Reflections on others’ perceptions of still others’ hard-workingness

(originally written Dec 20, 2011 — part of my Great Upload of 2013)

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I saw an item the other morning suggesting that as a country, Italians actually work 20% more hours per year than Germans and French.  This runs counter to the popular moralistic argument that countries that run into debt troubles, do so because they’re lazy.

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The idea that poor countries are poor because they’re not hard-working, is a variant on the outlook that wealth is a moral outcome of life.  This perspective holds that if you’re rich, you deserve it because you were harder-working / smarter / more cunning than everyone else.  And by corollary, if someone else is poor, it’s because they’re lazy / dumb / naive.  By further corollary, if you’re poor (or less rich than you want to be) it’s inevitably someone else’s fault, of course — government is a popular target.  :)

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Taking a broader perspective, many in the West retain the silly notion that the “Protestant work ethic” powered the Industrial Revolution (instead of, say, the exploitation of fossil fuels, which allowed small European countries to spend unprecedented amounts of energy doing and making things, like dominate the rest of the world).  Popular historian Niall Ferguson seems to’ve devoted a chapter to the Protestant work ethic in his new book, Civilization: the West and the Rest, calling it one of the West’s historical advantages.

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This bias is most revealingly shown in the comments of an Australian diplomat reporting back from a trip to Japan at the turn of the 20th century, using the “l-“word or some similar paraphrase to describe the indolent islanders, who could never hope to achieve anything in the go-go world of world economies.  (I came across it in a South Korean economist’s book, Bad Samaritans.)  Within a few decades, of course, Japan had industrialized, militarized, and attempted to colonize East Asia with — if this is possible — even more barbarity than shown by the Europeans in their heyday.

And it’s not just recently that the Japanese got industrious either.  Within a decade of the introduction of firearms around 1542 (through Europe, not China, funnily enough) Japan may have had more guns than any other country in the world.  For some reason, once the country had been unified, the Shoguns introduced the world’s most comprehensive gun-control laws…  :)

No doubt other cultures have similar stories, too.  One can imagine what a Chinese ambassador in the Middle Ages might’ve thought of the hapless Europeans, who lacked the Five Great Inventions: the compass, gunpowder, papermaking, the printing press, and the seedless mandarin orange.  (Others’ lists may vary.  ;)  )

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Such context also helps to make sense of stories closer to home: there was a recent Globe & Mail article about how 1/3 of Canadians expect to be paying mortgages past the age of 65.  This does not a stress-free citizenry make.  (Most frightening for us post-baby-boomers: old people always vote!!)

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One can wonder why someone would sign up for a mortgage that retires after they’d like to (why anyone would agree to provide that mortgage, is another question).  But it could be that they were taking cues from Ben Bernanke, the Chair of the US Federal Reserve.  The central banker refinanced his house twice (!) in the past decade, and at the age of fifty-eight, still owes almost $700,000.  Assuming a 25-year-amortization just for fun, he could be paying that back, well into his eighties!

One wonders if Bank of Canada chief Mark Carney also falls into that all-encompassing “do as I say, not as I do” category.  Fortunately for Bernanke, he has kids, so if “worse comes to worst” (that’s how you’re supposed to say it, people!) he can always move in with them.  :)

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