Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Go Ahead, Move to Paris

Straight from yesterday's Best of the Web, we spotted the link to this op-ed by Ezra Klein, who blogs about his reaction (and the reaction of others watching with him) to a particular point made in Michael Moore's Sicko...

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.

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. Why?
Sometimes, I take joy in reading collectivist crap. This is one of those times. I don't even want to know why Klein finds it strange that we would be the richest country in the world and take less vacation -- perhaps the productivity of our workforce might be linked to the GDP? Hey, I'm no economist, but that's just a guess.

Look, let's stipulate that most French people are happy with their work schedules (I think). One assumes they're also tremendously happy with their welfare state as well.

But let's think about this a little bit. One wonders what these restrictions on employment mean, and the Heritage Foundation's Index on Economic Freedom does posit some downsides...

The labor market operates under regulated employment rules that could be improved to enhance employment and productivity growth. The non-salary cost of employing a worker is very high, and dismissing a redundant employee can be costly. There are rigid restrictions on increasing or expanding the number of working hours. Due partly to complicated and pervasive labor regulations, the unemployment rate is high. A recent effort to reform the regulated labor market met fierce resistance.
Firing anyone there sounds like trying to dismiss a recalcitrant government worker here. But to be fair, these are the choices one makes -- a high unemployment rate in exchange for those that are employed being happy with their extended vacations. Of course, that might make some of the unemployed unhappy as well. Might lead to some violence in the streets... oh, wait that never happens in France.

More importantly, how do the French finance their worker's paradise? Well, apparently the top income tax rate is a jaw-dropping 48.1%. Overall tax revenue as a percentage of GDP in France was 43.7%. By contrast in the U.S., our top tax rate is 35% and tax revenue as a percentage of GDP is only 25.4% (still too high for my tastes, but far better than France).

Look, in the end, we have tradeoffs. We don't have a huge welfare state because most of us don't want government intruding in our lives any more than it already does, and we don't want to pay more in taxes than we already do. Klein writes about EU bureaucrats imposing rules on people's attire at work, and barring them from wearing ties. Here, we rely on the free market to get to the point where you can go to work in casual attire if you choose. Most companies already allow this, even (gasp) law firms. Some people dress down. Others don't. I have colleagues who don't like dressing down in casual because their wardrobe was built over many years to include mostly formal business attire, or they consider it unprofessional. They co-exist with people who dress down if they like, or they leave for a place that wants everyone dressed up. That's called freedom.

Our lack of vacations drives us to purchase bigger and more ostentaious homes, and more ridiculous luxury items. We also drive ourselves to work in bigger cars. These things make us happy -- they may not make the French happy, but that's their choice. Are we happier than the French? Beats me. I tend to think that if the benefits of the French system were so fantastic, we'd see a lot more immigration from this country to France. Instead, our problem isn't people leaving this country, it's people trying to sneak in.

Finally, don't cite to the unhappiness of law firm associates. Lawyers who work at law firms effectively choose their misery, and associates are whiny malcontents in most areas of their lives (I speak from my personal experience). There's plenty of times when I'd love to have a job that offers me the freedom to work far fewer hours, but that's a choice I make. When and if I am unhappy enough with my job (and my wife lets me), I will leave it. Until then, whining about my job is something I will do, but shouldn't be taken seriously. And if these associates are so unhappy, they can move to France... assuming they can get a job.


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