hamster wheelJohn de Graaf has a fascinating post on AlterNet about the American culture of overwork and the German policy of Kurzarbeit, or “short work” — encouraging employers to reduce hours rather than lay workers off when business is slow. In a country with both a worn-out workforce and a major unemployment problem, that seems worth considering.

There are plenty of “environmental” benefits to scaling back work hours, but a sane, well-paced life can be its own justification. If people find themselves spending less time in cars (I’ve got time to walk!) and at fast-food shacks (and time to cook!), so much the better.

Says de Graaf:

Less work, more life. It’s a tradeoff that a lot of American workers might appreciate. Pollsters find time stress a constant complaint among Americans. Until the current recession, Americans were working some of the longest hours in the industrial world.

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Conservatives say this is all voluntary: Americans just like to work a lot. But Gallup’s daily survey finds them 20 percent happier on weekends than on workdays — what a surprise! And when Americans rank the pleasure their daily activities bring, working ends up second from the bottom (socializing after work is second from the top!), more pleasurable only than that mother of all downers, the morning commute.

By contrast, the Netherlands boasts the world’s shortest working hours. Dutch workers put in 400 fewer annual hours on the job than American workers do. And yet, the Dutch economy has been very productive. Unemployment (at 5.8 percent) is much lower than in the United States, while the Netherlands boasts a positive trade balance and strong personal savings. A Gallup survey ranks the Dutch third in the world in life satisfaction, behind only the Danes and Finns, and well ahead of Americans.

The economic case:

Economist Dean Baker argues that any further economic stimuli should include Kurzarbeit, or “short work,” a German policy that encourages employers to reduce hours rather than lay workers off when times are tight. Instead of cutting 20 percent of the workforce, a German company might reduce each worker’s load by a day. Unemployment benefits kick in for the reduced work time, so workers earn roughly 90 percent of their former incomes for 80 percent of the work.

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Other countries have followed suit — the French believe in “working less so all can work.”

Could it happen in the U.S.? Only when someone clues in our elected officials:

Here in the United States, a bill sponsored by Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, and Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, would allow federal unemployment benefits to be used to top up salaries of reduced-hour workers in the United States. When the bill was discussed in Barney Frank’s House Financial Services Committee, not only did Dean Baker testify in favor but so did Kevin Hassett, an economist with the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Hassett pointed out that even though the Germans’ economy tanked like ours did in 2008, their unemployment rate hasn’t risen — thanks to Kurzarbeit. The law allows companies to retain workers instead of having to rehire later, he said. It’s good for them, good for the workers, and doesn’t really cost any more than traditional unemployment payments. It’s a win, win, win. Nonetheless, not a single Republican has supported the bill and not all Democrats do either, so it remains in limbo.

For another model, the Utah state government has a 4-day, 10-hour-a-day work week. Workers still put in their 40 hours, but they save a commute and get an extra day at home. And their customers have more early-morning and evening hours to get to the DMV.