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July 19, 2007

What A Worker Wants

Another quick note on vacation time: It's telling, I think, that as you travel up the skills ladder, where workers have significantly more bargaining power, vacation time increases rapidly. Full time workers obviously get more than part time workers, but everything I've seen suggests white collar workers get significantly more time off than blue collar workers, and highly skilled knowledge workers -- arguably the most privileged class at the moment -- often get European-levels of time (if anyone knows of data breaking vacation days up by profession, I'd love to see it). So as workers are better able to craft job contracts in accordance with their preferences, paid leave rockets up. My hypothesis isn't that this happens because the less advantaged workers don't want the time, but because they don't have the leverage to make employers give it to them.

And also, yes, putting relatively more resources towards leisure will almost certainly reduce total productivity and thus pay. And I don't think liberals should have to reach for tenuous arguments about a well-rested workforce being a more productive workforce, and thus this policy paying for itself. Not everything has to enhance growth. It's actually quite crucial that we can argue for policies because they'd make for a better society rather than merely a more robust economy. Trading some income for some leisure is a perfectly appropriate choice -- but one you'll lose if you're always trying to justify the trade in terms of income.

Anyway, this is one of my perennial hobbyhorses, but I really think it's a big deal. The economy's absolute control over our political discourse really limits the room we have to argue for and enact possibly worthwhile policies.

July 19, 2007 in Government | Permalink

Comments

Another quick note on vacation time: It's telling, I think, that as you travel up the skills ladder, where workers have significantly more bargaining power, vacation time increases rapidly. Full time workers obviously get more than part time workers, but everything I've seen suggests white collar workers get significantly more time off than blue collar workers, and highly skilled knowledge workers -- arguably the most privileged class at the moment -- often get European-levels of time

Well, make up your mind. I thought your argument was that workers can't bargain effectively with their employers unless they are unionized. Now you're saying that the workers who are least likely to be unionized are also the ones who can most effectively bargain for vacation time.

Posted by: JasonR | Jul 19, 2007 1:07:35 PM

Just as a tactical point, I'd say legislating two weeks' paid vacation for everyone is much more likely to succeed than three weeks would. Why? Because most people already get two weeks or more, and can easily be sold on the idea that everyone should. That doesn't hold nearly so strongly for three weeks. And if the Chamber of Commerce runs ads against two weeks' paid vacation, they're going to look a lot more niggardly than if they run ads against three weeks.

Once the idea of paid vacation as a right has been established, arguments over whether two weeks is enough can be entertained. But the first thing is to establish a right to any amount of paid vacation.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist | Jul 19, 2007 1:14:24 PM

i can't really articulate this clearly, but one "gut feeling" i have is that one of the reasons why america, and not europe, became the great economic power and europe declined in relative terms is because worker productivity was higher here because we didn't have as strict a mandate as to job benefits, vacation time, maximum hours, etc., as european countries do.

now, with asian competition out there (and generally more worker productivity through such things as a 6-day, 60-hour work week, as well as not so much vacation time), Ezra may be asking us to make a more fundamental choice than he imagines, i.e., do we want to be like europe, fading as an economic power while asia grows, or do we want to be more competitive with asia by working more.

Posted by: Dilan Esper | Jul 19, 2007 1:23:00 PM

Do you have any evidence that we're going to need to directly compete with Asia that way? Cause I'm not seeing it. This idea that we're going to have to wrestle for economic dominance rather than see the expansion of markets and specializations as complementary baffles me. Europe's growth doesn't hurt us now -- why should Asia's?

And Jason, this isn't hard: Workers with less bargaining power are more acutely in need of unions. This is why I focus on unionizing the service industry and not law firms.

Posted by: Ezra | Jul 19, 2007 1:27:52 PM

Do white collar workers really get more vacation time than blue collar ones? I don't have any statistics at hand, but all my white collar friends get about 2 weeks per year of vacation, whereas my blue collar, union friends get much more than that. In fact, my mother the nurse gets over 6 weeks per year in vacation time, which if she doesn't use, rolls over into the next year, a perk not all of my white collar friends get.

I would think the difference would be between white collar, blue collar union, and blue collar non-union.

Posted by: jmad | Jul 19, 2007 1:34:30 PM

A portion of the problem is that we (as a society, and as political body) are often confused about when something is a part of 'the pursuit of happiness' - a general social good, like free speech and no slavery, and when it is part of an economic bargain (contract) for employment.

We've long ago settled the issue that some things that look like economic bargains really are rights of man: maximum work weeks, safe workplaces, non-discrimination in hiring, promotion, and pay, a non-poverty retirement, etc.

Society is the arbiter of when something becomes a social/legal guarantee or freedom, not the employer. There is no reason that minimum paid vacation time cannot be within those areas that citizenship, not employeeship, should govern. Health care is surely another - and we clearly are way overdue in recognizing that within our national legal structure.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 19, 2007 1:42:52 PM

Dilan, what's with the euphenisms? Instead of saying "do we want to be competitive with Asia?" why not just say, "We need to give up vacations and health insurance in order to be competitive with Asia" ?

Also, low-tech-cyclist sounds right about the strategic view on this-- if you mandate two weeks' vacation, it becomes pretty much impossible for anyone to argue against it.

Posted by: Tyro | Jul 19, 2007 2:19:33 PM

The conservatives idea that those persons that are lower on the socioeconomic scale should work one's life through and only be allowed enjoy leisure time towards the end of life, when the body's systems are running down, show that the ideology of slavery/indentured servitude has never really been eradicated in the US.

It also shows that "slavery/indentured servitude" is really a core belief in today's conservatism...that and the belief a civilization may not impose rules on those who have benefited most from the resources garnered through collective affiliation.

Posted by: S Brennan | Jul 19, 2007 2:41:48 PM

And what posters like Dilan never seem to understand is that even if that scenario (work to death or become irrelevant) were accurate, then it's a race to the bottom that we're all going to lose.

This idea that increasing productivity/GNP is some sort of universal, unambiguous good is ridiculous. At some point, additional growth is simply cancerous. The question is not, how can we make productivity advance upward to infinity (because pursuing that goal will ultimately cause a great deal of suffering and death) but how do we build a sustainable economy that does not create suffering and death? We can all race to be first off the cliff, or we can come up with a better idea.

Posted by: emjaybee | Jul 19, 2007 3:09:27 PM

I am not sure how much longer it will hold true that the more white collar you are, the more vacation time. There is a whole, growing rapidly, sub-class of white collar professionals such as Lawyers, Doctors, and Accountants, who are forced because of the job market into "Contract" work who do not receive vacation, sick days, healthcare, or anything other than a paycheck.

Posted by: PGHKid | Jul 19, 2007 3:16:18 PM

I have no idea if there's any proof that you're right, but my gut sense is that you're onto something here:

My hypothesis isn't that this happens because the less advantaged workers don't want the time, but because they don't have the leverage to make employers give it to them.

Posted by: fiat lux | Jul 19, 2007 3:19:53 PM

otherh problems aside, doing contract work allows you to give yourself (unpaid) vacation time.

Posted by: yoyo | Jul 19, 2007 3:48:02 PM

Yoyo,

It should be obvious, even to the clueless, with income cessation you reduce expenditures...not increase them.

Posted by: S Brennan | Jul 19, 2007 4:15:30 PM

S.Brennan:

This whole conversation assumes some level of equivalency of compensation. That it would be better if people could work less and vacation more. Obviously they'd have to cut back on something else. Don't be a pedant.

Posted by: yoyo | Jul 19, 2007 6:11:39 PM

On the micro level, it's not at all clear that increasing vacation time reduces productivity. I'm sure that all of us can come up with pretty good examples of people not in a position to take explicit time off, who instead managed to do a fairly effective job of vacationing in the workplace.

Posted by: paul | Jul 20, 2007 10:32:26 AM

Tyro and emjaybee:

I don't think we need to give up healthcare. Healthcare is a public good, and should be provided via a single payer system.

But the regulation of the hours and worktime of employees has a very direct relationship with worker productivity. Even if we assume-- as I am sure is true-- that there is some productivity gain in having rested workers, still, total productivity is likely to go down for the same reason that tax cuts, even if they stimulate more growth, don't result in more revenue.

I do not know whether we should "race to the bottom" and compete with Asia. The national suicide rate in Japan presents a cautionary tale. But I do believe that this is the issue-- Europe essentially trades a lower growth rate and higher unemployment rate, which reduces their economic power, for workers' right to work less. Maybe that's a good trade-off, maybe not, but that IS the trade-off.

Posted by: Dilan Esper | Jul 20, 2007 4:37:32 PM

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