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John Quiggin

The Four-Day Week

by John Quiggin on May 4, 2022

I just got invited to put a short entry on the 4-day week in the 2nd edition of the Encyclopedia of HRM . It’s over the fold


Four Day Week

The five-day working week and the two-day weekend, have been standard for so long, it is hard for many to imagine anything different. But, as a normal way of working, it dates back only to the middle of the 20th century. Before that, Saturday was a normal working day in Western countries and only Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, was normally taken as a day of rest.

The advent of the weekend, and the associated standard workweek of 35 to 40 hours was the culmination of a long series of reductions in working hours from the peak, of 70 hours or more reached in the early 19th century. At the time, it was expected that these reductions would continue, as technological progress reduced the labour input needed to produce any given volume of output.

Reductions in annual hours, through increases in vacation time and other forms of leave continued during the middle decades of the 20th century,. However, with the increase in the bargaining power of employers which began with the neoliberal ‘counter-revolution’ in the 1970s, progress towards reduced working hours halted and was, in many cases, reversed.

The shock of the pandemic has created conditions for a resurgence of interest in reduced working hours and, particularly, the idea of a four-day week. The pandemic exacerbated existing disillusionment with working arrangements, and showed that alternatives are possible. As a result, a phase of experimentation has begun.

Proposals for a four-day week differ regarding the associated change in working hours. At one extreme, some proposals leave weekly hours unchanged, compressing five days’ work into four. At the other, daily working hours are unchanged, and the number of hours in the standard working week is reduced by 20 per cent.

It’s also necessary to consider whether a four-day week should take the form of a three-day weekend, extended to include Mondays (or perhaps Fridays). One alternative is an extension the rostered day off prevailing in some parts of the building industry, where all workers have one day off each fortnight, but the number rostered on any given day is constant. Another option, drawing on the experience of the pandemic would be a core 3-day week (Tuesday to Thursday) with workers having either Friday or Monday off.

One way or another it seems that the four-day week is now firmly on the policy agenda.

John Quiggin

References and selected further readings

Quiggin, J. (2022), ‘There’s never been a better time for Australia to embrace the 4-day week’, The Conversation, 14 February https://theconversation.com/theres-never-been-a-better-time-for-australia-to-embrace-the-4-day-week-176374,

Schor, J. (1993) The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, Basic Books,

Return of the Easter Bilby

by John Quiggin on April 18, 2022

In one of my earliest posts on CT, I mention the great Australian divide on Easter confectionary: bilby (cute endangered marsupial) vs bunny (voracious alien pest). It’s been a while since I’ve seen Easter bilbies on sale, but they were back this year, helping to raise funds for wildlife presentation In typical Twitter fashion, the pro-bilby group has divided on the question: Ears first or tail first.

Twigs and branches

by John Quiggin on March 26, 2022

A new Twigs and Branches post, open for comments on any topic. The usual rules on civil discussion apply.

Nuclear power and the Ukraine war

by John Quiggin on March 21, 2022

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has upended all kinds of certainties, created new possibilities, and closed off old ones. We can certainly see this in relation to nuclear power. Here are a few developments related to the war

  • Russia’s capture of the Chernobyl plant, and the associated fire, have raised new concerns about nuclear safety
  • Belgium has announced that its planned closure of a nuclear plant will be deferred, possibly until 2035, in order to reduce reliance on Russian oil and gas. There have been hints that Germany might do something similar
  • Finland has cancelled its proposed Fennovoima nuclear plant which was to be built using Rosatom’s VVER technology. Coincidentally, a few days ago, the Olkiluoto EPR plant was connected to the grid, twelve years late and way over budget

My guess is that the need to wean Europe off Russian gas over the next few years will outweigh enhanced concerns about safety.

On the other hand, the implications for new nuclear power are unambiguously bad. Projects started now can’t come in time to help with the transition from Russian gas, and the safety concerns will add to cost

Looking ahead, no one will want to deal with Rosatom any time soon, and Chinese proposals are also coming under more scrutiny. The cost over-runs on EPR plants create huge difficulties there also. These come together in Hinkley C (EPR) where hte UK government is trying to push China’s CGN out of the project, but having trouble attracting private finance to replace it.

The great remaining hope is Small Modular Reactors, most notably those proposed by Nuscale. But this hope has been around for a long time, with the arrival date always about 8 years in the future.

Time for the four-day week ?

by John Quiggin on February 18, 2022

For more than a century after the achievement of the eight hour day (around 1850) in Australia and New Zealand standard hours of week were reduced steadily, with the shift to a five day week, annual leave and more. But progress came to a halt with the resurgence of neoliberalism in the 1980s. I’ve been writing about the need for shorter weekly hours, more holidays and so on ever since, mostly with no apparent impact.

But the pandemic may have changed things, if only by making us all feel more exhausted than ever. After I published this piece in The Conversation advocating a four-day week, I was deluged with interview requests. It’s not perfect, and some of the most striking turns of phrase are the editor’s, not mine. But it seems like a good way to start the discussion.

Summers stumbles

by John Quiggin on February 9, 2022

There’s been a lot of debate lately about whether tightening of anti-trust legislation might be a useful response to inflation. Underlying this question is that of the relationship between monopoly and inflation more generally. The dominant view among mainstream/neoclassical economists seems to be that there is no such relationship. That view is stated by one of the most prominent mainstream theorist, Larry Summers as follows

There is no basis in economics for expecting increases in demand to systematically [cause] larger price increases for monopolies or oligopolies than competitive industries.

Summers goes on to describe the opposite view as ‘anti-science’.

Readers of this blog will be devastated to learn that Summers is dead wrong. It’s quite straightforward to show, in a simple neoclassical model, that imperfect competition amplifies the inflationary effects of demand shocks. Here’s a paper I’ve just written with my colleague Flavio Menezes which makes this point using the concept of the strategic industry supply curve. The same result can be presented, less elegantly in our view, using the standard tools of comparative statics to be found in any intermediate microeconomics test.

We also show that, contrary to a suggestion by Elizabeth Warren, imperfect competition is likely to dampen the impact of cost shocks. There isn’t, however, any equivalence here. Warren’s background is in law, and she isn’t making a claim just observing that monopoly power might be a problem. The distinction between cost shocks and demand shocks is unlikely to have been relevant to her, whereas it should have occurred immediately to a leading theorist like Summers.

I’m not sure about the lessons from all this. For me, it’s to think carefully before making dogmatic statements from authority. If all experts agree on something, we should say so, but be careful to make sure we are right.

The end of hope

by John Quiggin on February 9, 2022

If you want to mark the end of hope for US democracy, last weekend was as good a date as any. Both Trump and the Republican National Committee made unequivocal commitments to supporting the insurrection.

The response, on the Republican side, was much the same as in every previous step along the road to dictatorship. The usual handful of serving politicians, like Romney and Hogan (MD governor) objected, as did sometimes-Trumper Mitch McConnell, but none (not even Cheney and Kinzinger, the targets of the censure) even hinted at changing parties. A rather larger group of retired Repubs signed a statement, again failing to urge rejection of their party. Most current Repubs dodged the issue, claiming not to have read the news for a while. And, a couple of days later, it’s just about forgotten.

The result is that the overthrow of democracy has become, as far as the political culture is concerned, a routine issue of disagreement between the parties. In these circumstances, the par outcome is that the opposition party will do well in the midterm elections, and all the evidence suggests that 2022 won’t be an exception. So, unless effective legislation to prevent election subversion is passed this year, it never will be. It seems highly unlikely that reforms to the Electoral Count Act, if they pass, will be enough.

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The end of American democracy is unimaginable

by John Quiggin on January 30, 2022

I should know, I tried to imagine it.

Every few days, there’s another article pointing out the likelihood that a Democratic win[1] in the 2024 US election will be overturned, and suggesting various ways it might be prevented, none of which seem very likely to work. The best hope would seem to be a crushing Democratic victory in the 2022 midterms, which doesn’t look likely right now[2]

What I haven’t seen is anyone discussing what the US would be like after a successful Trumpist (or other Republican) coup. The closest approaches I’ve seen are “looking backwards” pieces, written from an imagined distant future when democracy or something like it have been restored.

I decided to attempt the task myself and found it very hard going. The resulting piece is over the fold. I tried a few outlets for it, and no one was interested in publishing it. So, I’m putting it out here, with all its faults.

Suggested improvements are welcome, as is serious criticism. Snarks and trolls will be deleted and permanently banned [3].

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Janus

by John Quiggin on January 20, 2022

A fun and often useful way of getting perspective on events from what seems like the relatively recent past is to take the time interval between those events and the present, then count back an equal time into the past [1].

For example, The Beatles first big hit, Love me Do, came out 60 years ago, in 1962. Going back 60 years to 1902, the hits of that year included Scott Joplin’s ragtime number The Entertainer. The recent buzz around Get Back can be compared to the revival of interest in Joplin generated by the Newman-Redford movie The Sting[2]

A more memorable event for most who were alive at the time was the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963, that is, 59 years ago. Going back 59 years gets us to 1904, only three years after the previous US Presidential assassination, that of William McKinley. At least according to Wikipedia, the immediate reaction to the McKinley assassination was comparable to that after Kennedy’s. However, McKinley was overshadowed by his successor, Teddy Roosevelt in a way that didn’t happen with LBJ and JFK. So, AFAICT, McKinley’s assassination was pretty much forgotten by the time of Kennedy’s election[2]

As far as left politics goes, a comparable observation that the events of May 1968 are closer to the October Revolution than to the present.

Looking at intervals like this gives an idea of whether change has been fast or slow. For example, the beginning of the Jet Age of passenger jet transport is commonly dated to the introduction of the Boeing 707 in 1958, but there’s also a case for the 747 introduced in 1969. Counting back from these two dates gives a range from 1894 to 1916, neatly bracketing the Wright Brothers in 1903. The massive advances from the Wright Brothers to the early 7x7s contrast sharply with the near-stasis since then (punctuated by the failure of the Concorde). Today’s 7x7s and their Airbus competitors differ most notably in the fact that the passengers are packed in tighter, and more effectively pacified with digital entertainment. The newer planes are more fuel efficient, safer and not quite as noisy, but those are incremental advances in an industry that used to symbolise modernity and technical progress.

That’s enough from me. Anyone else have a favorite?

fn1. The first time I saw this was in a look back at at an ANU Revue, during the Vietnam years, on the theme Hits of the Blitz. The author pointed out that the Vietnam War was now further in the past than WWII had been at the time the show was put on.
fn2. Doing the same thing for The Sting (1973) takes us back to the silent era and The Thief of Baghdad
fn2. Some fans of numerology noted that the winners of the 1860, 1880, 1900 and 1960 elections had been assassinated. Adding the 1840 1920 and 1940 winners, who died in office (though Roosevelt survived his third term, and won again in 1944), this produced the “Curse of the Zero Years”

Boris Johnson open thread

by John Quiggin on January 13, 2022

Boris Johnson seems to be in a heap of trouble, but from the other side of the planet it’s hard to work out much more than that. So, I thought I’d throw it open, with a few questions

Will Johnson survive as PM ?
If not who will replace him ?
Change for the better or worse?
Implications for policy responses to the pandemic, if any?

Why energy storage is a solvable problem

by John Quiggin on January 12, 2022

Most discussion of energy storage that I’ve seen has focused on batteries, with occasional mentions of pumped hydro. But in the last week, I’ve seen announcements of big investments in quite different technologies. Goldman Sachs just put $250 million ($US, I think) into a firm that claims to worked out the bugs that have prevented the use of compressed air storage until now

And several companies are working on gravity storage (raising and lowering massive blocks) to store and release energy

Underlying these points is a crucial fact in physics/engineering: Any reversible physical process is an energy storage technology.

That’s why concerns about the variability of wind and solar power will come to nothing in the end

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In defense of presentism

by John Quiggin on January 9, 2022

I was planning a post with this title, but after some preliminary discussion, a commenter on Twitter pointed me to this piece by David Armitage, which not only has the title I planned to use[1], but a much more complete and nuanced presentation of the argument, as you might expect from the chair of the Harvard history department.

I won’t recapitulate his points, except to make an observation about disciplinary differences. The dominant view in history described by Armitage as “professional creed: the commitment to separate the concerns of the present from the scientific treatment of the past” is identical, with a slight change in terminology, to the central claim of “value-free economics”, that it is possible to separate the positive science of economics, from the normative question of what economic choices should be made. [2]

What’s striking here is that the idea of “value free” economics has been the subject of severe criticism for decades, starting in the 1950s with Gunnar Myrdal [3]. Hardly anyone now puts forward claims of this kind in the strong version presented most notably by Milton Friedman. This view is routinely denounced as a residue of “logical positivism”, an pejorative with much the same valence as “Whig history”, except for a reversal of sign.

Armitage’s defense of presentism runs along very similar lines to the critiques of value free economics. Most notably, he observes

can we plausibly deny that we choose our subjects according to our own present concerns and then bring our immediate analytical frameworks to bear upon them?

Referring to history specifically, he says

only history—again, only our individual experiences and that collective record of the human past in all its forms, from the cultural to the cosmic—can supply the information and the imagination to shape our choices, in the present, among multiple potential paths into the future. If historians too freely use presentism as a slur or as a taboo, then we may be guilty of depriving our readers, and indeed ourselves, of one valuable resource for promoting human flourishing: history.

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Myths that stir trouble in the South China Sea

by John Quiggin on January 5, 2022

Just before Christmas, I published a piece in The Interpreter (Lowy Institute) arguing that most of the claims made by the contending parties in the South China Sea are myths designed to promote the interests of nationalists and militarists in a variety of countries, including Australia. Final paras

The mutual sabre-rattling associated with South China Sea mythology is beneficial to a variety of actors in the United States, China and elsewhere. The military-industrial complex, against which President Eisenhower warned 60 years ago, is powerful in every country, and always seeks to promote preparation for large-scale war as well as the routine use of military power for political and commercial ends. Nationalist politicians promote territorial claims of all kinds, and exaggerate their importance. And both Chinese and Taiwanese governments have good reasons to keep the idea of an invasion of Taiwan alive.

Unfortunately, these myths are not harmless. The possibility that the United States and China will somehow blunder into war is ever-present. And if such a war broke out, Australia would have a choice of bad options: either a disastrous war with its biggest trading partner or a breach with its most important ally. Rather than joining the alarmist chorus, the government should be seeking to reduce tensions.

The week before Christmas is traditionally a time to publish for those who want to avoid attention, so my timing wasn’t ideal. But in the New Year there has been a bit more interest. I was interviewed by CNBC Asia and Radio Free Asia, and there have been a few republications/

Twigs and branches

by John Quiggin on January 1, 2022

To start the blog for 2022, an open thread, where you can comment on any topic. Moderation and standard rules still apply. Lengthy side discussions on other posts will be diverted here. Enjoy!

Getting it wrong on the future of democracy?

by John Quiggin on December 21, 2021

As I indicated in my previous post about self-driving vehicles, I’m trying to think more about where I’ve gone wrong in my analysis of current issues and trends, hoping to improve. I got some useful comments on that issue, though nothing directly applicable to my bigger predictive failures

The most important such failure has concerned the future of democracy, where my views were characterized by clearly unjustifiable optimism (see here and here). I’ve now shifted to extreme pessimism, but I would love to be convinced I’ve overcorrected, as I have done in the past.
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