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Vacations, Worker Productivity, and a Blast from the Past

August 13, 2010

In today’s Room for Debate section in The New York Times, readers are asked for their input on a recent discussion regarding European vacations – and the “revelation” that, although U.S. taxpayers work more hours per week, their European counterparts are at least as productive per hour of work.

I chimed in on this debate –– way back in October of 2003, in a column I wrote for Bridge Online. Here’s what I had to say back then:

In the September 16 (2003) Weekly Standard, we find economist Irwin M. Stelzer sermonizing his choir that Europeans are envious of the American economy, yet too delirious in their shades of green to identify their economy’s problems with an unwholesome attachment to vacations. America, America, with its God-shed grace and sweating-brow industry, triumphing over European decadence once again. Even our Fearless Leader (who is well known, others will tell you, for the shortest workdays and most frequent holidays of any Chief Executive in living memory) retreats “to his ranch, where the temperature regularly exceeds 100 degrees, to clear brush.”

I’m reminded of the time when, at eight years old, my grandmother cracked a raw egg into a milkshake she was making me, in a misguided attempt to “make me grow big and strong.” The resultant mess on the kitchen floor wasn’t particularly nutritious for anyone. Stelzer rhapsodizes about American career-mindedness, and the “ubiquitous Blackberry” which “enables us to read and send emails from the seas and oceans, from beaches, fields, hills, and rooftops…”  making the 14 days of the typical American yearly vacation into a glorious overestimation – that is, precisely at the same time self-help books, the Oprah industry and a forest’s worth of magazines are desperately trying to get Americans to relax, for sanity’s sake. At this point, we should cue an old ‘50s television ad, one of those which advocates “labor-saving devices” as a way to procure more family- and leisure-time, with a rueful smile.

What’s frightening is that, as the career intrudes more and more upon the personal life, “making a better life for oneself” is classed merely within capital and material terms, exempting the psychological. Witness the day-by-day play-by-plays of the consumer economy on the local news during the Christmas holiday, and blend furiously with Stelzer’s admonition that all-work-with-no-play makes Uncle Sam wealthy among nations. The resultant purée is almost a type of national socialism – that is, work for the good of the country – with the one codicil that you get to keep your stuff. This might appear ignorantly blasphemous until one takes a closer look at the People’s Republic of China. Stelzer concludes his argument with the aside, “Meanwhile, [Europeans] might give a thought to the Chinese, who seem to view leisure with even greater suspicion than we Americans do.” This is certainly instructive, but not in the way Stelzer thinks. In a handful of travel articles last year, the New York Times profiled the economic transformation of Beijing and Shanghai, and found that – at least of those interviewed – Chinese yuppies had no interest in their nation’s lack of speech freedoms, nor of their inability to criticize the government. Bread and circuses have become BMWs.

The Puritan hyper-work ethic of America, which, especially to Stelzer’s mind, views leisure as an odious word, is so deviously effective because it is self-insulating. Vacations are the only period of time in which members of the workforce can travel, since religious holidays pull one towards home. Is it so unusual that Europeans are more concerned with global issues than Americans? Is it a wonder that Americans are so accused of insularity and incuriosity? Understanding between cultures requires time, and this is precisely what American tourists lack – at least those who are not so fortunate to be independently wealthy or retired.

Clearly, some European economic customs are in need of reform, as the appalling death tally in the French heat wave attests. But to under-value the meaning of leisure in the economics of the human being, is to construct the human as no more than an economic engine.

In the 70th anniversary edition of Esquire on stands this month, the magazine decided to ask various people, “What innovation do you regret not having seen in your lifetime?” John Kenneth Galbraith, the noted economist and ambassador, replied, “I would like to see a different way of measuring economic success. We now measure it by the total of the gross national product, the total production of goods and services. I would like to see more attention given to content – the arts, for example… Civilized development doesn’t consist of only producing automobiles. Some of this would come about with a better distribution of income. But the main thing is moving our educational and cultural life into the areas of civilized enjoyments – the arts, science, behavioral motivations, a whole list of things that are not part of our measurement of progress. It is particularly important that this view comes from an economist.”

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