This land of working stiffs

It’s summer, time for baseball, so the other night I went to a game at Victory Field. It was a gorgeous evening, the western sun casting a golden glow upon the bland faces of downtown office buildings and hotels. I had a beer and a hot dog and watched the ballplayers warming up. Then, along with everybody else, I stood for the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner.”

You know how it goes: “Dawn’s early light … perilous fight …” Momentum builds and then we get to the climax, which is actually a question: “O, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?”

Stirring stuff.

A lot of people complain about the “Star Spangled Banner.” They say it’s too hard to sing, but I’ve never had a problem with it. The only part of the song that gives me pause is that last line, the bit about “the land of the free.”

That’s because when I looked around the ballpark at all the people there I knew, I was seeing members of the most overworked population in the industrialized world. According to the United Nations’ International Labor Organization, Americans work 250 hours, or five weeks, more than our counterparts in Great Britain; 500 hours, or 12 and a half weeks, more than those infamous lay-abouts, the Germans. Every European has the right to at least 20 days of paid time off per year — some get as many as 25 or 30 days. The Swedes get 32.

The average American vacation is now a long weekend. Our Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that one in four of our workers gets no paid vacation at all and, here’s the real kicker, 51 million Americans, or a third of our workforce, won’t take all the vacation days they have coming. Each worker will pass up an average of three days off.

I don’t know about you, but this does not look like “the land of the free” to me.

I’m sure that if you were to ask a CEO about this — somebody, that is, who, on average, makes more than 400 times what his employees earn — that person would tell you people in America work as much as they do because, darn it, working long hours (and staying away from the family as much as possible) is the American Way.

But if you compare the quality of life in the U.S.A. with other industrial countries you quickly see that when it comes to health, savings and social equality, the U.S. has fallen behind. This is a country where job security is scarce to nonexistent, where health care without job-connected insurance is unaffordable and where the so-called social safety net has been systematically dismantled. It’s no wonder we take more anti-depressants than anyone else, and get divorced as often as we do. In America, that’s what we call a party.

Of course, we soften these cracks by consuming lots and lots of stuff. Today, each American, on average, consumes 53 times more “goods” than a citizen in China, where so much of the stuff we consume is made. This has been a trend in American life going back to the days after World War II, when the president of the National Sales Executives declared “Capitalism is dead — consumerism is king,” meaning that our economy would no longer be driven by what we built so much as by what we spent. We’ve been living on credit — something frowned on before 1941 — ever since.

As any smoker knows, there’s an addictive quality to living like this. You can call it freedom if you want, and many smokers do, even as they pick through ashtrays looking for butts because they’ve run through their last pack. France, which used to have a 35-hour workweek, is not immune. They just elected a new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose motto is “work more, earn more.” The problem is that longer hours often mean that wages stagnate or fail to keep up with inflation. That’s what’s happened here. Most Americans need two-income households just to stay even.

That’s not all. It appears that overwork is bad for the environment. A study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., suggests that if Europe adopted America’s working ways, it would consume 15-30 percent more energy by 2050. This would boost carbon emissions and cause additional global warming of 1-2 degrees Celsius. Any gains made through conservation, green technologies and cleaner fuels would be rubbed out.

Never mind about that, though. Now that all of us are living so much longer — well beyond the ability of most of us to squirrel away enough for an extended retirement — there’s even more work to look forward to. That’s the land of the free, all right; the home of the working stiff.