When I worked at the Washington Monthly in the 1980s, the most notable aspect of the office, aside from its shabbiness, was the almost total physical absence of the boss, founder and editor in chief Charles Peters. Pioneering in so many ways—his column, “Tilting at Windmills,” a collection of delightful, insightful, counter-conventional mini-essays, has often been described as “the original blog”—Charlie was the first person I knew who worked from home.
That he managed to pull this off pre-internet is a testament to his will—and his command over his employees. After 12-hour days at the office, one of us (often me, because I had a car) was obliged to drop the pile of paper drafts we’d been working on in the milk bucket on the front stoop of Charlie’s modest row house in D.C.’s Palisades neighborhood. He would retrieve them the next morning and work on them through lunch, which he typically had at Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse or the Iron Gate Inn. He would then burst into the Monthly’s office, divvy up the drafts, bark a few orders, and leave. His remaining communication with us was by telephone, usually short calls, shorn of salutations. (Editor: “Hello, Washington Monthly.” Charlie: “On reflection, I would cut the entire third section.” Click.)
When I took over the Monthly in 2001, that remote oversight wasn’t my style. I put in long hours at the office, out of solidarity with my colleagues but also out of necessity. I’d never run an organization before and felt that I needed to be constantly present.
Pretty quickly, though, I availed myself of the boss’s privilege of coming in late. This gave me the opportunity to read the morning papers, enjoy coffee with my wife, drive my kids to school, and avoid rush-hour traffic.
As my self-assurance grew, I began working at home one day a week—then two, sometimes three. I still valued the camaraderie of the office and the spontaneous conversations that gave rise to unexpected insights and story ideas. But technology—email, then Dropbox and instant messaging—made working from home easy. And the hour I saved not commuting, plus the ability to concentrate with fewer interruptions, made it easier to get essential work done. When young editors asked if they could work at home some days, I gladly consented.
Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly, the whole staff had to work remotely. That suited me fine, as it did colleagues who had young kids and aging parents.
Not everyone liked being out of the office, however. Meetings on Zoom felt weird, at least initially. It was harder to integrate new staff without the in-person touch. The troubles eased after vaccines allowed us to reopen the office; young editors and interns living in cramped quarters now had a comfortable, if largely empty, suite of offices to escape to.
At the same time, the switch to mostly Zoom-based communication eased the way for us to hire more talent living outside the capital. We’re still experimenting with ways to build esprit de corps, like occasional all-staff lunches. But on balance, the new working-from-home regime has improved both the magazine and our lives.
That is not a view shared by leaders of some of America’s largest corporations. Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Jamie Dimon, and other CEOs are demanding that their employees return to their cubicles—asserting, with little evidence, that this will improve productivity. One suspects that their real aim is control over their employees. Since when do capitalists say deploying new technologies is the enemy of productivity? The CEOs’ leverage, however, is limited in this tight labor market by the willingness of their skilled employees to jump to firms that will let them work remotely.
The battle over working at home is about more than the lifestyle choices of the laptop class. It is about the same issues of work, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness that obsessed the nation’s Founders. “There’s an intellectual lineage going back to ancient Greece that argues that self-governing societies need independent, well-informed, and civically engaged citizens to survive,” Rob Wolfe writes in this issue’s cover story. “And to build those people up, societies must give them two things: economic autonomy and leisure time—not vacant hours spent staring at TikTok, but edifying leisure, time spent volunteering or reading or learning a new skill or raising children.”
In our era, the first step to protecting the economic autonomy of citizens is to open up monopolized markets—because that leads to more firms that employees can bargain with to secure better pay and benefits, including the right to work remotely. Reducing the economic power of monopolies will also cut their political power, and that will make it easier to pass laws that help less-advantaged workers who can’t work from home. Indeed, as Len Simon details in this issue, antitrust lawsuits secured unpaid college athletes a share of the wealth that college sports create. Thom Walsh explains how monopoly hospitals, not Medicare, are what’s driving up health care costs. Claire Kelloway reports on Big Agriculture’s latest greenwashing scheme. And Colin Woodard argues that Joe Biden’s crackdown on monopolies is central to the “freedom” message that could win him a second term.
Charlie Peters is now 96. He still resides with his sainted wife, Beth, in the same home in the Palisades. The milk bucket is still there, too. The cussedly independent way he spent his working years was ahead of its time. Yet I suspect it would have been
utterly recognizable and pleasing to the Founders.