Beyond the Assumption of Consumption

Thomas Jefferson warned more than two centuries ago that change is inevitable: “As new discoveries are made, and manners and opinions change, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.” Policy analyst Charles Siegel of the Preservation Institute is doing his best to oblige. Siegel researches and writes about the ‘compulsory consumption’ that’s built into government and corporate policies for work/time choices, housing and parking choices, medical choices, child-care choices, and many other American standard operating procedures. “We should focus on policies that let middle-class Americans choose whether they want to consume more or have more time for their families, communities, and personal interests,” says Siegel. He points out that most Americans work full-time because they must. Part-time jobs typically have lower hourly pay and no benefits. Instead of using higher productivity at the national level to increase consumption, why not use it to reduce work hours?

In 1933, when jobs were scarce, Americans almost had a 30-hour workweek that would have shared the work and nurtured a more productive, healthier workforce. This might have resulted in extra time for all Americans, as Kellogg Company employees enjoyed with a six-hour workday that lasted from 1930 to 1985. With two hours added to each weekday, there were more “room mothers” in classrooms. City parks, community centers, skating rinks, churches, libraries, and YMCAs became centers of activity. Kellogg workers recall that the balance of their lives shifted from working to living. What to do with their time became more important than what to buy with their money.

The nationally mandated 30-hour workweek was a near miss: the Black-Connery bill week passed in the Senate but vigorously opposed by business leaders. Instead of promoting shorter hours to fight unemployment and keep employees healthier, business leaders pitched “a new gospel of consumption,” and the bill was defeated in the House by just a few votes. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 set the 40-hour workweek in stone, and the work-and-spend culture went into high gear, propelled by World War II, which geared up production to levels history had never seen before. In 1950, marketing analyst Victor Lebow wrote, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption a way of, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek spiritual satisfaction, ego satisfaction, in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.” Did Americans choose this consumptive way of life, or were we corralled into it with drumbeats of patriotism, social engineering, and economic fundamentalism?

Siegel believes that by law, part-time employees who do the same work should get the same hourly pay as full-time employees, and that they should also have the same seniority – based on the number of hours worked – and the same chance of promotion and pro-rated benefits as full-time workers. Does this sound impossible to implement? Not really: the entire European Union has already adopted agreements like these to end discrimination against part-time workers. As a result, employee-chosen part-time work is becoming quite normal in the EU, with Holland leading the charge. In 2005, for example, nearly half of all Dutch employees worked less than 35 hours a week, including 75 percent of all women and 23 percent of all men.

A similar logic applies to auto-centric policies that dictate what American towns and cities look like. Sprawl is essentially a government program that began right after WW II when the federal government subsidized mortgage deductions, highways, and cheap gasoline to encourage suburban growth. Those subsidies are still in place, forcing Americans to pay for a car-centered transportation system whether or not they drive.

Since streets and traffic signals are paid for out of cities’ general funds,

Most cars sit idle 22 hours a day

residents pay for them through sales taxes and property taxes – even if they bicycle or take public transit and use only one-tenth as much street space. It’s the same theme with “free” parking. Even if we don’t drive because we are too young, too old, too poor, or disabled, we get charged for parking by employers, property sellers and businesses, who build the costs of parking into wages, mortgages, and price tags. Recently, parking policies are being re-thought. In Washington, D.C., planners have rewritten 50-year-old codes that now require fewer parking spaces for commercial and residential buildings. (Earlier mandates required four spaces per 1,000 square feet; the new law requires only one.)

We’re rewarded for driving but not for biking or public transit.

Child-care is a third example of compulsory consumption. The average American child now spends ten hours per week less with parents than in 1970. “Fifty years ago, one parent working 40 hours a week supported the typical family,” says Siegel. “Today, the typical family is supported by two parents working 80 hours a week.” The economy takes up too much of our time.

Flaws in the daycare system are in plain sight yet disregarded because we assume – and want to believe – that our present lifestyle is working. The current tax credit for day care gives parents an incentive to work longer hours and spend less time with their children because it pays for day care. However, parents and caretakers who work less and care for their own children get nothing. Siegel suggests that non-discriminatory tax credits could be given to low and middle-income families – he estimates about $7,000 a year per child. Households that need day care, such as those with single parents, would be covered, and other families could also choose whether the tax credit should cover day care or help them work shorter hours and have more time with their kids.

Obviously, policy and design modifications can help give Americans a wider palette of choices. The most sweeping – and critical – choice of all might be the choice between “your money or your life.” When the culture’s policy-makers unlocked the door marked “money,” they in effect barricaded the door marked “life.”

POLICIES THAT REWARD SENSIBLE LIFESTYLES

1. U.S. Income Tax policy discourages saving and investing by taking a bite out of income. Solution: Lower income taxes and instead tax carbon-heavy fuels and technologies, as more than twenty EU countries already have.

2. Mandatory 40-hour workweeks don’t offer workers the choice of trading less income for more time. Solution: Enact laws that guarantee equal pay for part-time workers, as many EU countries already have.

3. Free parking at workplaces rewards driving but offers no incentives for alternatives such as walking, bicycling, and carpooling. Solution: give a stipend to all employees, rewarding non-drivers and letting drivers pay for parking.

4 Daycare tax credits assume that employees would rather pay for daycare than work less and care for their own children. Solution: Credit a fixed amount per U.S. child; let parents choose how to spend it.

5. Flat-rate trash policies discourage recycling. Solution: Implement “pay as you throw” policies that charge by the volume of un-recycled trash, while pick-up of recycled goods is free.

6. Current beverage container policies don’t reward recycling. Solution: Enact a federal “bottle bill” law, as eleven states already have.

7. Suburban sprawl wastes time, money, land, and energy. Solution: Enact local, state, and federal policies that encourage public transit, compact development, and mixed-use zoning.

Sources: Charles Siegel, The Politics of Simple Living: A New Direction for Liberalism; David Wann, Simple Prosperity