Ethics@work: Looking at leisure

Where does the value of our non-workplace time figure in the prominent economic statistics?

sleep disorder 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
sleep disorder 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The economy, as ever, is a central election issue in Israel. The main concerns are ethical: Is our economy providing a good life and creating a fair society? But the discourse is largely statistical: How large was growth? How fairly is income distributed? The numbers tell us about gross domestic product (GDP) and unemployment rates and Gini coefficients, but a little understanding is required to endow these numbers with meaningful ethical content. Past columns dealt with a number of these issues: Maybe family structure should change the way we look at how much "bang to the buck" we get from our economic output []. Perhaps inequality in income (which has been growing a lot) is less important than inequality in spending (which has been pretty stable) []. And maybe we wouldn't be so gung ho about getting mothers into the work force if we acknowledged that any mother of young children is probably working pretty hard at a very important job []. The next thing I want to put on our radar is leisure time. Common sense and everyday behavior confirm that people value their time a lot. Most people are physically capable of working sixty hour weeks - and such a workweek used to be commonplace - but very few people actually do. Less than 8% of the US work force works at least 60 hours a week. Surveys show that very few people who are able to retire comfortably keep on working. Less than 6% of over-70 Israelis are in the labor force - perhaps this can serve as a gentle reminder to some senior Israeli political figures who could perhaps help themselves and the country more as respected elder statesmen than as active politicians. Where does the value of our non-workplace time figure in the prominent economic statistics? The answer is simple: Nowhere! The standard statistics tell us how many hours Israelis work, but not how many hours they are free from work. An increase in free time, even if gladly welcomed by our citizenry, comes out as an unredeemed disaster in the standard statistics. Output goes down, hours go down, and so on. Like most sensible insights, accounting for leisure doesn't drive us specifically right or left. Its consequences challenge assumptions common to both. One reason market advocates are concerned about welfare programs is that they discourage work. But it is worth asking ourselves whether this is necessarily so bad. John Kenneth Galbraith, probably the most eloquent spokesman for the welfare state, said in an interview: "I would like to see a minimum income for everybody so that you have a life-supporting safety net. I think it's something a rich country like the United States can afford. And I'm not the only one with that view. Conservatives will say that people endowed [that way] won't work. Well, that's quite possible, but I'm impressed with the fact that leisure, if you're rich enough, is also a very good thing." (By the way, there are also cogent replies to Galbraith. Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen points out that lack of workplace participation has not only economic consequences, which can be cured by transfer payments, but also severe social consequences in terms of social isolation. My rule of thumb is that Galbraith always asks the right question but doesn't always give the right answer.) Another example we already mentioned is mothers' work force participation. Many countries subsidize child care in order to encourage mothers to work outside the home. But perhaps they should be empowered to work inside the home as well! Some countries provide childcare allowances that can be used either to pay for day care or to allow the parent (usually the mother) to stay home. Here, also, it is not a left-right issue. These allowances were pioneered by progressive northern European countries like Finland and Norway, but were popularized elsewhere (such as Canada) by conservatives, who are in favor of minimizing direct government involvement in family decisions and may also view this as a "pro-family" statement. This even bears on the inequality question. While income inequality has been growing, with the richest households getting a larger fraction of income [], leisure inequality is going in the opposite directions. The wealthiest households are on the whole the hardest working ones, more so than a generation ago. A lot of people would be reluctant to trade places with these high-income, high-pressure households. I think it's wonderful that election rhetoric is focusing on vital ethical questions related to our economy, but it's important not to let narrow and outdated statistical concepts dominate our ethical thinking. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in The Jerusalem College of Technology. He is also a rabbi.