Europe’s model workers

Europe’s model workers
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Here’s another story for the “almost defies parody” column.

Listening to NPR yesterday, I almost choked when I heard the results of  this Pew Research poll, which asked the citizens of several European nations to name the country they believed to be the most “hard-working.” Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland, and the Czech Republic were all unanimous: it was the Germans. Only the Greeks dissented. Greece was the hardest-working country, they said.

If you’ve read one of those wonderfully lurid exposés of Greek working life that have been churned out by western journalists over the last couple of years I’m sure you’ll have a hard time keeping your lunch down. Or at least your laughter. As Michael Lewis perhaps most famously chronicled in his epic 2011 fall-of-Europe best-seller, Boomerang, almost every sector of the Greek labour market is breathtakingly bloated, crooked, or purposefully inefficient in some way, and it’s the country’s elevation of pointless pseudo-work to a form of high art that has now almost single-handedly poisoned the future of the EU.

Having long since abandoned any pretence of producing anything the world wants, the lucky quarter of Greek workers who toil in some form of government employment  (a figure that almost certainly underestimates the country’s largest industry) enjoy paycheques that eclipse their private sector compatriots by nearly three-to-one. Almost all are unionized, and few — until recent emergency austerity laws kicked in — could ever be fired. Routine bonuses include perks for arduous tasks such as showing up on time, and in exchange, labourers perpetuate a byzantine web of regulation over all aspects of society and commerce that rarely benefit the life of the average Greek, but do heavily disincentivize foreign investment in a country that badly needs it.

Even vital services such as education, transportation, and health care are run largely from a mindset that favours generous compensation before literally everything else, resulting in monstrous paradoxes like the best-paid teachers generating the dumbest students, the best-paid engineers driving the most ramshackle trains, and the best-paid doctors having to be bribed by patients for service. Even in the Greek private sector, rigged laws have made absurdly early retirements — sometimes as early as 45 — possible within even the most laid-back professions, and wide scale tax evasion and non-enforcement (Lewis noted the crime is considered roughly on par with the crime of not opening a door for a lady) guarantees that subsidizing the perks of the bureaucratic class isn’t actually that painful. Unless you consider bankrupting rates of national debt painful.

Of course, when talking about Greece it’s important not to get too carried away with stereotypes. As some were quick to observe in response to the Pew survey, Greeks actually work more hours per year than the Germans or Dutch, and their high rate of government employment isn’t actually that unusual for an industrialized democracy (the Government of Canada, for instance, is also the largest employer of the Canadian public). At the same time, however, stated hours of work don’t necessarily mean much in a corrupt culture; a large number of Greeks are self-employed or otherwise entrusted to document their own hours, and Greece’s comparatively low rate of labour force participation — itself another symptom of the country’s dysfunction — will naturally necessitate longer hours for those who have chosen to opt-in. It’s also clear that not all forms of government work are created equal; if one’s job is so cushy and brainless that it’s easy to surf the net, chat on the phone, or even work a second job while performing it, then why not put in some overtime?

Around the time of the new millennium, it was very fashionable to buy into the Francis Fukuyama theory of globalization, which more or less presumed that the vicious cultural cleavages of previous eras had been largely papered over by the great equalizer of western capitalism. It was an argument echoed by both right and left alike, the latter who mourned the ugly American hegemony of global consumerism, the former as they celebrated the McDonald’s theory of peace. Almost no one, however, seemed much interested in the possibility that local cultures — even in Europe, that supposedly most quickly homogenizing of places — would actually prove to be greatly stubborn things, and that our ability to govern the 21st century economy would rest significantly on our ability to understand and manage the structural consequences of these uniquely nationalistic quirks and character flaws. Who would have guessed back in 1999 that one of the dominant debates of 2012 would center around an armchair sociological analysis of why we should all try to think and act a little more more Nordic or German, and a little less Mediterranean or Latin?

In the end, there was one silver lining in the Pew survey: the Greeks happily volunteered themselves when asked to name their continent’s “most corrupt” nation. If the first step towards resolution is admitting you have a problem, then the country’s at least halfway there.


  1. William McDuff

    Only one problem. They do wor more hours per year on average. More than us, too.

  2. Emm

    When I was a government employer I was payed for 37.5 hours a week. I think I did work for a quarter of that.

  3. heavyB

    But they dont really work during those hours. And they work for a lot less year than other countries, seeing as how they retire at 50.

  4. Jake_Ackers

    Government employees plus tourism employment. Probably lengthy breaks and lunch hours.

  5. youarearacist

    You are a horrible racist. Just wanted to let you know that.

  6. A. Apolis

    "Europe, that supposedly most quickly homogenizing of places"

    So, uh, does anyone actually think that? Because it's really really bollocks and it's really really obvious bollocks too. Yeah, the Balkans are so fucking homogenizing it hurts – that's why there's so many different countries there, they're all competing to be the same as each other.

    "Routine bonuses include perks for arduous tasks such as showing up on time"

    Anyone would think they worked in the finance industry HEYO

  7. A. Apolis

    Also: why do you keep using fezzes as cartooning shorthand for Greeks? They may have previously been prevalent in Greece, but surely they're far more associated with Turkey and North Africa?

    Mind you, so is the kebab, and that didn't stop you last time.

  8. Jon Bennett

    Because it's funny?

  9. Steen

    Whereas monocles are certainly the most current fashion trend in Britain.

  10. A. Apolis

    A less crude but more sarcastic way of phrasing the first bit:

    "Around the time of the new millennium … no one seemed much interested in the possibility that local cultures — even in Europe, that supposedly most quickly homogenizing of places — would actually prove to be greatly stubborn things"

    Yeah, because there was definitely no separatism whatsoever anywhere in Europe in the late 1990s.

    I wish there was an edit button :-(

  11. ThePsudo

    If you sign up for IntenseDebate, there is an edit button. It's hugely convenient.

  12. William McDuff

    And you all know they’re slacking off during those hours because…? And the German tourism worker and government employees aren’t because…?

    If you can find a better comparison, I’m game. GDP doesn’t make much sense though, as that’s just how much you’re making, not how hard you’re working.

  13. Dan

    Usually you make more the harder you work, unless you're really, really, dumb.

  14. ThePsudo

    Most hard work pays very little, at least if you mean physical effort. It's smart application of labor that pays the big bucks. The great effort it takes to move thousands of boxes of freight onto retail shelves neither gets or deserves a lot of pay despite the fact that it's reasonably hard work.

  15. Dan

    I agree with you there; I was speaking of working harder in a specific field. Mr. McDuff was comparing Greek tourism and government workers with German tourism and government workers, and the Germans seem to be achieving more while working fewer hours than the Greeks, despite having the same jobs.

  16. Guest

    Good to see you have identified the unemployment rate as a key indicator of laziness. It is shocking that this rate has doubled since the crisis hit. Psychologists are still working hard trying to identfy the cause of this lazness epidemic. Other forms of withdrawal from the labour market such as retirement, illness, and injury must equally be considered part of this culture and tackled.

    It is also important to discredit such statistics as hours worked. Unlike the unemployment rate, this cannot be a measure of hard work, because it contradicts our existing understanding. For example, statistical analysis of media portrayals (especially films) clearly demonstrate Germans are efficient and hardworking while Greeks are not.

    Some Greeks tax collectors have tried to claim that governemts have directed them not to bother the great and the good and the wealth-creators too much. Others have said that the ability of periphery nations to influence the management of the Euro has been curtailed. But again, how much simpler to use these as confirmation of what we know? Government workers are clearly too lazy to collect tax and prefer to spend their time filing forms, while German dominance of Eurozone decisions demonstrates that other countries' delegates must have been sleeping during meetings.

    Finally, how else could we explain the distortions in an otherwise open and free market economy. Low-paid workers are badly paid because they are lazy and paid accordingly while counterparts in better-paid industries are better paid because they are lazy and distort the market by demanding more remuneration to turn up as an excuse not to.

    People who think it's a simplistic or contradidtory analysis are clearly not thinking hard enough and are contributing to the laziness recession.

  17. ThePsudo

    Emm who replied to William McDuff above, for one.

  18. Gray

    Just wondering…obviously, person #1 is French and #2 is British…is #3 Italian?

  19. Jack

    Was wondering about it too. I think the spaghetti might be an hint, but please, nobody in italy eats those with MEATBALLS.
    That's what we serve to uncultured barbarians while we eat the stuff that's actually good. :)

    Also, cheers and love, from your usual reader from Italy.

  20. Lancelot

    Is there a new fad in France where they smoke the filters of cigarettes first?

  21. Jake_Ackers

    The brown part I think is just it burning.

  22. @Cristiona

    "Routine bonuses include perks for arduous tasks such as showing up on time…"

    Jeeze. Which I could get a bonus for that.

  23. Guest

    "Bonus for turning up on time" is another way of saying "penalty for turning up late" only a) it's easier to withdraw a bonus than impose a penalty and b) it sounds a lot better, doesn't it?

  24. Gray

    That would depend on the base salary involved. If your salary+"bonus" is effectively competitive with a straight-up salary in a similar job elsewhere, that suggestion makes sense. If the bonus puts you well ahead of that while the salary is more or less competitive on its own, then it suggests an overly generous bonus and/or compensation issues.

  25. Giest

    Sure, all depends on the figures. There is normally also a difference when you're paid minimum wage; that cannot include bonuses in many places.

  26. AddThreeAndFive

    Greece was under right wing military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974, and perhaps maybe the government largess (sp?) on display here is an overcorrection for that admittedly shameful period. Whatever the case, I hope Greece's current woes don't cause another junta.

  27. ThePsudo

    I agree with you; the concept of moral corruption only confuses the issue. That's why I wanted it specified that we are talking about institutional corruption alone.

    Even speaking of institutional corruption, though, we seem to have defined two forms of it: in the one, an institution must deal with the gap between its policies and the actual actions of its members; in the other, outside society must guard against negative consequences from institutions' actions. I think it is important to treat these separately, which this poll did not and which most prescribed responses to "corruption" (stated in the general sense) also does not.

  28. Guest

    Well yes, anyone assessing economic performance ought to look at productivity, per worker and per hour worked and per person as well as other things.

    But as a method of assessing moral standing, it is poor. It does not tell you whether someone is working hard to fulfil a pointless demand or lazily to do something of great importance.

    Productivity figures nationally are influenced far more by factors such as labour intensity of work (inevitably high in many industries in Greece), environmental costs (e.g. transport) and supply/demand ratios (tourism has suffered disproportionately from austerity elsewhere).

  29. Guest

    Because everybody's crazy but Greece, right?

    And they were just joking when they freely admitted they were most corrupt?

  30. Guest

    Not my point. Corruption would be one of those factors which mean that a country's productivity is not equal to the sum of the productivity of its workforce.

    Corruption is in effect redistribution to the powerful which takes place off the books. As such, it is harmful, because it is generally moving money where it is less needed, and registers as harmful on as it does not contribute to GDP. Corruption is therefore a drain on macro productivity which distors productivity as a measure of how 'hard-working' a country is, which was the focus of the cartoon.

    Bear in mind also, most people have little individual power over corruption, and it's hard to legislate against or police effectively, especially if legislators and police do it too. People don't like it, but many feel they have no option.

  31. ThePsudo

    I ask you because you seem to have a handle on this topic: What exactly is corruption? How is it defined?

    It seems to me that economic corruption, institutional corruption, and moral corruption are three very distinct concepts often lumped together to the confusion of important issues. Corruption of the economic kind would be hazards that undermine either economic production, efficiency, or efforts to measure it, The institutional kind would be an individual's behavior that conflicts with the intended purposes of an organization to which they belong, and the moral kind would be behaviors that conflict with ethics, duty, and/or propriety.

    You have given examples of corruption that are moral, institutional, and economic all at once, but it seems just as easy to imagine examples that are economic corruption but not moral, or institutional but not economic, and all the rest. The moral corruption of adultery may have no economic effects, various economic inefficiencies ("corruption" in a sense) of human rights recognition are overwhelmingly necessitated to prevent moral corruption, and the institutional corruption of a campaign worker voting for the other candidate might involve no economic nor moral failing, to name a few.

    Thus I ask directly: do you speak of one narrow category of corruption specifically? Though you speak in economic terms, I wonder if the phenomenon I called institutional corruption best matches your argument.

  32. Giest

    It's not an easy area to define. I think I am – and the polls in question are – referring to institutional corruption, i.e. bribery, backhanders, using money or favours to influence decisionmakers rather than honest dealings. These things are either illegal or function to circumvent legality. There has been an international convention on bribery and corruption recently to get to some common legal definitions along the lines I've described. I think all EU member-states are signatories, though I could be wrong. I don't think they're perfect, but they're positive. The problem is implementation – international legislation lacks grassroots legitimacy: people are liable to ignore it as another imposition, especially people who are used to the law 'not applying'. But this can be changed…

    Your definition of economic corruption seems broad enough to include anything that might be termed as a 'market distortion' or 'moral hazard'. I can see how you could use 'corruption' to mean that, but that's not how I'd use it, and we have a perfectly good word for the concept of market distortion already. Moral hazard could do with a different name, and can be a problem economically in the same way as corruption, but it's just not corruption, to my mind.

    Moral corruption – I suspect everyone has their own definition, so it's really not a useful concept in this context.

  33. ThePsudo

    Economic production is a reasonable estimate of the importance of the work accomplished. Divide that by the time it took and you have a reasonable estimate of how "hard" people have worked in terms of economic value.

    How "hard" people work in terms of physical difficulty or risk is relevant to the honorable nature of the worker (eg, I have respect for soldiers far out of proportion with their meager pay), but not to the economic impact of their work (eg, employing a million more soldiers probably won't help the economy).

    In general, "hard work" is a distractingly vague term.

  34. ThePsudo

    I can't fault Greece for high military spending.

    For one thing, the USA has very high military spending and I've been lauding their example of high productivity. What kind of hypocrite would I be for lauding military spending in my own nation while denouncing it in another?

    For another, "military spending" and the work of soldiers (ie, combat) are not exactly equivalent notions in the realm of economics. There is much training valuable to employment, research valuable to scientific advancement, and engineering valuable to technological and manufacturing capability deriving from military spending that each are of value to an economy in ways that the warrior's work of killing people and breaking things simply is not. Many who wear the title Soldier do more economically valuable things than fight wars, too, but I think I've made it clear that I was referring to the economic impact of combat itself (and that my respect for soldiers is not particularly connected to their economic impact).

  35. Etc.

    Considering the Turkish grumbling about how the eastern Greek islands "should be theirs" and the whole northern Cyprus thing, along with the long-standing animosity the two nations have towards each other, I think that their military spending has a pretty decent justification…

  36. Guest

    Understandable, at least. Also, Greece has higher costs due to its physical geography. Lots of neighbours, lots of islands.

    On the other hand, the Greek military has played a more overtly political role in the past…

  37. Mayme

    Great job here. I definitely enjoyed what you had to say. Keep heading because you undoubtedly bring a new voice to this subject. Not many people would say what youve said and still make it interesting. Properly, at least Im interested. Cant wait to see extra of this from you.

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