Thursday, May 14, 2015

Robert Reich Misses One

I usually admire Robert Reich's videos on reducing inequality, but the latest one has an important omission that shows a gap in his thinking - and in the traditional thinking of the left.

It is a video about Family Friendly Workplaces that has four proposals.

But one proposal that is essential to making workplaces more family friendly is conspicuously absent: "right-to-request" laws that make it easier for parents (and all employees) to choose part time work or flexible working arrangements such as telecommuting.

This sort of law has been successful for over a decade in several European countries. In 2013, it moved to America, as Vermont and San Francisco passed right-to-request laws. And in 2014, President Obama issued an executive order giving the right-to-request to all federal employees.

The president's executive order makes it clear that this sort of law is now part of the mainstream liberal agenda.

How is it that former Secretary of Labor Reich misses a proposal that will obviously benefit labor and that is essential to making work places more family friendly? How is it that he supports a proposal for universal child care, which would be very expensive, but misses this proposal to help parents spend more time caring for their own children, which would be virtually cost-free and which would reduce the need to pay for child care?

Traditionally, the left emphasized the problems of the poor - beginning with the nineteenth-century working class, which lived at close to subsistence level.

Reich is part of this older tradition, and two of his four proposals show it.  Regular hours (proposal 2) are important for fast-food and retail workers, who are generally paid near the minimum wage and who are often required to be on call, so they cannot plan in advance for child care.  Universal child care (proposal 3) would provide the greatest benefit to parents who cannot afford to cut their hours to take time to care for their own children.

Of of course, it is essential to protect low-paid workers, as these proposals do.  But if we want to change the direction of our economy, it is also essential to protect higher-paid workers who can afford to cut back a bit on their hours and who would be willing to give up a bit of income in order to have more time with their children - or more time for their own interests.

The left has traditionally focused on the problems of poverty, but the problems of affluence have become just as important. Our long work hours - and the high levels of income and of consumption that go with them - are a major contributor to global warming and other environmental problems.

Germans earn about as much per hour as Americans, but the average German employee works 20% fewer hours than the average American employee.  If Americans worked the same hours as the Dutch, Germans, or Norwegians, it would reduce our carbon footprint and ecological footprint by 20% or more.

And that number would become larger over time, since European work hours are going down, while American work hours are stagnating.

This is a blind spot of the old left.  The focus on programs that benefit poorer people who need to consume more, which is certainly important. They ignore programs that would let people downshift economically and consume less so they have more time for their families and their own interests, which is also important - and which will become more important as global warming and other environmental crises become worse during the coming century.