Why Don’t Americans Take More Vacations? Blame It on Independence Day

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Readers who have recently found Naked Capitalism will not be familiar with our custom of “summer reruns”. In slow news periods in the summer, we sometimes repeat posts from our archives that we regard as having withstood the test of time.

Since this is an unusually busy summer, we doubt you’ll be getting much in the way of reruns. But this is a classic that we think you’ll enjoy.

This post was first published on June 27, 2012

An article in the Boston Review by professor of sociology Claude Fischer falls prey to a pattern that is all too common: attributing social/political outcomes to American attitudes without bothering to examine why those attitudes came to be.

Let me give you a bit of useful background before I turn to the Fischer article as an illustration of a lack of curiosity, or worse, among soi disant intellectuals in America, and how it keeps Americans ignorant as to how many of our supposed cultural values have been cultivated to inhibit disruptive thought and action.

Since I have managed to come in on the last act of Gotterdammerung and am still trying to find the libretto, I’ve been in what little spare time I have reading history, particularly on propaganda. One must read book is by Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy. Carey taught psychology in Australia, and he depicts the US as the breeding ground for the modern art of what is sometimes more politely called the engineering of consent. The first large scale campaigns took place before World War I, when the National Association of Manufacturers began its decades-long campaign against organized labor. Carey stresses that propaganda depends on cultivating Manichean perspectives, the sacred versus the Satanic, and identifying the cause to be promoted with symbols that have emotional power. For many people, Americans in particular, patriotism is a rallying point.

Carey demonstrates how, again and again, big business has managed to wrap itself in the flag, and inculcate hostility to unions. One of the early struggles was over immigrants. A wave of migration from 1890 to 1910 left many citizens concerned that they were a threat to the American way of life. Needless to say, corporations were opposed to restrictions on immigration, since these migrants were willing to accept pretty much any work. Thus the initial alignment of interests was that whole swathes of American society were allied with the nascent labor movement in opposing immigration. And this occurred when even conservatives saw concentrated corporate power as a threat to American values (witness the trust busting movement, the success of the Progressives).

Big business split these fair weather friends by promoting an Americanization movement. These foreigners simply needed to be socialized: taught to speak English, inculcated in American values. In addition, the radical Industrial Workers of the World had become a force to be reckoned with, culminating in its success in the Lawrence textile mill strike in 1912. So even though labor unions were particularly hostile to immigrants, the IWW’s leadership role made it possible to cast unions as subversive, a symbol of foreign influence.

The counterweight, the Americanization movement, was born in 1907 with the establishment of the North American Civic League for Immigrants, headed by conservative businessmen. Aligned groups. such as the New England Industrial Committee, were created as NACLI promoted its program.

The success of the Lawrence strike, which garnered national outrage due to police beatings of women who had volunteered to transport and harbor children of strikers, increased the urgency of countering the union threat. The message was that chambers of commerce, as “conservators of the ‘best interests’ of their communities” needed to educate (as in domesticate) adult alien workers. This Americanization movement had business backers in every sizable city with an immigrant population doing outreach to business organizations, church leaders, and other community groups. In 1914, NACLI decided to extend its program nation-wide, and changed its name to the Committee for Citizens in America. The CIA paid and provided staff to the Department of Education [correction: Federal Bureau of Education] to sponsor Americanization programs (private interests’ ability operate directly through the Federal government ended in 1919).

The outbreak of World War I was a Godsend to the Americanization movement. The war stoked nationalist sentiment and with it, suspicion of obvious aliens as at best “un American” and at worst, subversive. President Wilson spoke at a highly staged “patriotic” event for 5000 recently naturalized citizens in spring 1915. This event was so successful that the movement leaders succeeded in forming local Americanization committees all over the US. Quoting Carey:

The CIA also produced a brilliant propaganda strategy to involve every American in an annual ritual of national identification. This ritual would embed the cultural intolerance of the Americanization movement with an identification that was formally and officially sanctified. The CIA thereby launched its campaign for the fourth of July 1915 to be made a national Americanization Day, a day for a ‘great nationalistic expression of unity and faith in America’.

Carey describes and quotes a pamphlet promoting the event written by one of the executive committee members:

….the ultimate success of the policy would depend on how effectively the ‘average American citizen’ could be induced to bring the influence of his conservative views to bear on the immigrant….’such a citizen is the natural foe of the IWW and of the destructive forces that seek to direct unwisely the expressions of the immigrant in his nwe country and upon him rest the hope and defense of the country’s ideals and institutions.’ Here we have a blatant industrial and partisan view fused with an intolerance of the immigrant and values of national security, in a submission that would cement these interests and intolerances within the paraphernalia of the annual ritual of what would become Independence Day.

This hidden history of our national celebration is only a small portion of Carey’s account of the extent and reach of the Americanization campaign. It shows how big business has led a long standing, persistent, and well financed campaign to turn the public against fighting for one’s rights if those rights are workplace rights.

Now let’s look at the Fischer article in light of this. He does, usefully, describe how Americans toil far more than their advanced economy peers:

Americans just don’t vacation like other people do. Western European laws require at least ten and usually more than twenty days. And it’s not just the slacker Mediterranean countries. The nose-to-the-grindstone Germans and Austrians require employers to grant at least twenty paid vacation days a year. In the United States, some of us don’t get any vacation at all. Most American workers do get paid vacations from their bosses, but only twelve days on average, much less than the state-guaranteed European minimum. And even when they get vacation time, Americans often don’t use it.

Perhaps Americans are Protestant-ethic work obsessives; we are likelier than Europeans to say that we want to work more hours than we do. But this leisure gap is a recent development. In the 1960s Americans and Europeans worked about the same number of hours. Leisure time then expanded everywhere—only more slowly and much less in the United States than elsewhere, leaving today’s disparity. Some argue that high taxes in Europe discourage working, but economist Alberto Alesina and his colleagues point to legislation—that is, politics. The right to a long vacation is one of the benefits that unions and the left have in recent decades delivered to Western workers—except American ones.

This sets up the key question:

Just about everywhere in the West except the United States, where there is no mandatory paid time off, workers not only get vacations but also short work weeks, government health care, large pensions, high minimum wages, subsidized childcare, and so forth. Why is the United States the exception?

The answer comes in two general forms: one, Americans do not want such programs and perks because we do not want the kind of government that would legislate them. Two, Americans want them but cannot get them.

Fischer’s teasing out of the first “answer” (he offers only two options and later points out that they are not mutually exclusive) is an embarrassment. He claims Americans have little “class consciousness” and in passing contends well financed propaganda efforts have no effect:

Even though economic inequality is substantially greater in the United States than in Europe, Americans acknowledge less economic inequality in their society than Western Europeans do in theirs, and Americans are more likely to describe such inequality as fair, deserved, and necessary. Americans typically dismiss calls for the government to narrow economic differences or intrude in the market by, say, providing housing. Working-class voters in the United States are less likely than comparable voters elsewhere to vote for the left or even to vote at all.

Anyone who has studied the history of public relations in the US will not only tell you it works, but also will be able to provide numerous examples, starting with the Creel Committee in World War I, which turned a pacifist US into rabid German-haters in a mere 18 months. But Fischer would rather appeal to Americans’ vanity and exceptionalism. Carey, by contrast, documents the intensity of messaging efforts, the channels used, and tracks how polls and headlines changed. And contra Fischer, he finds Americans to be particularly susceptible to propaganda (by contrast, Australians’ native skepticism of authority, keen sense of irony, and strong community orientation gives them a wee bit of resistance, although Carey described how they were being worn down too).

Mark Ames wrote on the same topic in 2006, and his article is more on point:

According to a New York Times article, British workers get more than 50% more paid holiday per year than Americans, while the French and Italians get almost twice what the Americans get. The average American’s response is neither admiration nor envy, but rather a kind of sick pride in their own wretchedness, combined with righteous contempt for their European worker counterparts, whom most Americans see as morally degenerate precisely because they have more leisure time, more job security, health benefits and other advantages.

It’s like a classic case of East Bloc lumpen-spite: middle Americans would rather see the European system collapse than become beneficiaries themselves. If there is one favourite recurring propaganda fable Americans love to read about Europeans, it’s the one about how Europe is decaying and its social system is on the verge of imploding; we Americans pray for that day to come, with even more fervour than we pray for the End of Days, because the very existence of these pampered workers makes us look like the suckers and slaves we really are. This is why you won’t see Bono or Sir Bob Geldof rallying the bleeding-hearts anytime soon on behalf of America’s workers. They’re not in the least bit sympathetic. Better to stick with well-behaved victims like starving Africans.

The cultural propaganda that accompanied the Reagan Revolution has been so hugely successful that America’s workers internalised it too well, like those famously fanatical Soviet workers who literally worked themselves to death in order to help bring true communism that much closer. According to Expedia, American workers save their employees some $21 billion per year by not taking even the meagre vacation time they’re allowed.

Now in fairness to those office slaves, while Americans buy into the “always on duty” attitude (I noticed how little smart phones and IPads were visibly in use, even in the toniest parts of London, compared to New York City), some of it is rational. Even before the bust, it was hard for anyone over 35 who loses a job to land another, much the less at the same level of pay, job tenures are short, and companies keep squeezing workers. Everyone I know who is still on the corporate meal ticket is doing what would have been one and one half or two jobs ten years ago.

So while there is no easy way to turn to regain control of a cultural commons so throughly under the sway of well heeled corporate interests, perhaps we can start to engage in small acts of reprogramming. While I am not telling you to skip Fourth of July fireworks, it might be time to recognize key events that help us look at our history with fresh eyes. Perhaps we should quietly celebrate what we still have of the America our founders envisaged, say on the anniversary of the signing of the articles of Confederation (a protracted affair, with the last signature affixed on March 1, 1781) or their replacement with the Constitution on March 4, 1789. But regardless of how individuals go about it, the more we recognize how cultural memes are created and propagated, the more hope we have of freeing ourselves from them.

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  1. Bullwinkle

    I’m confused by the reference to the ‘CIA’ used here. The CIA that I’m aware of – Central Intelligence Agency – did not come into existence until 1947 so how could they have funded the Bureau of Education in 1915? Perhaps you meant the ‘CCA’?

    1. Jack Heape

      I believe the author is referring to the “Committee for Citizens in America” when it changed its name from the NACLI, North American Civic League for Immigrants. Not the current CIA.

    2. Justine Sharps

      Yves actually gets the name of the Committee wrong when she says, “In 1914, NACLI decided to extend its program nation-wide, and changed its name to the Committee for Citizens in America.” She appears to be paraphrasing from page 44 of Carey’s book, where Carey says that the NACLI “changed its name to the ‘Committee for Immigrants in America’ (CIA).”

  2. Larry

    It seems that the European Union is doing quite the job to undermine the European protections that we Americans wish to see dismantled rather than emulated. The lesser countries have largely been crushed, with rampant unemlpoyment, benefit cuts, and the public sector privatized. France continues to have neoliberal dictates that are massively unpopular as evidenced by populist uprisings. Yet instead of listening to the people, leadership must adhere to rules, rules, and more rules. Thoe rules result in Brits voting for at least a change, even if the leaders of that change are dishonest about outcomes. Some control is better than no control. And in countries like France, Marie La Pen is given a wide opening to gain power.

    I can’t speak to the propaganda efforts in the EU adopted to keep eroding labor and citizen benefits, but it is certainly so that the EU was designed to largely benefit business as the cost of citizens.

    1. nothing but the truth

      “middle Americans would rather see the European system collapse than become beneficiaries themselves”

      there is a difference between what is portrayed in the media and what is the truth. The american media we all know by now, is completely stage managed. Behind every “expert opinion” there is either a real or a hoped for quid pro quo.

      Say the truth on american media and lose your job.

      1. tongorad

        “middle Americans would rather see the European system collapse than become beneficiaries themselves”

        there is a difference between what is portrayed in the media and what is the truth.

        Unfortunately, the difference depends on where you live. Unfortunately, I live in Texas.

  3. Hsaraway

    Americans are most certainly in denial regarding the near 3rd world levels of wealth unequality in the US. To make a case in point, at a seaside hotel with few tables I was joined at mine by an Anerican family sending their daughter to university in the UK. Conversation flowed until I hit the topic of rising homelessness in the US. I mentioned how the UK tries to deal with this by referring to housing benefit. The Anerican families response was to get up and wordlessly leave at any hin of criticism of US domestic politics. Strange that!…..

    1. pdxjoan

      Hopefully, those parents are part of the last generation of Americans to believe the horrible things Reagan said about our government. Yes, the government of the people, by the people and for the people. Here are a few gems:

      “The nine most frightening words in the English language are, I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

      “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

      “If more government is the answer, then it was a really stupid question.”

      I dream of the day when their children will elect a president that will say, “The nine most frightening words in the English language are, I’m from Goldman Sachs, and I’m here to help.”

      1. Chris

        You may not be as far from that dream as you might hope.

        So far, Bernie Sanders has swept away the vote of Generation Y and if this holds in the future, this could have a huge impact in future elections, particularly if the turnout of young voters in the US rises.

    2. different clue

      And the near-Moldovakrainian condition of our industry and infrastructure. In denial of that too, except for those who aren’t.

  4. nothing but the truth

    unions work for their members. eg, govt employees and other govt cronies like large construction companies. Those folks are doing quite all right.

    1. Vatch

      I agree with your implication that more people need to be members of unions, especially people who work for Walmart, Target, and Amazon.com.

  5. oho

    “Why Don’t Americans Take More Vacations?”

    i wrote something but don’t want to get flamed or ruffle some dogmatic troll. would rather get ready to stuff my face.


  6. redleg

    After all of these years of contract work or consulting with a total of 20 days PTO per year, I don’t know what a vacation is.

    I blame employers.

  7. John

    I think a big problem in usa is neither party really even touts these things. Europeans are portrayed as lazy, God-leas snobs (liberals). If u asked workers or had a referendum in a state for a guaranteed 2 weeks or whatever amount of paid vacation per yr i bet it would do remarkably well-if not pass. Look at minimum wage hikes-they passed even in antilabor arkansas in 2014 even as the gop won all offices. People/workers are a lot better informed as to whats best for themthan i think the author would give them credit for.

  8. Ep3

    Yves, first, I want to go back to the founding fathers. What was one of their reasons for the founding? They did not like that the king got his position because he was born into it. The founders thought that anyone who worked hard should have the opportunity to be “King”. As an extension of that, they wanted each person (male!) to feel that he was king of his castle (maybe this marketing idea came along later). Based on this premise, many Americans have this belief that someone might become “King” without working hard. So now you have this “competition” between everyone to become king. And to do this, you can’t take vacations and sick time off.
    Also, this is blatant exploitation by business owners to extract as much labor from workers as possible. Remember the stories of the young man who leaves school early to join a fishing crew, with dreams of getting his own crew. But you never hear about all the other stories that don’t work out like that.
    Third, Americans have this programming or something that says they have to out due every other person. Listen to Americans on the streets today. They brag about having more student loan debt than the next person! That same person will then go out and get a home loan for a mansion, just so they can exceed their current socioeconomic class, with the hope that it moves them up to the next class level. also, Americans are greedy. They see the person taking vacation time as stealing from them. “Why do I have to work this weekend when joe gets to stay home?”.
    Finally, I want to talk a little about “kissing up to the boss”. Unions made workers equal as employees and gave workers a level of protection from being fired “without cause”. What they call an “at-will employee”. But what the union also eliminated was the “boss’s pet”. No longer could workers kiss up to the boss to get promotions and favored jobs. The union had rules that said “worker could only receive promotion based upon qualifications”. Again, this concept of equality is not liked by Americans. This kissing up was both for workers and the boss. Because the boss also felt that he was “King” and he had people that looked up to him, even if the only reason was that the workers were trying to get ahead themselves.
    So these are some of the reasons I think that Americans don’t want generous vacation, health care, and other leisure time benefits.

  9. Arilando

    I think a more realistic explenation is a lack of a willingness to pay taxes, on the part of all sections of american society. Those benefits mentioned in the article are after all, also funded by high taxes on workers themselves.

  10. NeqNeq

    Hmm. Based on what is here it looks like Cary is applying a Mercea Eliade, Emile Durkheim, and Leight Schmidt (http://press.princeton.edu/titles/5713.html) to vacations and calling the result a Capitalist Propaganda sandwich.

    What is most troublesome: Propaganda or its use for capitalist gain (at the expense of workers)? I, honestly, do not know how NC would reply!

  11. John

    “The average American’s response is neither admiration nor envy, but rather a kind of sick pride in their own wretchedness, combined with righteous contempt for their European worker counterparts, whom most Americans see as morally degenerate precisely because they have more leisure time, more job security, health benefits and other advantages.”

    No one I know feels this way. We would all love to have what the Europeans do.

    The meme we feel this way is just more corporate media propaganda to make us think our fellow workers disdain decent vacation and benefits. And so we should too.

    1. jrs

      It’s hard to say of course how widespread the attitude is, but I have definitely seen the sick pride thing in other countries getting more vacations. Sometimes there is some envy but also righteous mockery as in “and that’s why Greece went broke”. Um alrighty then …

      My fellow workers definitely seem to have that disdain, and they also complain regularly about plans for state minimum wages to go up (none of them earn anywhere close to as low as minimum wage but they are super opinionated about it nonetheless. And their opinion is to @#$# and moan about minimum wages going up). It’s kind of why I loath the white collar college educated middle class types because that type of stuff sometimes seems to be their basic belief system (and in a blue state no less). But that’s only one section of the workforce, perhaps a particularly loathsome one, but the blue collar world can actually be really reactionary as well just in a different way. So it’s hard to say.

  12. Winston

    Some more information about Brexit:


    Brexit Is What A Dark Age Feels Like. Here’s Why.

    See also why Scotland voted for Remain:

    The geography of Brexit: what the vote reveals about the Disunited Kingdom

    Britain’s EU Problem is a London Problem
    Brexit would widen the north-south divide as poorest areas stand to lose most


    The UK’s income inequality is regional inequality

    Briefing 61: Regional inequality in the UK is the worst in Western Europe

  13. Barni

    Winston: The Dark Age is what the completely undemocratic EU is bringing to Europe and among other things the EU makes offshoring to third world slave wage jurisdictions really really easy for the economic elites which run the EU. Scotland voted to stay in the EU due to historic attachments to France which was the historic ally of some Scots against England. The Scottish ‘Brexit’ vote was knee-jerk with little or no consideration for the very large real social costs the completely elitist controlled and undemocratic EU imposes on working families. Regional and community disparity in England, and generally in Europe, has to do more with off-shoring jobs to slave wage locations, the resulting unemployment which has recently been made far worse by the flood of middle eastern refugees largely resulting from ill-considered USA elites’ military activity and American elites’ benefitting American corporate agenda controlled meddling in that region. The BIS, IMF, WB and other international elites controlled organizations whose aim is to destroy democratic national governments and replace them with elitist controlled undemocratic regional corporate control in preparation for an elitist world dictatorship are using their almost total media control to make black look white and white look black. Unfortunately they have you hook, line, and sinker! The EU was created in an effort to destroy democracy and the middle class in Europe; and the English, unlike the Scots who are encumbered by their historic military failures – all of which have been fomented by historic French attempts to weaken and subjugate England by military attrition through political meddling in Scotland. The Scottish vote to remain in the completely elitist EU harkens back to the history of French meddling in their politics and encouraging some but far from all Scotts to militarily confront England. The Scottish vote against Brexit is simply the most recent example of their historic manipulation by the French.

  14. jbw

    I find it hard to believe that some many smart people still believe unions are good for workers. I don’t know much about Europe, but in the US the unions are incredibility corrupt and do nothing for the workers. People bought into Reagan and his vision of the world because at the time the unions were driving american industry into the ground. There were no jobs. If there was propaganda it was an easy sell given the status quo of the average american worker. A union is an excellent way for the elite to control the workers. You join a union is this country your dues fund a certain political party. This is the same political party, working with the other political party, who created a regulatory regime that has off shored most american manufacturing making the unions moot. The same people who bought off both political parties have also bought off the folks running the union. So why should anyone invest money in an organization that is controlled by folks who don’t have your best interests in mind? It is naive to think that unions are always a good for workers or that unions will be able to solve these problems.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      That is so incorrect I don’t know where to begin. My middle brother is a union member. He makes $70,000-$80,000 a year including overtime with only 2 years of college. Has close to a million in net worth between his pension and being frugal and being lucky about his investments. His income and savings are the direct result of him being in a union. The only workers in moderate-wage jobs in this economy with anything dimly resembling protection against being fired at the drop of a hat and decent benefits are unions. The fact that average worker wages have been stagnant since the 1970s (because corporations stopped sharing productivity gains with workers) is the direct result of the decline in unions. Why do you think Corporate American has invested such effort in breaking them? White collar pay and benefits were set in relationship to blue collar employment terms, so the deterioration in white collar working conditions is a result of the fall in labor bargaining power.

      Yes, union leadership is corrupt and has squandered what power it has left by not making demands of the Democratic party. But to say unions do not help workers is false. Why do you think many types of workers, ranging from adjunct professors to WalMart employees, are tying to unionize? I can point to all sorts of unions, like the ones for building employees in NYC, where when you compare how the union members do to people who hold similar jobs (superintendents who handle several townhouses) there is no contest that the union members have a better deal.

      Better trolls, please.

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