Many of the conservative comments about President Obama I hear on the radio have been leaving me vaguely non-plussed. (If you think about it, it’s not easy to be non-plussed in a vague way, or on the contrary, is it a redundancy?) Little by little, I began realizing that the cause of my non-plussness is the frequent allegation that the President is “a socialist.” Nearly always, the implied suggestion is that something sinister is about. The French side of my mind, well versed in things socialist, perceives a strong discordance between the two concepts, “socialist” and “sinister.”
First, the word socialist does not have a fixed meaning. In the past fifty years, it has meant just about everything, from German genocidal totalitarian (“National Socialist,” “Nazi”), to African plutocrat, to the mild high-tax administrations common in several mild and undoubtedly democratic European countries. (See my series of essays on this blog about various kinds of fascism.) It seems to me that American conservatives who call Obama a “socialist” are implicitly referring to the western European brand of so-called “socialism.” (Although, some of the president’s followers and entourage belong to the brass-knuckle brand of “socialism.”) Here is where the French fraction of my brain feels a discordance. As some of you may know, the candidate of the French Socialist Party was recently elected President of the French Republic. French “socialists” are fresh in my mind, count on it. Now, there is no way they are sinister, except by happenstance and only in the long run. They are not sinister, they are idiotic and deeply ignorant. They are ignorant the way someone is ignorant who has not learned a thing in fifty years say, between 1960 and 2010.
Recently, I am watching a French weekly show about which I have said much good on this blog in the past. (“On n’est pas couché.”) The show subjects politicians to rapid-fire questions by a couple of sharp journalists plus some other show participants, sometimes for a long time. The guest that evening is the second ranking officer in the French Socialist Party. He would be number one if only the person who is now first had accepted a post of minister in the new President Hollande’s cabinet. Instead, she was piqued by something or other and went back to being Mrs Number One. The show participants want to know what will be the Socialist Party’s national priorities if it wins control of parliament in addition to the presidency. The speaker is acting in fact as a spokesman for his party and for the new president who has not really had time to organize his team. He can’t easily say the question took him by surprise. In addition to his position of authority, the speaker has the benefit of being close, of having been close for many years, to the elite of the Socialist Party. He is the ultimate Socialist Party insider.
One of the first priorities the speaker mentions, and mentions loud and clear, is a future policy of re-industrialization of France. That’s expected; left-wing demagogues everywhere agitate the rank and file by pointing to a far-away cut-throat foreign enemy who works for fifty cents a day and who has stolen their well-paid dream manufacturing jobs. They do it in Illinois; they do it in Pennsylvania; of course, they do it in France too. Now, I don’t know if France has lost manufacturing activity in recent years or in the past ten years, or in the past thirty years. I won’t even look it up because it’s not directly relevant to my purpose. However, if I had a sound chance to make a large bet with someone who could not wiggle away, or if there was an escrow situation involved, I would bet that it has not, or only to a very small extent. I mean that the value of French manufactures conventionally measured is higher in real euros than it was in 2,000, and also in 1990, although it might be a little lower than it was in 2008. Anyway, I digress again.
Mr Socialist Party Number Two is a very articulate person. He is the kind of voluble speaker who makes it difficult for interviewers to interview him because he presents a moving target. He answers every question at a fast pace and with 250% of the information another would deliver. He is a good tribune. He knows how to speak to ordinary people. He speaks well with formulas that will stick to their minds. In fact, he is one of the few good speakers the French Socialist Party has to offer. Anyway, to make his point about the dreadful, lamentable and worsening state of French manufacturing, he offers the following figures:
In as little as the past ten years, the percentage of French GDP coming from industry (manufacturing) has gone down from 25 to only 17.
Well, percentage figures are not tricky in general. They are tricky however if you don’t know what you are talking about. Or if you are talking mindlessly. The Socialist Party Mr Number Two does not seem to realize that if your manufacturing sector grows at a 5% clip annually while your service sector increases by 7%, manufactures, will account for a declining percentage of your production. In fact, any modern country would kill and even cheerily prostitute its head of state for such figures. (That would be Mr Hollande, in this case.)
To express the same arithmetic reality in a slightly different way, if both the manufacturing sector and the service sector grow at 1% per year, the manufacturing sector will not decline as a percentage of the total (as in his example). It will remain steady. Am I to believe that such rates of growth would thrill the Socialists? And if the manufacturing sector grows not at all while the service sector shrinks, manufacturing will become bigger in percentage than it was. And in that case, the French Socialist Party will have reason to celebrate, right? It will institute a second Bastille Day to celebrate the event! And so on.
Now, many of my sophomore students used to make this kind of mistake when handling percentages. But they were 19 or twenty on the average and they were not addressing the economic future of a nation of sixty million. And by the time I was through with them, none of them made that kind of mistake, you can trust me on this!
French Socialists just don’t understand the concept of economic growth. Their instinct tells them that the pie is always constant at best. That’s why they are socialists.
Now the man who is Number Two in the French Socialist Party bears the beautiful name “Harlem Désir.” He is a tall, lithe, elegant black man (but not too black. I know my French people exquisitely well; you can trust me on this too.) I am quite sure what a loyal French Socialist would say in his defense:
Mr Désir is not an economist. You are beating up on a kindergartner, shame on you! He came up through the Socialist Party on the basis of his leadership in fighting racism. He is a sort of people’s tribune. He is a very nice person. (I agree to the latter, by the way.) It’s unfair to expect him to know the ins and outs of national economic policy.
But of course, it was not the enemy, ex-Pres. Sarkozy, who chose him to be the party’s Second Mate. There was no conspiracy against the Socialist Party. No, this pleasant foo-foo head, Mr Désir, is a true expression of the party’s collective mind, of its culture. And following the show, no one corrected him; none of the hundreds of thousands of French socialist TV viewers said anything.
Do you get my main message? None of this is sinister. It’s a little pathetic. The French Socialist Party has taken charge. It will pull the country out of its grave economic circumstances with vigorous and enlightened policies that will also be equitable. It will save France just as soon as it begins to understand third grade-level fractions.
But French leftists don’t have a monopoly on stupidity, trivial reality reminds me whenever I forget. The morning following the evening when I heard Mr Désir, I am watching MSNBC. Of course, I am on the elliptical at the gym. That’s the only time I watch MSNBC, by force you might say. I am no masochist. There is pseudo-news announcement out of nowhere:
Last year, CEOs averaged 8,9 million dollars. (It might have been 9,8 million; makes no difference!) No comment, no explanation, and no correction. MSNBC makes me feel like starting a new business and incorporating it just so I can become a CEO and get even a small piece of the giant pie in the sky.
5/28/12 An afterthought: The failure of his presidency could turn Mr Obama into a brass-knuckle leftist. The danger is especially great if the Supreme Court overturns or guts his national health care plans.