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May 03, 2007

Pepe Le Awesome

Was listening to a report on the French presidential debate this morning and was struck by how hilariously opposite their politics are. The framing of election pits the Reaganite, free market reformer Nikolas Sarkozy against the staid, socialist, Segolene Royal. But among the policy positions clarified in the debate was Sarkozy's promise not to change the 35-hour workweek. That's how you unlock the magic of the free market! This is par for the course, though: In America, when progressives talk about the need for government protections, they're really talking about sanding the roughest, farthest edges of unchecked capitalism. In France, when conservatives talk about unleashing free market principles on the country, they're really talking about some tweaks on the margins of the welfare state.

The apparent popularity of the 35-hour workweek, though, deserves some attention -- as does the French mandate of 5 weeks of vacation. The French like not working incessantly. They are consciously sacrificing a bit of economic growth in order to devote more time to leisure. It's a perfectly legitimate choice for a society to make. But it's never represented that way in domestic punditry, as we exclusively evaluate policy decisions based on their effects on measurable economic indicators.
It's that society/economy distinction I'm always going on about; in contemporary American discourse, it's almost impossible to justify any policy that won't plausibly increase economic growth. Yet the French seem rather enamored with just the opposite:

On top of the five weeks [vacation], there are another dozen public holidays, and a maximum 35-hour work week, with no paid overtime allowed. Managers like Marchand, who work more than 35 hours a week, get more time off.

"The so-called 35-hour work week gives us 22 more days a year," says Marchand.[...]

Normally busy streets in Paris empty out in July and August, when most locals take their annual holiday. Shops and businesses are often deserted for a month, sometimes longer. Whole apartment buildings are shuttered when Parisians flee the city.

The French are so passionate about their vacations, they put pleasure before profit. As tourists throng the streets and summer temperatures hit their peak, Paris’ most popular ice-cream parlor is closed for a whole six weeks. It’s the kind of business bonanza that would be seized upon by Americans, but the French don’t seem to care.

I'd give up a lot for a guaranteed five weeks of vacation. That's time enough to vacation with friends, and regularly see my family, and take the occasional long weekend. Indeed, I'd love to see an economist model what that would cost us. It would have to be an almost unimaginably high number to dissuade me from taking the deal. And, in any case, I'd love to see some better reporting on the French elections, wherein it's actually explained that the French keep choosing these policies, and that their effect isn't simply to drive down economic indicators, but to order society in a way that emphasizes leisure.

May 3, 2007 in Economics, Europe | Permalink

Comments

The only reason why the issue of a longer work week is being discussed is because they believe it is costing them. If it weren't, it wouldn't be an issue, would it? Who could argue against more "ME" time, unless there was a cost associated with it?

I would be interesed in the other side of this issue, the arguments of those who wish more flexibility in the work week. You don't see a lot of that reported.

Posted by: Fred Jones | May 3, 2007 10:56:20 AM

Come work in book publishing: crap wages, but four weeks vacation, four personal days, and the time between Christmas and New Years Day off.

Sadly, however, we're expected to cram 52 weeks of ten-hour days into that 47-work-week year.

Posted by: jimmmm | May 3, 2007 11:00:42 AM

They are consciously sacrificing a bit of economic growth in order to devote more time to leisure.

They are also (consciously?) sacrificing the 8.7% of their workforce that is unemployed. This may be an easy sacrifice to make if you are employed and getting that 35-hour week and 5 weeks of vacation, but what about those, especially the immigrants in the banlieus, who aren't getting anything out of it?

Posted by: DaveL | May 3, 2007 11:03:11 AM

Yes, this moral judgment is perfectly legitimate despite the costs it imposes on others. For it is in line in some no-need-to be coherent sense with "liberalism."

But try to do a favor for an unborn child, and my goodness what paternalism!

Posted by: Bill | May 3, 2007 11:05:21 AM

Ezra, you need to go work at Brookings. They get 5 weeks standard vacation.

Posted by: Drew | May 3, 2007 11:11:50 AM

Ezra, I don't understand. If you want five weeks of vacation, negotiate it with your employer. Your skills are presumably valuable enough that they'd be willing to work out an arrangement. Take a pay cut and get the extra time off. What's stopping you?

Posted by: K. Williams | May 3, 2007 11:13:30 AM

K. Williams, employers of monopsony power in the market for labor. Employees can leverage power over employers in the voting booth or through unions which, in the case of France, they do.

Posted by: Tyro | May 3, 2007 11:18:37 AM

K. Williams, employers have monopsony power in the market for labor. Employees can leverage power over employers in the voting booth or through unions which, in the case of France, they do.

Posted by: Tyro | May 3, 2007 11:19:39 AM

They are also (consciously?) sacrificing the 8.7% of their workforce that is unemployed. This may be an easy sacrifice to make if you are employed and getting that 35-hour week and 5 weeks of vacation, but what about those, especially the immigrants in the banlieus, who aren't getting anything out of it?

This is incoherent as a criticism of the shorter work week. How would a longer work week create more jobs exactly? One would think it tends toward the opposite. Now if you want to criticize French labor law, which makes it hard to fire once hired, that might be more appropriate, but of course, then you get into all sorts of conversations about the relative power of corporations vs. unions, and collective action problems, and so on.

Posted by: paperwight | May 3, 2007 11:27:19 AM

> They are also (consciously?) sacrificing
> the 8.7% of their workforce that is unemployed.

Oil-based Western societies currently have a substantial surplus of food, production capacity, and all-around stuff over requirements. We simply don't need our entire population to work like slaves as was the case even in the 1880-1920 time period.

European societies have chosen to deal with this with substantial educational benefits (= 7-year college scholarships), "unemployment" benefits (really 'don't work' payments), stay-at-home parent benefits, fixed workweeks, etc.

In the US there is a strong moralistic urge that says everyone must have a nose to the grindstone to be considered worthy, so we deal with our surplus by trying to force the lower tiers of society into long-hour, low-wage, no-benefit mcjobs. With some level of success - and some unintended consequences (e.g. the relative attractiveness of illegal drug dealing).

Same problem, different solutions. But since the US take the moralistic tone in developing its solution it also takes the moralistic tone in looking at others' solutions.

This will all become moot when the oil starts to go away in any case.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | May 3, 2007 11:39:57 AM

I suddenly understand why my husband wants to retire to France.

Of course, given that we're both workaholics, if we simply moved to work in France, working full-time would be like retirement. That sounds fabulous.

Posted by: anonymous | May 3, 2007 12:04:19 PM

WOW. Klein basically just said he'd be happy to see significant numbers of people have their livelyhoods destroyed if it meant him getting more leisure time.

Posted by: henry hazlitt | May 3, 2007 12:08:22 PM

A better choice would be to move to Mexico where you have a tremendous economic advantage. Hell, you might not have to work much at all!!!

Posted by: Fred Jones | May 3, 2007 12:10:18 PM

"This is incoherent as a criticism of the shorter work week. How would a longer work week create more jobs exactly?"

It is called economic growth, the process that generates new jobs. It is why in boom times unemployment goes down, and in recessions unemployment goes up. With more companies out there chasing after labor, wages rise and unemployment falls.

When the government strictly regulates commercial activity, sure, some get leisure time. But it also forces the country into lower economic growth and higher unemployment. Of course, it isn't the native french that pay the cost, but the immigrants living in the banlieus.

In order to keep things calm, the French government has to subsidize workers to stay away from the labor market. But I bet those immigrants wouldn't mind working 8 hours a day 365 days a year if it meant a chance at a better life. Alas, they are stuck on welfare with no escape.

What you have is a "social" policy that produces a very "unsocial" byproduct. This is the core of the fiscal conservative's (should be fiscal liberal, as in classical liberal) criticism of liberal welfare policies.

Posted by: Jason | May 3, 2007 12:11:45 PM

In my job, due to seniority, etc, I do have 5 weeks of vacation/yr. I rarely manage to take 3 - One at Xmas, one week long summer trip, and scattered days. One problem is pressure - you have to finish the work anyway, can't leave until you ship, got a deadline that week (and that and that).

But more than that, none of my friends, or even my wife, has that much vacation. So I would be vacationing alone. That is why we want this to be a national, cultural thing.

Posted by: M. Peachbush | May 3, 2007 12:17:00 PM

> WOW. Klein basically just said

No, he didn't, and putting straw men into the mouths of others is not a very impressive tactic.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | May 3, 2007 12:17:02 PM

"No, he didn't, and putting straw men into the mouths of others is not a very impressive tactic."

Of course he did. Perhaps he imagines the high costs he would be willing to accept would be all paid out of the bank accounts of overpaid CEO's. Never the less, neither his intentions nor his naivety alter the practical consequences of what it is he said.

Posted by: henry hazlitt | May 3, 2007 12:23:17 PM

It's funny to read the critiques of the French system in this comment thread. I'm much more used to hearing people complain that the French government keeps everyone down to 35-hour workweeks in order to artificially boost the number of jobs available, and that the problem with that is how it keeps salaries down.

The 35-hour workweek is like bizarro tax cuts: it's the source of all problems in France, even when it's used to justify completely opposite critiques.

Posted by: Stephen | May 3, 2007 12:23:56 PM

"Oil-based Western societies currently have a substantial surplus of food, production capacity, and all-around stuff over requirements. We simply don't need our entire population to work like slaves as was the case even in the 1880-1920 time period."

It is natural to look around and think, "Wow, look how rich our society is. Isn't that enough." John Kenneth Galbraith made the same argument in his "The Affluent Society."

What we forget is there is a tension between opportunity and outcome. If we try and make everyone economic equals, through redistribution for instance, it will be at the cost of economic opportunity. If we try to ensure economic opportunity, we are going to have some income inequality.

What people forget is the constant push for growth and efficiency, for all its ugliness, is the system that allows people to progress and improve on their circumstances. What is better: Taking money from the rich and writing a check to the poor, or giving the poor the opportunity to go out and stake their own claim? It truly is one or the other.

Yes, sometimes it feels like a rat race. But that is the cost of giving everyone the chance to improve their lives. The opposite, ironically, creates a stasist, class-based society.

Posted by: Jason | May 3, 2007 12:28:43 PM

GDP per hour worked is actually slightly higher in France than in the USA - see http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/28/17/36396820.xls

Now the $64,000 question is what factors explain the differences in hours worked. In France the average annual hours worked are around 1550 and in the US a bit over 1700.

My non-expert interpretation is that a mix of factors explain differences in hours - some are the product of choice and are presumably welfare enhancing, and some are not and therefore reduce welfare.

I would have thought that longer holidays are welfare enhancing and shorter working hours - when freely chosen - also are. Higher unemployment reduces hours worked in the working age population and obviously reduce individual welfare. Earlier retirement which is more common in France seems to me to be ambiguous, since some of it may be involuntary (but I suspect a lot of it is voluntary.

On the 35 hour week, there is a tendency to exaggerate its negative aspects for employers. When it was introduced, it was actually accompanied by an increase in hours flexibility through various forms of averaging, and there is evidence that it increased the efficiency of planning by management.

Posted by: Disinterested Observer | May 3, 2007 12:28:54 PM

> alter the practical consequences of
> what it is he said.

That is /your interpretation/ of how the policy Ezra is discussing as a hypothetical would play out. That interpretation is not Ezra's (AFAIK) and is clearly not shared by several hundred million people in Europe (just for starters).

So - you took your personal interpretation, inverted it into an attack meme, and stuffed it into someone else's mouth. You also assumed that no one commenting here would figure this out.

As I said, not very impressive tactics. Which leads to think the foundation of your economic argument is equally weak.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | May 3, 2007 12:31:15 PM

On the vacations issue, US commentators usually focus on France, but my impression is that Germany, Switzerland and the nordics have similar long vacation allowances. When I lived in San Francisco, we had loads of German visitors and not just in the summer. A quick flight from Frankfurt and there they were, looking to play. Anybody have any data on this?

It appears to me that europeans have a different mental outlook toward work: work hard when working, but play equally hard since life should be much more than work.

Nobody here has remarked on the so-called 'Protestant Work Ethic' as a major basis for US employment being tied to long hours, little vacation, and relative intolerance of absence for family illness. The arguments for long working hours/days seems more connected to some moral code than economics - or better, that the corporatists have hitched their productivity wagon to the draft animals that must work without complaint since god intended that life be nasty, brutish and short (somewhere).

When the 40 hour, 5 day week was introduced the employers said we were doomed, but guess what....

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 3, 2007 12:50:15 PM

What is better: Taking money from the rich and writing a check to the poor, or giving the poor the opportunity to go out and stake their own claim? It truly is one or the other.

Truly? Really? Can you prove that?

As a practical matter, if we're running large surpluses of food, taking money from the rich and writing a check to the poor is better at ensuring everyone is well fed than simply giving the poor and "opportunity" to get food and hoping it works out for them. It depends on how much you are willing to tolerate poor outcomes when it comes to opportunities that don't work themselves out.

Am I willing to tolerate someone who wasn't able to get a vaccine because even though he had "opportunity" to try to get a vaccine, he didn't, thus eliminating the advantage of "herd immunity"? Or are we willing to tax people to create a guarantee that everyone gets what is needed? Am I willing to tolerate other such public health and public safety problems because I simply refused to tax the people with the resources to pay for the solutions and instead gave people the "opportunity" to avoid consequences if the right set of events came together for them?

The opposite ironically, creates a stasist, class-based society.
And yet... the USA is very class static in comparison with other industrialized western countries!

Posted by: Tyro | May 3, 2007 12:55:28 PM

JimPortlandOR:

The German embassy ( http://www.germany.info/relaunch/info/facts/facts/questions_en/economicsystem/working.html ) says that most employed Germans work five days a week, with an average of a 37.5 hour workweek. It says that the legal minimum vacation is 18 days per year, but that 70% of employees have six weeks of paid vacation a year.

My company gives its UK employees six weeks of paid vacation a year, which I'm guessing is within the range of "typical" there, as it's not grossly generous in the US or anything.

My understanding is that this pretty typical throughout Europe.

Posted by: Michael B Sullivan | May 3, 2007 1:17:44 PM

What is better: Taking money from the rich and writing a check to the poor, or giving the poor the opportunity to go out and stake their own claim?

And there you have the two different approaches of the conservatives and liberals. Morons like Tyro use extremes, ignoring the social system in place, to make points (food) No one starves in this country unless by choice. Also, the public health argument is for shit. We already require and provide immunizations.

I think he is either missing the point or is being deliberatly obtuse. The only reason Tyro goes for stealing from one group for the benefit of other groups is that he believes he will not be the group whose money is being stolen

Posted by: Fred Jones | May 3, 2007 1:18:31 PM

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