(Photo: Ricky Romero)
While honest toil is honorable, a day to honor labor does make it easy to overlook certain realities, such as: Why do both left and right clamor for more jobs? Would those who get to opine for a living be willing to perform the jobs they’d impose upon others? And why jobs? If work is the only way one can be worthy of an income, why not also clamor for self-employment and start-ups? Must the jobless look forward to having a boss their entire lives? And are more jobs needed, or even possible?
Instead of clamor for jobs, why not clamor for a shorter workweek and divide the necessary work among more people? How’d 40 hours a week get to be some sort of magic number? Why aren’t automation and globalization whittling that down to 30, 20, 10, going, going, gone? Juliet Schor in her “Overworked American” (1991) calculated that if increases in productivity (more output from less labor input) over the course of a baby boomer’s career were applied not to things like fatter CEO salaries, but to shrinking the workweek, it’d now be 6.5 hours. Why isn’t it?
It has been drastically shorter in the past. In his “Stone Age Economics” (1974), Marshall Sahlins calculated some aborigines worked 15 hours per week. In his “Six Centuries of Work and Wages” (1884), James E. Thorold Rogers, member of Parliament, calculated that after a plague, peasants worked 14 hours per week. (Those were the Dark Ages, and now at 40 hours we’re the enlightened ones?) What happened was plagues left fewer people to work prime land so, for a while, surviving aristocrats could not exploit farmers. The key in both instances was access to bountiful land which let humans choose to work as much or as little as they liked.
Now, days with billions of humans on the globe, land is not quite as accessible, but it could be made more affordable. When that happens, jobs sprout and wages climb, as has happened several times: In the 1960s and 1970s, New Zealand’s employment rate averaged 99 percent for ten years. In the late 1950s, Danish workers received the biggest one-time raise in wages in Dansk history. And in the 1920s, New York City spurred the construction of numerous apartment buildings that provided jobs and slashed unemployment to negligible.
What was the one thing those places did in common? Their governments levied land. Whenever landowners must pay a heavier land tax, they eschew speculation and put their parcels to good use. The new construction puts people to work as do the resultant shops, offices and factories, as does the spending of wages by the gratefully employed workers.
Why is such a powerful tool for useful employment at decent wages left on the shelf by jobists? Perhaps because today there’s a huge disconnect between labor, which has a voice, and its Day and land, which lacks a voice and needs a Day. At college, economics students still learn Ricardo’s Law and how wasting prime sites, where wages are high and falling back on marginal sites, where wages are low, forces down overall wages, but they’re required to forget that by the time they become the practicing economists whose opinions you see in the media.
Ironically, what economists have forgotten labor organizers used to know. About a century and a quarter ago, the most popular American in any union was a self-taught reformer, Henry George, advocate of the single tax on land and the Labor Party’s 1886 candidate for mayor of New York, a race which he won, defeating Teddy Roosevelt in the process, but was denied office by the machinations of Tammany Hall. Samuel Gompers of the AFL-CIO proclaimed himself proud to be a friend of ol’ Henry, who even had a cigar named after him. George’s campaign manager, Louis Post, who went on to become assistant secretary of labor under Woodrow Wilson, pushed to make Labor Day, which some unions were already celebrating, an official holiday on the first Monday in September, which would some years coincide with the birthday of Henry George, September 2, and honor him, too.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. But forgetting the laws of economics does not make them go away. Idle land still makes idle hands, as the old reformers used to say. Drive around your city’s slums; vacant lots – invisible to contemporary urbanites – are still the best indicator of joblessness, poverty and crime. And shifting the property tax off buildings and improvements, onto land and locations, is still the most effective way to harness both prime land and willing labor. A close second must be detaxing wages. If you want jobs so badly, why make them so costly?
This shift of taxes, this powerful reform, awaits implementation even as the left begs for jobs – anything to get money into the pockets of the poor – and the right pays jobs lip service – what better way to keep the poor busily subservient? But given the resultant rush hours, shriveled family time and sterile communities, it’s a Faustian bargain at best. J.W. Smith in his “World’s Wasted Wealth” (1994) suggested that if all the people now producing illth – everything from war toys to planned obsolescence – were to instead help produce wealth, we could cut the workweek in half.
This Labor Day, do remember our venerable organizers. But don’t forget what generates truly useful jobs organically, the levy on land. It’s always worked wherever tried, to the degree tried. Then take the rest of the day off.