In the last two weeks of March and the first week of April, 2020 16.5 million new claims for unemployment were filed in the U.S. After the novel coronavirus is successfully contained some but not all of those jobs will return. The post-pandemic economy will not be the same as the economy before and to assume a return to business-as-usual economic growth would be folly.
There will need to be immediate share-the-work policies along with basic income guarantees. These must be viewed not as temporary measures to be abandoned as soon as “normality” returns but as transitional steps toward an entirely new regime of work, income and common wealth. Addressing climate change has momentarily taken a back seat to the urgent immediacy of the pandemic. But the irreversible long-term consequences of failing to free ourselves from the fossil-fueled treadmill of growth will make Covid-19 seem like a flash in the pan.
In The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, published shortly after the end of World War I (and, incidentally, the flu epidemic of that time), Stephen Leacock observed that the surprising resilience of industry during the recent war had “thrown its lurid light upon the economics of peace.” The coronavirus pandemic has once again “thrown its lurid light upon the economics of peace.” What the lurid light of war revealed to Leacock was the immense superfluity of peacetime employment. “Not more than one adult worker in ten…” Leacock speculated, “is employed on necessary things.”
Leacock’s estimate of superfluous workers may seem high but, to be honest, we don’t really know how much of the work that is done is necessary to sustain a society. If even one-fifth or one-quarter of the work being done was unnecessary, that would be a compelling rationale for suspending the growth imperative. Why not phase out current waste before producing even more waste?
But what if the proportion of superfluous to necessary work is even larger than that? How would we know it isn’t? As commentators from Simon Kuznets and Robert F. Kennedy to Marilyn Waring and Joseph Stiglitz have pointed out, national income accounts do not distinguish between “good” and “bad” commodities. They do not differentiate between necessities, comforts, luxuries and ugly Christmas sweaters that go from the closet to the trash. Furthermore, they do not account at all for the prodigious production of waste by-products. Nobody buys the carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels – even though somebody, someday, will indeed pay for them – with their lives if not money.
The absence of authoritative metrics serves as a convenient alibi for keeping things as they are or for actively making them worse. Efforts to construct alternative indices to the national income accounts, such as the Genuine Prosperity Index, have provided glimmers of insight but have ended up abandoned orphans that national governments have disdained to adopt.
What I am proposing here as an alternative to these global metrics focusing on the average number of hours that individuals work annually and the hours per capita worked in the economy as a whole. How many of those hours are devoted to wasteful production – built-in obsolescence, excess productive capacity, propaganda, disposable fashion, and other forms of sheer waste? For the answer, we turn to Arthur Dahlberg’s analysis of the effect of long hours on labor’s share of income.