I ran across the "lump of labor" fallacy again the other day, and it got me thinking about international comparisons of work-life tradeoffs. So I tracked down some data and made some graphs. And without further ado, here is my latest set of squiggles.
One factor may contribute to the appearance of higher productivity in America - the country produces less per unit of energy. Compared to other OECD countries, America has long had plentiful energy resources. The UK and Norway didn't start producing from their major oil fields until the l970s, and nobody matches America for coal deposits. This appearance of abundance (it's transitory) has led Americans to be less concerned about energy use, and a lot is wasted. However, the excess use shows up positively in the GDP numbers.
Someone once quipped (roughly) that Americans consume cars, while the French consume vacations. It's hard to dispute that most other OECD residents work less than Americans. And with slightly lower productivity, the result is most countries produce about 80% of US per capita GDP. The most notable outlier is Korea, where workers produce a lot less despite working considerably more hours per year. My sense is that Korea business are able to provide their workers with equipment that matches equipment in other countries, so I am at a loss to explain the significant difference. Norway is an outlier on the other end, but that is explained by the North Sea oil fields.
The choice of free time over stuff is a value judgment, of course. However, in most debates in this somewhat stupid country, the trade-off is forgotten and the focus is on the headline number: per capita GDP. But, as the saying goes, in the long run we're all dead, so I think time is more valuable - and I have arranged my life to reflect that.
A few side notes. First, all these numbers are based on purchasing-power parity (PPP) conversions, and thus are estimations. Calculating PPP requires some value judgments and thus gives different results from exchange conversions. Second, despite its prowess at manufacturing, Japan never "caught up" with the United States under PPP comparisons. The collapse of the property and stock bubble around 1990 is probably the main cause, but Japan has a number of structural problems that have lingered for even longer. Third, Italy has show a significant relative decline. It too has a number of structural problems - probably even more than Japan.