Monday, August 09, 2004

A few months ago, I vented my annoyance with the work of the Scottish historian Niall Ferguson, who seems to be moving into my neck of the woods -- and in particular to his book "Colossus", which says that Americans should run an empire, and in particular, seize control of the economic policies of client states -- in seeming ignorance of the myriad ways in which we have been doing exactly that for decades.

But there's so much more in that book that's annoying. A particular sore point, to me, which he seems to be flogging in newspaper columns lately, is his treatment of the relative working hours of Americans and Europeans. Ferguson says that the European "leisure preference" marks modern Europeans as poor imperial overlords. (That's supposed to be a bad thing). Thus, for example, from page 243 of the book:

In June 2003 a German politician took his career in his hands by daring to suggest that if Germans made do with fewer holidays, their economy might grow faster. Such views are no longer taboo in France, either. But a century of European social democracy has created habits of mind that are extremely hard to break. From almost its very inception in the late nineteenth century, the German Social Democratic Party campaigned for shorter working hours and, more recently, shorter working lives. For their French counterparts, securing a maximum working week of thirty-five hours was one of the great achievements of the recent past. This tradition dies hard.

And yet strangely, I recall being taught as an American child, not too long ago, that the forty-hour work week was a major achievement of American society.

Ferguson says that Americans work in greater numbers (more two-worker families, longer hours, less vacations) because, well, we just like working. Isn't that neat? Isn't that kind of ignorant of nearly a century of labor strife during which Americans quite literally fought pitched battles in the streets for the privilege of working less? And since when is having more vacation time supposed to be a bad thing, anyway?

There are, to be sure, quite a few Americans working hard at jobs they love. But for every one of those, there are (quite conservatively) two people slaving away at multiple dead-end jobs to keep the rent check paid and the wolf from the door. That's desperation, not a lifestyle choice.

Ferguson says that German workers should give up their hard won leisure so that their economy should grow faster. But the economy exists for the workers, not the other way 'round. An expert in international economics ought to understand that.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ferguson is awful in the Cash Nexus too. Harvard really is picking up some winners. I'd love to see Ferguson and Pinker get together and explain the intersection of genetic, pragmatic, and moral imperatives for an American empire.

12:20 PM  

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