Here is a little story that may confuse you for a short while. At least, I hope it does.
The story takes place in the eastern Paris neighborhood where I grew up. It used to be frankly working class. I guess that it may have become a little gentrified but, I guess, not much. It’s at a bus stop next to a large park built over a former 1900 mushroom farm that used the abundant horse manure then available in Paris. (That’s another story told in my book of memoirs, I Used to be French…. Ask me.)
Anyway, two youngish women are waiting for a bus in broad daylight. When one shows up, they signal for it to stop. The bus slows down and then speeds away. It’s stopped shortly at a red light. One of the women runs to it, pounds on the door, and demands to know why the driver did not stop to pick her and her girlfriend up. “You should dress better,” responds the driver motioning at her short skirt.
The next day, a man tried to place a formal complaint with the Paris Transport Authority (“RATP”). His name is Kamel Bencheikh; he is one of the young women’s father. He is a well-known Algerian poet who writes in French. I don’t know if he is a French citizen but he seems to live in France. He demands exemplary punishment for the driver.
The Transport Authority announced publicly that it would investigate the alleged incident as a violation of driver’s rules. It added that its hands were mostly tied in the absence of contact with the two young women – including Bencheikh’s daughter – who were the victims in the reported incident. The daughter is 29.
Bencheikh took the opportunity to announce to the media that he claims forcefully his Islamophobia.
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?
- A Mexican perspective on NAFTA Roberto Salinas-Leon, Law & Liberty
- Prosperity, the periphery, and the future of France Andrew Hussey, Literary Review
- The Indian Ocean slave trade Geoffrey Clarfield, Quillette
- The meaning of the exoplanet revolution Caleb Scharf, Aeon
In the ninth weekend of demonstrations, the politics of envy seem to dominate. (Soak the rich again!) The Government must give us more money. Lower some taxes but impose or re-impose others especially the former tax on wealth.
Far behind: Introduce a degree of popular initiative in the political process: allow groups of citizens to initiate legislation, to implement it, and to abrogate it.
I can’t tell if those who want more money are the same as those who demand popular initiative in legislation. It’s a problem with grass root movements. They make attribution difficult.
Pres. Macron’s response is all over the place. It sounds like the work of an old man although the pres. is only 41. I think I know why this is: Nearly all the past thirty presidents and prime ministers are graduates from the one same school. Maybe they just crib the class notes of their predecessors.
Notably, Mr Macron’s response – contained in an open letter – to the nation includes more “save the Planet” proposals as if he had forgotten that an environmentalist tax set the barrels of powder on fire to begin with. Little chance he will be heard by the Yellow Vests although his open letter may serve to rally the main part of the population around him as the lesser of several evils.
Notably, the president, on his own, mentioned the possibility of limiting immigration although that’s not high in any of the Yellow Vests demands. Curious.
The president’s proposed themes are supposed to be debated widely and on a national scale. They are expected to give rise to suggestions on how to govern France. The suggestions will be collected at the municipal level (a good idea; the French like their mayors) in complaint books called “cahiers de doléances.” The latter sounds to me like a very bad idea. The last time those words were used on a large scale, was around 1788-89. The ruling circles lost their heads soon afterwards. (I mean literally.)
Keep things in perspective: If you add all the demonstrators nationally in every town any Saturday, you arrive at a very small number although it’s made up of persistent people . They are persistent because they represent a large minority facing serious, possibly unsolvable problems. Many ordinary French people have grown weary of the disruptions the Yellow Vests have caused. There is also huge revulsion against the acts of violence that accompany Yellow Vests demonstrations (not necessarily their own acts).
Cool heads counsel the president to dissolve the National Assembly and to call for new elections. Supposedly, this would bring up elected representatives more in tune with the people’s mood. My own guess is that new elections would result in the isolation of the Yellow Vests and bring an end to their movements. Just guessing.
Did I forget anything?
- Egypt banned the sale of yellow vests. Are the French protests spreading? Adrián Lucardi, Monkey Cage
- Castro’s Revolution on Its 60th Anniversary Vincent Geloso, AIER
- Americans Are Losing Faith in Free Speech. Can Two Forgotten Philosophers Help Them Regain It? Bill Rein, FEE
- Do Congresswomen Outperform Congressmen? Tyler Cowen, MarginalRevolution
President Macron spoke to the French nation today (12/10/18). He apologized a little for his figurative distance from the rank-and-file. Then he tried to buy some off the yellow vests off with other people’s money. The national minimum monthly wage will rise by about US$113; overtime will not be taxed anymore. You are not going to believe the next appeasement measure he announced. I have a hard time believing it myself but I read it and heard it from several sources. President Macron decreed a significant Christmas bonus for public servants and ordered (I think) private employers to follow suite. The bonus will also be tax-free. I have no idea what effects these measures will have. I suspect the weather has more influence on the yellow vests’ behavior.
The movement began, as most Americans know by now, as a protest against a new extra tax on diesel fuel. It was presented a little breathlessly as a way to save the planet. This is significant in several ways. First, it suggests that a large fraction of the French people do not believe in climate change (like me) or do not care about it. Second, it demonstrates that Mr Macron, probably along with the political class in general, have lost touch with much of their electorate for not realizing the these perceptions. Third, it shows sheer incompetence if not cynicism. Any average thinking person in France could have warned Mr Macron that a tax on diesel is one of the most regressive taxes possible. The transport of ordinary goods in France relies largely on diesel-powered trucks. A tax on diesel proportionately (proportionately) hits the poor more than the prosperous. Perhaps the government thought that those affected were too stupid or too passive to protest.
The government has reversed its decision on the diesel tax but it’s too late. It seems to me the diesel tax was simply a case of the straw that broke the camel back. Fifty years ago, the French gave themselves a wonderful cradle-to-grave summer camp. It’s a real good one, I must say, including a sort of winter camp of free ski vacations for children. (Would I make this up?) This was based on the original idea that “the rich” could be taxed into paying for summer camp. (Sounds familiar?) After two generations, the bills are finally coming due. The definition of “the rich” has been going down fast. Indirect (and therefore regressive) taxes are everywhere. The increase in the tax on diesel was just one of the latest.
The providential and fun state has other consequences. The main one is that it is implicitly anti-business. It protects employees almost completely against being laid off. It’s solicitous of their leisure with a 34 hour week and many many vacations and holidays. French governing circles have become used to celebrating GDP growth rates so low they are considered shameful in America. I think it’s rigorously true that in the past twenty years, unemployment has never gone below 8%. It’s normally been closer to 9% and even 10%. It’s 20% if you are young. I am guessing (guessing) that it’s 40% and up if you are young and your name is Mohammed.
There is worse. In a pattern that will seem familiar to many Americans, there is a big well-being divide between the capital, Paris proper, and the rest of France. Parisians live in a low-density city with good public transport and many employment opportunities. Housing prices and rents are high in Paris, as you might expect. In nearly all of the rest of France, there are few jobs, spotty services. (I am told it’s not uncommon to have to drive 2 hours each way to consult a specialist); hospitals are good but far and few. Many of those charming villages you see from the freeway have not had schools for many years. Housing in the hinterland is cheap. Of course, this is enough to cause people of low means to be stuck where they are.
It’s difficult for foreign reporters to understand the yellow vests movement, for a small reason and for a big one. First, it does seem to be originally a genuine grassroot movement. Accordingly, it has no leaders and not authorized spokespersons. Second, and much more importantly, in my lifetime the very conceptual vocabulary of market economies has vanished from the public discourse. The yellow vests interviewed on television do not know how to express what hurts them. When ordinary French men and women, and what passes for their intellectual elites, discuss, or even think, about economic problems the only tools they have at their disposal is the pseudo-Marxist vocabulary of those who got their Marxism from Cliff Notes (if that). I think there is only one small French group (on Facebook) that is able to evade this conceptual tyranny. In France, thinking in terms of vaguely socialist terms has ceased to be a choice. It’s now a monolithic social and intellectual reality.
I don’t see how even a more determined and more talented political leader than Mr Macron can tell the great mass of the French people: Summer camp is over; everybody go home and learn to make do with less free stuff. Then, re-learn work.
With all this, France is a functioning democracy. The French elected Macron after six years of disastrous “Socialist” Party rule. Perhaps, as has been the case before, the French people -with their historical inability to reform- will be the canary in the mine for everyone else: The big generous state based on taxation is bad for you or for your children. Just ask the French.