Environment joins argument that Americans work too long


Published: Monday, January 22, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 10:44 p.m.
Global warming is now a workload issue.
If Americans cut back their work hours to match those of their counterparts in Europe, this country would consume 20 percent less energy, according to "Are Shorter Work Hours Good for the Environment?" The study was issued by the Center for Economic and Policy Research at the end of the year.
It isn't necessarily that people use less energy at home than at work, study co-author Mark Weisbrot said in a telephone interview from the Washington-based think tank.
The math is more complicated than that, based more on all the extra consumption of stuff that Americans do with their extra earnings from their extra work, according to Weisbrot.
Even the more complicated math doesn't make a believer of David Morris, vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis and a longtime energy expert.
"I think the premise is both odd and counter-intuitive, and the report does not justify the premise," Morris said.
The center not only sees a connection between work hours and the environment, Weisbrot said, but its researchers believe it will only grow in importance as the developing world chooses whether to follow the U.S. or the European model.
"This is going to be huge," he said.
Here's Weisbrot's analysis: Workers in the United States and in European Union nations have become more productive over recent decades, partly through modern inventions. They are now roughly equal in both economies: For every hour they work, they add about $30 on average to their country's gross domestic product.
One option with greater productivity is to work fewer hours to accomplish the same amount of work. That's what Europeans have decided to do.
Another option is to keep working as hard, translating the greater productivity into even more money for workers. That's what Americans have decided to do.
Our total GDP contribution is greater only because we work 16 percent more hours a year than Europeans do - roughly an extra seven weeks. We buy things with that extra money, and all those things take energy to be produced.
One of Weisbrot's charts showed that, for 26 countries - including the United States, the European Union, Japan and Canada - those where people work fewer hours than Americans consume less energy. And that's after adjusting for variables such as climate, availability of public transit and other possible confounders.
"The effect of consumption dominates," Weisbrot said.
He's not convinced that U.S. workers want to stick with this choice, however, and several recent studies back him up on that. A national poll in 2003 by Widmeyer Research & Polling in Washington found that 52 percent of Americans polled were willing to cut their weekly pay by one-fifth - if they could cut their workweek from five days to four.
On the other hand, that same poll had 46 percent of respondents saying they could not afford even a small pay cut.
That backs up Morris' position.
"In the United States, one could say that the largest single reason for people working longer hours is they're earning less, not more," he said. "Americans take a second job, or work 60 hours a week in order to make ends meet, to maintain a decent standard of living."
That raises one more contemporary economic issue for continuing debate on the subject of Weisbrot's report: The growing concentration of wealth among a small group of Americans at the top.
The Economic Policy Institute in Washington, for example, has calculated that the median wage for U.S. workers went up 9 percent - inflation-adjusted - from 1979 to 2005. Productivity over that time, however, grew 67 percent.
So, U.S. workers really aren't enjoying most of the fruits of their productivity gains, Weisbrot said. If they were, they might be able to afford to buy more stuff and have more free time to shop for it.
For 26 countries - including the United States, the European Union, Japan and Canada - those where people work fewer hours than Americans consume less energy. And that's after adjusting for variables such as climate, availability of public transit and other possible confounders.

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