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Posted by on Jul 10, 2015 in 2016 Elections, Featured | 15 comments

Dear Jeb: that soundbite was not a gaffe

Jeb Bush Twitter ProfileSometimes you can’t avoid the 2016 presidential candidate blather.

On Wednesday, the New Hampshire Union Leader published highlights of an interview with Jeb Bush.

The soundbite that was quickly heard around the world was this:

“… people should work longer hours …”

Bush immediately back-pedaled, insisting that he meant we need fewer people working part-time.

But that is not the context of his comment:

jeb bush quote

Here’s that sentence in full:

“It means that people need to work longer hours and through their productivity gain more income for their families (emphasis added).”

American workers already put in a bunch of hours

As Gallup reported last year, half of all full-time workers report working more than 40 hours a week; 2-out-of 5 work more than 50 hours a week. (And remember, salaried workers do not get overtime.)

Not only do Americans work more than our counterparts abroad, this is the new norm:

gallup

Gallup data suggest working more than 40 hours a week is the new norm.

The average? 47 hours per week. That’s almost like working eight days in a seven-day period. Add in commute time and the US workday is a nightmare for many.

Part-time in the US is defined as working less than 35 hours a week. Under the Affordable Care Act, that threshold drops to 30 hours a week.

I’m pretty sure no one in their right mind would argue that German employees (think BMW, Mercedes) are slackards. But in 2014, the average German worked 1,371 hours a year compared to 1,789 for an American. Americans worked 30% more hours a year than Germans.

“The economic engine of the EU, Germany single-handedly saved the Eurozone from collapse in 2012. At the same time, German workers enjoy unparalleled worker protections and shorter working hours than most of their global counterparts. How can a country that works an average of 35 hours per week (with an average 24 paid vacation days to boot) maintain such a high level of productivity?”

I don’t think America’s economic “problem” is number of hours worked by individual employees.

A gaffe is a mistake

If a gaffe means unintentionally saying something that is embarrassing, why am I refusing to accept this characterization? Because gaffes are blurted comments, one-liners, contextually solo. Like mis-remembering someone’s name.

Re-read that paragraph and, with a straight face, explain how this could have been an unintentional statement.

“My aspirations for the country, and I believe we can achieve it, is for 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see,” Bush said. “Which means we have to be a lot more productive. Workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours and through their productivity gain more income for their families. That’s the only way we are going to get out of this rut that we’re in.”

Can’t do it. (Oh, and if it was totally ad-libbed, then he needs to fire his handlers.)

A gaff is not a mischaracterization

In his retraction, Bush said this:

Bush told reporters at a campaign event here that when he said “people need to work longer hours” to grow the economy, he was referring to part-time workers getting more hours — not full-time employees working longer — and he blasted Obamacare for companies scaling back to 30-hour-a-week schedules.

But that’s not true. He alluded to part-time workers in the prior sentence:

“Workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows.”

It’s true that since 2007 unemployment is up for all categories of workers regardless of education.

unemployment

State of Working America, June 2015

As a reminder, the Great Recession (post-2007) resulted from willful greed and self-imposed Wall Street blinders. And none of those guys have gone to jail. In fact, the banks are bigger today than they were then.

Is the persistent unemployment because these folks don’t want to work? Doubtful.

The audience for that one-liner is employers, not employees. And maybe public policymakers. But not employees.

If Bush really meant — by this entire paragraph — that we need to get the underemployed and unemployed into full-time jobs, he picked a truly round-about way to state the obvious.

Oh, and that jab at the Affordable Care Act. Without merit; the (temporary) shift in under 35/over 35 hours a week happened in 2008 as part of the Great Recession. But you knew that.

Part time - full time

Part time and full time employement from Advisor Perspectives

Productivity: a dog whistle

There’s more fodder here, fodder that has fallen to the wayside given the powerful emotional punch of “work longer hours.”

First, the link between productivity and bringing home more for the family was decoupled a long time ago. In 1975.

worker productivity

Via Think Progress

Moreover, productivity is a dog whistle for Wall Street and corporate bean-counters. That’s because it’s connotatively linked to “cost savings” and “profits”, benefits that accrue not to employees but CEOs, some senior level managers and stockholders.

Furthermore, by implying that workers are not sufficiently productive, Bush is peddling a myth. From the International Business Times, 2013:

“EPI labor economists looked at wage trends in all income levels and found that Americans earning at or below 60 percent of the distribution of wages in the U.S. — a vast majority of working Americans — saw no gains in their wages between 2000 and 2012. At the same time their productivity increased nearly 25 percent (emphasis added).”

Bush provided no hints of how he would cajole Wall Street into turning the un-and under-employed into the gainfully employed. And no, Uber and AirBnB are not the answer.

So what to make of this tempest? A manufactured brohaha for headlines, wily like a fox? Or an out-of-touch Republican?

Maybe a little of both.

It’s going to be a painful journey to November 2016.

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