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Why Voters Now Fret About U.S. 'Work Ethic'

Paula Dwyer writes editorials on economics, finance and politics for Bloomberg View. She was London bureau chief for Businessweek and Washington economics editor for the New York Times, and is a co-author of “Take on the Street: How to Fight for Your Financial Future.”
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A Bloomberg poll on the 2016 presidential horse race found that 72 percent of the people surveyed said the U.S. isn't as great as it once was. No big shock there. Polls have been picking up the America-in-decline lament for years. 

Drilling down, however, the poll, released last week, found that 27 percent of respondents thought "our own lagging work ethic" was the greater threat to American greatness, behind only "moral decay," chosen by 32 percent.

Now that caught my eye, and not just because a poor work ethic was ranked as a larger peril than, say, the rise of Islamic State (26 percent), wealth concentration among the very few (25 percent) and competition with China (21 percent). 

No, it seemed curious mostly because the work-ethic complaint is far from true. Anyone slightly familiar with data comparing global economies knows Americans work harder and more efficiently than workers in most other countries.

True, by one incomplete measure -- hours worked per employee per year -- the U.S. isn't a standout among industrialized countries. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2014 ranked the U.S. 23rd out of 38 countries, with Mexicans working the most hours and Germans the fewest per year.   

In Europe, Greeks -- yes, the Greeks! -- work the longest hours. That's because Greece's economy is mostly tourism-based. Changing sheets and cleaning bathrooms in hotels require long hours, and the tasks aren't easily automated.     

Counting the sheer number of hours spent on the job, however, isn't the best way to measure industriousness. You might brag about putting in 60-hour weeks, but if your colleague achieves more in 40 hours because she spends less time answering personal emails, for example, she's more valuable to an employer. 

A better measure is productivity, or the economic value added per hour of labor.  A more productive workforce increases output with fewer hours of work. That is the key to higher wages (increased output per worker allows employers to pay more), economic growth and better living standards. 

And on this score, the U.S. excels. The OECD ranked it third in productivity relative to gross domestic product, behind only tiny, homogenous and wealthy Luxembourg and oil-rich Norway. Germany, by comparison, is No. 8. 

Lately, U.S. productivity growth has slowed, yet that's true for most other developed countries, too. 

The OECD also tallies work-life balance, and on this score, Americans rank near the bottom, at 29 out of 36 countries. This means Americans are working so hard that they sacrifice time with their families and don't take enough vacation, even when earned. When compared with Europeans, Americans get less time off, family leave and sick days. 

So if the data dispute the "lagging work ethic" claim, why do people believe it's true? We can guess they weren't referring to their own lack of industriousness.   

One possibility is that the presidential candidates' recent pronouncements about a declining American work ethic are promoting this false impression. True, Jeb Bush was derided when he said at a campaign stop in New Hampshire in July that "People need to work longer hours." He later tried to clarify that by saying he meant part-timers should have more opportunity to work more hours. 

But when the candidates specify which "others" they are referring to, they seem to hit a nerve. For Trump, it is the caricature of lazy Mexican immigrants who sneak across the border to claim welfare benefits. His position paper on immigration says taxpayers have had to absorb billions in health care, housing, education and welfare costs, despite economic studies (even from conservative think tanks) showing immigrants are a net benefit to the economy. 

Bush went down the same path a week ago when he said he would appeal to black voters with an aspirational message, not by promising "free stuff." 

Then there was Rand Paul's August comment that immigrants are able to get jobs because "we've almost defeated the work ethic in our country. We're rotting from the inside." What he meant was that, because native-born Americans are no longer willing to take low-paying, menial jobs, including picking crops, processing meat and cleaning homes, the economy is forced to rely on immigrants. Public employees were the preferred target of Scott Walker, who dropped out of the Republican race. 

Back in 2012, Mitt Romney was secretly taped at an off-the-record fundraiser speaking derisively about the 47 percent of adults who pay no federal income taxes and yet feel entitled to health care and other benefits. Romney may have captured conservative thinking, but it also revealed how out of touch he was with a majority of voters. It may even have sunk his campaign: "There's no question that hurt and did real damage," he said four months after the election. 

Is it possible that "lagging work ethic" -- at least on the Republican side -- is just another, more acceptable way of referring to Romney's 47 percent?  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Paula Dwyer at pdwyer11@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net