Politics with Pavlinec: Elon Musk and Working Hours

Elon Musk, a man known for many things from sending rockets to space in hopes of colonizing mars one day to mass producing flamethrowers for fun. While trying to attract more people to his company, Elon Musk recently said that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” Immediate backlash ensued, a Vice article claimed Musk was promulgating corporate slogans to attract workers and justify his and other CEOs “own exorbitant salaries and lifestyles.” This is not exactly political issue, however economic ideals for the world structure our political thinking and its important to look at the facts. Let’s focus on this Vice article specifically.

Photo Courtesy of Steve Jurvetson

One of the main arguments by writer Rick Paulas lies in a study conducted by Stanford economist John Pencanvel on ideal working hours. The study finds that working over 50 hours leads to diminishing returns. The study is great, however, for many reasons its not relevant to Paulas’s argument. First, that data is over 100 years old. Working conditions were certainly more dangerous, improving dramatically in the past century. This is especially true in factories like Tesla’s. Second, the data focuses on factories during WWI. These workers replaced experienced, strong and youthful workers since those who were fit for war were sent first. The intense manual labor, by the end of the war, was done by 77% women. Many women took a job they had no experience in and strenuous labor was done by less experienced older men, mostly those not in their physical prime. Third, the work done was only measured in terms of physical exertion and did not specify if they were high or low skill. The workers Elon Musk is looking for are high skilled workers that would likely have more mental than physical work. They could recover more easily, albeit mental work is certainly no picnic. Improper use of studies degrades the science and makes a worse case for Paulas’s argument.

The article focuses on people that are supposedly fooled into believing Elon Musk’s vision for the world while he secretly reaps in the cash, adding to his assets of $24 billion dollars. On the contrary, Musk is trying to attract extremely qualified and conscientious people who share his vision. These highly skilled people have plenty of job opportunities, if they were suffering from overwork they easily could go into the job market, where they are in high demand. High work hours are not everyone’s thing, and for good reason! The health and wellbeing costs alone should dissuade most people.

These work hours are common among CEOs. A good question is not so much why there are few people that are CEOs (especially women), a better question would be why would anyone want to be a CEO at all? These high work hours are for few people that are driven by work, who live and breathe their creative production. They sacrifice a chance of a family, group of close friends and life’s leisures for their goal. Great creators of art, innovation or new methods of production who dedicated all of their lives diligently to succeed worked many hours. These are the people Musk is looking for.

While describing Musk’s vision for a greener world, Paulas sums up his efforts as a ”lame escape valve from capitalism’s drive toward global-resource consumption.” On one hand Paulas looks for a cleaner planet, and on the other attacks one of the best chances for that happening. This conundrum is puzzling. Perhaps Paulas has vision of a marxist utopia where man and nature work in perfect harmony, with little work to be done, and still reap the benefits of a capitalist society. Unfortunately for him, you cannot have your cake and eat it to.


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Chris Pavlinec is a junior studying Political Science with a Concentration in Politics, Philosophy and Law. He hails from New Jersey and spends his time reading economics, playing guitar and prepping for law school.

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