Gregory Paul: "What America Really Needs – More Vacation Time, Baby!"

Once upon a time – we call them the 1950s, 60s and 70s -- middle class Americans worked less hours than other, harder pressed westerners. And less than their parents. So the future trendline was clear. I remember how it was widely and sagely predicted that leisure time would continue to expand along with middle class prosperity, Why, the problem for all us privileged Americans was going to be figuring out what to do with ourselves with all our free time, poor things. Seriously, there used to be documentaries on the looming social issue.

In 21st century America less time working and more time off seems almost as remote as flying cars and jetpacks. But it is not an intransigent problem. The citizens of other advanced democracies are enjoying the long vacations that we are not. What the heck happened?

Blame Ayn Rand. And all the Americans who take the views of the small government theorists seriously. Because of them there never has been a legal requirement that workers get paid vacation in these United States. This fits with the ideological hypothesis that workers should have the liberty to negotiate such items with management. Perhaps the former would prefer higher per hour pay than paid vacation, for instance. Add to that the American rat race in which folks pursue ever more material stuff in order to stay ahead of the Jones while trying to stave off financial ruin as their incomes stagnate and debts soar, and American’s now work more hours than other 1st worlders. Is this a great country or what?

In the rest of the west the middle class majority has more sense. To hell with theory and ideology. They understand that when capital is given the power to bargain with workers, that capital has the negotiating advantage, and that capital will squeeze as much time and work it can out of employees. So laws have been enacted to compel capital to ensure that every employee is ensured of a nice annual vacation. At the same time, progressive socioeconomic policies reduce the pressure for western Europeans, Canadians and Aussies to work themselves in the ground to stave off economic disaster.

Faced with the failure of the free market American Way to produce the leisure time that was once promised to the middle class, conservatives are making this out to be a good thing. They want us to forget how the American Dream used to be longer vacations and more time spent with the family. They want us to all pass that off as something those lazy, entitlement addicted Euros et al. are stuck with, the knaves. Which of course is a perversion. What’s the point of modern prosperity if one works so long for it that there’s not enough time to enjoy the prosperity? It is other 1st worlders who get more opportunity to relax and enjoy the fruits of their labor, as is supposed to be part of being in the modern middle class. Also a perversion of the truth is that that other westerners live in moribund entitlement societies compared to the dynamism produced by American Exceptionalism. Once boasting exceptional upward social mobility, the US has become an exceptionally rigid class society, and income growth since the mid nineties has been mediocre by 1st world standards. It is most other developed countries that have become the true “opportunity” societies, with higher income growth combined with more vacation time. The rest of the west is also performing better in juvenile mortality, teen STD infections, abortions and pregnancies, and education levels.

The American 95% is being screwed by the right that on one hand opposes the social evils that many conservative believe stem from Darwinian biology, while on the other hand the same conservatives embrace the radical social Darwinism of libertarian economics. Some times you really have to wonder about people. All the more so because the right goes on, and on, and on about family values. Yet at the same time they promote the wild west, cowboy economics that have made America into a land of workaholics without enough time left over to devote to their families. It is all the more ironic that the propensity to overwork is not just an affliction of the working classes. The American culture of work til you drop is so prevalent that it contaminates the top percent too. It is one reason the children of the wealthy are often disaffected and dysfunctional. The elites are shooting themselves in their own feet. So let’s do what we can to help them out.

And overworking is bad for the economy. In order to maximize profits by keeping overhead as low as possible, capital tends to want to have as few employees as they can get away with, so jobs are being automated. A basic way to minimize the resulting problems is for each employee to work fewer – not more -- hours per week, giving more people jobs.

When conservatives prattle on about how the American Way is seen by the rest of the world as making the US a Shining City on a Hill, they are being ignorant. A city where the residents are hard pressed to get vacation time is not a shining beacon. People are not flocking from Europe, Australia or even Canada to live here because they know better. A growing body of research being conducted by this analyst and others is leaving no doubt that America is the most malfunctional country in the 1st world in most respects. It is the US that has to change to catch up with the rest of the west.

Jetpacks will never be practical, and fixing most of what is wrong with America is going to be a long slog. But the vacation problem is one item that is easy to repair. Simply require a minimum paid vacation by law like every other developed country. Congressperson Alan Grayson of Florida has introduced legislation to the House that would do that. Same for paid sick and maternity leave while we are at it. The problem is, of course, the Republicans and their Randian ideology. One way to counter that is to emphasize how paid vacations enhance the family values the right also claims to support. 


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