Getting Away

CHW LogoWe just had the great fortune to spend 2 weeks vacationing in Argentina.  It represented a couple of first for us: first time in that country, and first time taking an entire two week vacation.  We thought it was pretty luxurious, and actually it was.  So we were struck by the number of travelers we met, from a range of other countries, who were in the midst of a 4, or 8, or 12 week trip.  Indeed, the only people we encountered who were on a shorter vacation than us was a couple from Philadelphia.  What were we doing wrong?

Some of the people were retired (although they indicated that they had done similarly long vacations when they were younger), but many were working age.  How do they pull this off, we wondered?  There seem to be a few factors:

  1. Paid leave. Most industrialized countries provide much more generous paid leave, either by mandate or due to union leverage, than the US.  One of our guides, when asked whether Argentine workers get much vacation time, seemed shocked at the question.  “Of course, it’s in our constitution!  I mean, we may be Argentina, but it’s not like we’re in Africa or someplace like that.”
  2. Culture. Americans work longer hours than most other industrialized countries (including all of Europe and Japan, though we are still outpaced by Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan).  The difference in hours worked is greater than the difference in paid leave (i.e., we don’t even use the little we get), suggesting that some of it is due to a cultural reluctance to get away from our jobs.  In many industries, it’s almost a badge of pride to be “on” constantly.  We talked with several people who were taking extended leave without pay, something few Americans do (or are permitted to do).
  3. Health care. Even if an American wanted to take unpaid leave for an extended trip, she would in many cases have a pause in employer-provided benefits, especially health insurance.  Paying for coverage while on unpaid leave is too much of a financial burden for most people.  This is not an issue for people from countries with government-provided health care, like Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Spain, the Netherlands, etc., etc.

Which leads me to two other points.  First, among the folks I had the opportunity to talk with were a doctor from Argentina and a nurse from England.  Both had wonderful things to say about their national health systems, including that fact that while people do often carry private insurance for things like a nicer room in the hospital, or a shorter wait for an imaging test, people are enormously satisfied with the quality of care.  “Everyone knows that the best doctors are the ones that work for the National Health Service.”

Second, when they talk about their “free” health care, of course we know that it is not free.  People pay either through their insurance premiums, or out of pocket costs, or taxes.   But while we might gag at the tax rates in places like Scandinavia, a recent study shows that, when you add it all up, public and private sources, the US actually has the second highest total social expenditures (largely health care, but also unemployment, retirement, disability, etc.), after France but ahead of those tax-and-spend Nordic countries.

Oh, and the wine in Argentina is terrific and cheap!

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