Another Gold Medal for the United States
by Steven Hill
The Olympic flame is passing through the San Francisco Bay Area on its
cross-country torch relay to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic Games. But already
the United States is busy wracking up gold medals against our international
A global survey was released recently that says that world business
leaders give the gold medal to the U.S. economy as the "most
competitive" in the world among industrialized nations. What business
leaders mean when they say "most competitive" is this: low wages,
few worker benefits, and deregulation.
"A lot of people are looking at the United States as a new El Dorado
for competitiveness," said Stephen Garelli, director of the World
Competitiveness Report conducted annually by the International Institute for
Ranked just behind the U.S., according to the report, are Singapore and
Japan. Other countries in the top ten include Malaysia and Hong Kong. Now
there's something for American workers to crow about: our economy is more
"competitive" than Malaysia and Singapore.
It used to be that American workers had something else to boast about:
being the highest paid work force in the world. But not anymore. In a
free-trading world turned upside down, now we get the gold medal for just
According to the 1994 Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing labor
costs in the U.S. averaged $17.10, while German labor costs were 60% higher
($27.31 per hour) and the Japanese were 25% higher ($21.42). Those poor
wretched German and Japanese workers! If only they could make wages like
their American counterparts, their country too could win the Gold Medal of
The hapless Germans have also been so foolish as to reduce their work
week by two hours to an average of 30.6 hours per week (with no reduction in
pay). But the competitive American workers have seen our average work week
increase from 38.3 to 39.5 hours. Americans put in more working hours during
an average year (1847) than workers in Britain (1622 hours), France (1619),
Sweden (1569) and Germany (1419). American workers also have the least
number of paid holidays and vacation, an average of 23 days per year
compared to Japan (25 days), Britain (31), France (35), Sweden (38), Italy
(40.5) and Germany (42).
In other words, Americans win the gold for working longer hours for less
pay. Now that's something to brag about!
And that's not all. The United States also has the Olympic distinction of
being Number One in widening the income gap between rich and poor. In no
other country do CEOs of corporations make 150 times the income of workers
on the shop floor. What's more, though world business leaders ranked the
United States first in global competitiveness, American business leaders
ranked the U.S. as only seventh. American business leaders apparently don't
know how good they've got it, or else they're never satisfied. Perhaps they
won't be satisfied until they've wrung more blood, sweat and tears out of
the American worker.
So celebrate America! We're Number 1! We've won the gold medal!
Perhaps with a bit of effort, those grossly overpaid and underworked
workers in Germany, Sweden, Japan and elsewhere can soon be as
"competitive" as us. All they have to do is follow the strictures
of the world's business leaders, and they'll make Number One in no time. It
will be a wonderful competition, as each nation tries to outdo the other in
giving its workers the lowest wages, the least days off, and the least
These are confusing times. What's all the more odd is that it takes the
likes of Pat Buchanan to make sense of these things for American workers.
When reports like the World Competitiveness Report are issued, American
workers have to ask: is the glass half empty or half full? Is it worth it to
win the Gold Medal for this Olympic event?
[Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting
and Democracy. He is co-author of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon
Press, 1999). He lives in San Francisco. For more information, see
www.fairvote.org or write to: PO Box 22411, San Francisco, CA 94122.]