A week ago Friday night, Rebecca, my 17 year old daughter, arrived back in the States after nearly two weeks in France. She had various stories to tell about the beauty of the country, but what struck me the most was what she had to say about how “chill” she found the French to be. According to Rebecca, the French don’t simply view their leisure time as a way to recharge their batteries. They place a lot of care on preparing the proper meal and then relishing that meal, together with the conversation that goes with. But the difference between the two cultures isn’t just about mealtime. “They spend more time on EVERYTHING” than we do in America, she said. Everything, that is, except for work. We seem to be obsessed with that facet of life, reasoning that it and it alone defines who we are. Stated differently, work is what we Americans take seriously, whereas the French apparently place equal, if not greater, value on what people do with their time when they are completely free to choose how to spend it.
I sighed upon hearing that description of the two cultures because it didn’t speak well for my own. Thinking back to college economics classes, I was reminded about how rational economic actors value leisure time significantly. When American economists and statesmen talk about the health of our economy, however, they seem thoroughly unconcerned with the extent of our opportunities to enjoy our leisure. We Americans talk about our hallowed GNP or GDP in terms of “goods and services” produced, but somehow, leisure time doesn’t factor into our analysis. Thus, for example, an associate at a law firm who pulls in $250,000 per year is considered to be “doing well,” even if she has to consistently toil for 65+ hours per week in order to make that money. While that’s surely better than making 250,000 cents a year, all else equal, I wouldn’t exactly call that doing well. The law just isn’t THAT much fun.
Rebecca’s point was reinforced after she returned to school and was required to stay until 10:00-10:30 every evening rehearsing for the school musical. In America, that’s no problem – you still have plenty of time to study after you get home and before school starts at 7:25 the next morning. Sleep is considered a luxury good for high powered American high school students, which only makes sense when you think about it. If we don’t have any standardized test for it, and people don’t compete in it, it doesn’t factor into the “economics” of what we expect from our children. Some call that the American way. I just view it as a manifestation of flunking economics.
If I am correct that talented Americans are encouraged to work to the point where they sacrifice their mental or physical health, what can we do to change that dynamic? A lot of things come to mind, but I’d like to concentrate on a single suggestion.
One of America’s favorite leisure activities, which totally makes sense given how much we need to unwind after all of our hard work, is watching football. Given that the NFL draft is one week away, it makes sense that the gridiron would be on a lot of people’s mind these days. And one suggestion that I hear is getting increased traction is to expand the season from 16 to 18 games and reduce the pre-season from 4 to 2.
That sounds like it’s a fan-friendly suggestion, doesn’t it? Who wants to watch pre-season football? It’s more fun to watch a game that counts. For that same reason, the suggestion also seems to make sense from what people typically call an “economic” point of view – it would be easier to pack the seats, and increase TV ratings, for that 17th or 18th regular season game than for that 3rd or 4th pre-season game.
But here’s my suggestion. Let’s take into account that the top football players are destroying their physical health, not to mention reducing their cerebral activity, by playing 16 games a year in addition to the playoffs and their spot-duty during the pre-season. Do we really want to make the season even more onerous on their bodies (and brains) than it already is? Why not combine (a) eliminating the 3rd and 4th pre-season games and adding a 17th and 18th game to the regular season, with (b) precluding any individual player from suiting up for more than 16 regular season games. That way, you sell the most tickets possible but you do so in a way that’s gentle on the health of the players – both by eliminating the total number of games and by giving their bodies a chance to rest more during the season. As a side benefit, you also introduce a whole additional layer of strategy to the game, as coaches figure out when exactly to rest each player.
To me, it’s a win-win idea. And there are surely a million other things that can be eliminated, once we start broadening our notion of “economic” goods. What applies to football applies to the environment, workplace safety … you name it.