Sunday, December 30, 2007


Bob Rosner at writes that Japanese workers are some of the hardest working in the world. They total 1,842 work hours a year.

In fact, the Japanese are so renowned for work that the culture has a word for the condition known as death from overwork - it's called "karoshi."

The Japanese government has admitted 147 cases of karoshi in the last year for workers who regularly put in 70-80 hours of work a week and suffered heart attacks, strokes or other fatal health conditions as a result of overwork.

Now we "lazy" Americans don't have a term in our culture for the condition of death from overwork, but perhaps we should. It turns out that Americans actually work longer hours than even the Japanese. We work 1,979 hours a year.

That's right, Americans are now the hardest working people on the planet, having passed the Japanese in annual work hours back in the 1990's.

We are also some of the most productive workers on the planet. Productivity has grown steadily since 2000. According to the BBC

During the five years from 2000 to 2005, the US economy grew in size from $9.8 trillion to $11.2 trillion, an increase in real terms of 14%. Productivity - the measure of the output of the economy per worker employed - grew even more strongly, by 16.6%.

Americans are working longer and harder than any other people in any other industrialized country on the planet and are more productive than ever, yet the overwhelming majority have seen little economic gain from all this work and all this productivity.

According to Paul Waldman at The American Prospect, real wages in 2007 are actually lower now than they were before the recession in 2001 and barely higher than they were 35 years ago.

Millions of people lack health coverage, manufacturing and service jobs continue to be moved overseas, further undercutting any real wages gains for many Americans.

Many Americans have made up for the slim gains in real wages by taking on debt to maintain their standards of living.

Personal credit card debt in America is equal to 100% of GDP. Total credit market debt, including mortgage debt, is nearly equal to 325% of GDP.

For awhile, increases in home values helped people borrow enough money to maintain their standards of living even as inflation increased and their wages didn't keep pace. But now home values across the country are tanking and many people are suddenly finding that they own homes that are worth less than their mortgages.

Nouriel Roubini writes on his blog that we are in the midst of the worst housing recession since the Great Depression and home values are likely to fall 20% overall around the country while some of the more bubblicious real estate markets like California, Florida, Nevada, Arizona, etc.) could see value declines of 40%.

While most Americans can no longer tap the equity in their homes for money, credit cards aren't much of an option either.

Credit card debt is near an all-time high and the Associated Press reported on Christmas Eve that delinquencies and defaults on credit card payments have sky-rocketed in the latter part of 2007. The worst-hit areas have been the South and the Midwest where real estate market problems and job losses have exacerbated economic problems for people. Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's, said he expects delinquencies and defaults to get much worse in 2008.

With energy and food costs at or near all-time highs (oil is above $97 a barrel; wheat, soybeans and other commodities are at highs for the year), with health care costs increasing far above the annual inflation rate, with real wage gains stagnant and with many Americans carrying astronomical debt loads, I wonder just why we are working so long and so hard with such productivity.

And it turns out that we're doing it so that the top 10% of the country - and especially the top 1% - can do better than they have at any time since before the Great Depression:

Income inequality grew significantly in 2005, with the top 1 percent of Americans — those with incomes that year of more than $348,000 — receiving their largest share of national income since 1928, analysis of newly released tax data shows.

The top 10 percent, roughly those earning more than $100,000, also reached a level of income share not seen since before the Depression.

While total reported income in the United States increased almost 9 percent in 2005, the most recent year for which such data is available, average incomes for those in the bottom 90 percent dipped slightly compared with the year before, dropping $172, or 0.6 percent.

The gains went largely to the top 1 percent, whose incomes rose to an average of more than $1.1 million each, an increase of more than $139,000, or about 14 percent.

The new data also shows that the top 300,000 Americans collectively enjoyed almost as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans. Per person, the top group received 440 times as much as the average person in the bottom half earned, nearly doubling the gap from 1980.

As for the really, really rich - the Mayor Bloombergs of the country - they've done the best of any other group in the last 30 years. Since the 1970's, Forbes has been tracking what it calls the CLEWI - the Cost Of Living Extremely Well index. While the Consumer Price Index (CPI) - which tracks the increase in the cost of living for average Americans - has doubled since 1982, the CLEWI - which tracks the cost of living for the really, really wealthy - has quadrupled in the last 25 years. But the amount of money the extremely wealthy have made during that time has increased ten-fold. So these days, the extremely wealthy are spending a lot less money to live as well as they did 25-30 years ago.

And you, my fellow Americans, with your hard work and your long hours and your increased productivity and your unused vacation time and your weekend work days, have brought this to pass.

Mayor Moneybags and Steve Forbes and the really, really wealthy thank you from the bottom of their greedy little souls. And the people just under them on the economic ladder, the investment bankers and the hedge fund managers and the corporate CEO's, also thank you as they hand themselves huge bonuses this Christmas and begrudge you, the average American worker, any increase in wages or health benefits.

Happy New Year everybody and take solace in one thing - at least it's not as bad for you as it is for the Little Tramp in that picture at the top of this post.

Not yet, at any rate.
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