Saturday, July 8, 2006

The use of Public Holidays

Andrew Leigh argues in the Australian Financial Review that we could use some more public holidays. The argument is based on the idea that public holidays -- being common to all people -- mean that there is more chance for social interaction outside of the home. This is backed up by economic evidence suggesting that time spent on entertainment, meetings and social time rises with the number of public holidays. This leads to an 'obvious' policy conclusion:
In the Australian case, the best time for a new holiday would be in the second half of the year. For example, we might consider making Melbourne Cup Day or Remembrance Day a national holiday, commemorating Sir Henry Parkes’ Tenterfield Oration (24 October) or marking the anniversary of the Eureka Stockade (3 December).
There are alot of assumptions going into this conclusion. The first and most obvious is that the type of public holidays likely matters. If it is a religious holiday or something like ANZAC Day, then the activities spent might be social but if we did not have compulsory public holidays those undertaking those activities are likely to coordinate on them anyway. Remember, what is being called for here is compulsory public holidays. But if there is a focal point (that is a natural reason to choose to take that day of voluntarily), then it doesn't really require a coordinating device.

This suggests that the best public holidays are the more or less useless ones. In this case, the 24th October stands out. It is an excuse for social behaviour. It is not likely that large numbers would have run off to hear Parkes Oration reinactments and it is not likely that we would care if they did. Thus, the compulsory public holidays should be those that do not have a motivating activity. It is only then that we will have less religious or other divisions in our social coordinating chances. Surely, that is what we want.

As a parent, if I had to lobby for a social activity in Australia, it would be Halloween. Halloween is a great and memorable childhood activity in the US that requires coordination. You need broad neighbourhood participation. Without this, you have a bunch of kids dressed up begging for food. How to get that established in Australia is difficult but let's say we took the Henry Parkes Day and spun some tale that linked it to cross dressing and lollies. Then I think we might be in business.