Indentured servitude (aka why vacations are important)

By Martin Bosworth

Ezra Klein linked to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research that shows the United States as the only industrialized nation with no guaranteed paid vacation time. The report is available here.

Ezra’s link, as you might imagine, sponsored a vigorous debate.
It always fascinates me how we, in this country, claim to value hard work and productivity to the point of fetishization. When you meet someone, what’s the first question you ask? “What do you do?” Or think about a day when you’re not working and struggle–literally struggle–to be productive and fill your schedule with tasks. Why? What is it that you are afraid of?

Fear is really what it comes down to, as is illuminated by this lengthy dissection of the works of David Frum (also from Ezra’s post):

“The great, overwhelming fact of a capitalist economy is risk. Everyone is at constant risk of the loss of his job, or of the destruction of his business by a competitor, or of the crash of his investment portfolio. Risk makes people circumspect. It disciplines them and teaches them self-control. Without a safety net, people won’t try to vault across the big top. Social security, student loans, and other government programs make it far less catastrophic than it used to be for middle-class people to dissolve their families. Without welfare and food stamps, poor people would cling harder to working-class respectability than they do not.”

We’re seeing the results of this philosophy laid bare in a globalized economy where everyone is employed “at will,” where health insurance is a cherished prize rather than a matter of course, and where one major mishap (divorce, health problems, identity theft) can set you on the road to financial ruin. Fear keeps people in line. Fear makes you conform. Fear makes you afraid to question why you don’t get more than a few paid days off, or why you have to work 14-hour days, or why you don’t get raises that keep up with your cost of living.

Are we better off as a result?

I don’t think so. I said earlier that people claim to fetishize hard work, but they really don’t. It’s why drinking is considered a necessity for all but the most formal social interactions, because we want to numb ourselves to the truth of how we’re being worked like slaves. Most people I know–not all, but most–would rather be anywhere than at their jobs, but they’re there because they need to pay their bills or want to live somewhere better than in a cardboard box. I think all the blathering about hard work in this country is what people think they are supposed to feel, but really don’t.

Plus, let’s be honest–“hard work” is picking vegetables in a field for 18 hours a day under threat of deportation, or shoveling shit out of a drainpipe or whatever. Most members of an advanced society wouldn’t know hard work if it bit them on the behind.

ADDENDUM: It occurs to me that I’m a little unclear on this point. To me, the people who claim to value hard work are also the people who do it the least–the managers, the paper-pushers, the higher-ups. Our society posits success on a level where you are motivated to be in a position to do the least actual work possible, and gain the most unearned income from it.
I do love my work and I love being able to do it, but I’ve also learned that there’s nothing so important or urgent that it can’t wait a day or two to be handled. And that there is such a sublime pleasure as kicking back on a lazy Sunday with nothing to do but read a book, go for a walk, watch a movie, go to the gym, or simply meditate on my thoughts. And that vacations are definitely something needed to keep us healthy and sane, rather than distractions from the all-important goal of productivity.

I think it’s important that we regain that understanding as a nation, or else we really will be headed to the world of Wesley “This is my face as I’m fucking you in the ass” Gibson, with no turning back.

1 reply »

  1. I wanted to post a comment earlier today, but was busy and frankly a little haunted by the issues you raise. I grew up in a world where there were safety nets – not big ones, but they were there. My grandparents could afford a decent house and Piedmont Airlines provided good benefits and they never questioned that Social Security would be there for them and while they wouldn’t get rich on it, they wouldn’t starve, either.

    I compare that to my life. I have passable insurance but I pay through the nose for it. I play hell saving for retirement because it’s so damned expensive just trying to pay for, you know, today. I have no hope that SS will be there when I get to retirement age and even if it is I can’t imagine it paying enough to think about living on. So I have no expectation that I will ever really retire. I hope I can remain economically viable in my old age.

    I know that others have it worse, and I feel for them. Because I know what MY stress level is like, and I’m not sure how it hasn’t killed me already.

    Safety net? I wonder what that feels like….