Perhaps the best news I’ve heard in this dreary year is that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are gearing up for another tour. We need the Boss more than ever, in part because few of our leaders are extolling the American worker.
President Obama is being hammered by Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R-Oops) for saying Americans have become "a little bit lazy." In truth, the president was referring not to working men and women in general, but to what he sees as a decline in the zeal with which corporate elites and government policymakers have been chasing foreign investment.
But maybe Perry is getting away with taking the president unfairly out of context because in September Obama told an Orlando television anchor: "The way I think about it is, this is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft and we didn’t have that same competitive edge that we needed over the last couple of decades."
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R–Wall Street) has joined Perry in bashing the president. Too bad way back in 2010 Romney seemed to agree with Obama’s view, writing (in his campaign book No Apologies) that Americans "have tended to avoid the hard work that overcoming challenges requires."
The view that America’s economic problems are caused by laziness was repeated in recent days by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R–Ayn Rand). "Part of it is the culture of people just having no work ethic," Ryan said. Ryan is an expert on the work ethic. He’s a self-made millionaire—if by "self-made" you mean he was born into a family that has been wealthy since his great-grandfather founded Ryan Inc. Central in 1884.
Herman Cain (R-Pepperoni) and Newt Gingrich (R--Tiffany’s) also blame the victims of the recession. Gingrich has said Occupy Wall Street protesters should "go get a job right after you take a bath," while Cain has proclaimed, "If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself."
There is only one problem with all this bashing of working people: it’s untrue. Working Americans haven’t gone soft. They’re not lazy. It’s politicians who refuse to check their facts who are the lazy ones. All they need to do is grab a copy of The State of Working America, the indispensable compendium of economic statistics published by the Economic Policy Institute. The data are clear:
Americans have the fewest guaranteed vacation days and holidays of any major industrialized country. By law, workers in Britain are guaranteed at least four weeks’ paid vacation. The industrious Germans get the same—plus 10 paid holidays. The Japanese, famous for their work ethic, have a statutory minimum of two weeks’ paid vacation. We Americans: zero. There are no laws that guarantee us even a week’s paid vacation, nor even one paid holiday.
Americans work more weeks per year than any industrialized country except Japan. The average American works 46.7 weeks per year—eclipsing by far the Germans (41.7), the Brits (43.3), and the Canadians (44.8). The Swedes have a budget surplus and the best-performing bonds in Europe. They also work just 38.8 weeks per year.
Americans work more hours than any other Western nation. The average American works 1,804 hours per year. Those slackers in Germany work just 1,436 hours.
The productivity of American workers is world-class. The Japanese gross domestic product per hour worked—one measure of productivity—is only 71 percent of the U.S. rate. Canada comes in at 81 percent and the United Kingdom at just 89 percent.
Americans are hardworking—there’s just not enough work to go around right now, and that’s not their fault. Lawrence Mishel, the director of the EPI, says, "I’m not sure there’s any metric that would show U.S. workers as lazy." That’s why he calls the charge "both wrong and insulting."
I can’t wait to hear Springsteen and the band sing about the workin’ life again: Little Steven on guitar, Max Weinberg on drums, the Boss on vocals ... and the man who ought to be an honorary E Streeter, Larry Mishel, on economic data.