The French Have It Better?

As I keep saying, facts matter. Facts matter more than ideological consistency if you want to know. That’s why I keep comparing us with the other society I know well, France. I am up-to-date on it, a task facilitated by the fact that I read a major French newspaper online every day, by the fact that I watch the French-language Francophone television chain, TV5, nearly every day, and by occasional recourse to my brother who lives in France. My brother is especially useful as a source because he is well-informed by French standards, articulate, and an unreconstructed left-of-center statist. I suspect he has never in his life heard a clear exposition of how markets are supposed to work. He is a typical Frenchman in that respect.

I almost forgot: I must admit that I watch a French soap opera five days a week at lunchtime. And finally, I spy on my twenty-something French nieces and nephews through Facebook. I never say anything to them so they have forgotten I am their so-called “friend.” I almost forgot again: Until recently, I went to France often. Every time I was there, I made it my duty to read local newspapers and newsweeklies and to listen to the radio and to watch the news on television. I said “duty” because it was not always fun.

So, those are my credentials. I hope you find them as impressive as I do.

And, incidentally, for those who know me personally, mostly around Santa Cruz, the rumor that I am a guy from New Jersey who fakes a French accent to make himself interesting to the ladies, that rumor has no foundation. In fact, the accent is real. French is my first language; the accent never went away and it’s getting worse as my hearing deteriorate. I like to write in part because I don’t have much of an accent in writing. Got it?

I found out recently that the French national debt to GDP ratio is about 85. That is, French citizens, as citizens, owe 85 cents for every dollar they earn in a year. The debt is a cumulative total, of course, And “national debt” refers to what’s owed by the national government of a country. The private debt of the citizens of the same country is an unrelated matter. Another way to say the same thing is that, should you reduce the national debt of your country down to zero, it wouldn’t help you directly with your personal credit card balance. (It might help you indirectly to some extent because you wouldn’t be in a position anymore to compete with the federal government for credit. This competition raises interest rates.)

The national debt also does not include the debts of states and local governments. In this country, the aggregate of these non-federal government debts is also high because of our decentralized structure. Let me say it another way: The national debt, associated entirely with the federal government, is a relatively small fraction of the total debt US citizens owe by virtue of the cost of their overall system of government. It’s relatively small as compared to the same quantity for France, for example. The French national debt includes most sub-debts that would be counted as state debt and local debt in this country. Accordingly, the French national debt is overestimated as compared to ours. If French accounting were like ours the French national debt would be considerably less than 85% of GDP.

Well, you ask: What’s ours, our national debt as a percentage of GDP? Fair enough:

It’s about 100% of GDP, 15 points higher than the French percentage. We are closer to Greece than France is in that respect.

This pisses me off to no end. The divergence between the directions taken by French society and American society occurred during my adulthood. I witnessed that divergence in concrete terms through my French relatives and directly, through my visits to France, and the occasional longish sojourn there, and so forth. So, let me summarize what I saw in France during the past thirty years.

The French eat better than Americans. They always did but their food could have become worse under “socialism.” Even the children who stay at school over lunch eat good meals for a nominal sum. School lunches in the average French town taste better than the fare of a better-than-average American restaurant, in my book.

The French have longer vacations than Americans. That’s all of them, all Americans, including civil servants and bricklayers’ union members. Five weeks is the norm in France. You read that right: 5!

In many French municipalities – I am tempted to say “most” but I have not done the research – children go skiing at public expense one week each year or more. There are also many subsidized “initiation to the sea” summer camps.

It’s also true that Americans have bigger houses and bigger cars than do French people. Personally (and I am a kind of small expert on the topic) I think French universities are not nearly as good as their American counterparts. I mean that the best French universities don’t come close to the best American universities and that the worst American universities maintain standards absent in the worst French universities. Elementary and secondary French schools seem to me to be about equivalent to American schools. They also turn out large numbers of functional illiterates. But, there is more.

The French have universal health care that is mostly free. It hurts me a lot to say this but I saw it at work several times, including under trying circumstances, and the French national health care system performed fine every time. (There is an essay on this topic on this blog, I think.) I know this is only anecdotal evidence but the raw numbers don’t contradict my impression. In point of fact, French males live two years longer than American men. I realize this superior longevity could be due to any number of factors (except genetic factors, both populations are very mixed). However, it is not compatible with a truly horrendous “socialized medicine” system. And, yes, I too would like to credit Frenchmen’s longevity to regular drinking of red wine but it’s not reasonable. If it were, a health cult of red wine would have been launched by the wine industry in this country a long time ago.

The French collectively spend about half as much as we do on health care.

I can hear my virginal libertarian friends howling: The French can afford all those tax-based luxuries because they are less likely than Americans to become involved in military ventures. (And I would add, they cut out earlier, as they are now doing in Afghanistan.) But the numbers have to jibe: In the past thirty years, the US never spent more than 5% of GDP on the military. In most years, it was under 4% . Both figures include incompressibles such as veterans’ benefits that aren’t really spent to wage war, now or in the future. Those costs, about ¼ of the military budget in the average year, would be more or less made up elsewhere if they did not exist. So, it seems to me that higher military budgets cannot begin to account for the fifteen percentage points the French have over us in their national debt relative to GDP.

I am a small government conservative who would call himself a libertarian if I did not see the word as associated with pacifism. Yet, I cannot look away from these simple facts. I wish I had an answer to the quandary they pose but I don’t. Any ideas?

9 thoughts on “The French Have It Better?

  1. Let’s pretend we had an objective way to measure divergence from whatever cultural-political-economic system would best allow human flourishing.

    I think such a measure would show that the American system has high levels of leakage, and much of that leakage happens outside of formal government arenas (

    On the health care front especially, what we’ve really got is “market feudalism” that’s so inefficient that moving to a single payer system could well be an improvement even if it’s a terrible idea. It’s like single payer is a policy of randomly amputating limbs–a bad idea–but the American system treats gangrene with massive ritual sacrifices.

    I wonder how much of the French advantage is rooted in a greater respect for leisure. Americans basically insist on ritual sacrifice of your time to the gods of “working hard” and “just deserts”. Combined with an uncritical attitude to the wisdom of such sacrifice the result has been a collective subsidy for nonsense. Given the signalling aspect of this behavior, it’s a prisoners’ dilemma where legislation limiting workweeks and expanding vacation time is the equivalent of all the peacocks getting together and shrinking their tails by 20%.

    • Are you familiar with David Graeber? Short version: a ton of what people do at work is bullshit. It’s probably signalling (and that’s probably a best case scenario). Corporate attorneys facing unending streams of nonsense paperwork, programmers putting the new cover sheet on their TPS reports, me writing a department self study report (a 200 page act of bureaucratic aggression).

      If we cut out that nonsense (or if an effective cancer vaccine closed all the chemo clinics) GDP would fall to the betterment of humanity.

      My question for you: does France have a substantially different level of such waste?

    • I have been familiar with the idea for forty years! My career in academia began when I quit my really good government job ( in France) because I was doing close to nothing and others, around me, were doing even less. That was in 1968. My guess now – just a guess – is that a small number of French people work really well and very hard and keep the whole life boat afloat. I am not going to check. I have given up on scholarly research. I just try to be a guru in my small way!

    • Doing nothing doesn’t scare me. Putting in effort to accomplish nothing is what I worry about.

    • Well, there is a vicious pattern there You have to show up and do nothing. Plus, you have to attend a lot of useless meetings. That’s an effort. If you could do nothing and not show up and get paid, that would be acceptable to me. Someone, try me!

  2. I think the conversation would be advanced by considering the dimensions of lead vs follower economies. There is extensive literature on how lead economies/businesses/industries/locales/societies need to promote dynamism, change, variability, experimentation, and inequality of outcome to propel themselves as leaders. Follower economies/businesses/industries/locales/societies operate with completely different institutional incentives and outcomes.

    The point is that the US is still the primary dynamic lead economy in terms of new entrepreneurial ventures (Silicon Valley etc), science, R&D, music, entertainment, management practices, finance, medicine and so on. Although France has a standard of living (AIC) within sight of the US levels, it gains from adopting more of a fast-follower institutional strategy.

    I can link you to a large number of articles on this phenomena and documentation of its veracity, but the key is that France and all the other followers can only be followers if there is a leader. Absent the leader economy/industry/company/etc there is little or no progress or advantage in the less dynamic followers. Nothing to draft on. We can’t all be Sweden.

    There are costs and benefits to being a leader, and trade offs of being a follower. I think some of the benefits of living in France reflect some of these advantages.

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