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Bush's Texas-Sized Summer Vacation (And Your Rhode Island-Sized One)

An irony of the 2001 summer is that our CEO-style President is enjoying a 31-day, European-sized vacation, while most Americans eke out a mere nine or 10 days off.
 
 
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George W. Bush may present himself as a down-home American, but when it comes to vacation time his tastes are decidedly European. This August the President is on leave from Washington for the whole month, in what will be the longest presidential vacation in 32 years. Combine that time off with the quarter of his presidency he has spent on his Crawford, Texas ranch and the 38 full or partial days at the Camp David retreat, and Mr. Bush will have spent 42 percent of his presidency at vacation spots or en route.

You might think this information comes from the National Democratic Committee or some lefty think tank out to undermine the presidency, but the number crunching was actually performed by the Washington Post. In an August 8 story the Post was less than subtle in indicating that Bush's 31-day break, or "working vacation" as it is being described, is resulting in an unusual form of damage control.

Why, you might ask? Hasn't every president spent significant time at a home away from the less-than-cozy White House compound? Didn't Reagan head out for Santa Barbara, Truman to Key West and Eisenhower to Augusta for some needed presidential R&R?

Sure. But no president in history has managed to build such a solid reputation as an entitled loafer. Bush's typical gubernatorial day in Texas reportedly consisted of no more than eight hours of work, an hour of which was dedicated to the treadmill and two hours of which he spent in photo ops.

Now the President is said to be working much harder, though the awkward ramblings of his aides might make you think otherwise. At a briefing on August 7, Scott McClellan, one of Bush's spokesmen, told the press: "The President, much like members of Congress -- although for a shorter period of time, I might add -- believes it's important to come back home. That's why we're spending the month in Crawford -- this is his home."

McClellan then underscored that Bush's aim in August is not to jog four hours a day through his dusty 1,583-acre ranch, but to flee the dreaded elitism of Washington. For seven of his 31 working days, said McClellan, he will conduct a "Home to the Heartland Tour," to listen "to the concerns of the people across America," so as "to highlight the values that bring America together."

"I hope he has a long, enjoyable vacation," said Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee on Fox News Sunday. "He's going to need it when he gets back."

Mr. Bush may well be rejuvenated when he flies back to D.C on September 3. But the majority of his fellow Americans will not. Once again, the U.S. has taken the lead as the most overworked nation in the world. According to a recent International Labor Organization study, the U.S. is beating out Japan with the highest average hours worked per annum -- just under 2,000 hours.

To make it a little plainer, that means Americans are now working two weeks longer than the Japanese and two whole months longer than the Germans. Eileen Appelbaum of the Economic Policy Institute reported last year that a typical husband-and-wife household worked 500 more hours in 2000 than they did in 1990.

Working more hours obviously equals taking less vacation time. And indeed vacation time has become one of the U.S.'s rarer national commodities. According to Joe Robinson, director of the Live to Work campaign, which advocates a nationwide three-week vacation for all salaried workers, employees of large U.S. companies eke out an average of 9.6 days of rest after one year. That number rises to 16 days a year after a decade working at the company. And at small U.S. businesses, it's eight days a year and 16 after 25 years. In other words, the average American takes 15 years to earn the vacation time that an Australian gets after one year.

But we are immensely productive, you might say, the economic behemoth of the world, thanks to our little-rest, much-work way of life. Not so, according to numerous economists and social scientists, who have found that German productivity is on par with American productivity, even with Germans' seemingly massive allotment of days off.

The results of overwork are well known: the demise of job loyalty and absenteeism, usually stress-related, which according to Appelbaum's EPI study has tripled in the past five years. Appelbaum also found a phenomenon called "entitlement mentality" has flourished, in which workers use sick time to take off the days they feel they deserve. As a Wells Fargo employee put it to me recently, "No one asks any questions anymore if you come back from a two-day sick leave with a slight tan."

Companies also seem to be bearing the brunt of overworking and under-vacationing their employees. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, has argued that without loyal workers, companies are now in the expensive and time-consuming position of training a constantly renewing pool of employees. As a counterexample, he points to SAS Institute, the largest privately held software company in the world, which has $1 billion annual sales and a turnover rate of 4 percent, thanks to its European-style labor choices.

"SAS does not contract out very much of anything, use many part-timers or tell people they need to think about their next job," said Pfeffer in an interview. "What SAS does is provide generous benefits like on-site day care, a full-indemnity health insurance plan [and] a 35-hour business week. The organization's low turnover saves it an estimated $70 million."

Compare SAS to your typical Fortune 500 company -- where long hours, high stress and fear of appearing like a slacker for not working Saturdays are the norm -- and you begin to wonder whether the American dream has become an American nightmare. Arlie Hochschild, a professor of sociology at University of California at Berkeley, asked that question in her 1997 book "The Time Bend: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work."

Hochschild's chief finding, after spending three years interviewing every employee of Amerco, a Silicon Valley moving, storage and insurance holding company, is that families are the chief victim of the American hyper-work ethic. Working mothers have less time for their children; working husbands have less time for their working wives; and time left over for extended family members and friends is shrinking, with the result that the number of hours devoted to private social relations is undergoing an historic decline. Writes Hochschild: "The more women and men do what they do in exchange for money and the more their work in the public realm is valued or honored, the more, almost by definition, private life is devalued."

What's strange is that most Americans are completely aware of this phenomenon. Even well known workaholics like former Labor Secretary Robert Reich have gone on record decrying Americans' work-family imbalance. In the preface to his recent book, "The Future of Success," Reich explains that he quit his Clinton administration position because he never saw his kids.

So why do we put up with a system that pushes us ever closer to the grindstone and away from our loved ones? In one of the more compelling books about this subject, "The Overworked American," Harvard University economist Juliet Schor argues that the 21st-century American work ethic is like a two-headed monster: part driven by consumer-oriented capitalism and part by a work culture of fear.

Schor believes that unlike Europeans who say time with family and friends is most important, Americans' leisure time is increasingly oriented toward consuming. We work to shop. And our employers have us by the neck, because unlike in France or Sweden or Italy, where health insurance, child care and other life necessities are the purview of the government, in the States it is companies that "take care" of their own, though increasingly by squeezing the lifeblood from their employees under threat of being fired.

"Paid time off fell by 15 percent in the 1980s," said Professor Schor in a 1993 interview. "Part of it has to do with the changing structure of the labor force. We talked about casual workers who aren't entitled to vacation time, and also people moving around more because companies were no longer employing people for a lifetime job. But it's also the case that companies were demanding 'givebacks,' that is, reversing the progress that workers had made on benefits."

So it is utterly ironic that our "CEO President," with his Harvard MBA and corporate management-style administration, enjoys European-size vacations. That may say a positive thing or two about Bush's ability to relax and enjoy leisure and family time, even with the most demanding job in the world. But it also reveals that his life, from birth to the White House, has had nothing to do with what it typically American -- in the corporate or private spheres.

Find out more about the hazardous work-related illness, Vacation Deficit Disorder, and the Work to Live campaign.