The Blog

European Holiday

Europeans wonder why Americans have it so good. The answer: We work hard for it while they take vacations.

12:00 AM, Sep 16, 2003 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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Not a bad argument, if correct. After all, perhaps the one thing the French have got right is their famous chacun à son gout. The problem is that although an American worker can often trade off higher income for more leisure time, it is not so easy for Europeans to do the opposite. An Italian worker who would like more income and less vacation time can show up for work in August, but his factory or office will be closed. A British worker who would like to make a few extra pounds by working in the week after Christmas will have a hard time being productive in an empty office or plant. About the only thing a European worker can do to improve the ratio of income-to-leisure is emigrate to America. Which is why millions of Italians, Irish, Germans, and other Europeans have voted with their feet in favor of America's balance between work and leisure, with no discernible flow in the opposite direction.

All of this, of course, makes one wonder just how Europe's policymakers know, as they claim they do, that the less productive lifestyle of their citizens is, indeed, a matter of choice? The answer is simple: they know that Europeans are "happier," in good part because incomes, although lower than in America, are more equally distributed. So the Economist cites a study of Harvard students in which those polled say they would prefer to earn $50,000 a year while others earned half that, than to earn $100,000 annually while others earned twice as much.

Europeans who cite this study in an effort to bring Americans down a peg or two provide a perfect example of the addled thinking resulting from envy. Harvard students are not famously stretched to pay the rent (parents foot dorm bills) or meet family obligations or medical bills; even the neediest receive subsidies from the richest and most generous university in the world. So, to resort to the vernacular, their talk is cheap: until they earn their livings by the sweat of their own brows, they would do well not to tell pollsters that they prefer earning half as much so long as others earn less.

When Europe's policymakers rise above envy and politically correct talk of "happiness," "equality," and "leisure-trumps-income," they express real worry. Not only is the American economy more productive than Europe's, the gap is widening--output per man-hour in the United States continues to rise, as the infrastructure left behind by busted dot.coms becomes more and more efficiently deployed. Worse still for those who want to play catch-up, America's outlays on research and development, a harbinger of future improvements in productivity, continue to outstrip those in the European Union.

The good news for the European Union is that serious European policymakers understand the problem. The bad news for Europe is that they prefer to hide behind talk of the advantages of not working, rather than to implement policies that make work more attractive. Meanwhile, they might give a thought to the Chinese, who seem to view leisure with even greater suspicion than we Americans do.

Irwin M. Stelzer is director of economic policy studies at the Hudson Institute, a columnist for the Sunday Times (London), a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.