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Let Them Eat Dogma, Revisited


In its recurring “Room for Debate” feature, the New York Times opinion pages recently invited several columnists to opine on the forty-hour work week. For instance, is it a “quaint” construction, considering the flexibility that advances in technology now make possible? The forty-hour limit was a hard-fought constraint. But what about all the ways that employers now frequently skirt the law, to get more work out of their staff for less pay and no benefits? Great questions.

At least one of the answers they got made no sense at all. In a truly baffling column, entitled “Make Longer Hours Worthwhile,” author and Forbes columnist Amity Shlaes argued that “the biggest reason” that people work whatever number of hours that they do is: taxes. Not, like, how much actual work they have to complete that week, or what their boss demands of them, or how much money they absolutely have to make in order to cover that month’s bills. Taxes.


FDR, pictured here signing some socialist
or maybe fascist stuff into law.
Credit: Library of Congress

She explains that, because of America’s progressive tax rate, the last dollar earned in a workweek is taxed more heavily than the first. Therefore, it’s “less attractive” for people to work more hours. The solution, of course, is a flat tax! “And most people are aware in a general sense that harder work has limits to its rewards because of the effect of progressivity,” Shlaes writes. “If we flattened the code, so that the last dollar is taxed at the same rate as the first one, people would want to work more.”

As proof, Shlaes cites economist Edward Prescott, who found that “tax rates largely determined the hours that workers put in.” A correction/update at the bottom of her column indicates that she may have gotten some pushback for an overblown and, well, incorrect, characterization of his research: “An earlier version said that Prescott found that tax rates alone determined what hours workers put in.

Oh dear. Well, this reminded us of a gem hiding in our archives, which we’re publishing online for the first time for the occasion. In Issue 18, Chris Lehmann’s essay “Let Them Eat Dogma” skewered Shlaes’s 2007 book The Forgotten Man, a book which, among other texts, encouraged the right-wing literati to return to their stale and musty intellectual roots: discrediting the New Deal. “New Deal denialism, much like creationism, entails blotting out whole swaths of contradictory evidence—not merely the bulk of FDR’s contemporaneous record, but also the decades of growth and comparative stability that succeeded it,” Lehmann wrote. Enter Amity Shlaes:

At the outset of The Forgotten Man, Shlaes poses as a disinterested chronicler. But she soon makes her affinities plain. Roosevelt’s experiments in social engineering were “often inspired by socialist and fascist models,” she asserts. And while she allows that “few New Dealers were spies or even communists,” they nonetheless cleaved to “Soviet-style or European-style collectivism”—something that other historians of the era have neglected to note for “fear of being labeled a red-baiter.”

Shlaes depicts the New Deal as a titanic exercise in interest-group politics, aimed solely to secure Roosevelt’s 1936 re-election by buying off “labor, senior citizens, farmers” and (redundantly) “union workers.” Before those dark days, Shlaes contends, “only individual citizens or isolated cranks had stood” for such interests, neatly writing off the nation’s entire reform tradition. In Shlaes’ telling, the only legitimate function of government, now and forever, is to shore up the interests of business. Anything other than that is Machiavellian subterfuge.

Read Lehmann’s “Let Them Eat Dogma” in full, online for the first time, here.