The Agenda

Brief Thought on GDP Per Hour Worked

Critics of U.S. capitalism have often cited France’s level of GDP per hour worked. As Paul Krugman wrote in 2005:


First things first: given all the bad-mouthing the French receive, you may be surprised that I describe their society as “productive.” Yet according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, productivity in France – G.D.P. per hour worked – is actually a bit higher than in the United States.

It’s true that France’s G.D.P. per person is well below that of the United States. But that’s because French workers spend more time with their families.

O.K., I’m oversimplifying a bit. There are several reasons why the French put in fewer hours of work per capita than we do. One is that some of the French would like to work, but can’t: France’s unemployment rate, which tends to run about four percentage points higher than the U.S. rate, is a real problem. Another is that many French citizens retire early. But the main story is that full-time French workers work shorter weeks and take more vacations than full-time American workers.

This is actually a pretty fair characterization, to Krugman’s credit. But it’s worth noting that as unemployment has skyrocketed in the U.S., we’ve overtaken the French in GDP per hour worked. We’re also ahead of Norway, an oil-and-gas-rich country that has a higher level of GDP per capita (PPP) than we do.

Moreover, as we’ve discussed, Krugman’s characterization of the distribution of leisure in both countries is misleading. The French spend considerable time on housework, etc., that can only be loosely described as leisure or time with their families. But that’s a separate issue.


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