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Historical Perspectives

Looking back through world history to the beginning of urban civilization in Egypt and Mesopotamia six thousand years ago, one sees the development of a steadily more complicated type of society. Periodically new institutions arise as power centers in the society, each rising to the level of empire. After a major conflict, typically bloody, the institution is discredited. Something else then appears to dominate human society and its culture.

Meanwhile a series of new communication technologies defines the cultural landscape. Writing - in a primitive, ideographic form - was the first and most important of them. When alphabetic writing came along in the 2nd and 1st millennia B.C., this had a profound effect on the culture. Then, in the 15th century A.D., the introduction of printing technology to western Europe again changed the cultural direction. The Renaissance of Italy and northern Europe is associated with that process.

In the last century or so, there has been a fourth technology, or set of technologies, driven by electricity and electronics. This has redirected culture from the printed back to the spoken word. The sounds and visual images carried or transmitted in phonographs, motion pictures, radio, and television define the cultural age in which we live. However, computers are coming along with new capabilities. The new age will see further development and expanded influence of such media.

World history as we know it has focused more on institutions than the cultural media, though both are important. The first epoch of civilization, in its heyday two thousand years ago, saw the formation of large political empires such as the Han empire in China and the Roman empire in Europe, north Africa, and the middle east. That period was followed by a second epoch in which philosophies and world religions were important. In the post-Roman period through the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic church exercised great worldly power. Orthodox Christianity dominated the culture of the Byzantine empire, a remnant of Roman imperial rule.

Papal power waned in the west in the centuries preceding the Renaissance due to the ill-conceived Crusades, the dual Papacy, brutal attacks on heretics, clerical corruption, and other such reasons. Its fate was sealed by the successful Protestant Reformation. Orthodox Christianity, replaced from its Greek homeland when Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, migrated northward to Russia. The Islamic religion, under siege from “modernity” (post-religious culture) , has retained a greater degree of political influence.

But those periods of history are past. We are left with government and religion as major institutions in society, but ones that are mature in their life cycle. Less new development can be expected of them than of institutions associated with the third and fourth civilizations. What are those civilizations? The third one, begun in Renaissance times, is associated primarily with commerce and secular education. The fourth civilization, begun in the late 19th century, is associated with news and entertainment. There is a connection between those institutions. Secular education supplies trained personnel to commercial organizations. Popular entertainment draws in customers for commercial products by hooking people’s attention on an enjoyable program and then abruptly switching to the paid advertisements.

From “Civilization” as we know it to the contemporary state of culture

When we think of “civilization”, we tend to think of societies associated with the third civilization. Victorian England may have been the classic example. Its culture was highly literate. Great poets such as Byron, Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson inspired the masses as did great novelists such as Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, or Jane Austen. The mass-circulation daily newspapers appeared during that time. But Victorian England, center of the British empire, was also intensely commercial. Cotton textiles, steel girders, steamboats, railroads, clocks, nails, buttons, and other manufactured products were a source of national wealth. London was a center of international banking. Graduates of English public schools and of famous universities such as Oxford and Cambridge were much esteemed in this society, holding high rank in various institutions. One thinks of an English gentleman, prosperous, well educated, wearing a tweed jacket, smoking a pipe, seated in a comfortable leather chair at his London club, reading a newspaper. That is civilization as we imagine it.

All this came to a bloody end in World War I when the cream of English youth was sacrificed on French fields to serve imperial dreams. Victory came at a high cost. After the war, the social elite became disoriented. People immersed themselves in various frivolous pursuits. They danced the Charleston and the tango and listened to jazz. Women wore short skirts and cut their hair in strange new ways. Representatives of the once-despised black culture became popular. People listened to comedians or band music on the radio. They flocked to silent films. They tried to be stylish and cute. Then came a worldwide depression, followed by another world war, again costly in terms of money and blood. And after that came television, rock ‘n roll music, and an entirely different culture than that which the old generation had known.

It was a changing of civilizations that went away from literacy and good manners toward a certain vulgarity. Young people were no longer interested in being part of high society. They were not that interested in education except for the income it might bring. Their fast-paced lives were instead given to popular culture. A continuing stream of new electronic products conveyed the personal images of film stars, singers, athletes, and hot entertainers. The elaborate dress of an earlier generation was replaced by tee shirts and scruffy jeans. Young men in sweatshirts that displayed team logos stood in front of pinball machines or video games feeding coins into a slot to experience a few minutes of electronic excitement. It was cool to be socially so unassuming, so unconcerned about life.

And then came a return of cerebral orientation in the person of the computer nerd. Some were ahead of the curve; and for them, fabulous wealth could be gained in finding new ways to use the computer. Computer-based communication reaches out to the entire world. Something big is bound to come of it. Look for continued progress in this area.

How selection of political leaders has changed in the successive historical epochs

That’s where we are now, in a time of transition, straddling those different civilizations. Government, the first major institution of civilized society, remains critically important. In some nations, though not in the United States, a partnership continues to exist between religious and political authority. Islamic republics would exhibit that pattern. The West abandoned it with the decline of papal authority.

Instead, in the West, governments have undergone a process of democratization, which originally meant the transfer of state power from hereditary monarchs to political leaders elected by the people. Democracy reflect the rise of parliamentary government. Parliaments were originally associated with the tax-collecting function of government. They were concerned with the economic side of national life. To a certain degree, democratic elections resemble free markets in their mode of operation.

The concept of democratic government was also associated with literacy and with education which produced literacy in the mass of citizens. Voters were expected to become informed about candidates and issues. They would read the candidates’ speeches stating positions. They would read newspaper stories to learn the situation facing their community. They might become involved in a political party. Properly and fully informed, the citizens would then cast their vote.

But civilization has now moved on to a fourth stage associated with electronic culture. Television news has replaced newspaper reading as the main source of information about candidates. This medium of communication transmits visual impressions instead of conveying hard information. Branding is its characteristic technique of persuasion. Commercial products are sold by repetitious display suggesting a personal connection between the product and viewers, often on the basis of lifestyle.

Political candidates are also sold this way. Their campaigns run commercials on the television stations that create a certain image of the candidate, carefully calculated to appeal to the mass of voters. Political parties are mainly significant as a brand name attached to the candidate, implying a certain stance on issues. But the chief connection between the candidate and voter is the communication medium itself. Privately owned television (or cable television) networks have become the power behind the political throne.

Really the process of electing candidates to public office is quite simple. The candidate raises lots of money to hire media consultants and run television commercials during the campaigns. The voting public, hooked on television, takes it all in. The candidate who has the best and most commercials generally wins.

Granted, unpaid news coverage does also contribute to the public image that a candidate has, but the big media are increasingly stingy about giving publicity away for free. Its editors and commentators insist on being gatekeepers for the political process, telling the public which candidates are “mainstream” and which are “fringe”. They put a spin on campaigns to the advantage or detriment of the various candidates. From the candidate’s perspective, it’s better to get the message out straight and uncensored in the form of paid commercials. The media also prefer this because they make money.

The bottom line is that it takes much money to conduct successful campaigns nowadays. It takes money to pay for the television commercials. To get this money, the candidate must be personally rich or else he must be connected to donors who will provide the needed funds. In reality, the members of Congress spend lots of time on the phone raising money. The most likely donors are individuals or groups which want something in return. Government officials are effectively selling their votes for money. They cannot easily close their door to lobbyists wanting a legislative favor if the same lobbyists attend their fund raisers.

One should note that most of the money raised for political campaigns goes to privately owned television stations. The government has given these stations an exclusive license to broadcast on a certain frequency. Theoretically, those frequencies are owned by the public. It’s a scandal really that political candidates who are prospective government officials should have to pay to do the essential work of campaigning for office. Some time should be given for free on the airwaves to allow candidates to connect with voters. However, radio and television broadcasters are fiercely protective of their prerogatives and would punish any politician who seriously challenged their control of the campaign process.

The only way out of this situation would be a scheme such as Gold Party’s to bypass the commercial media and let candidates talk directly with voters. For that to happen, the voters need to be convinced individually that a certain program of government is in their interest and that candidates supporting it merit election. This can be done through political organizations and alternative media owned by the parties. At some level, most people know that television commercials are propaganda. It should not be hard to persuade them to ignore such messages during political campaigns and instead support what they have embraced through reasoned discussion within communities of like minded people.

Government’s war-making function

From the beginning, the main function of government has been to make wars that guarantee the peace. It continues to this day. In the first epoch of history, governments made wars for the sake of expanding their imperial territory. There was an economic advantage to enslaving defeated peoples and plundering their wealth. In the second epoch of history, wars were waged to advance the honor and influence of religions. The Crusades were a good example. World religions, like political empires, aspired to become universal.

In the third epoch of history, wars were waged for economic reasons such as gaining or securing access to raw materials. Wars were waged to establish and protect colonies of the war-making nations. In the fourth epoch of history, wars were waged for image-making needs of the political leader. Presidents relish their role as commander in chief. They can rally a nation to their side politically by citing an external threat. The “great” leaders of history have been ones who successfully led their nations in war.

One might observe, however, that , when wars are waged for a purpose suited to a previous period in history, the military function tends to become a parody of itself rather than an instrument of legitimate government power. Alexander the Great gained historical luster by conquering the Persian empire. Arguably, Alexander’s conquest advanced the cause of civilization. In contrast, George W. Bush, conqueror of Baghdad, comes across as an overreaching fool. Civilized nations today will not tolerate national governments which try to conquer other nations. Such unprovoked aggression frightens and alienates people. In this case, if the goal was to secure access to Iraqi oil, it should have been sought by trade rather than by military invasion and seizure of resources.

Similarly wars waged for religious purposes often have a bad effect. An example might be the Zionist project in the Middle East. In Biblical times, the Hebrews could invade the land of Canaan and, following God’s command, exterminate incumbent peoples. In modern times, however, the attempt to enforce a Biblical promise that the Jewish people should possess this land forever creates problems. Today’s incumbent people, the Palestinians, will not go away as easily as the Amorites, Canaanites, Hivites, Jebusites, and others did. They have religious connections with neighboring nations that have put the state of Israel at risk.

Religion may also play a perverse role in strategic thinking about the Middle East. If the President and his supporters on the religious right embrace apocalyptic scenarios of the end times, they will be inclined to reject conscientious attempts at peacemaking between the Israelis and Palestinians in favor of strident, unconditional support of Israel. God did, after all, say that whoever supported the Jewish people would be blessed. These Christians want to be on the right side of things.

But when this philosophy extends to enabling abusive behavior by the Israeli government or, worse yet, when a Christian commentator claims that Israeli prime minister Sharon suffered a stroke because he proposed to return certain Biblical lands to the Palestinians, the effect is quite damaging. The same is true, of course, when suicide bombers attack innocent people or when President Ahmajadine shapes Iran’s foreign policy to accommodate the Mahdi’s expected return. Wars inspired by religion are bad, especially today.

Some well-known wars of the 20th century were religious wars in disguise. Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, identifies nationalism as a remnant of civic religions that were dominant in the first epoch of world history. (Emperor worship in Rome was an example.) The fascist dictators, Hitler and Mussolini, were ardent nationalists who waged war for the glory of their respective nations. They were high priests of a political religion which made war.

International socialism was somewhat different. Though also a religion, it was one based on Karl Marx’s economic theories and cast in the mold of apocalyptic history. Its adversary, capitalist society, was likewise defined by economic theory. And so, during the Cold War, we had two economic systems, embodied respectively in the Soviet Union and the United States, confronting each other politically, militarily, and in other ways, each seeking world domination. This quasi-religious confrontation involved hundreds of nuclear-tipped warheads in both nations, pointed at each other, threatening to blow up the entire world. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

The United States went to war in Vietnam to stop the military advance of communism. That war seemly fit the pattern of the Korean war and the Soviet takeover of eastern Europe following World War II. Further encroachment upon territories of the “free world” was stopped by resolute military action. Likewise, U.S. policymakers believed that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, neighboring nations such as Thailand or Malaysia might also fall in what was called the “domino effect”. The United States government committed troops to prevent that from happening.

The strange dance between communists and capitalists

Meanwhile, behind the scenes was a group, which President Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex”, that supported war for economic reasons. Wars were profitable for military contractors. They kept people employed. They secured access to raw materials abroad. While the capitalists opposed the spread of communism for obvious reasons, they were also not averse to trading with the enemy when a profit potential existed. Lenin once said that capitalists would sell him the rope to hang themselves with.

History shows that, while the United States lost the war in Vietnam, there was no domino effect. Neither Thailand nor Malaysia fell to communism. Instead, in 1972, President Nixon engineered a remarkable diplomatic opening to China, then thought to be the most dangerous communist power. Relations were established between the United States and China. U.S. business firms eyed this nation as both an emerging consumer market and a source of cheap labor for products sold in the United States.

Large corporations, headquartered in the United States, soon began contracting with Chinese suppliers to produce goods targeted to the U.S. market. With the outsourcing of production, factories in the United States were closed while new factories were opened in China to handle the same production. And so, the capitalists did more than sell communists rope; they gave the Chinese our nation’s industrial capacity.

These one-sided trading arrangements have made the government of China rich. Holding billions of dollars of U.S. government debt, this erstwhile communist government could now bring down our economy, not by revolution, but by denying our nation further access to its credit. In other words, “Communist” China could bring us to our knees by employing standard capitalist techniques. What an irony this is! At the same time, it must be admitted, China has itself been converted to capitalistic practice as the Chinese economy prospered. Communism has become an ideological glue that holds the Chinese leadership together, giving it historical legitimacy.

Government involvement in the free market

Ironically, while the People’s Republic of China has embraced capitalism and moved to protect the rights of small property owners, governments in the United States have moved in the opposite direction. There are more “public-private partnerships”. The state has become much more intrusive in the free market. Despite conservative rhetoric about shrinking the size of government, government budgets have increased. Government is providing massive subsidies to business.

Whenever large corporations plan to build new facilities, they shake down local governments for tax concessions and subsidies as a precondition to locating jobs in those particular communities. Billionaire owners of professional sports teams, wanting to increase the value of their sports franchise, shake down the taxpayer for funds to build new stadiums. (President Bush himself did that as front man for the Texas Rangers baseball team.) It’s a modern American tradition to extract resources from the government, and ultimately from the taxpayer, to further enrich big business. Small business, on the other hand, is often squeezed.

The free market is, as Adam Smith said, an “invisible hand” that maximizes economic efficiency. When the buyers and sellers of products bargain freely, they obtain the best result for both parties. The dirty little secret, though, is that unrestrained free-market competition, while good for the buyers of products, runs the sellers out of business. As those sellers compete on quality and price, prices go down, profit margins disappear, and many producers are driven out of business.

The more successful commercial or professional enterprises are ones which, with government help, have found ways to restrict competition, often in the name of maintaining “quality”. The medical industry is the prime example. State medical boards, controlled by doctors, license future practitioners for this profession. It is in their interest to set the entry bar high by requiring much education. The same is true of other professions such as teachers, lawyers, and accountants. Most have examinations for professional certification that must be passed before one can practice in a field . They have educational requirements even to sit for the test. When fewer new people enter a profession, the existing group can charge more money. It could not be arranged without government help.

And so we have educational requirements, imposed in the name of ensuring sufficient knowledge to do a job well, in fact pumping up salary levels by restricting entrance to occupational fields. No wonder practitioners in those fields become excited about “quality”. It means more money for them. It means that they will be shielded from the financially punishing competition that a truly free market would bring.

Increasingly, then, the “free market” which is supposed to support our capitalistic economy is replaced by various special arrangements involving government. There are often requirements of increasing education. That institution, nominally created to help newcomers connect with jobs, inserts itself between the job seeker and available positions like a priestly intermediary. It serves to make the job-seeking process more arduous.

Attending College as our Society’s Religion

That’s where we are at the current stage of history. We’re in the waning phase of the third civilization. Education, a relic of that epoch, has replaced Christianity as our society’s semi-official creed. Everyone advises young people to continue their education. Stay in school. The ornate campuses of our well-known colleges resemble the magnificent cathedrals that were built in medieval France. They even look medieval. And then there are quasi-religious pageants and processions taking place at graduation time. College officials pontificate on various subjects. There is much institutional piety. But the inner spirit is too often gone. Today’s young people seem more interested in entertainment than in conventional learning or literate pursuits.

In medieval times, people believed that the rites of the church were necessary for salvation. An ordained priest had to perform certain ceremonies for a person to enter Heaven after death. The Protestant Reformation challenged that belief insofar as institutions were concerned. Today, it is believed that one must graduate from an institution of higher learning to become qualified for high-level jobs. It’s said a college degree is required. The lucrative career to be had after graduation is, like Heaven, an alluring carrot that justifies the academic priesthood. Presumably the professors lay on career-related knowledge as Christian priests once laid on hands. The spirit of a new and better life is conferred in that transmission.

In contrast to the dead, however, today’s college graduates sometimes return to tell of their experience. Each Ph.D. who winds up washing dishes or driving a delivery truck strikes a blow at the credibility of the institution that promised him a good, high-paying job. To project the myth of their valuable service, educators increasingly rely on hard-sell ads to recruit students.

Except for some televangelists or pastors at the megachurches, today’s religious professionals are tcomparatively modest. Popes no longer excommunicate political leaders who disobey their instructions. They are instead thoughtful men who speak of forgiveness and love. Christianity has been through its period of excess. Stripped of power, the church has returned to its original mission of delivering Christ’s message to the world.

Now it’s the turn of institutions associated with the third epoch of world history to pull back from gradiosity. The soaring cost of higher education that foists increasing debt upon students, the unfulfilled career promises, the internal politics, the intolerance of certain views, the sports fixation, the pretense, and worldliness of a place supposedly devoted to truth, promise a future day of reckoning for academic managers and professionals. In the long run, that might be good for the institution.

The Wasteful Nature of some Enterprise

The other foundation of the third civilization is the world of commerce. It is the world of economics and careers. So much of what passes as useful work is waste larded into the economy. As the number of farmers, miners, fishermen, factory workers, and others who produce needed goods for society shrinks as a percentage of employment, so comparatively the occupations of waste increase. By “waste” is not meant products that are unneeded but tickle someone’s fancy. Waste is a product that nobody wants. Waste is a “necessary evil” that individuals or society feel compelled to fund.

Wars fall into that category. As criminal activity arises through neglect of the family, so does the punitive apparatus of police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, corrections officials, and parole officers. As unreasonable work requirements produce illness or stress, so does the need to see a doctor, stay in the hospital, carry medical insurance, and purchase expensive doctor-prescribed drugs. Merchants use guilt to push Christmas gifts or other products for loved ones; and then interest must be paid on the unsolicited but useful credit cards. Advertising creates many a previously unknown consumer desire. And, yes, prolonged education is a form of waste when students are driven to it by fear and convenience rather than a desire for knowledge or for skills actually needed in a career. If society could dispense with all this junk, people would have more time and money for what really matters.

Fast-Disappearing Jobs and Stagnant Pay

Another problem with the present-day economy is that jobs are fast disappearing. Capital investment in labor-saving equipment may increase worker productivity but it also destroys jobs. A more recent threat to domestic employment in the United States has been the outsourcing of production and services to foreign countries where much lower wages are paid. While espousing the ideology of free trade, our educators tout their own service as a way to cope with globalization. Let the grunt work go to China, they say; America will be the land that specializes in work requiring superior brainpower skills. (And somehow you get that from us.)

The Chinese, however, are plenty smart, as are the people of Pakistan, India, and other foreign countries; and their young workers, unsaddled with a heavy load of student debt, are willing to work for much less money. Technical knowledge is easily transferred across national borders. Global communication networks let someone in India or the Philippines, who speaks passable English, do our customer-service work or handle whatever other functions are handled over the telephone. The fact that we are living in a fool’s paradise with respect to employment is evidenced by the massive U.S. trade deficit ($763.6 billion in 2006) which each year sets a new record. The chairman of Intel Corp. told a group of educators recently: “We could be a successful international company for the foreseeable future without ever hiring another American citizen.”

The education-career complex in the United States no longer leads to greater prosperity. What it does is put a burden on young people to justify themselves for the shrinking number of good jobs. As the competition for such jobs intensifies, so the disparity of incomes increases between top-level managers and professionals and the average worker. The unreasonable, soaring pay for CEOs is a national scandal. Meanwhile, more Americans live in “deep poverty” (currently defined as less than $5,080 per year for individuals; less than $9,903 for a family of four) than ever before.

Real wages for American workers have been flat during the years of economic “recovery” in the years of George W. Bush’s administration. An internal memo prepared for Wal-Mart refers to the “near catastrophic pressures” faced by its working-class customers due to stagnant wages, sharply rising fuel costs, and unprecedented consumer debt. “We have a crisis in the making for America’s working and middle classes,” it said.

A Treadmill that Leads from Education to Careers

Such conditions put increased pressure on young and middle-aged people to stay on the treadmill that begins in school and continues into a career. There is a fabulous pot of gold for the competitively fit few who reach top management positions; what what a toll it takes on those aspiring to such positions! Work hours can be excruciatingly long. Young people of both genders have little time to date, marry, and raise families. Women postpone pregnancy to the point that it sometimes never happens. As corporations cut back on the number of employees while the work load continues, the remaining employees must work longer, faster, and harder to avoid becoming the next layoff victim. Unsurprisingly, surveys report high levels of employee stress.

Employment in America seems then a strange combination of virtual slavery for ones on the treadmill and the image of being among the lucky few who are “getting ahead” in a career. It may even be worse than slavery since the slaves of the Old South were usually allowed to have children and some kind of family life. As economic “assets”, their owners had an incentive to keep them in reasonably good health. Our wasted employees are let go. Some have pensions and medical insurance. Many do not.

Educated to become unfit for certain jobs

Today’s highly competitive and expensive educational system has also raised the bar as to what types of work its graduates will accept with respect to occupational dignity and levels of remuneration. College conditions a person to work with printed language, dealing with abstractions rather than physical objects. The fact is, however, that much of the work needing to be done in this society involves working with one’s hands. Crops need to be picked in the fields. Buildings need to be maintained and repaired. Public facilities need to be cleaned. This is unprestigious, low-wage work for which educated people are rendered socially unfit. But someone needs to do it.

Enter the immigrant worker, including the undocumented immigrant. The low wages are still more than what one would make in the home country. America must satisfy this need by importing people into the country. Whole families arrive and, while the childless managers and professionals are racing ahead achievement-wise on the career treadmill, the immigrants work at mential jobs and have children. We are replacing one ethnic population with another.

A Way Out?

No one can predict with certainty what will happen next in world history. There appears to be in the United States, as the memo said, “a crisis in the making.” The Iraq war is taking a toll upon this nation. Global warming is a nagging worry. Chronic unresolved budget deficits, both fiscal and trade, cannot be sustained. The present trends cannot continue indefinitely. Perhaps a collapse of some kind will occur similar what happened during the Great Depression. The collapse may even be worse this time since it involves long-term trends. The general incompetence exhibited by the federal government in recent years suggests that no intelligent solution will be found to deal with these problems; or, if they are found, political bickering will prevent them from being applied.

Maybe Gold Party can help. Ignoring political feasibility, we start by imagining a better future. Then we imagine that we can build an organization that will take over the government and use government power to bring this future about. We will thus make history happen according to our plan. Two institutions, commerce and education, which are most ripe for change in the normal course of history, will be at the center of those plans.

Our focus here will be on a single problem: the lack of high-paying, productive jobs, not only in the United States but in all nations. We need economic production that will not deplete or ruin the natural environment. Priority must be given to production of food, clothing, housing, and other of life’s necessities rather than to the wasteful activities favored in recent years. Is this vision practical?

The Promise of Reduced Work Time

The key to such a scheme is reduced work time. For more than a hundred years, since the middle of the 19th century, increased productivity in U.S. industry went hand-in-hand with reductions in work time. Labor-union agitation, broadminded initiatives by a few employers, and progressive government policies combined in bringing down the average number of hours worked in a day and in a week. Then, in the 1940s, after the Fair Labor Standards Act went into effect, progress in this area began to slow. Eventually it stopped. In the last thirty years, there has been a reversal of the previous trend. The International Labor Organization reports, in fact, that U.S. workers have added a full week to their yearly work schedules since 1990. Our nation has overtaken Japan as the industrialized country requiring the most hours of work from its people.

There are no indications that any powerful interest group in America wants to return to the path of reducing work time. The labor movement, once the engine of such reductions, is now in decline, except for public-sector employees. Where a third of the work force in the United States was unionized in the 1950s, the proportion is now down to 12%. Besides, organized labor gave up on the goal of shorter hours when its rank-and-file members chose to take overtime pay instead.

The business community remains adamantly opposed to this type of proposal, arguing that it will hurt national competitiveness. How it reconciles that argument with the fact that our major trade competitors have all reduced work time while we have increased it is unclear. Officials of the federal government will also not support statutory reductions in the work week. It’s possible that policymakers want to keep Americans working long hours to provide the economic surplus to conduct its various wars and other such projects. It could be dangerous if people became used to leisure. Tax revenues might be threatened.

Work time is important for a number of reasons. First, unlike statutory increases in the minimum wage, it shrinks labor supply. That means that wage levels will increase by the law of supply and demand if there is a fixed or rising level of demand. And demand generally increases as people have more time to use consumer products. (Read Henry Ford’s comments on that point.) Another reason is that if the world’s people can satisfy their material requirements entirely by shifting production back to necessities, it would be easier on the environment. Of what real worth is it to have economic “growth” by forcing more physical products through the system. Finally, a society that provides increased leisure to its working people creates an opportunity that people can pursue happiness in ways other than consuming or acquiring such products. They can compete for status in ways other than acquiring wealth.

If businesses and unions agreed to reduce work time in their collective-bargaining agreements, or if employers granted this benefit unilaterally, the level of hours might be reduced without government intervention. That does not seem to be the case. Neither can one reasonably expect that the federal government will take action. Gold Party, however, is a proposal to take over the government. If that happens, government could be forced to change course. So, in the “better future” imagined here, government becomes the primary instrument of change.

The mechanism by which government might reduce work hours is provided in a law enacted during the Roosevelt administration, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. This law requires that time-and-a-half overtime wages be paid to eligible workers when employers require an employee to work more than the “standard” number of hours in a work week, which currently is forty.

In the context of this law, there are several ways to reduce work hours: (1) reduce the standard workweek from 40 hours to some lesser number, (2) increase the overtime pay from time-and-a-half to a higher ratio such as double time, and (3) expand eligibility for overtime pay. Additionally, it should be acknowledged that the time-and-a-half pay gives employees an incentive to seek or accept overtime work. In that case, a reasonable solution would be to redirect the extra income away from the employee to another beneficiary such as the government. Government could also, of course, enforce more effectively the laws already on the books.

A Need to Go International

Critics may argue that in a global economy national reductions in work time would be ineffective. They would be detrimental to national competitiveness. The situation requires that, if we want to exploit the advantage of shorter hours for employment in a closed economic system, that system needs to be worldwide. The U.S. government can and should take the lead in urging the community of nations to engage in hours reductions simultaneously, each according to its developmental needs.

With respect to enforcement, the condition of labor in producing goods for export to other countries depends on labor laws in the exporting country. But if that country does not act responsibly, then the importing country can create an incentive for improved conditions in that other country by imposing tariffs on the imported products. Their cost should equal or exceed the cost advantage achieved through the long hours. Such tariffs would have to be targeted to the individual country, indeed to the individual business producer. They would need to be flexible to encourage improvement in that area.

Changing the Culture

How might our society change if there were a substantial reduction in work time? Economically, one might envision that production would move away from “wasteful” products and back toward necessities. Culturally, the restructuring of work time and leisure in favor of the latter would tend to downgrade personal distinctions based on work. If people did other things than work, they could develop activities and communities of friends and acquaintances apart from work. They could thus have recognition in terms other than income or position in a job-related hierarchy.

The desire for personal recognition, rank, status, or position may indeed be an element in all worldly ambition. Conceivably, individuals could learn to be satisfied with a modest share of society‘s wealth if recognition came in other forms. The environment requires a scaling back of material consumption.
And so, giving full rein to imagination, one might envision that the connection between education and careers would be broken beyond the modest amount of training required for a job. On the front end of life, the educational process might be shortened considerably. But intellectual life could go on nonetheless.

In one scenario of future history, college campuses might become general centers of learning - places retaining their present prestige but no longer requiring formal admission. No payment of money would be required to participate in their activities. They would be taxpayer-supported institutions, like the public library, which would employ a certain staff. Respected scholars, artists, or intellectuals would be in residence, dealing with the public. They would be at the center of those educational communities.

In the future, humanity will have the advantage of greatly increased resources on the Internet. Given their low cost, these are affordable for everyone. But physical communities are also useful in that they bring persons of similar interest together face to face. In such a community, there could be public discussions, debates, and competitions in which individuals could distinguish themselves by skilled performance. Informal hierarchies might arise. But nobody’s livelihood would be affected. Whatever prestige attached to a person for having participated in events at those campuses would not arise through a process of initial selection but through competitive or at least comparative performances which took place there.

With respect to careers, individuals have an obligation to work to produce the material goods and services required by their community. The idea is to share that responsibility more broadly. In contrast to the present system which grants welfare or medical leave for the less healthy or capable persons among us, such a community might require a broader group of persons to be productively employed. But time could be a variable factor. The required work time would be shortened for everyone. But if someone wants to moonlight, that would be allowed.

Also, the career system might be restructured to allow individuals to serve as managers of organizations for a short time and then relinquish the position to someone else. Fulfilling one’s economic requirement might be like military service - a duty required for a limited period of time, not lifelong. If the top position in a company often rotates among individuals, the social status that has customarily gone along with the position would be diminished. Rotating leadership would give more people the experience of assuming great responsibilities. It would remove the feeling of powerlessness, or the victim consciousness, that many people have. That, too, would be a benefit for society.

The existing treadmill of competition extending from education through a career makes little sense if, at most, a person stood at the pinnacle of power for only a short time. Job opportunities would be continually opening up at various levels. A position of leadership in a business firm or the equivalent would not be the goal of life but merely an interesting experience had at a certain time. One’s identity could be developed in other ways.

Of course, many changes take place in society without government action. Fashions and values change as individuals assess and reassess a situation. The “voluntary simplicity” movement currently underway among the managerial and professional class demonstrates what might happen. It may be that a larger group of people, nominally successful in their occupations, will recognize that the system has played them for a fool. Values may then change.

It is no privilege to be a slave, even a well-paid one. Family life is important. The pursuit of personal interests are important. After all, the superfluous wealth accumulated in a successful career cannot be taken to the grave. A person’s own life is his most valuable possession. That period of years should make room for a variety of pursuits, not just competing for promotion within a hierarchy or occupational field.

The economy may bring about such changes on its own, considering that most working people today experience many job changes from layoffs and such experiences. Still, government can play a useful role in regulating the labor market. It can help to increase the sense of employment security in a fast-changing world. But the important change, again, is the change in values, placing less emphasis on the economic and more on post-economic cultural or social pursuits. Such a process would impact history.

For further information about this scheme of world history, go to and its subsidiary pages, including:

Using world history to predict the future

Using world history to predict the future of the third civilization

Business versus government: Historical perspectives

Campaigning for high political office in the fourth epoch of history (the entertainment age)

See also extended writings on the economics of this scenario.

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