Thursday, December 02, 2010

Better than Cost-Effective

Environmentalist point out that there are many cost-effective solutions to climate change. For example, many energy conservation measures pay for themselves in energy savings and give you a good rate of return on the money you invest in them.
We clearly need these cost effective solutions, but we also need to think about solutions that are better than cost effective - solutions that are a matter of not doing things that are environmentally destructive and that make our lives less satisfying. Two prime examples are:
  • Walkable neighborhoods: We can reduce emissions and make our cities more livable by building walkable neighborhoods (including streetcar suburbs) rather than auto-dependent neighborhoods, as many New Urbanists say. Auto-dependent sprawl suburbs are not only environmentally destructive; they also make our lives harder, more expensive, and less satisfying.
  • Choice of work hours: We can reduce emissions and improve our work-life balance by offering employees choice of work hours, as they do in Germany and the Netherlands. Because shorter hours are voluntary, people only choose them if they think their lives will be more satisfying if the work and consume less and instead have more free time. Our standard 40-hour work week is not only environmentally destructive; it also makes our lives harder and less satisfying.
Cost effective solutions involve spending money and getting a good return on your investment. These two solutions are better than cost effective because they give you the environmental benefits by letting you spend less and enjoy life more.


Blogger Ronald said...

are your views comparable to those of the "décroissance" school in France ?

4:35 AM  
Blogger Charles Siegel said...

Ronald, yes they are, but I believe I focus more on specific policies that are needed to end growth, as I do in this post. I discuss this sort of policy at length in my book "The Politics of Simple Living" which is available at

1:56 PM  
Blogger dasht said...

This is an interesting idea. I'm not trying to pick a fight but may I ask you about what seem like some obvious objections? I don't think these are insurmountable problems but I'm curious how you think about them.

I'll pick three topics: 1) Choice of hours vs. the marginal cost per employee (this relates to public policy about entitlements). 2) Choice of hours vs. peak oil's implications for substantially increased rather than decreased demand for labor. 3) distributive justice.

1) choice of hours vs. marginal cost per employee

Under our regime, a part-time employee typically costs less to hire than a full-time employee for most urban jobs, but 40 hours from a solitary full-timer cost less than four 10 hour part-timers. Partly that's just because of the inefficiencies of shift changes. Partly that's because of differentiated tax and benefit rules.

In the book you link to you propose making this up to the employer with tax breaks. This is problematic, I think. A part-timer receiving reduced benefits, with reduced opportunities to accumulate savings, and so forth is going to be a greater burden on the state. (Environmental disaster is a greater burden still, sure, but we still need to balance the books of a progressive plan.) In other words, the state will be paying twice for this system -- first in tax breaks to the employer and again in increased services (and earned income tax credits) to all of these new part-timers.

How is the necessary government support for this supposed to be funded?

(I acknowledge that, for some jobs, employers are spending less if they hire two part-timers rather than one full timer. Walmart is notrious for allegedly taking advantage of this and is sometimes criticized (rightly I think) for abusing the system to obtain an unintended government subsidy for their business).

2) Choice of hours vs. peak oil.

Peak oil doesn't mean that choice of hours is necessarily bad policy but might mean that it is unimportant policy. Notably in agriculture but also in other areas, peak oil implies much greater demand for manual labor -- many more hours to be worked combined with much lower business-viable wages. It also implies sharp inflation, compared to real wages, for the basic of survival (e.g. food). This proposal to subsidize urban part-time work seems like a method for increasing the cost of food (for example) by depressing the labor supply of agricultural workers.

3) distributive justice

You are talking, it seems, about owners who perhaps keep busy but in essence earn a largely passive income relative to the scale of their personal efforts -- and workers paid less than the flat wages they've gotten for decades and admonished to be more moral by "living simply" (even while their employers enjoy vastly greater security and consumption -- no matter how inconspicuously they present it to the public).

Wouldn't collective ownership and group decision making about the allocation of work be more just? How is this proposal not simply "anti-labor"?

4:00 PM  
Blogger dasht said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:01 PM  
Blogger dasht said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:01 PM  
Blogger dasht said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:02 PM  
Blogger dasht said...

AND, I am very sorry my comment got posted like three times there. "" on each post attempt said "that failed ... try again" (words to that effect) and, apparently, each time the post did not fail.

Ugh. If I could delete the extras from this end I quickly would.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Charles Siegel said...

dasht, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Here are my responses:

1) As you know, I have called for choice of work hours with equal hourly pay and with pro-rated benefits, so there is not an extra cost for benefits for part-time workers.

I expect that the people who take the opportunity will mostly be higher paid workers, who can afford to earn less and who will not be a greater burden on the state. Note that the next post, about Dutch work time policy, begins by describing a law firm where the lawyers work part-time.

Any extra cost for shift changes should be more than balanced by the higher productivity of part-time workers. The Netherlands and Germany have this policy, and they have not become less competitive.

2) On the contrary, I think peak oil will require us to consume less - and working shorter hours will make this economically possible.

I do not accept the extreme catastrophist view of peak oil, that it will lead to the end of industrial civilization and a return to labor-intensive production, though it will undoubtedly cause temporary economic disruption.

There is enough solar, wind, and other renewable energy to support an industrial economy that produces enough to make us economically comfortable - though there is obviously not enough renewable energy to support unlimited growth.

Limits on energy supply should make us think about how to limit economic growth - and shorter work hours are a necessary part of any feasible path to slower growth.

3) It is not anti-labor, because I have not suggested requiring anyone to work shorter hours and to live more simply. I have just said that we should offer this as an option to workers who think it will make their lives more satisfying.

I think the practical way to move toward more distributive justice is a more progressive income tax. Collective ownership is a pleasant day-dream, but don't hold your breath.

Thanks again for your comment.

7:30 PM  

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