The Competitive Spiral
One: Hunter-gatherers worked a 20 hour work week.

And we think we've come a long way.

The inhabitants of the most primitive society we know, only had to work twenty hours a week to take care of their needs. In the United States the nominal work week is double that, and in practice, many people work far harder - in some industries 60 hour weeks are the norm.

Yes, I'll grant you, I don't want to be a hunter-gatherer. Some of that is because I'm past the age of disease and decay, and hunter-gatherers don't fare well under those circumstances. But there are advantages. Regular exercise and a varied diet makes it easier to maintain health. In their spare time they sleep and play.

Two: Automation doesn't reduce work, it increases quality or productivity or both.

The best illustration of this is in law. Word processing and computer search make it a lot easier to prepare for trial, but what happens is, since everyone has the same tools, lawyers spend the same amount of time as they used to, but end up with more information. Law is one of those industries where 60 hour weeks can be the norm.

Automation lets us work smarter but we then work harder because we're still in competition.

Three: Fiat managers, in reviewing Chrysler before the deal, were reportedly appalled by the size of Chrysler's management. (I'll find the citation and update this essay, but I'm pretty sure it was in a recent Economist.)

Italian managers, from Europe - the land of long vacations and "socialist" tendencies, found Chrysler's ratio of managers to workers too high. I'm pretty sure most of those managers were putting in long work weeks, maybe a few were goldbricking, but not all. What were they working on?

I don't know for certain but I will bet that many of them were working to beat their competition - their fellow managers. (A Republican friend suggested that regulatory compliance was another possibility; I don't buy it as the whole problem. You mean there are no regulatory issues in Europe?)

Competing with their fellow managers doesn't have to mean Machievellian backstabbing; just working long hours to have a better report, more detailed, with more statistics, for the boss.

I do believe in competition. But 60 hour weeks? Three times the work week of the most primitive societies? Maybe we can afford to back off a little.