Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Holidays, work and railway tracks

The French President is going to spend his summer holidays close to Paris,  in a hunting lodge atVersailles. Shades of Louis XIV? ask the papers. The British Prime Minister has jetted off to Portugal, carefully choosing to fly Easyjet. So the press has chosen to debate his holiday attire, down to what length of shorts it is acceptable for a middle-aged politician to wear these days. 

The amount of jibberish written about how and where people spend their 'holidays' is staggering. The sartorial nonsense is peculiarly British (Mr Cameron, wear something comfortable, that your wife approves of, and ignore the fashion snobs). The pressure on M. Le President to go on holiday but not actually be seen enjoying himself is equally French. But it all makes me wonder how old-fashioned (but not ancient) notions of holidays are surviving in a new era. 

The summer holiday was born of industrialisation, urbanisation and improved transport. Not to mention a desire to promote healthy living. The victorians built railway lines that allowed factories to close and send their employees to Blackpool, Dawlish and Scarborough to breath fresh air.  After the second world war the French promoted St Tropez for Brigitte Bardot and La Baule for Monsieur Hulot. And then along came Carry on Camping and Carry on Abroad. 

Once upon a time of course, there were no summer holidays. An agricultural society doesn't have them in summer, a subsistence economy doesn't have them at all. Wealth makes them possible and workers' rights makes paid holidays the norm. Perhaps  it's no surprise that we cherish them, or indeed that we're so horribly snobbish about them. Ibiza is better than Majorca is better than Benidorm.  Salcombe is better than Torquay  is better than Paignton, apparently. 

Yet I can't help feeling this downing of tools is a bit out of date.  I don't suppose for a second that David Cameron is really cut off from his work in his Portuguese hidey-hole. I don't go away without three phones and a couple of computers, so goodness knows what kind of communications gizmos are in his hand luggage.  In any case, waking at 7 in Spain is a lie-in compared to London and the last thing anyone else wants me to do is disturb them. So a swim, a cup of coffee, a check on the overnight news,  still leaves me time to read for a couple of hours before the children wake up. 

One reason I work on holiday is that I have more time to think, far away from commuting and  meetings. Another is that work  is (much) more fun than making sandcastles. That may confirm what a sad old fool I am but really, why would we spend so many hours studying for jobs, climbing (and then sliding back down) greasy corporate poles, if we didn't actually like it? If I was a professional footballer maybe I would need to rest tired muscles and bruised bones but an economist just needs time to think. 

Ah yes - thinking time.  The key to understanding financial markets, as much as anything else, is to avoid "thinking on railway lines"; that is, being willing to challenge consensual ways of looking at the world and in particular, being willing to challenge one's own thought processes.

There are two ways of doing this. The first is to expose thoughts to criticism from people who have no incentive to agree with me just for politeness' sake. There are people to challenge a view that,say, QE lowers the cost of credit but does so mainly for the best creditors - governments and those who can issue corporate bonds, rather than small businesses  - but those people are easier to find outside my work and social groups. And the second is to think, re-think and then think some more. And that requires time, and a lack of distractions. 

Since people who question my views are best found away from the office and since endless  meetings are the hallmarks of any office, it stands to reason the best place to really think outside railway lines, is as far from the office as possible. Maybe the question isn't why people work on holiday but why they spend so much of their working time in an office. This obviously doesn't apply to all jobs, but even so, for many I suspect that the answer has more to do with custom, habit and insecurity than anything else. 

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