Why Work Hour Limits?

Many laws discourage and limit work hours. Laws require holidays and vacations, limit hours per day and week, and require extra payment for work over these limits. And of course income taxes discourage work more generally. The standard economic explanation for these limits is to prevent inefficient signaling. People motivated to gain relative status, to show their extra dedication to success, and to appear more able, work extra hours, for a net social loss. Work hour limits can reduce such losses. (Academic articles here, here, here, here, here.)

This argument makes some sense, but it would make a lot more sense if we set broader and more consistent limits. Yet we don’t at all limit housework, and place few limits on self-employed work. Furthermore, high status occupations are especially exempt. Doctors, lawyers, managers, financiers, artists, writers, athletes, academics, and software engineers often work crazy hours. Yet the signaling argument would seem to apply nearly as well if not better to such high status work. Why are we so selective in our limits?

One explanation is a battle for relative status between professions and activities. Areas where work hours are limited produce less, and so look less impressive. Ambitious folks who want to show their high abilities then choose other areas, leading to an equilibrium were observers reasonably less respect folks who work in limited areas. On this story, work hour limits were set in manufacturing and manual labor in order to reduce the status of such activities.

A second related explanation is that each society is eager to look good to other societies. So each society prefers to encourage, not discourage, activities that are especially visible to outsiders. When outsiders evaluate societies more on the basis of their athletes than their shop technicians, societies naturally subsidize the former relative to the latter.

Another third explanation is that voters support limits on work hours in some jobs mainly as a way to defy and “stick it to” employers, who are seen as evil and in need of taking down. Firms who employ low status workers may themselves seem lower status and “exploitive,” and thus more acceptable targets of ire. Work hour limits serve as a quantity limit which raises wages and thus employer expenses. Any reduction of signaling losses is nice, but mainly a side effect.

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  • Vince Mulhollon

    Explanation 4 : If you’re going to make a “75% consumer spending GDP” economy you better find a way for the proles to spend that dough, except for the people doing “real work” that absolutely needs doing. We need docs and engineers to run civilization, but the primary macro scale economics purpose of a mid level paper shuffler or meeting attender is merely to buy stuff, so they better make certain to get out there and do it, if they need laws to make sure they have enough time after work to spend all their earnings and whatever extra they can borrow, well then we’ll get those laws….

    • kebko

      “the primary macro scale economics purpose of a mid level paper shuffler or meeting attender is merely to buy stuff”

      That’s wrong. I’m not going to explain it or post a link to anything. But, I felt like somebody should tell you.

      • TeddySalad

        That’s wrong. I’m not going to explain it or post a link to anything. But, I felt like somebody should tell you.

        I like how you did that.

  • Vaniver

    Hour limits were primarily lobbied for by unions, right? (That area of economic history is not one I’ve very familiar with.) That would suggest to me it’s a solution to a collective action problem- at least 50% of laborers don’t want to work more than X hours a week (because they prefer leisure to more consumption), but asking to only work X hours a week is a signal of laziness that causes employers to not hire them. Only when every laborer insists on X hours a week will it become a stable equilibrium (to the benefit of the leisure-preferrers and detriment of the consumption-preferrers).

    Similarly, it sounds like “spread the work”- three people working 40 hours a week can do the work of two people working 60 hours a week, lowering unemployment (measured by people) without raising hours worked. (This explanation seems more plausible if work restrictions were lobbied for in a time when wages for the employment in question were rising.)

    As a rule, I find intraclass conflicts more believable than interclass conflicts.

    • This fits with the fact that many of these high status professions, like doctors, are barred from unionizing.

      • billswift

        Except that professional associations, especially those professions that have managed to acquire mandatory licensing for practice, effectively are unions.

    • Aaron Armitage

      (because they prefer leisure to more consumption)

      You were doing so well up until this point. In actual fact the same people were demanding both more consumption and more leisure, at the same time.

      As a rule, I find intraclass conflicts more believable than interclass conflicts.

      Suppose you merely preferred more ideologically convenient answers over less ones. What would the symptoms of that be?

      • Bobby McGee

        Suppose you merely preferred more ideologically convenient answers over less ones. What would the symptoms of that be?

        I’d say it would be a symptom of being Aaron Armitage. Seriously, crack open an actual history book instead of libertarian revisionist history, see the actual testimonials from the time, or the historical and forensic evidence.

      • Aaron Armitage


        You’re very stupid.

    • Uber Empress

      We who do the nation’s required physical work are hour-constrained by our bodies, not by any desire for leisure.

  • Thursday

    Workers in high status professions are seen as getting lots out of what they do, so it is OK for an employer to make them work like dogs.

  • Brennan

    Working beyond a certain threshold lowers productivity and the detrimental effect accumulates. Three 40 hours workers in fact perform better than two 60 hours workers.

    • Vaniver

      If workers are interchangeable and fatigue is a major factor, sure. But there are a host of administrative costs involved with employing people, as well as switching costs. If a lawyer needs to read hundreds of pages of material to understand the intricacies of a particular case, it’s wasteful to have 1.5 lawyers at 40 hours instead of 1 working at 60.

      Differing worker quality, though, is probably the primary motivator for high-skill fields. It can be better to have two fatigued workers than three rested workers if the third worker isn’t very good.

  • Lord

    It is mostly a matter of control. If you control your own work arrangements as both housewives and doctors generally do, there is no problem leaving it up to them. If you are a peon subject to the whims of a boss, he has little incentive to acquiesce in your desires. Your “willingness to work longer” is no willingness at all but the requirement of the boss. Your “demonstration of status” is no status at all but the mark of the subservient. It doesn’t lower status but is a reflection of low status. These only occurred after industrialization because only with large companies and corporations did the power shift between employer and employed and bureaucratic policies became standard. The laws are just an extension and standardization of such policies.

  • M

    With household labor and the self-employed there’s also the matter of monitoring costs. This is also the reason why small businesses are exempt from so much regulation – coordinating larger groups of people requires more of a paper trail than coordinating smaller groups.

  • Vince, you need to learn some Econ 101.

    Vaniver, docs and lawyers coordinate just fine to lobby for professional licensing restrictions.

    Thursday, that sounds a lot like my status explanations.

    Brennan, that argument applies to all these jobs, so doesn’t explain how we distinguish them.

    Lord, you seem to be talking about my #3, chafing at and wanting to stick it to bosses.

    M, we have lots of rules that are hard to monitor, but we still have the rules.

    • Khoth

      Lord’s explanation doesn’t look like signalling to me, unless you’re expanding the meaning of signalling to cover all human interaction. A boss saying “work 60 hours or I’ll fire you” is something a worker can want to avoid for motives other than “stick it to the boss”

    • Vaniver

      Professional licensing requirements are the negative of work hour limits, though- instead of increasing number of heads employed while keeping work hours fixed, they decrease the number of heads employed while keeping work hours fixed. (There are other effects, of course, but focusing just on hours worked for this conversation and leaning heavily on ceteris paribus.)

      That suggests to me that they’re solutions to opposite problems, and so the reason society regulates doctors and factory workers differently is because they want different regulations. Doctors want to be scarce (high wages and maybe improve health) but factory workers want to be common (political power and community health).

      When a first-order approximation breaks down, I think you’re better off looking for other first-order approximations than figuring out which second-order approximation saves your original approach. I think skill is a better explanation than status for the variance in work hour restrictions.

    • In what way does limiting work hours “stick it” to employers?

      Presumably employers have a certain amount of work and those employers should be neutral as to how many workers they hire to do that work provided the cost per unit of work is the same.

      I suspect that employers may feel like they are being “stuck to” because they have lost the flexibility to exploit their workers like slaves.

      Maybe employers don’t like to be unable to signal to employees that the employer can compel them to work like slaves, but that is not “sticking it” to employers.

      It is like the corporate mentality of Massey Coal in the Big Branch Mine. Management had total disdain for worker health, worker safety and mining regulations. Massey Coal simply ignored the laws pertaining to how coal mining is to be done. The mine explosion that killed 29 miners was a direct result of those violations of law.

      Does requiring safe working conditions “stick it” to employers?

      • John

        Presumably employers have a certain amount of work and those employers should be neutral as to how many workers they hire to do that work provided the cost per unit of work is the same.

        But the cost per unit of work is never close to the same. Additional employees have many substantial costs: litigation risk, background checks, interviews, recruitment, HR employees, credential verification, training, benefits, etc. etc.

      • John, none of those costs were significant (or even existed) when laws limiting work hours were first passed.

        As mtraven points out in the post below, the English Factory Acts first limited the hours that children could work. Did employers spend significant amounts on checking the credentials of 10 year old children?

        Maybe the risk of litigation does increase with the number of employees, but what evidence is there that reducing litigation risk is a driving force for extending work hours? Massey did have a massive risk of litigation, but they didn’t do the easy things to reduce that risk (such as follow mining laws).

        Limiting the number of employees that have access to an employer’s law-breaking does reduce the risk of litigation, but is that an acceptable employer tactic?

  • The standard economic explanation for these limits is to prevent inefficient signaling. People motivated to gain relative status, to show their extra dedication to success, and to appear more able, work extra hours

    Not in this universe. If that is really “the standard economic explanation”, economics is even more broken than I thought.

    The history of such regulations is readily available, and if you really think the purpose of, eg, the English Factory Acts was status signalling, you have been breathing your own exhaust fumes way too much.

    • Okay, then what were the real causes that brought about the Factory Acts?

      • A combination of horror at workign conditions for women and children, from more empathetic of the english ruling class (which I suppose could have been signalling on their part) and very rational social self-interest:

        The immediate cause of passing this bill was the fearful spread throughout the factory district of Manchester of epidemic disease, which made dreadful havoc among the youthful labouring population on account of their scanty mode of living… Their long hours of labour, the wretched accommodation provided for them, and the over-crowding of workmen in mills and factories, caused the alarming epidemic fevers of those times and districts.

        A more detailed history may be found here.

        Note that I’m not an expert or even knowledgeable about this stuff, I just know how to use Google, apparently a rare talent around here.

    • I don’t think it is the “standard economic explanation”. If you look through Robin’s references, they appear to offer little support for the claimed thesis. Instead, overtime limits on tough jobs protect workers from employer exploitation – which is an overall vote winner.

      • Why wouldn’t work hour limits protect docs, etc. from exploitation just as well?

      • Khoth

        Yeah, Robin’s tendency tto link to papers that don’t actually support his claimed thesis is one of his less endearing traits.

      • lemmy caution

        “Why wouldn’t work hour limits protect docs, etc. from exploitation just as well?”

        Doctors are unlikely to be exploited the same way mine workers are.

        A lot of the time restrictions should be considered in combination with the rest of the welfare state:

        Q. What if working 40 hours isn’t enough to make a living wage?
        A. Minimum wage laws

        Q. What if the minimum wage laws prevent people from getting a job?
        A. some form of government payments (unemployment, welfare)

        This is what workers fought for and got through the democratic process in the 20th century. Libertarians may not like it, but luckily libertarians don’t get extra votes.

      • The hours worked by medical interns and residents are capped (at a somewhat ridiculous 80 hours per week).

        Google and wikipedia. Learn how to use them.

    • Mary

      The entire question shows a serious need for some historical study. As mtraven says, unions and worker protection laws all came about to limit abuses of workers. Nothing status-oriented about it. Grueling physical jobs require adequate down-time to recover or people’s health suffers. Factory workers in low wage countries today suffer under many of the same conditions that spurred these laws in the West.

  • jam

    The analogues seem to be allowing rich children to work delivering newspapers but not poor children to work at sweatshops.

    Or allowing the donation of kidneys, but not the sale of them.

    Or minimum wage.

    Rich workers working long hours may or may not get compensation for those hours, but they don’t need the compensation. Poor people presumably need the compensation. Same with the other cases.

    Not sure what the standard explanations are for those others, but my guess would be that the attempt is to protect the poor, from their needs. Protecting is high status. The actual removal of the needs of the poor is counter-productive when the goal is protection.

    So we keep poor people poor, to protect them.

    There might be similarities here with war and terror.

  • Lord

    More corporate paternalism. A better comparison is GE competing with Westinghouse. Neither wants to work their workers to the bone but without such limits they would have little choice so they establish a standard to compete within, so it is probably closer to 1 but at the corporate level. Corporations don’t compete with the self employed and if their employees are higher income and are capable of self employment they are less inclined to invoke such limits. With more international competition they have been moving more employees into “management” to circumvent such limits so these customs have been breaking down. They can be preserved, witness Germany, but they won’t necessarily.

    • Lord

      It was much different at the beginning when Carnegie was pushing social Darwinism and unions were fighting this, but that approach became low status.

  • Matt

    Here is my arm-chair theory: If you are a worker with more status than your hiring manager, than you are considered to have power. You have ownership of your own labor. If you have less status than your hiring manager, than you have little power. The company has ownership of the position.

    Work-hour regulations would then just be an attempt “re-claim” power over one’s own labor. It would be low-status workers attempting to make the statement that their status isn’t that low.

    • billswift

      >It would be low-status workers attempting to make the statement that their status isn’t that low.

      Except, in case you hadn’t noticed, “low-status workers” are *not* the ones making the laws.

      • Aaron Armitage

        Bill Swift fails American history.

      • Matt

        I didn’t make this clear: I was talking about the narrative that led to the laws being passed. I didn’t mean that any of that is particularly true, just that this would be the honest narrative. Note also that low status workers have lots and lots of votes and they do not all go to the same candidates.

  • Khoth

    When wondering why laws are the way they are, surely it would be illuminating to study the history of their introduction?

    I don’t know much about it myself, but as an academic have you considered a collaboration with your colleagues in the history department?

  • faul_sname

    One other possibility. There is a limited amount of work available in non-skill and low-skill jobs. Under current conditions, it’s quite a bit harder to get a second job than it is to get the first one, so most unskilled workers are limited to 40 hours per week of work. In jobs with high training costs (doctors, lawyers, programmers, etc.), it costs more to bring in more workers with fewer hours. In unskilled work, however, this is not the case. There are clear advantages to having a low unemployment rate. In the training-intensive professions, this benefit is outweighed by the cost of training new employees. In unskilled work, there is little to no cost, and thus it is in a government’s interest to limit the hours of workers.

    This is not a new thought: during the worst of the recession, California state universities cut the hours of their workers so as to avoid laying off employees.

  • Les Cargill

    Child labor laws and the 40-hour week made the transition from Progressive agenda items to mainstream when unemployment appeared. Professionals like software engineers work long hours either because they prefer it, or as social signalling. Doctors? Can’t say. It’s a strange non-market. Doctors achieve a critical mass of patients, then stop
    taking new ones.

    Making wages higher has long been considered a direct social good in the US.It was, ultimately, the justification for the Civil War – free state laborers did not want slaves undermining wages. If we are going to use labor as an income distribution mechanism, then expect political pressure to raise wages. This exploded when the myth* that Henry Ford’s wages caused an economic uptick became prevalent.

    *just because it’s most likely true doesn’t mean it hasn’t become a myth…

    Labor history goes largely unstudied… labor unions are generally far, and have too much collective thinking to be consistent with USAian rugged individualism. Much of labor union history is as Joe Esterhaus told in movies – it was a way for outsider ethnic groups to transition to the mainstream. It failed when the large monolithic corporation failed.

    • Labor history has hardly gone unstudied. As someone else pointed out above, Hanson could easily pick up a phone and find someone who actually knows about the subject.

      Here, I’ll start the process off.

      Or by “largely unstudied”, do you mean “willfully ignored when it doesn’t fit an ideological bias”?

  • Chris Gregory

    Isn’t this all like Das Kapital 101 stuff? Uh, the class struggle over the definition of subsistence wages?

    I’m interested in the way that preventiative medical strategies are being used to transfer as much of the cost of welfare to the workers themselves, particularly when it comes to diet and exercise. There’s very little advantage to the average individual to change their eating or exercising habits (in the end you’re mostly talking about a very, very small change in life expectancy, weeks not years). But these things add up, I guess, and there’s a lot of money involved in selling health as a status signifier, amongst other things.

  • Tor Munkov

    I can’t think of any one thing that is more crippling to the American economy than this idea of working by the hour. Maybe using the stupid irrelevant resume process to hire workers is a close second.
    In most cases it is dehumanizing and foolish not to pay a worker or team of workers based on a production or service metric.
    When a worker is of unknown value, what possible significance can all the complicated mathematics used by decision makers really have. At root, it’s all irrational fiat if no one knows what they produce.

    • KPres

      Other methods are more difficult than to implement than you might think. The incentives don’t often line up. If you pay a percentage of profits, for example, the worker becomes responsible despite having little control over the operation. Not good for the king of specialization you need to be efficient. If you pay based on task completion, you incentivise riskiness or poor quality.

  • typo


  • David C

    Explanation 4: It’s easier to regulate hourly than salaried workers on the number of hours per week they work. So we passed that during the brief period of time there was public support, but when later it came time to re-evaluate how we had done and see about expanding the law, public support had disappeared.

    Explanation 5: People end up in high status jobs because they enjoy working more, so they’re less likely to favor hourly limits.

    Isn’t explanation one two different explanations?
    1) High status workers wish to reduce the status of low status workers.
    2) People work in high status jobs because they care more about status and hence are more opposed to limits on their own status creation.

    faul_sname’s explanation does seem interesting also.

    • If we wanted to limit the hours of salaried workers, we could just require that they be hired by the hour.

  • I think the reason that salaried workers are not paid by the hour, is so that their mental work product can be captured.

    Most salaried workers, if you invent something your employer owns it, no matter when or where you invented it.

    If you are an hourly worker and you build something in your off time, you own the fruits of your labor.

  • Aaron

    My thoughts.

    1) High end workers worked harder to choose their professions, specifically educational programs where they worked excessive hours. It seems hypocritical to claim 60 hour workweeks are abusive after doing years of 60 hour schooling.

    2) If you’re trying to prevent cheating (working extra hours) than most of the high status occupations mentioned include workers who could easily cheat. With the exception of doctors who have a limited supply.

    3) Limit laws are most common in industries that have a strong shift setup, where a wide variety in hours worked may be difficult to coordinate. If everyone works the same weekly hours it’s easier to coordinate.

    4) In low end occupations workers are easily replaced and employers have more power, limit laws remove the ability for high status employers to exploit their low status workers. In high end occupations the power difference is less pronounced so the employees are free to work as much as they want.

    • We could also try to limit work hours of students, if we wanted that.

      • Vaniver
      • Aaron

        Though that hits #2, where cheating is incredibly hard to prevent.


    It happened in the US to prevent immigrants from being able to outcompete locals. Immigrant bakeries had less capital and worked less intensively but worked much longer hours. NY imposed restrictions on hours to stop them. Lochner v. New York is the famous legal case that arose out of this.

  • I used to be one of these lawyers that worked almost around the clock.
    Then I quit – http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2009/07/31/sabbatical/ – and I am happier than ever before. Poorer, but happy. It’s my life again, not my job’s.

  • Why is it that teachers actually have the shortest work week if their work is averaged out throughout the year?

    • Because hours that can be effectively taught is limited by the children and not by the adults trying to teach them.

      Traditionally school only went through the winter months, so the children would be available for farm work during the summer.

      Since the people paying for school teachers (people with property who pay property tax) are not the ones who benefit (school age children, future employers of those children) there is no incentive to maximize effectiveness, only to minimize cost.

      Since traditionally teachers were mostly women, which made exploiting them for “women’s work” more culturally acceptable.

      • KPres

        “Since the people paying for school teachers (people with property who pay property tax) are not the ones who benefit (school age children, future employers of those children) there is no incentive to maximize effectiveness, only to minimize cost.”

        Which is exactly why education should be privatized.

        “Since traditionally teachers were mostly women, which made exploiting them for “women’s work” more culturally acceptable.”

        The opposite is true, given that historically hourly limits and such were applied to women first, meaning “exploiting” them (rolls eyes) is LESS socially acceptable.

    • Aaron

      Is this actually true? They have the longest vacation time true (though it’s a little shorter than the kids), but they also have a lot of preparation and marking when they do work.

  • Trevor Blake

    Not enough employment to go around so employment is rationed with holidays and the rest. Specialized work (doctors) have less employment rationing because they ration who gets to be a doctor in the first place.

  • Another historical note – Republican rep Katherine St. George, defending the amendment adding sex to the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

    “Protective legislation prevents, as my colleague from the State of Michigan just pointed out – prevents women from going into the higher salary brackets. Yes, it certainly does.

    Women are protected – they cannot run an elevator late at night and that is when the pay is higher.

    They cannot serve in restaurants and cabarets late at night – when the tips are higher – and the load, if you please, is lighter.

    But what about the offices, gentlemen, that are cleaned every morning about 2 or 3 o’clock in the city of New York and the offices that are cleaned quite early here in Washington, D.C.? Does anybody worry about those women? I have never heard of anybody worrying about the women who do that work. . . . ”

    110 Cong. Rec. 2,577 – 2,584 (1964)

    To me, it sounds like she’s arguing for “broader and more consistent limits.” It also sounds supportive of your second explanation (it looks good to outsiders to “protect” our precious, visible women), but the opposite of your first – she’s arguing that the existing work-hour-limit situation c. 1964 protects (“protects”) high-status, but not low-status, women.

  • Chris Gregory

    I’m Australian, so this might be more obvious to me…the work hour limits were fought for by trade unions. Not every decision made about work hours and conditions are decided by the bosses – in some places, at least, the workers have some say. So we have work hour limits: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eight-hour_day

    The Marxist value theory model basically says that capitalists make profits from exploiting the labour of the workers – the surplus value it produces. Now, while there may be an optimal figure for maximising that surplus value which is much higher than forty hours a week, the bosses don’t automatically get what benefits them the most, at least not in Australia. The class struggle revolves around efforts to control the subsistence wage – how much work can be get stolen from the worker at the least cost, to maximise the surplus value of the labour.

    My understanding is that higher paid jobs are more likely to demand unpaid overtime work, and that these sorts of occupations are typically not unionised. But in a sense, skilled labour is a different case entirely – a skilled labourer is someone who has invested capital in themselves as a commodity. The arrangements made between employers and skilled employees vary in character…all pop stars don’t get the same wage, for example.

    • lemmy caution

      Thanks for the link. History makes it clear who wanted the 8 hour workday and who didn’t want it.

    • Khoth

      Nice link. It also suggests another reason why doctors don’t get the same limits – “we” don’t grant rights out of consistency with some set of principles, rather, rights have to be taken by groups fighting for them. If doctors organise mass strikes, maybe they can get a 40 hour week too.

  • Jasha

    Software engineering is a high status occupation?

  • Berkeley Choate

    I know a lot of salaried white-colar workers who put in crazy hours, and are subject to whims such as 24/7 phone access (Reply within 1/2 hour or you’re in trouble). Meanwhile, I have to pay my hourly workers 1.5x for hours over 8 in a given day. The problem is that leaves me little flexibility to respond to the fluctuations of the market. As a small-business employer I just lost a good employee to a competitor who flaunts lablor laws. His guys work 60-hour weeks and “bank” hours over 40. They then get paid vacations with the accumilated “straight-time” pay. Frankly, if I were an employee, I’d love such an arangement. But the fed says no-no.

  • Vic

    To me, it comes down to a balance between career and personal life. I feel that employers have the obligation to make that happen. There’s always the temptation for employers to ‘suck up’ an employees martrydom and for employees to think that doing more will give special consideration.

    It’s sad that instead of a 40 hour work week, the demand is to work more and more. If a person wishes to give more, that’s their choice. But it should not be expected or, worse, demanded.

  • jncc

    Why work our limits?

    That question could only be posed by someone who is completely ignorant of American labor history.

    Try harder.

  • saucy

    I love how libertarians can be so willfully obtuse.

    I am a software engineer. For the past three weeks I was working 13-hour shifts. I get paid 130k/year and if I didn’t consider that arrangement fair I would quit. My employer has had ten or more open positions for the past five years because there are not enough highly-specialized workers available to meet demand. When my employer does hire new workers it requires a substantial investment in training for them to get up to speed and become productive. This means I negotiate with my employer from a position of strength.

    My brother-in-law has part-time employment plowing snow. A couple days ago he worked a 13-hour shift. I’m confident his 13-hour shift was more taxing and more dangerous than any of the ones I worked recently. I’m confident he didn’t get paid particularly well for it. I’m confident that if he were to object, his employer would have no trouble finding someone else to plow the same snow. So he negotiates with his employer from a position of weakness.

    The laws protect him, and not me, because he needs it and I don’t. This isn’t some conspiratorial “inconsistency,” it’s common sense.

    • KPres

      “My employer has had ten or more open positions for the past five years because there are not enough highly-specialized workers available to meet demand.”

      The reason there aren’t enough highly-specialized workers available is because menial jobs (like your brother-in-laws) are given so much protection and preferential treatment by the state that there’s little incentive to engage in the training required by these specialized positions like yours.

      If your brother-in-law found his occupation so objectionable, why didn’t he study to become a software engineer instead? The answer is that becoming a software engineer is incredibly difficult, requiring significant delayed gratification, and plowing snow is easier in the short-term.

      What should happen if there’s such an abundance of available and willing snow plowers is the wage rate should fall to the point where the effort required to become a software engineer is less painful than the discomfort of long hours for little money doing menial labor. Then you get more software engineers and society benefits from a more accurate distribution of software engineers vs snow plowers. Common sense.

      • The reason there aren’t enough highly-specialized workers available is because menial jobs (like your brother-in-laws) are given so much protection and preferential treatment by the state that there’s little incentive to engage in the training required by these specialized positions like yours.

        Another explanation would be that some people who are perfectly capable of plowing 13 hours a day, are not intellectually capable of successfully learning the skills required of a software engineer, no matter how much effort he puts towards educating himself.

        Just about 50% of the population has an IQ below 100.

      • D

        You forget that becoming a software engineer (or a doctor) is not something anyone can choose to do. Do you think the woman who cuts your hair could do it if she just worked hard enough?

        Maybe she could, but most companies would fire her when they realized she doesn’t have the instincts that good software engineers have. And you know what makes a good software engineer? Someone who loves software, who didn’t just learn it in order to get a good job.

        Despite people moaning about how bad our schools are, we have more high school and college graduate than at any time in our history. Would going back to, say, the pre-Roosevelt era when graduation rates were much lower be a net positive or negative?

      • saucy

        ha — thanks for proving my point re: obtuse. “if only we removed protections on low-income workers, suddenly they’d all become software engineers!”

        that makes perfect sense except that it’s malarkey:

        1. my brother-in-law grew up in a third world country. he never had the option to train to be a software engineer. he can’t go to school now because he has a family. this is not at all a unique story among the kind of people who make their livings in those low-status jobs.

        2. current incentives are plenty good enough to induce lots and lots of people to learn software engineering. those open positions at my company? we receive tens of applications per day from people who have had sufficient schooling to do the job — i.e. were properly incentivized. the problem is that 99% of them just don’t happen to have the unusual aptitudes required, because they are rare traits that 99.99% of the population lacks.

        there is no set of incentives in the universe that can make people biologically more suited to a particular line of work, sorry.

    • Dan Hickman

      @KPres – Exactly, thank you!

      When I was a software developer for a poorly-managed company, there was no incentive to work long hours because performance wasn’t rewarded. Today I work for a terrific company that rewards performance with financial and status incentives (i.e. money and promotions). Those who put in more hours do better than those who don’t.

      Many people choose not to put in the extra hours, which means they have extra leisure time and I have extra money. They have hit the level that suits their desire for responsibility. One day I’ll hit that level too and stop being promoted. But I’ll still make a fine salary and be happy with the place I have chosen.

      While I appreciate the attention paid by academics to the overall productivity of the workforce, imposing restrictions would be a soul-crushing blow to those of us who strive to stretch and grow and be rewarded for the outcomes.

  • “The standard economic explanation for these limits is to prevent inefficient signaling”
    The only economist I’d heard before give that explanation is Robert Frank. Maybe I don’t read enough economics, but signalling seems to be a somewhat marginal topic within it (which is why Frank sees himself as offering a challenge to many standard econ stories).

  • Gus

    Because deep down we know the low status workers will never have the opportunity to be rich if they work long hours all their lives. Because high status workers have more mobility and can quit and go somewhere else. Because most of the managers of low status workers would treat them as such. Because without these laws and returning to Dickensian work standards, I doubt whatever Robin Hansen does would be called a high status job.

  • Marie Nolen

    Any idea how many hours or dollars I put in as an elementary grade school teacher? None I’m sure. From Sixth to Kindergarten, It’s not something the public understands. Either I do it right – or I don’t do it. I do it right. Priceless: Kids who think I am the best since sliced bread. Nevermind: After 30 years every hour is a joy, even in what passes for the ghetto in Sacramento. A message from the real world for ecomony peeps. Plunk.

  • Dave

    The question isn’t how many hours you work, but how intensely and productively you work the hours you do. Working 60-hour weeks doesn’t necessarily correlate to working hard.

  • KJW

    Wow, what a great big can of “I don’t know sh*^t!” Where to start?

    A.) Educate yourself about labor history. You’ll soon learn why the 40 hour work week is considered a massive step forward in human rights. And BTW, the 40 hour work limit is ROUTINELY overstepped in many/most fields. At which point “overtime” should kick in — another great advancement.

    B.) Are you imagining that lower-wage workers just go home and sit around after their cushy work week is over? Yeahhhh…nope. Most go off to other jobs or to night-school or to child-rearing. Thankfully, the 40 hour work week allows them to DO these other types of work.

    C.) “Doctors, lawyers, managers, financiers, artists, writers, athletes, academics, and software engineers often work crazy hours.” Yeah, and most of them earn comfortable 6 or 7 figure incomes. (Artists and writers don’t of course, but their labor is presumably for love and they can quit when they choose to.) If you’re making big bucks, you have no need of night-school, or a second job and you can pay for a nanny — see above.

    C.) Republicans never cease to amaze me. Telling us that child labor laws hurt children and that setting limits on how much an employer can demand of his workers is “anti-work” or “stickin’ it to the Man.” Next you’ll be explaining how the Civil Rights movement made things worse for blacks. Can’t wait for that one!

    • MBL

      It really is amazing how long it took for someone to point out just how deeply this guy’s head is lodged in his ass. How ignorant of basic history and, Christ, the freaking outside world do you have to be to even ask this question?

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  • porkramen

    Quoted from elsewhere: “We limit these hours because, historically, owners or bosses would compel workers to do physically demanding and dangerous jobs beyond the point of sanity, where exhaustion and fatigue would endanger workers’ health and lives. Their compulsion was based on the fact that there was a line of guys outside that factory door looking for work, and if you weren’t willing to put in 12 hours a day, the next guy might.

    We also limited hours to spread jobs around during the Depression. Overtime pay was designed to get owners to hire more workers instead of just over-working the ones they had, to spread the work (and hence, the wealth) more widely. But many workers took to overtime as a form of de-facto pay raise.

    Finally, some of the workers who we don’t limit, we probably should. Doctors especially should have work limits, given the fact that study after study shows that fatigue leads to bad decision-making which leads to bad outcomes (ie, death) for patients. But doctors who are in a position to change things came into that position of power under the current regime of crazy training hours, and so see no need to change it. People working for themselves – the financiers and artists and academics – fine, work yourself to death, 16 hour days, 7 days a week, whatever. But people working for other people need some protection, and people who work ON other people should also be limited even if they are not.”

  • Psychohistorian

    “The standard economic explanation for these limits is to prevent inefficient signaling.”

    I believe it would be harder to find a better example of the disconnect between economic theory and reality.

    Economic models aside, the reason these laws exist is to help protect workers from the substantial power advantage employers have over the. One can debate whether this works efficiently in the aggregate, but it’s pretty clearly why people vote in favor of these laws.

    Transaction costs, like friction, may be very inconvenient, but they are very real. Many people who live paycheck to paycheck are not in a position to decline additional required work – if the boss says you need to work over the weekend, and it is extremely costly for you to find a new job, you have little choice but to agree. The employer need merely pay the cost of replacing an unskilled worker, which is low. These laws can therefore be said to attempt to approximate arms-length negotiations between parties of relatively greater power. While it is an empirical question as to whether they make such workers better off in the aggregate (as they may reduce employment, or prevent people from working hours at their normal wage when it exceeds their reservation price), the purpose of these laws is to protect individuals with very limited bargaining power. There is also a plausible argument that such laws are so impractically difficult to enforce as not be worthwhile.

    Higher salaried employees, by contrast, have significantly more bargaining power. Skilled workers are more costly to replace, expect to be working extensive hours, and are likely to be wealthier and more capable of credibly threatening to quit.

    This status explanation is rather clearly wrong if you look at the jobs where hours are limited. These tend to be manual labor or customer service sector jobs – where hours worked is likely to be identical to productivity. If you spend 50% more time working the register, you produce, basically, 50% more cashiering. If you spend 50% more time writing legal briefs or doing a financial analysis, you may well add significantly less than 50% worth of value. Yet it is the former jobs that are strictly regulated; the latter tend to be done by salaried employees who do not get overtime pay or experience other such restrictions.

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  • ezra abrams

    don’t any of you people realize that exploitation is real and harmful ???
    To give a recent example, Wal Mart, apparently, had a rule that after you punched out (timeclock) if a customer stopped you before you got to the front door, you had to help the customer untill s/he was satisfied
    here is boston, we have a yuppie pizzeria (upper crust) where mangement illegaly withheld OT pay (they had to settle ,and write a big check)

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  • abcdefgqwerty

    private companies always push everything to the very limit they can regardless of workers. The laws are the little and only protection left.