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Should the Government Mandate the Amount of Vacation Workers Get?

Aired August 30, 2001 - 19:30   ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: He's back from his 26-day vacation! Tonight, shouldn't get as much time off as the president? And shouldn't the government make sure you do?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Tucker Carlson. In the CROSSFIRE: Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends.

PRESS: Good evening, welcome to CROSSFIRE, and welcome back to Washington, Mr. President. He has been out of town, our nation's leader, mostly on vacation just short of a month. And what do you know? The country got along just fine!

Which raises the question: If the president can take a whole month off, why can't the rest of us? Overall, we Americans are known for working hard, but maybe too hard. Not everybody takes their job so seriously. By law, European countries require now a minimum four weeks annual vacation for every working man and woman. Shouldn't the United States do the same? Or should the government just stay out of it?

Tonight, the president's vacation, was it too long? Since he got almost a month, shouldn't we too? And who decides? Tucker, a man who loves all the vacation he can get.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Amen. Jeremy Rifkin, you look tanned, rested and ready. Congratulations.

JEREMY RIFKIN, FOUNDATION ON ECONOMIC TRENDS: And I'm going on vacation tomorrow.

CARLSON: I can tell! Now, you think that people ought to be required to go on vacations, so they don't get too stressed out. Why not require them to go to cocktail parties, or barbecues, or play volleyball? I mean, the list of requirements to make people relax is endless.

PRESS: Good idea.

RIFKIN: Well, I don't think that's the way we ought to look at it. Look, we mandate a 40-hour work week, and we mandate parental leave in certain occasions. There is no reason why a government and society can't decide that it makes good sense for people to have a little time off, and it creates an even playing field, so that workers are not penalized.

Frankly, I think President Bush did the right thing by taking a month off. And let me say this: You know, there is a lot of back-and- forth about our European friends. They have a strange idea over in Europe, very strange idea, that you work to live. And we all know in this country, you really want to live to work. So when we see that the Europeans are actually enjoying their lives, have a high quality of life, we say that's not for us. Maybe we ought to look to Europe and say, maybe they got a good idea.

CARLSON: Well, you are right that is a strange continent, but in the United States, you're suggesting what people may not want. Like Esperanto -- you know, it sounds like a great idea, but the fact is that Americans, your average American, leaves two vacation days unused, that last year American workers left $19 billion worth of vacation time unused. You can tell people they have to go on vacation, but why would if they don't want to?

RIFKIN: Well, first of all, let me say that if you ask the average American, "what's the biggest single problem they are facing in their daily life?" It's not enough time. It's stress. It's overwork, it's not being able to actually enjoy their life and a quality of life, and you see that on all the surveys.

You know, you would think the business community would wake up, and understand it's good for business to allow people to take a rest and relax. Productivity goes up, you get a fresh worker, you get someone that's motivated when they come back to the job. We can't continue with this constant idea that we work people to death.

Now, people may accept it, and people may get into the routine of it, and think that is the way life should be. Maybe we need a soul- searching national dialogue to say, it's time for us to take a new chapter here in terms of how American work is scheduled and how it's regulated.

PRESS: This is the soul-searching national dialogue!

CARLSON: Exactly!

PRESS: Right here. And frankly, personally I find it sad that so many Americans are such idiots that they don't take all of their vacation, Fred, but you know as well as I the reason most Americans don't do like George Bush and take a month, it's because they don't get it. They don't have it. And they don't get paid if they take that vacation, so I want to ask you the simple question that we started with: If it's good enough for the members of Congress and it's good enough for the president of the United States, why shouldn't every American man and woman get four weeks paid vacation?

FRED SMITH, COMPETITIVE ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: Well, this is, of course, the question: Is there a difference between politicians taking vacations and productive people taking vacations? It's a big difference. What we basically are dealing with -- the American system was always addressed on the fact that politicians could do a lot more harm than good, and the general rule that American founding fathers had is, don't just do something, sit there. And sitting there is what basically politicians do very well. When they start acting, they start rushing out -- the reason most of us don't take all the vacations is somebody has got to support the government that we have already. You don't do that by taking vacations. You got to be productive.

Look, seriously, the question is: How does one take a vacation in a society like ours, when government is making everything more dangerous? Shark attacks off the coast of Florida because we are suppressing shark killings, the horrible damage we are doing to our environment, encouraging people to get eaten up in Florida. What do we do with our forest fires? We are basically running around saying, let government burn down the woods.

It's not safe to take a vacation because of the government involvement today. Let's calm down and basically stay safe in our jobs, where we have OSHA protecting us, right?

PRESS: Boy, I can't -- I can't tell whether you are serious about anything at all you said or not! I mean...

SMITH: It is August. It is August.

PRESS: It is August, all right, but picking up on something that Jeremy said. Look, the people don't -- most Americans do not get four weeks's paid vacation. Now, we give them family and medical leave, there is a minimum wage, there are minimum workers safety requirements -- answer my question, why not a minimum paid vacation?

SMITH: But why minimum -- why we have -- we have two weeks, but why two weeks? Why four weeks? Europe -- we are richer than Europe, why don't we go to -- let's go to college situation sabbaticals. Universities have every seven years people get, why don't we mandate that basically anybody who doesn't want to work cannot work? We've got plenty of time left over, according to the end of work, Jeremy wrote a book about...


RIFKIN: Let me say something, I want to go back to a show we did here about a year ago, and I want to bring up a couple points. One is, I mentioned that it's not just vacation, it's how much we work during the year, and I made the point that France and Italy -- and I worked with those governments, and we are able to get a 35-hour workweek initiated and legislated in France and Italy for 39-hour pay, we got the government to provide tax credits and incentives to the companies so that they wouldn't lose any money in the process.

And I remember at that time, we had a discussion, we said that -- the other panelists said that is retrogressive. Well, guess what? The British government just did a survey, and they found out that the highest productivity per worker in the world is now in France, higher than in the United States, partially because of the 35-hour work week. Now, how do you...


CARLSON: ... now, let's talk about the United States, let's talk about -- now, you run an organization -- Bill is in favor of that -- you run an organization here in United States, a Foundation of Economic Trends. Do your workers work 35-hour work weeks?

RIFKIN: Well, here is what we have done. We've got a pretty good policy...


RIFKIN: Well, let me tell you, we've got a pretty good policy. First on vacations: You work there the first 12 months, two weeks, you work there the next three years...

CARLSON: Wait, two weeks?

RIFKIN: Two weeks vacation.

CARLSON: That's one-third of what Germans and the French and the Italians get.

RIFKIN: Let me finish. In the second, third and fourth year, three weeks vacation. From the fourth year on, four weeks vacation. From the ninth year on, five weeks vacation. I bet you we can go head-to-head with CNN on your vacation policy.

CARLSON: The ninth year? Well, wait, wait, wait a second -- wait a second. First of all, that's comparable with Burger King...

RIFKIN: Four weeks vacation after four years. Not bad.

CARLSON: But second -- first of all, that is not great, but the second -- compared to France, but the second...

RIFKIN: Pretty good compared to CNN, I suspect, or any other institution out there.

CARLSON: But my question to you is: Why do you suppose businesses are ignoring this? If, as you said, it's more efficient for businesses to allow workers more time off, why don't they? Sadism?

RIFKIN: No, some companies are. For example, there is a number here in the United States now that have gone from a 40-hour work week to a 30-hour work week, and still paying for 40 hours of work. How do they do it? They do a six-hour shift, no lunch, no break.

And here is what they find. That if you give a worker six hours and pay them for eight, they are going to be so fresh, their productivity is the same as if they are there for eight hours, and you can pay them the same amount.

CARLSON: But then, why don't you do it? I don't understand. RIFKIN: Well, the reason -- well, I'll tell you what we do in Washington, if -- we have...

CARLSON: But if it's so efficient, you should go ahead and go crazy?

RIFKIN: We have a policy where some of our people -- we have a few people work full-time at 40, and some work a little bit less because they are part-time, but what we also do is we do not have anyone stay late, we don't have anyone on evenings or on weekends, which is quite a policy given Washington, D.C. Because I don't think people should be enslaved to the office. Work smart, and then get out. That's the way it should be at every office.

PRESS: I want to come back to this concept of working to live or living to work. I saw some pretty shocking statistics today about the number of vacation days the average citizen takes in Western so-called civilized countries. Fred Smith, let's look at them on the screen here.

In Denmark, 31 days. Finland, Austria 30 days. Norway, 27. France, Sweden 25. You can see it -- Germany, 24. U.K., 20. United States, 10! I mean, isn't that sad? Wouldn't we be better off as a people if we just took time off to relax?

SMITH: Wouldn't it be wonderful if America were like Europe? I can just see the sign now, the center...


PRESS: But wouldn't we be better off?

SMITH: No, because look, whatever is going on in the world, Europe is certainly no indicator of the future. Foundation for Economic Trends -- these are regressive trends. Europe is a society that is imploding on population. What are they doing on their vacation? Not having sex, that's for sure. Basically, what we are dealing with...

PRESS: I don't know about that.

SMITH: Well, they're not having children at least. Safe sex? They are basically -- we are having a situation out there, where the Europeans have basically created a society which is essentially destroying their future. They are taking vacations for today and they have no tomorrow. They are not unemployment -- a lot of Europeans have a lot of vacation, unemployment rate is -- what -- twice ours? That's a permanent vacation.

PRESS: You are totally missing the point. You are attacking Europe, I'm asking you to look at us as a people. Wouldn't we as a people be better off if we were less stressful, had -- took more time, to just enjoy life?

SMITH: And can't we just all get along? Yes, it's a good idea, but in fact, what we see in the world is, America, with its stressful lifestyle, is a place that people want to go to. Europe is a place people want to take vacation.

RIFKIN: I've got to respectfully disagree. I spend weeks every month in Europe and two weeks every month in the United States, so I'm the original long-term commute here. I have to tell you, the quality of life in western Europe, if you haven't been there lately, is pretty darn good compared to the U.S. or anywhere else.

SMITH: It's pretty good if you have a job. But they've got a lot higher unemployment, they have an immigration population that isn't even allowed to be citizens in Germany.


RIFKIN: Wait. You know, we should take a chapter from industrial history. We started the industrial revolution with a 70- hour work week. No vacations, long hours, terrible working conditions. Every time productivity went up, we reduced the work week, increased the benefits, increased the amount of time you could have off. What's the point of all these labor-saving, time-saving technologies, if we're not liberated so that we have more time to enjoy our life?

CARLSON: I have the answer to that.

RIFKIN: We haven't moved beyond a 40-hour work week in 30, 40 years.

CARLSON: I noticed that France didn't create the Internet. I noticed that France hasn't been in the forefront of anything except vacations for say, the last hundred years!

SMITH: And wine at breakfast.

CARLSON: And according to Bill, that is an improvement. But truly, work produces product, and it's allowed America to run the world.

RIFKIN: How do you how do you account for the British study that French productivity is now higher than the U.S. and Britain?

CARLSON: Well, the study may say that, but the fact is, the French didn't invent the Internet.

RIFKIN: If you take a look at the E.U. -- and I don't want to make this a Europe-U.S. thing, but it you look at the EU, this is a powerful economic engine, and I know that a lot of American commentators and economists want to slight our friends in Europe. You watch Europe over the next decade. You're seeing people that are entrepreneurial sophisticated, they are working well. And the point is, even if they weren't, even if they weren't, if productivity continues to go up in America, why for the first time in history are we so stingy that we can't share those productivity gains with less work -- smaller weeks for work and more vacation time? I don't understand the mentality.

(CROSSTALK) RIFKIN: It's kind of stick to your desk until you die.

SMITH: You don't approve of the way Americans use their freedoms, but in fact, most Americans seem to prefer to have a fairly intensive work week, and then they play. We work hard and we play hard. We get more enjoyment out of 10 days, it looks like, than the Europeans are getting out of 30 days, and we get a lot more productivity out of our work force. Americans, basically, is a place that is essentially saying we are optimistic about the future. If you really think life is over with, then you go on vacation.

RIFKIN: You know what my wife said? Nobody -- I'll tell you what my wife says. She's the best one to listen to on this. She said no one on their deathbed ever regrets that they didn't spend another hour at the office. And she sometimes says that to me.

CARLSON: Jonas Salk may be one exception to that. In any case, who spends more time on vacation, who has more fun doing it? These and other deep questions will be addressed when CROSSFIRE returns in just a moment.


CARLSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. It's almost Labor Day, a day of rest, when Americans celebrate how much they work. But do they work too much? Europeans spend fewer hours on the job, more days on vacation, and claim to get just as much done. Should American workers follow their example? Should the government force them to take more time off?

Tonight's guests: Jeremy Rifkin of the Foundation on Economic Trends, who believes no one ought to toil more than 36 hours a week, and Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who suggests Americans should stop whining and get back to work -- Bill Press.

PRESS: Fred Smith, I want to congratulate you. You have gone through half the show now without coming honest up front about your real agenda. Your real agenda is, you don't mind vacations, you just don't want the government to do anything about it because you are anti-government. Isn't that really what it is all about?

SMITH: Anti-government? I'm pro-people, it's a little different there. Basically, the argument is that because something that wealthy firms can do, maybe European firms can do and maybe even Germany's group can do if it's worth doing, should be mandated for the small entrepreneurial firms. The reason that the Europeans are in trouble, the reason that a lot of Europeans have very long vacations -- the whole year, because they're unemployed -- is basically because we -- Europe has created a bureaucratic society that has suppressed the innovative abilities, the entrepreneurial abilities that sometimes require you work very hard as a small business so you can gain the stature, the wealth to have 35-hour work weeks that maybe some people would like to see.

PRESS: Well, maybe, just maybe, it's in the nation's interest to have people take a little more time. I want to refer to you a study by the state university of New York that looked at the coronary risks of middle-aged men. The highest risk are those who take no vacations.

Now, I mean, just from a public health point of view, don't you think it'd be a smart national investment just to say to employers, again, here is your minimum time off. Start with two weeks, like the French do, like Germany does. Build up to three or four.

SMITH: Well, the argument...

PRESS: That's a positive role for the government, isn't it?

SMITH: But why -- this is the thing I never understand about liberals. Why stop with the six weeks? Why not two months, why not four months? Why not...

PRESS: That's not answering the question, Fred. Why not start somewhere?

SMITH: Because starting, basically, is, look, people can afford to do different things with their time today. Companies can't all offer the same packaged that the Fortune 500 can. Europe only has the Fortune 500. Little firms don't exist in Europe, because they don't allow them to carry the (UNINTELLIGIBLE). The small...


RIFKIN: Have you been to Europe lately? Italy? Have you been to Italy and Germany and France and Spain, where there are more small businesses than we have -- they don't have the big franchises and the Wal-Marts yet.

SMITH: The Italian firms are obeying European rules.

RIFKIN: Let me get off Europe and make a proposal. Since we're here in Washington, I have a proposal. What the federal government ought to do, and we ought to have a real discussion on this politically, is provide incentives for employers who move toward a three and four-week vacation: tax incentives, tax credits. It's good for the country. It's good for morale, it's good for motivation -- wait -- and it's good for productivity, because you'll have workers that are fresh, they're rejuvenated, their productivity will go up. And that will come back to having more taxes paid, you'll have a better economy.

CARLSON: You're going to have workers who are bored and restless and drunk, and I'll tell you why.


CARLSON: This is true. The implication of everything you've said, Jeremy Rifkin, is that work is bad. Turns out a lot of people like work, because it gives meaning and definition to their lives. I'll give you one quick example. When prisons introduce opportunities for prisoners to work, of course, prisoners can have the ultimate vacation, they can lounge around all day long and watch cable if they. But prisons can't create enough jobs for prisoners. Prisoners want to work, not because they get paid a lot, they don't get paid anything. RIFKIN: No, but there's a difference here.

CARLSON: ... because they want something to do. They want something meaningful.

RIFKIN: I understand what you're saying, but here's the difference: 75 percent of all the jobs in an industrial society are what we call simple, repetitive tasks. They're not fun.

We're luckily, we're fortunate; we have avocations as well as vocations. It's creative, we get something out of it. But you tell most Americans who are working in simple, repetitive tasks that they enjoy their work day in and day out...


RIFKIN: Sure, we enjoy it because we like to do a good job, but we also want to have some time off. What about family.


RIFKIN: I would think the conservatives would be interested in proposals that would allow for more time with family, with children, with neighborhood, with civic organizations so that our play life would be as important to us as our work life.

CARLSON: Well then tell me this: Why is Sunday -- Sunday, the day of rest -- why do more people commit suicide on Sunday; there are more violent acts on Sunday than any other day of the week.


CARLSON: Because they're idle, that's why.

RIFKIN: No. We've lost the ability to know how to play. And it's a very...


RIFKIN: No, we've lost the ability to understand what it means -- you know what, we've come to the conclusion in this country, if you're not working, you're not a human being. If you're not producing widgets 24 hours a day like a machine, then you have no value in your life and you should not be here. And that's a sad commentary.

SMITH: Gary made a point earlier which is almost always a liberal prescription for everything: We want to pay people not to work; we pay people not to farm; we pay people not to produce things. Is the whole goal of society persuading people not to do the things...


SMITH: ... yes you are. When you put...


SMITH: Where do those tax incentives come from? Somebody pays more taxes...


SMITH: ... programs, right?

RIFKIN: We're rewarding our work force for doing a nice job.

SMITH: No you're not. You're taking money away from productive people and giving it to people who work less hard.

RIFKIN: I wouldn't want you for my employer.

SMITH: You believe in paying people not to farm? You believe people not to produce...

PRESS: Fred? Fred?


RIFKIN: That's apples and oranges.

PRESS: Hold on just a minute. I just want to show you what we look like -- we stupid workaholics look like for the rest of the world, all right? OK?

This in the "Buffalo News" just last year is a Dutch citizen who made this comment about the United States. Here we go: "There's a joke in Europe about traveling Americans. You see them once before they go to college, and then they come back when they're retired. Is this enjoying life?"

I mean, come on! You can't say that during that whole period, which is true for most Americans, their job is so important they can't afford to take a month off. That's baloney.

SMITH: The point is American -- the American lifestyle is something we do find life -- work enriching in America. Look, the American -- there was a survey that was done recently that found out Americans have more enjoyment in life than the Europeans do. Maybe the elites that Jeremy circulates with don't, but the unemployed average European is not this happy-go-lucky guy sipping brandy...


PRESS: Are you saying if you gave a work stiff a month vacation he wouldn't take it?

RIFKIN: I don't believe it for a moment.

You know, the fact is -- and this an anthropological argument; you may pooh-pooh this. But we're biologically designed for long periods of rest and short periods of work. We were designed as hunter-gatherers. In the industrial age we turned it all around and say we work all the time, and then what we call rest is just between work intervals. It's nuts.

PRESS: Now I know why I enjoy such long vacations.

Thank you, gentlemen -- Fred Smith. All right, Jeremy Rifkin, it's good to have you back. Relax, take the rest of the weekend off.


SMITH: ... going on vacation tomorrow.

PRESS: All right, when we come back Tucker Carlson is going to tell you how he spent his vacation this summer, and I'll tell you, maybe, how I spent mine. We'll be back.


PRESS: Well, Tucker, I want to go on record: I am for -- the more vacations the better. The longer the vacations the better. And if President Bush gets a month, I think every guy working an assembly line, everybody flipping burgers at McDonald's should get a month.

CARLSON: You're missing it, Bill. America is about work. People immigrate to this country in order to work. They don't come for the vacations. Most people like work. I liked working at a working gas station. I like working at CNN. People like to work. I'm sorry that you don't.

PRESS: People like to work, but they also like to play and they should be given four weeks of play...

CARLSON: By government mandate?

PRESS: Yes...

CARLSON: Then why shouldn't the government buy everyone a waterbed or tell everyone they have to go to a cocktail party? I mean...

PRESS: Because that's stupid. This makes sense...

CARLSON: It's insane.

PRESS: ... use it or lose it. Four weeks -- I hope you get it.

From the left, I'm Bill Press; good night for CROSSFIRE.

CARLSON: And from the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again tomorrow night for yet another edition of CROSSFIRE.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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