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 view.
Land of the overworked and tired
We're taking fewer vacations so the Joneses won't get too far ahead of us.
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 precise.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Why?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Contributing Correspondent, Science
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