It has been fairly quiet on this list lately, I hope that's because many
folks are on holiday (unlike the typical Americans described below) and not
because they are concerned about Mitchel's admonishment that some people
were posting too much. We need more discussion on this list, not less, in my

Land of the overworked and tired We're taking fewer vacations so the Joneses
won't get too far ahead of us.
By Ezra Klein, EZRA KLEIN is a staff writer at the American Prospect. His
blog is at
July 15, 2007  Los Angeles Times

 THE MOST astonishing revelations in Michael Moore's "Sicko" have nothing to
do with healthcare. They're about vacation time. French vacation time, to be

Sitting at a restaurant table with a bunch of American ex-pats in Paris,
Moore is treated to a jaw-dropping recitation of the perks of social
democracy: 30 days of vacation time, unlimited sick days, full child care,
social workers who come to help new parents adjust to the strains and
challenges of child-rearing. Walking out of the theater, I heard more
envious mutterings about this scene than any other.

"Why can't we have that?" my fellow moviegoers asked.

The first possibility is that we already do. Maybe that perfidious Michael
Moore is just lying in service of his French paymasters. But sadly, no. A
recent report by Rebecca Ray and John Schmitt of the Center for Economic and
Policy Research suggests that Moore is, if anything, understating his case.
"The United States," they write, "is the only advanced economy in the world
that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation." Take notice of that word
"only." *Every* other advanced economy offers a government guarantee of paid
vacation to its workforce. Britain assures its workforce of 20 days of
guaranteed, compensated leave. Germany gives 24. And France gives, yes, 30.

We guarantee zero. Absolutely none. That's why one out of 10 full-time
American employees, and more than six out of 10 part-time employees, get no
vacation. And even among workers *with *paid vacation benefits, the average
number of days enjoyed is a mere 12. In other words, even those of us who
are lucky enough to get some vacation typically receive just over a third of
what the French are guaranteed.

This is strange. Of all these countries, the United States is, by far, the
richest. And you would think that, as our wealth grew and our productivity
increased, a certain amount of our resources would go into, well, us. Into
leisure. Into time off. You would think that we'd take advantage of the fact
that we can create more wealth in less time to wrest back some of those
hours for ourselves and our families.

But instead, the exact opposite has happened. The average American man today
works 100 more hours a year than he did in the 1970s, according to Cornell
University economist Robert Frank. That's 2 1/2 weeks of added labor. The
average woman works 200 more hours  that's five added weeks. And those
hours are coming from somewhere: from time with our kids, our friends, our
spouses, even our bed. The typical American, according to the Bureau of
Labor Statistics, sleeps one to two hours less a night than his or her
parents did.

This would all be fine if it were what we wanted. But that doesn't seem to
be the case. One famous 1996 study asked associates at major law firms which
world they'd prefer: The one they resided in, or one in which they took a
10% pay cut in return for a 10% reduction in hours worked. They
overwhelmingly preferred the latter. Elsewhere, economists have given
individuals sets of choices pitting leisure against goods. Leisure
doesn't *always
*win out, but it is certainly competitive. Yet we're pumping ever more hours
into work, seeking ever-higher incomes to fund ever-greater consumption.

A possible answer can be found in Frank's work. He argues that the U.S.
economy has set its incentives up so as to systematically underemphasize
leisure and overemphasize consumption. Much of what we purchase are called
"positional goods"  goods whose value is measured in relation to the
purchases of others. Take housing. Would you rather live in a land where you
had a 4,000-square-foot house and everyone else had a 6,000-square-foot
house, or one in which you had a 3,000-square-foot house and everyone else
had a 2,000-square-foot house? Given this choice, studies show that most
respondents pick the latter.

Being concerned with one's *relative* position rather than one's
*absolute *position
is not irrational or merely motivated by envy. In order to retain your
relative standard of living, you need to keep up with the purchases of
others in your income bracket. Retaining your relative position also ensures
that you don't send the wrong signals when a client comes over for dinner.
Houses, cars, clothing  they all help send those signals. And because the
rich in this country keep getting richer, we're caught in what Frank calls
"expenditure cascades" in an effort to keep up with them. Their purchases
raise the bar for the group right below them, which in turn increases the
needs of the next income set, and so on.

This makes the purchase of positional goods more pressing and urgent than
non-positional goods. And so they "crowd out" their less context-contingent
cousins. People want to spend less time at work, but they also want to
retain and improve their standard of living relative to their neighbors 
and the latter triumphs, time and again.

This isn't because people are stupid, or irrational, or don't know what they
want. Rather, it's because the incentives are all fouled up. Frank calls it
a "smart for one, dumb for all" problem, but it's really just a classic
failure of collective action. An individual would be made worse off were he
to unilaterally opt out of the positional competition. But we would all be
better off if we decided collectively to ratchet down the economic
one-upmanship and instead devote a bit more time and resources to the
leisure goods we claim to desire.

Here in the sweltering D.C. summer, there's nothing worse than wearing a
necktie when the thermometer reads 95 and the humidity is so thick you could
swim laps. But on your own, there's not much you can do about this state of
affairs. If you're the only one who shows up dressed down, you'll look bad
for it. But if your office, or meeting, were to collectively decide to ease
the dress code, all would be better off.

This is what the European Union just did, imposing new regulations on its
bureaucrats barring ties in the summer. Cutting down on air-conditioning
costs was the rationale, but centralized action was the only way to end the
practice. Otherwise, every individual would still have had the incentive to
show his commitment by dressing in a tie. Only the collective could remove
that spur.

So too with vacations. Very few individual workers in the United States can
ask for four weeks of vacation. It is not only outside the benefits of their
job but far outside the culture of our workplace. The incentives for most
every individual, particularly if they want to keep their position and amass
a reputation as a good employee, is to abide by those norms.

But if the crowd outside "Sicko" was any indication, most people would love
a substantial increase in vacation time. This is what other advanced nations
have pursued, using the government's role as an enforcer of collective
sentiment to legislate the preferences that individuals could not, on their
own, enact.

In this country, we've left it to the individuals, and thus the average
American worker only takes 13 days of vacation a year, and many get none. We
could do better, but that would require sidestepping American individualism
for a moment and engaging in some American collectivism.


Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent, Science
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