Affluenza cure calls for political action
Different standard for workweek an opportunity
By John de Graaf, Special to The
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
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
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
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
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
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 @ cs.com.