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Corona: a positive agenda

Summary:
The eight hour working day was a long standing aim of organized labor. For decades it seemed unattainable. ‘International competition’ often was a main reason why countries stubbornly refused to introduce it. But from 1915 on and starting in Uruguay it suddenly spread all over the world. Within a few years, in many countries the six day eight hour working week had become the new normal. Corona won’t end the world. After World War I and despite the Spanish flu many countries rapidly bounced back to prosperity. The introduction of the eight hour day did not prevent this in any way! Too much of this prosperity was based upon flimsy finance the productive capacity was available – while more robust ways to finance investment are of course possible.  Prosperity never is the problem even when

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The eight hour working day was a long standing aim of organized labor. For decades it seemed unattainable. ‘International competition’ often was a main reason why countries stubbornly refused to introduce it. But from 1915 on and starting in Uruguay it suddenly spread all over the world. Within a few years, in many countries the six day eight hour working week had become the new normal.

Corona won’t end the world. After World War I and despite the Spanish flu many countries rapidly bounced back to prosperity. The introduction of the eight hour day did not prevent this in any way! Too much of this prosperity was based upon flimsy finance the productive capacity was available – while more robust ways to finance investment are of course possible.  Prosperity never is the problem even when flimsy finance, long working hours or unsustainable methods of production might be.

After Corona, countries can bounce back, once again. Of course, we have to introduce measures like job guarantees and the like during the ordeal and finance these in a sustainable way – which for the time being might well be by printing money instead of issuing debt! Be aware: I did not write: ‘printing unlimited amounts of money’ or ‘competitive printing of money by states of the USA or Eurozone countries’. But for the time being printing money to the tune of 20% of GDP per year might not do any harm even when, this time is different, I do agree with Ted Sargent there has to be a credible exit strategy. Which, by the way, also is the MMT stance. If there is one school of thought which does not promote unlimited money printing it’s MMT!

But: after 1919, not every country introduced the eight hour day. While some countries went down in flames. Success is not warranted. The real exit strategy is a positive post-Corona agenda. A few points:

  • This does give us a real chance to ramp up international disease prevention. Malaria, Dengue, Chagas, Yellow Fever and many others have to eradicated, too. The present feverish international activities to find a vaccine against Corola have to be ramped up to combat other diseases, with a mayor role for massive long term government guidance, property of patents and investments. The long term will be defined here as two generations or about sixty to seventy years. Corona decisively showed that private companies can do great high tech work at break neck speed – but do not have the means and incentives to finance long term research trajects. Much more about this of course by Dean Baker. But the point: nothing has to stop us.
  • Within months, there will be hundreds of millions of unemployed. This calls for a kind of job guarantee. Armies will be probably expanded. But we’re talking about the years after here. What to do? The ‘Green new deal‘ strikes a chord, of course. For the time being countries might stop increasing the pension age – for the sake of social cohesion they have to be clear about this now. This, however, won’t solve the problem. These are just some ideas and responses will have to be national. But the point: we have to think about them now. And as the stunning success of the revolutionary introduction of the eight hour day shows: think bold. We’ll need these hundreds of millions. Now is the time.
Merijn T. Knibbe
Economic historian, statistician, outdoor guide (coastal mudflats), father, teacher, blogger. Likes De Kift and El Greco. Favorite epoch 1890-1930.

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