old five days if they can still get the same work done – and leave it to them to figure out how. If they can’t, then it’s back to the same old five-day grind.

Miraculously, they almost always do manage to find the time. In many cases, indeed, productivity actually rises: happy workers do better work. The four-day week is an excellent idea whose time may finally have come, but it is not a magic bullet. Companies don’t ever hire more people just to spread the work around.

So what might spread the available work around? The US Congress had a brilliant idea in 1938, when it passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which required employers to pay overtime at 150% of the normal hourly wage for anything over 40 hours of work a week.

The idea was to make employers hire more people. If they had 40 employees working 50 hours a week, they would have to pay each of them overtime for the last 10 hours. So why not just hire another 10 people and save all that overtime pay? It worked quite well at the time, but it would not work now. Don’t hire more people; just put in more automation.

The coronavirus is just an accelerator. The real problem with employment ever since the 1990s has been automation, which has been eating up good jobs and excreting low-paid, insecure ones instead – or none at all. Six million good manufacturing jobs were automated out of existence in the US in 2000-2010, which led fairly directly to the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

The current pandemic is speeding the process by driving more jobs online, especially in sales (a different kind of automation), and fiddling with working hours or minimum wages is not going to stop it. So what’s left? Maybe a guaranteed basic income would help, but that’s a discussion for another day.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“So what…work now”)

Trump and the Yellow Peril

It was completely predictable that Donald Trump would try to blame China for the fact that at least 30 million Americans are unemployed and that 70,000 Americans have already died of Covid-19. His polling numbers are down and the election is only seven months away. What else was he going to do? Blame himself?

That’s why we’re now getting the good old ‘Yellow Peril’ defence, fresh from the late 19th century. As a memo sent out by the National Republican Senatorial Committee to Republican candidates put it: “Don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban – attack China.”

The coronavirus now spreading death across the world certainly originated in China. The Chinese government itself said so, before it started prevaricating after Donald Trump began using China as a scapegoat.

There was at least a week’s delay in late December when officials in Wuhan didn’t report the outbreak to Beijing, fearing they would be blamed for alarmism, or simply for letting it happen. That’s when Dr. Li Wenliang wrote in a private WeChat group: “7 confirmed cases of SARS were reported [to hospital] from Huanan Seafood Market.”

It wasn’t really Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. It was a new coronavirus closely related to SARS, which had caused a much smaller but lethal epidemic in 2002. But Wuhan officials didn’t want to believe it, and on 3 January Li got a warning from the local police to stop “making false comments on the Internet”.

Six days later the first person in Wuhan died of what we now call Covid-19. On the same day, 9 January, the World Health Organisation (which Trump now vilifies as ‘China’s public relations agency”) announced that China had reported the emergence of a new coronavirus like those that caused the SARS and MERS epidemics.

So there was at least a week when Chinese officials at the local or national level had the information and hesitated to publish it, partly because they weren’t sure yet themselves. But only two days later Chinese scientists published the full genetic sequence of Covid-19 so that researchers everywhere could start working on potential treatments and vaccines.

Other East Asian countries that had experience of SARS understood the seriousness of the WHO warning and promptly began diligent testing, tracing and isolation of infected persons. As a result, they never had to go into lockdown (South Korea has had 250 deaths; Taiwan had 6). China did a partial lockdown, but is now up and running again.

But then the real delay happened, and it had nothing to do with when China reported the disease. The point is that Western countries did nothing serious about the pandemic for an astonishing TWO MONTHS after that.

Trump boasts that he banned travel from China to the United States early, but in fact the United States was the 41st country to declare such a ban, on 2 February. And it was a very leaky ban, affecting only non-US citizens. Another 40,000 US citizens and permanent residents flew in from China during the next two months, many not being checked for coronavirus at all.

Italy started locking down some municipalities in the country’s badly hit north in late February, but no European country went into national lockdown until 9 March. The United Kingdom waited a further two weeks after that, until 24 March. The United States never did a national lockdown, but most states had social distancing policies in place by early April.

Those even longer delays explain why the UK and the US are on track to be the two countries with the highest Covid-19 death rates, but why did they all wait so long. Why weren’t they at least setting up comprehensive testing, tracing and contacting systems and making more ventilators and protective clothing back in January? Did they think they were exempt?

That’s probably what they did think, and their people are now being punished for their governments’ arrogance. But Donald Trump’s attempt to shift the blame for a huge US death toll and a looming economic disaster onto China is utterly cynical and false. The problem wasn’t a week’s delay in China; it was a couple of months’ delay in America.

If it should turn out that the first human infections with Covid-19 were due to a leak from the Biosafety level 4 Wuhan Institute of Virology, not at the Huanan Seafood Market in the same city, it changes nothing. BSL4 labs (there are around twenty in the world) routinely work with dangerous viruses, because otherwise we’d never develop defences against them.

An accidental leak from a BSL4 lab would be a rare and very serious mistake, but that’s probably not what happened in Wuhan, and in any case it’s clear that no hostile intent was involved. The US national intelligence director’s office has determined that Covid-19 “was not manmade or genetically modified.”

That will not stop Donald Trump from scapegoating China, even at the risk of causing a new Cold War. Never mind the fate of the world. It’s the fate of Trump’s presidency that’s at stake here.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“Other…again”; and “Trump…at all”)

Time for Fauci to Quit?

Is it time for Dr Anthony Fauci to quit?

Brazil’s health minister, Luiz Mandetta, was fired last Friday for criticising the country’s mini-Trump, Jair Bolsonaro. Like Trump, President Bolsonaro needs a booming economy in order to be re-elected, and denies the threat from coronavirus because shutdowns hurt the economy.

Mandetta did what he could to control the berserker president, but eventually called Bolsonaro out on his attempts to force Brazilian state governments to end their shutdowns prematurely. He was duly fired, but it does raise the question: should Dr Fauci do the same thing?

Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the past quarter-century, has served six US administrations loyally through various health crises, starting with the AIDS epidemic. He’s done his best to keep Donald Trump from doing the wrong thing. Sometimes he succeeds – but sometimes the most useful thing an adviser can do is resign.

Fauci has become a familiar figure standing beside Donald Trump at media briefings, never openly contradicting him but subtly trying to steer him away from his worst ideas. It’s a humiliating position to be in, but he has probably saved at least a few tens of thousands of American lives, and many people admire him for patiently, even humbly doing the best he can in impossible circumstances.

There comes a time, however, when staying on the inside and trying to limit the damage by staying on good terms with the author of the disaster shades into complicity in letting the disaster happen. Dr Fauci undoubtedly examines his conscience on this question every single day, and fully understands how tricky his position is.

There was a revealing moment recently when Science Magazine asked him why he hadn’t challenged Trump’s claims to have saved millions of American lives by banning flights from China. “Let’s get real,” Fauci replied. “What do you want me to do?…I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down.”

Well, he could, obviously, but that would be the end of any positive influence he has on Trump. He’s 79, so he’s not worried about saving his job. He’s ignoring Trump’s exaggerations and lies so he can preserve his influence for some more important occasion. We now know what it is.

Trump bangs on obsessively about his ‘China ban’ decision on 31 January because it’s the only thing he did about the coronavirus for the next six weeks, even as the pandemic silently spread among the US population. Last week he even claimed that “It could have been billions of people (who died) if we had not done what we did.”

Around 2,000 Americans are now dying from Covid-19 every day, so Trump clings desperately to his China story. Fauci lets the lie pass because it’s just history and can’t be changed. He’s focussed on the decisions being made now that will determine how many Americans die in the future.

Trump is now frantically trying to end the lockdowns and get Americans back to work because he believes the economic damage is sabotaging his re-election prospects in November. He’s even urging his base to demonstrate against (Democratic) state governors who take a more cautious line, texting “LIBERATE MINNESOTA”, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA”.

Maybe this is the hill that Fauci should choose to die on, because ending the lockdowns early could needlessly kill an extra hundred thousand Americans. The United States now has one-third of all the Covid-19 cases in the world (with only 4% of the world’s population), and the number is still going up fast.

‘Liberating’ Americans from lockdown before the number of new infections is clearly in decline will just add fuel to the flames.

The rule is: never lift a lockdown until you are able to test huge numbers of people for the disease. The virus will inevitably start to spread again when you turn everybody loose, but if you test enough people, isolate the infected ones, and trace all of their recent contacts and isolate them too, then you can avoid a new spike in cases.

You will need tens of millions of test kits and hundreds of thousands of trained contact-tracers to do that. Those facilities are currently scarce or non-existent in most of the United States, and so far there is little visible effort to expand them. Ending the lockdowns without them will cause a new peak of cases and deaths by mid-summer, necessitating a new round of lockdowns.

If Fauci’s resignation could prevent this carnage, he surely would not hesitate, but Trump is not as stupid as Bolsonaro. If Fauci hangs in there and stresses the inevitability of a second wave of deaths closer to election time if the lockdowns end prematurely, he might just manage to steer Trump away from this cliff.

So his long martyrdom must continue.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Trump bangs…future”)

Nobody Mention UBI

When you lock the people down (to save their lives), you inevitably close down a lot of the economy as well. And the lockdown will definitely have to last in most countries until May or June: Donald Trump’s promise of a ‘beautiful timeline’ to reopening the US economy just two weeks hence is delusional. So where’s the money coming from in the meantime?

The majority of people still have jobs they get paid for: people in essential services who have to go to work, people who can do their work from home, and quite a few others as well.

However, between a third and quarter of the employed population has been left idle as their employers, from airlines to retail businesses, downsize or shut temporarily. If you leave these people without income, then you are reproducing the conditions of the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment peaked at 24% in the United States and the country’s GDP shrank by almost half.

Adolf Hitler came to power when German unemployment reached 30%: misery and desperation can lead to violence. Nobody wanted to see that movie again, so after the Second World War every developed country created a welfare state to shelter its population from the worst effects of the ‘business cycle’.

The welfare state has served us well for most of a century (including in the United States, whose rudimentary welfare state was first in the field with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s). But it is not enough to keep the wheels turning when a huge chunk of the workforce had dropped out for reasons that are not economic but health-related.

That’s why governments, including deeply orthodox right-wing ones like the Conservatives in Britain and the Republicans in the United States, are turning to what economist Milton Friedman first named ‘helicopter money’ half a century ago.

The idea is that a government can reboot an economy in which spending power has collapsed (because so many are out of work) by simply giving the penniless consumers free money – as if throwing it out of a helicopter. After all, it’s free money for the government too: they just ask the central banks to print it for them.

At this point traditionalists will begin to mutter about inflation, and the risk of undermining the work ethic, and various other shibboleths, but the governments in all the bigger Western economies – the US, the UK, Germany, France – are in conservative hands at the moment, and they are all doing it.

As Robert Chote, director of Britain’s comically named Office for Budget Responsibility, said last week: “When the fire is large enough you just spray the water and worry about it later.” So get in the chopper and start dropping the money.

Sweden has guaranteed laid-off workers 90% of their incomes until the health crisis is past, France is offering ‘partial unemployment benefits’ equal to 84% of the workers’ incomes, and Britain is offering 80%. In every case the employers (who are also getting government aid) are expected to hold their employees’ jobs open for them when normal service is restored.

Even the self-employed, including the ‘gig’ workers who now make up around 10% of the workforce, are not being left out. Norway is giving them 80% of their income based on their last three years of tax returns (tough luck if they understated it), and most other European countries will follow suit.

The United States government is less generous, of course, and would be even under a Democratic administration: the free-market ideology is the real national religion. President Trump is talking about $1,200 per person (the same as Hong Kong is giving its citizens), but only for one month or at the most two. And the proposal is still stuck in Congress.

Nevertheless, what all these governments (and others elsewhere in the world) are really playing with is the idea of a guaranteed national income that nobody can fall below. Only temporarily, you understand. Once the Covid-19 virus is tamed, we’ll go back to the dog-eat-dog, devil-take-the-hindmost economy we all know and love.

Really? You think that after six months or a year of this we will just go back tamely to the old economic rules? I rather doubt it.

The political and economic rules do not evolve gradually in modern societies; they shift in sudden great lurches. The First World War drew millions of women into the factories and kick-started women’s emancipation.

The rise of fascism and the Second World War required the creation of the full welfare state (which was previously restricted to meagre old age pensions) to avoid a replay the next time the economy tanked.

The current emergency may be fostering the rise of ideas previously seen as too radical to contemplate, but nobody say ‘Universal Basic Income’ yet. You’ll frighten the horses.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“At this…doing it”; and “Even…suit”)