Coats: How much should a country work?

Coats-Column-SigA recent dinner companion inquired whether an economy that was not growing was necessarily a problem. What she had in mind was whether people choosing more leisure to enjoy their incomes rather than continuing to work the same or longer hours created an economic problem. The short answer is no. I will explore that issue further and then make a point about the propriety of governments making work/leisure choices for us rather than leaving the choice to us.

Our incomes grow when we work longer hours, acquire improved skills, work with more tools, or work with better tools. The economy as a whole grows without individual incomes necessarily increasing when more people work (i.e., when the population grows). Unless you are very pessimistic about the prospects for continued innovation and technical improvements in each worker’s productivity, our incomes will continue to increase even if we don’t work longer hours.

Over the last 65 years the average annual hours worked by employed Americans dropped from 1,910 to 1,710 while real disposable personal income per capita (in 2009 dollars) increased from US$10,000 to over US$38,000. Over the longer period of a century or two the drop in hours worked and the increase in per capita income have been much more dramatic. This dramatic increase in income reflects better skills, more capital (tools) and better capital. But it is less than it would have been if people had not chosen to enjoy that income by working less and playing more. The overall economy can adjust to any of these – growing, stagnate, or shrinking income.

While Bernie Sanders may think that the best way to increase the standard of living for the poor is to redistribute to them some of the high income of the wealthy, most everyone else would agree that only economic growth has and can continue to lift large numbers of the poor out of poverty. Global poverty (per capita income below US$1.25 per day) dropped from 50 percent in 1980 to 20 percent in 2011, an astonishing achievement totally beyond what any amount of redistribution could have accomplished. Most of us think that the proper purpose of redistributing income is for the better off to finance a safety net floor for those unable to work. This dramatic increase in income was the result of improvements in worker productivity (i.e., better skills and more and better capital) not working longer hours.

But what about the choices workers have made and are making about the hours they work vs. the hours they play with the proceeds of that work once they are well above poverty? Over time as most people’s incomes have grown they have generally reduced the long hours worked six or more days a week. Employers and workers strike deals that maximize the profits of the firm and the happiness and well-being of employees. Why then do many governments feel that they need to legislate the matter? Why, for example, did French Socialists feel compelled to legislate a 35-hour workweek a few years ago?

In limited cases, a public safety argument might make sense to override the preferences of workers and their employers, for example, if truck drivers felt included to push themselves more hours than they could safely stay awake at the wheel. François Hollande’s French government is now proposing to remove the 35-hour limit and relax other labor market restrictions. I hope they succeed, as leaving more of such decisions with the people themselves will result in happier workers and a more productive economy.

This issue came up a few years ago in connection with the Greek financial crisis. To over-generalize, it is often the case that people living in temperate climates (such as Greece and the southern cone of the EU) work less and have lower incomes. If they are freely choosing to enjoy more leisure in the lovely climate in which they live, they are no doubt happier and better off because of it. Greece’s problem was not that its many Zorba’s had a great zest for life and played more than they worked. Its problem was that after getting away with playing on other peoples’ work/money, they thought they should be entitled to continue doing so. The balancing of work and leisure that is optimal is a person-by-person decision. The economy will be fine and will adjust to whatever these preferences are. People at different income levels and/or different preferences within the same economy will likely make different choices. There is no justification for the government to impose its notion of what is optimal uniformly on everyone. This is just another example of government overstepping its proper role.

Warren Coats, a former director of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority, and former senior monetary policy adviser to the Central Bank of Afghanistan, Iraq and Kenya for the International Monetary Fund, is on the Editorial Board of Cayman Financial Review.