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American exceptionalism

from David Ruccio


The rule is, as countries get wealthier, their annual hours worked per capita tend to decrease.

But the United States is the exception. Americans work longer hours than people in any other advanced country (and just a bit less than people in much poorer countries).

American exceptionalism therefore means that people are forced to have the freedom to work longer hours in order to achieve a shorter life expectancy, less leisure time, and higher levels of inequality than in other advanced countries.


Note: the chart above show, on the vertical axis, annual hours worked per capita and, on the horizontal axis, GDP per capita as a fraction of U.S. GDP.

  1. February 24, 2016 at 4:08 pm

    data from Canada would be a control for whether it’s “USA” or “North America”

  2. Tom Welsh
    February 24, 2016 at 4:48 pm

    It’s not really the USA as a nation that is wealthy – just the 1% and the corporacracy. The bulk of the American people are fast being reduced to an underclass of permanently unemployed and virtual slaves. The near-100 million unemployed serve to keep the slaves “motivated”, as the slightest complaint about pay or conditions, or the slightest unwillingness to work unpaid hours, can be met by either immediate firing, or the threat of it.

    • February 24, 2016 at 7:08 pm

      Exactly why the public education system is under attack.

    • February 24, 2016 at 8:28 pm

      “unemployed serve to keep the slaves ‘motivated'”

      Yep. And long hours keep the unfortunate unexploited unemployed and the fortunate exploited working long hours.

  3. Paul Schächterle
    February 24, 2016 at 6:26 pm

    Try to reconcile this with Neoclassical labour market “theory”!

    • February 24, 2016 at 6:56 pm

      What is fraudulently taught as neoclassical theory is actually a throwback to 18th century anti-mercantilist polemic that is steeped in the same sort of mercantilist error as that it condemns. Larry Summers confirmed this as the standard M.I.T. curriculum that his Uncle Paul passed on in his ubiquitous textbooks, “…what I was taught as an undergraduate was that basically the people who thought it would were a bunch of idiot Luddites and that obviously there would eventually be enough demand and it would all sort of work itself out…”

      The lump-of-labor fallacy!

      Why economists dislike a lump of labor

      Tom Walker (lumpoflabor@gmail.com)

      Review of Social Economy, 2007, vol. 65, issue 3, pages 279-291

      Abstract: The lump-of-labor fallacy has been called one of the “best known fallacies in economics.” It is widely cited in disparagement of policies for reducing the standard hours of work, yet the authenticity of the fallacy claim is questionable, and explanations of it are inconsistent and contradictory. This article discusses recent occurrences of the fallacy claim and investigates anomalies in the claim and its history. S.J. Chapman’s coherent and formerly highly regarded theory of the hours of labor is reviewed, and it is shown how that theory could lend credence to the job-creating potentiality of shorter working time policies. It concludes that substituting a dubious fallacy claim for an authentic economic theory may have obstructed fruitful dialogue about working time and the appropriate policies for regulating it.

  4. February 25, 2016 at 5:52 am

    The solution offered by an economist friend who loves the way things are organized right now is that rather than just accepting pay for work, workers need to exchange their labor for a share in the company. Then they’re capitalists also and we can stop all this bickering about inequality and workers being taken advantage of. A capitalist solution for a capitalist problem.

    • February 25, 2016 at 6:08 am

      What if the macro-economy is so unstable because it creates more in costs and hence prices than total money created to liquidate it. Then it won’t matter whether you’re a little capitalist invested in a huge capitalist enterprise….cause 90+% of all enterprises will go belly up.

      • February 26, 2016 at 2:53 am

        I think we’ve passed that point. If the current disorganization of economic arrangements continues much longer the 1% everybody talks about will be alone in in their absolute power to determine winners and losers. Whether these folks will feel kindly towards economists (their most loyal servants) and thus allow them to survive remains to be seen.

    • February 25, 2016 at 9:31 am

      Yes, an excellent idea, so long as the workers have a full say in how the company is run. But many workers can’t make that investment, so it needs to be facilitated and supported.

      • February 26, 2016 at 2:23 am

        I tell you the same thing I tell my friend. This does not solve the real problems with capitalism. The most important of which is that capitalism is not undemocratic in itself but undermines political and economic democracy at every turn.

      • February 26, 2016 at 2:27 am

        CORRECTED: I tell you the same thing I tell my friend. This does not solve the real problems with capitalism. The most important of which is that capitalism is not only undemocratic in itself but undermines political and economic democracy at every turn.

    • Stefanos
      February 25, 2016 at 10:27 pm

      Yes, your friends name is Yianis Varoufakis (see his TEDx on the future of capitalism…)

      • February 26, 2016 at 3:49 am

        Varoufakis and I begin from the same place: In the West, we make a colossal mistake taking democracy for granted. We see democracy not as the most fragile of flowers that it really is, but we see it as part of our society’s furniture. We tend to think of it as an intransigent given. We mistakenly believe that capitalism begets inevitably democracy. It doesn’t. In fact. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and his great imitators in Beijing have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that it is perfectly possible to have a flourishing capitalism, spectacular growth, while politics remains democracy-free. Indeed, democracy does not exist in Singapore and China, and continues to recede in the US and Europe. I’m not sure about the solutions he proposes. Unlike Varoufakis I do not believe democracy and capitalism can coexist without capitalism consuming democracy. I see no version of capitalism that can allow democracy to survive.

      • blocke
        February 26, 2016 at 7:47 am

        When I taught history, we read R R Palmer’ The Age of the Democratic Revolutions 1760-1800, and when I wrote my doctorate I broke with Marx’s and the general tendency among historians and social scientists to merge the process of industrialization in the 19th century with the French Revolution in the 18th (R R Locke, French Legitimists and the Politics of Moral Order in the Early Third Republic, Princeton, UP, 1974) In other words I noted that the democratic revolutions in pre-industrial societies (1760-1800), because they occurred before capitalistic industrialization, affected how that industrialization occurred. But in societies that did not experience the age of the democratic revolutions, the industrialization still took place but differently than in the Western democracies. Do not make democratization, as Ken says, a part of industrial capitalism, the latter preceded the other in the Western democracies and colored industrial capitalism when it came; where no preexisting democratization had taken place, no democratizations could of necessity have accompanied the capitalism industrial development. In Germany, they call it Organized Capitalism and it was different because Germany was no democracy. Also the same in 19th century Japan.

      • February 26, 2016 at 9:42 am

        The issue is a relatively simple one. Capitalism and democracy are not compatible. Capitalism, whether in the garb of the industrial revolution or the financial revolution cannot allow decisions about economics and the welfare of capitalist actors to be in the hands of democratic decision making processes. That is processes in which every single citizen, rich, poor, highly or lowly educated, of every sort of political persuasion is allowed to have a voice in how the economy and the actors in it are expected to function. In other words, capitalism cannot be subject to any set of rules, any moral compass, or any way of making decisions except its own. The current struggle over all the pending and enacted international free trade agreements is a good example. All these agreements contain provisions that make it impossible for elected (democratic) governments in any nation to enact laws that injure or harm the companies involved in the trade. And allow the companies to take legal action in international, not domestic courts to stop or be compensated for such injuries. Makes it very clear who the bosses in international trade are.

      • blocke
        February 26, 2016 at 2:23 pm

        Sorry Ken, it depends on what you mean by capitalism. If you look at the Silicon Valley habitat you’ll find that its development was initially very compatible with capitalism, because individuals with money got together with people with economically viable ideas in an open society to carry through a dynamic industrial revolution. Democracy in this case did not mean one person, one vote, but an open society in which individual entrepreneurialism flourished. (See, Locke and Schoene, The Entrepreneurial Shift, Cambridge UP, 2004)

        The problem came when American conceptions of financialization, through stock market IPOs, combined with American conceptions of Director Primacy in corporate governance, to transform the new firms into anti-democratic institutions. Govern the corporations differently, more democratically, and capitalism could be compatible, or at least, more compatible with democracy. This is not a novel idea; it was present in New Deal conceptions of American industrial democracy, and in the Co-determination movement in Germany. The problem is not generic, but historical; the anti=democratic American forms of capitalism spread globally after WWII because of American hegemony; but history can be reversed, with different outcomes.

      • February 27, 2016 at 4:46 am

        Agreed the problems are historical, not generic. There is no essential capitalism or essential democracy. Only versions in history. I am concerned with the versions of democracy first, and only then with the versions of capitalism. According to the University of Gothenberg’s VDem Institute “Varieties of Democracy” dataset democracy is composed of varying combinations of: Electoral, Liberal, Participatory, Deliberative, and Egalitarian DECISION MAKING. This combination in its varied forms insists on being the highest power for making decisions in a collective way of life. And therein is the issue. Taking your example, each of the companies in Silicon Valley claims for itself the right to make decisions pertaining to the “company.” It’s simply impossible for there to be two final decision makers, particularly where there is conflict between the two over which decision is correct. One has to move aside for the other. Even recognizing that sometimes there can be compromise, or at times the two will make the same decision still leaves us with the question: which makes the final decision when there is no compromise and no agreement? This is what I mean by incompatible!

      • blocke
        February 27, 2016 at 9:01 am

        Who makes the decisions? It depends on the constitution of the firm. If for example, the firm has a compensation committee, and half of the committee members are elected by the employees and half by the stockholders, then the employees have a voice in determining salaries and benefits, i.e., how the income from the firm’s efforts are distributed within the firm. In American firms, under director primacy employees are “unheard” voices in such matters. Or if the works council in a firm, which is elected by its employees, is legally empowered to decide how new work processes are instituted in a firm, then the employees have a lot to say about their working environment. Etc.

      • February 27, 2016 at 7:49 pm

        However the company (firm) makes a decision it could conflict with a societal decision made by democratic processes. An example from my neck of the woods, Texas. Farmers in South Texas depend on laborers from Mexico. Federal laws regarding these laborers (age, protections, pay, etc.) have been made much stricter and enforced more strongly in recent years. The Texas laws are more lenient. The Texas companies that supply the laborers and the corporate farms that depend on them prefer the Texas laws but are forced – emphasize forced – to comply with the Federal laws. But they circumvent (nice word for disobey) the Federal laws whenever they can. And are fined and/or jailed when caught. In simple terms, the needs of a private company, cannot be allowed (emphasize cannot) to negate laws passed by a democratically elected law making body such as the US Congress. Even if doing so reduced the profits and increases the costs of the company. Again, incompatible choices.

  5. David Chester
    February 25, 2016 at 4:35 pm

    There is something wrong with this graph. When I was employed before retirement I worked about 42 hours a week for 50 weeks a year. Many in my department worked at least 15% overtime hours too, although generally I did not. So I worked 2,100 hours a year and not the miserable 900 hours or so as seen above!

    • Paul Schächterle
      February 25, 2016 at 11:33 pm

      The number is per person of the general population, not per person of the workforce. I guess that accounts for the difference.

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