Adding Jobs and Anxiety
By David Ignatius
Tuesday, March 30, 2004; Page A19
One nice thing about being a prosperous country like the United States, you might think, is that people wouldn't be so obsessed with jobs. But the Kerry campaign's success in focusing on the "jobless recovery" suggests that Americans these days are as anxious about the job market as sweatshop laborers.
Anyone who doubts this should read my e-mail. In the past few weeks, I've received several hundred messages in response to columns discussing what I described as "the mystery of the missing jobs." These letters are heartfelt and poignant -- offering detailed personal evidence of what "downsizing" and "outsourcing" feel like on the receiving end.
But it's still a puzzle what's driving this intense workplace angst. People express a level of fear about jobs that isn't commensurate with what the actual data show.
Take the basic employment numbers: The American economy may be creating new jobs at a sluggish rate, as Kerry has argued. But U.S. unemployment in February was still just 5.6 percent -- down from the 5.9 percent rate of a year ago and far below the levels of major economic competitors.
By comparison, the unemployment rate in France is 9.6 percent; in Germany, it's 10.3 percent; in Belgium, it's 12.8 percent. Even in Japan, where unemployment was once almost unknown, the jobless rate is running at 5 percent. By this measure, the vitality of the American economy remains undiminished.
Yet the American obsession with work persists, to the point that it's a defining aspect of our culture. Americans treat employment as a birthright, and the prospect of losing a job is a source for deep distress. What's more, Americans don't have the same union protections or social safety net they once did to cushion the fall.
Americans work harder, too. That's the theme of a new study by economist Edward C. Prescott -- "Why Do Americans Work So Much More Than Europeans?" -- published last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Prescott finds that Americans spend about 50 percent more time working than do the French, with roughly similar comparisons against Germans or Italians. Not only do Americans work more hours, but they produce more per hour than any major country except France, where his statistics show workers are 10 percent more productive than Americans. (Prescott's estimates are based on figures for 1993 to 1996; they only count hours worked in taxed market jobs, so they miss the underground economy.)
Twenty years before, Prescott notes, it was the Europeans who worked more. Data gathered for 1970 to 1974 show that the French and the Germans each worked an average of 5 percent more than did Americans; the British worked 27 percent more. Prescott's explanation for the change is pure "supply side." He argues that Americans work more now because tax rates are lower -- allowing them to keep more of what they earn.
Europeans like to disdain the American "rat race," and as they have grown more prosperous, many countries in Europe have tried to encourage less work and more leisure. France led the way with its mandated 35-hour workweek. And until recently, other European countries seemed eager to follow.
But as global economic competition tightens, even the Europeans seem to be having second thoughts. According to Monday's Financial Times, Germany has decided to join Britain in opposing a European Union rule limiting the workweek to 48 hours. Employees should be allowed to work more if they want, contend the Brits and Germans.
My e-mail conveys the stress of life in this globalized world, where people feel they have to run harder just to stay in place -- and where everyone is constantly looking over their shoulders to Asia, where people work even harder, for less money.
Kerry has found a powerful campaign issue in this job anxiety, and earlier this year he sounded almost demagogic with his talk about "Benedict Arnold CEOs." So it was reassuring last week to see that his first detailed proposal for dealing with the outsourcing of jobs abroad was relatively restrained. He called for modest changes in the tax code that would limit some benefits companies get for investing overseas. That's the kind of "level playing field" proposal that even an economist could love.
What's happening is that the world is becoming more American: Markets are freer; unions are less powerful; people are working harder to meet global competition. I agree with most economists that this benefits everyone. But there is the nagging question of whether a job-obsessed world will have the peace of mind to enjoy the fruits of its labor.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company