My friend Mike Northover pointed me to an Economist article from 2003 that attempted to explain away Europe's lagging productivity and living standards as merely a love of leisure, but recent Nobel Prize in Economics winner Edward C. Prescott says that Europeans work fewer hours than Americans simply because they're taxed more. Writes Professor Prescott:
Here's a startling fact: Based on labor market statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Americans aged 15-64, on a per-person basis, work 50% more than the French. Comparisons between Americans and Germans or Italians are similar. What's going on here? What can possibly account for these large differences in labor supply? It turns out that the answer is not related to cultural differences or institutional factors like unemployment benefits, but that marginal tax rates explain virtually all of this difference. I admit that when I first conducted this analysis I was surprised by this finding, because I fully expected that institutional constraints are playing a bigger role. But this is not the case. (Citations and more complete data can be found in my paper, at www.minneapolisfed.org.)There certainly are cultural differences that may account of some of the productivity gap (and the varying tax rates), but people are people. As marginal tax rates rise, the value of working an additional hour drops while the cost of working an additional hour continues to rise.
Let's take another look at the data. According to the OECD, from 1970-74 France's labor supply exceeded that of the U.S. Also, a review of other industrialized countries shows that their labor supplies either exceeded or were comparable to the U.S. during this period. Jump ahead two decades and you will find that France's labor supply dropped significantly (as did others), and that some countries improved and stayed in line with the U.S. Controlling for other factors, what stands out in these cross-country comparisons is that when European countries and U.S. tax rates are comparable, labor supplies are comparable.
And this insight doesn't just apply to Western industrialized economies. A review of Japanese and Chilean data reveals the same result. This is an important point because some critics of this analysis have suggested that cultural differences explain the difference between European and American labor supplies. The French, for example, prefer leisure more than do Americans or, on the other side of the coin, that Americans like to work more. This is silliness.
Again, I would point you to the data which show that when the French and others were taxed at rates similar to Americans, they supplied roughly the same amount of labor. Other research has shown that at the aggregate level, where idiosyncratic preference differences are averaged out, people are remarkably similar across countries. Further, a recent study has shown that Germans and Americans spend the same amount of time working, but the proportion of taxable market time vs. nontaxable home work time is different. In other words, Germans work just as much, but more of their work is not captured in the taxable market.
I would add another data set for certain countries, especially Italy, and that is nontaxable market time or the underground economy. Many Italians, for example, aren't necessarily working any less than Americans--they are simply not being taxed for some of their labor. Indeed, the Italian government increases its measured output by nearly 25% to capture the output of the underground sector. Change the tax laws and you will notice a change in behavior: These people won't start working more, they will simply engage in more taxable market labor, and will produce more per hour worked.