Affluenza cure calls for political action 

Different standard for workweek an opportunity

By John de Graaf, Special to The Denver Post
The Denver Post, October 25, 2001

Sometimes an epidemic reaches such proportions that political  action is called for, usually in the form of a quarantine. We  believe that point has been reached in the case of affluenza.

We line up squarely on the side of those who say our social  ills won't be cured by personal action alone. Just as the symptoms  of affluenza are many and interconnected, so must be public  efforts to quarantine it. There is no silver bullet that by itself  will do the trick. It will take a comprehensive strategy, at all  levels of government from local to federal.

Back to the road not taken

First, if we want to put a lid on the further spread of  affluenza, we should restore a social project that topped  organized labor's agenda for half a century, then suddenly fell  from grace. Since the second world war, Americans have been  offered what economist Juliet Schor calls 'a remarkable choice.'

As our productivity more than doubled, we could have chosen  to work half as much - or even less - and still produce the same  material lifestyle we found 'affluent' in the '50s. We could have  split the difference, letting our material aspirations rise  somewhat but also taking an important portion of our productivity  gains in the form of more free time. Instead, we put all our  apples into making and consuming more.

Established as law in 1938, the 40-hour workweek is still our  standard. By law, we could set a different standard, and we  should. It need not be a one-size-fits-all standard, like a  30-hour week of six-hour days as proposed in the 1930s (and more  recently in a 1993 congressional bill written by Rep. Lucien  Blackwell, D-Pa.) or a 32-hour week composed of four eight-hour  days, though for many working Americans either of those choices  would be ideal.

More important, perhaps, is to get annual working hours - now  averaging about 2,000 per year and exceeding those of the  workaholic Japanese - under control. Two thousand hours equals 250  eight-hour days. Add to that 104 weekend days and nine national  holidays, and you've got 363 days - leaving only three days for  vacation, which is about where America seems to have come.

Were the average workday to be six hours, we'd be putting in  only about 1,500 hours a year, about the norm in western Europe.  That's an additional 500 hours - 121/2 weeks - of free time. So  here's a suggestion: Set a standard working year of 1,500 hours  for full time, keeping the 40-hour a week maximum. Then allow  workers to find flexible ways to fill the 1,500 hours.

Flexible work reduction

Polls have shown that half of all American workers would  accept a commensurate cut in pay in return for shorter working  hours. But the cut needn't be based on a 1-1 ratio. Workers are  more productive per hour when they work fewer hours. Absenteeism  is reduced, and health improves. Therefore, as W.K. Kellogg  recognized in the 1930s, their 30-hour weeks should be worth at  least 35 hours' pay and perhaps more.

In fact, Ron Healey, a business consultant in Indianapolis,  has persuaded several local industries to adopt what he calls the  '30-40 now' plan. They offer prospective employees a normal  40-hour salary for a 30-hour week. Increased employee productivity  has made the experiment successful for most.

Work sharing when recession comes

Plans for spreading work around by shortening hours should  begin now for another reason: As the recession comes, will we  simply say 'Sayonara, tough luck' to those whose jobs are lost?  There is a better way. Say a company needs to reduce production by  20 percent and believes it must lay off one-fifth of its  workforce. What if, instead, it cut everybody's workweek by one day?

Sure, all workers would have to learn to live with less - not  such a bad idea - but no one would be tossed to the wolves. And we  predict everyone would soon love the time off. On the other hand,  if we don't make such plans and millions suddenly face  unemployment, then all other negative social indicators - crime,  family breakdown, suicide, depression, etc. - can be expected to  skyrocket again.

Retiring step by step

There are other ways to exchange money for time. Many  academics receive 'sabbaticals,' anything from a quarter to a full  year off every several years, usually accepting a reduced salary  during the period. Why not a system of sabbaticals every seven to  10 years for all workers who desire them and are willing to take  moderate salary reductions when they are on sabbatical? We all  need to recharge our batteries every so often.

Or how about a system of graduated retirement? For many of  us, self-esteem takes a hit and boredom a bounce when we suddenly  go from 40-hour weeks to zero upon retiring. Instead, we could  design a pension and Social Security system that would allow us to  retire gradually. Let's say that at 50 we cut 300 hours from our  work year - nearly eight weeks. Then at 55 we cut 300 more. At 60,  300 more. And at 65, 300 more. Now we're down to 800 (given no  change in the present annual pattern). We might then have the  option to stop paid labor entirely or to keep working 800 hours  for as long as we are capable.

This would allow us to begin learning to appreciate leisure,  volunteer more and broaden our minds long before final retirement.  It would allow more young workers to find positions and allow  older workers to stay on longer to mentor them. It would allow  older workers to both stay involved with their careers and to find  time for more balance in their lives.


A strategic change in the tax system, similar to one already  underway in parts of Europe, could help contain affluenza. The  first step toward a change could come through an idea called the  progressive consumption tax. Proposed by economist Robert Frank in  his book 'Luxury Fever,' the tax would replace the personal income  tax. Instead, people would be taxed on what they consume, at a  rate rising from 20 percent (on annual spending under $ 40,000) to  70 percent (on annual spending over $ 500,000). Basically the idea  is to tax those with the most serious cases of 'luxury fever' at  the highest rates, thus encouraging saving instead of spending.

At the same time, we must make it possible for lower-income  Americans to meet their basic needs without working several jobs.  A living wage could be accomplished by a negative income tax or  tax credits that guarantee all citizens a simple but sufficient  standard of living above the poverty line.

Equally promising are so-called 'green taxes.' Their  proponents would replace taxes on 'goods' such as income and  payroll taxes - which discourage increased employment - with taxes  on 'bads' such as pollution or waste of nonrenewable resources.  The point would be to make the market reflect the true costs of  our purchases. We'd pay much more to drive a gas-guzzler, for  example, and a little more for a music lesson or theater ticket.

Additional carbon taxes would discourage the burning of  fossil fuels. Pollution taxes would discourage contamination of  water and air. The costs of cleaning up pollution would be added  as a tax on goods whose production causes it. Such a tax could  make organic foods as cheap as pesticide-laced produce. Depletion  taxes would increase the price of nonrenewable resources and lower  the comparative price of goods made to last.

Corporate responsibility: Going Dutch

Another way to reduce the impact of consumption is to require  that corporations take full responsibility for the entire life  cycle of their products, an idea now gaining widespread acceptance  in Europe. The concept is simple, and it is well-explained in the  book 'Natural Capitalism' by Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter  Lovins. In effect, companies would no longer sell us products but  lease them. Then, when the products reach the end of their useful  lives, the same companies would take them back to reuse and  recycle them, saving precious resources.

This cradle-to-the-grave idea is winning considerable  corporate support already, with leadership
from Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface Corp., an industrial carpet  company, and from businesses that have joined the 'Natural Step'  movement, agreeing to full life-cycle responsibility for their  products. If companies take such full responsibility, they will  have to include the attendant costs in the prices of their goods.

Such responsibility will be made law by 2006 in the European  Union, for automobile companies at least. But with so many  companies and so many products traveling all over the world, a  Dutch law may provide a more effective solution. In the  Netherlands, car buyers pay an additional 'disassembly tax' when  they buy their vehicle. When the car reaches the end of its useful  life, they take it to an auto disassembly plant, where it is  carefully stripped of anything that can still be used. Then only  the metal shell is crushed and recycled (in the United States  everything - wires, plastic and so forth - just gets crushed, and  a large percentage is simply lost as waste). The Dutch plants,  which are cheap and low-tech, employ many workers and take any cars.

The disassembly tax is part of the Dutch National Environmental  Policy Plan (or 'Green Plan') and will soon be extended to include  many other consumer goods.

But won't our economy collapse?

What if Americans started buying smaller, more fuel-efficient  cars, driving them less and keeping them longer? What if we took  fewer long-distance vacations? What if we simplified our lives,  spent less money, bought less stuff, worked less, and enjoyed more  leisure time? What if government began to reward thrift and punish  waste, legislated shorter work hours, and taxed advertisers? What  if we made consumers and corporations pay the real costs of their  products? What would happen to our economy? Would it collapse, as  some economists suggest?

Truthfully, we don't know exactly, since no major industrial  nation has yet embarked on such a journey. But there's plenty of  reason to suspect that the road will be passable, if bumpy, at  first, and smoother later. If we continue on the current freeway,  however, we'll find out it ends like Oakland's Interstate 880  during the 1989 earthquake - impassable and in ruins.

Surely we can't deny that if every American took up  voluntary simplicity tomorrow, massive economic disruption would  result. But that won't happen. A shift away from affluenza, if  we're lucky enough to witness one, will come gradually, over a  generation perhaps. Economic growth, as measured by Gross Domestic  Product, will slow down and might even become negative. But as  economist Juliet Schor points out, there are many European  countries (including Holland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway) whose  economies have grown far more slowly than ours, yet whose quality  of life - measured by many of the indicators we say we want,  including free time, citizen participation, lower crime, greater  job security, income-equality, health, and overall life  contentment - is higher than our own. Such economies show no sign  of collapse. And their emphasis on balancing growth with  sustainability is widely accepted across the political spectrum.

Time for attitude adjustment

If anti-affluenza legislation leads to slower rates of  economic growth or a 'steady state' economy that does not grow at  all, so be it. The fact is, growth of GDP is a very imprecise  measure of social health anyway. Beating the affluenza bug will  also lead to less stress, more leisure time, better health and  longer lives. It will offer more time for family, friends and  community. And it will lead to less traffic, less road rage, less  noise, less pollution and a kinder, gentler, more meaningful way  of life.

In a '60s TV commercial, an actor claims that Kool cigarettes  are 'as cool and clean as a breath of fresh air.' We watch that  commercial today and can't keep a straight face, but when it first  aired, nobody laughed. Since that time, we've come to understand  that cigarettes are unhealthy, silent killers. We've banned TV ads  for them. We tax them severely, limit smoking areas, and seek to  make tobacco companies pay the full costs of the damage cigarettes  cause. We once thought them sexy, but today most of us think  they're gross.

Where smoking is concerned, our attitudes have certainly  changed. With growing evidence that affluenza is also hazardous,  it's time for another attitude adjustment.

'Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic' was published in June  2001 by Berrett-Koehler Publishing. It is co-authored by David  Wann, John de Graaf and Thomas Naylor. You can reach David Wann, a  Golden resident, at wanndavejr @