Exceptional in Inferiority

American decline is the plan

In 1998, there was a general strike in Denmark that lasted for 11 days. Although the Internet was in its infancy then, I was working at Dow Jones at the time and had access to its subscription-based international wire service, where I could read daily reports on the strike.

That availability was not the contradiction it might seem, because these news services were intended for subscribers who worked in finance or other businesses — the corporate owners of the mass media lie as a matter of routine in content for the general public but will provide truthful reports to corporate leaders, who prefer to know what is actually happening so as to stay one step ahead. So when not rigging the office computers to scrawl “workers of the world unite” when the screen savers kicked in, my other tactic to stay sane in that inhumane office was to peruse the news wire. (I would soon quit Dow Jones without having a new job lined up, which tells you how wonderful it was to work there, although it was a good education in how finance capital functions.)

What vividly stood out for me was that the key demand of the Danish general strike was for a sixth week of mandatory paid vacation. A general strike, never mind one advancing such a goal, would be quite improbable in the United States, And needless to say, the corporate media would do its part to keep it that way as I recall not a single story managing to find its way into any newspaper. Ultimately, Danish workers did not get that sixth week, but did extract a couple of concessions when union leaders made a hurried deal with industrialists who were threatening to close their businesses and move elsewhere.

Workers in Denmark, along with many other European countries, are still legally entitled to five weeks of paid vacation. Danish workers additionally have nine paid holidays, making a total of 34 guaranteed paid days off per year.

For those of you scoring at home, that is 34 more days of guaranteed paid days off per year than working people in the United States.

Denmark’s 34 paid days off are not exceptional; it is in the middle of the pack among European Union countries. Among the countries comprising the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the club of the world’s advanced capitalist countries and biggest developing countries, Denmark is one of seven countries where workers are guaranteed 25 or more vacation days per year, Another 25 mandate at least 20 days. Each of those countries also mandate anywhere from eight to 15 paid holidays.

Among the 42 countries that are members of the OECD and/or the European Union, there is only one country with zero paid days of vacation or holiday under the law — the United States. Among those countries, only two — Turkey and the United States — have no holidays with mandatory pay. So when we add up the two columns, the country that stands out is the U.S., with precisely zero annual days of mandatory paid time off. Next worse are Turkey (12), Mexico (13) and Canada (19). Among the 42 countries surveyed, 34 legally require 28 or more days, led by Austria and Malta (38 each) and another half-dozen with 36.

There are official federal holidays in the United States, but there is no law that says you have to be paid for them. There’s “American exceptionalism” for you.

Of course, the above far from exhausts the list of issues where the U.S. is deficient compared to the rest of the world. For example, here is the list of every country in the world that doesn’t mandate paid maternal leave: Papua New Guinea, the United States. That’s it. By contrast, at least two-thirds of the world’s countries have mandatory maternity pay for at least 14 weeks, according to the International Labour Organization. Many also mandate paternity leave.

How about health care? An amusing graphic making the rounds last year was a world map with one color denoting countries with universal health care and a second color for the one country that had someone who sent an automobile into space. Nonetheless, it is sobering to see just how bad United Statesians have it when it comes to health care. Not only are expenses far greater than in any other country with tens of millions not covered ($1.4 trillion per year in excess costs according to my own calculations), but the U.S. has among the worst outcomes.

A Commonwealth Fund report, for example, found that the U.S. “placed last among 16 high-income, industrialized nations when it comes to deaths that could potentially have been prevented by timely access to effective health care.” The average U.S. lifespan is actually declining and, at the other end, U.S. infants die at a rate 66 percent higher than comparable countries. The U.S. is a country in which 22,000 people die and 700,000 go bankrupt per year as a result of inadequate, or no, health insurance.

And now with the rise of the “gig economy,” more workers can do without minimum-wage or other legal protections. One more capitalist innovation that is the product of U.S. “exceptionalism.”

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His first book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books and he has completed the text for his second book, What Do We Need Bosses For?

CounterPunch Magazine Archive

Read over 400 magazine and newsletter back issues here

Support CounterPunch

Make a tax-deductible monthly or one-time donation and enjoy access to our Subscriber Area.  Donate Now

Support our evolving Subscriber Area and enjoy access to all Subscribers content.  Subscribe