The Latin American tropism

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


The Paris in which I grew up (outside of the long summer vacations), was a gray, dank and dark place. It was an easy locale from which to fantasize about the sun-drenched tropics. Palm-trees were our favorite trees because we never saw any except at the movies. Of all the tropics, the Latin American tropics took pride of place. Perhaps that was because France had negligible colonial entanglement there and therefore, no colonial retirees to mug our fantasy with their recollections of reality. Or perhaps, it was because, well after the emergence of rock-and-roll in France, close dancing was still taking place to the sound of Latin music: Rumba, Samba, Tango. One sensuous experience easily becomes grafted onto another; the clinging softness of girls’ flesh became associated in our minds with that particular kind of music and thence, with a whole unknown continent. This cocktail of sensations biased me until now in favor of that continent.

At one of the stops where several foreign student buses met, I became smitten with a Bolivian girl and she with me. We were to each other the most exotic thing ever touched. She had luscious brown skin, thick, black, lustrous Indian hair, swinging hips, and a lovely round chest. Our buses met again several times and the passion was renewed each time. Although those encounters involved little more than many sloppy deep kisses and some furious mutual groping, indirectly, they were to shape an important part of my mental life, a favorable disposition toward the otherness of others, “xenophilia,” if you will.

A Common Conservative Fallacy

I believe folly serves liberals better than it serves conservatives. Our way is the rational way while liberals tend to rely on their gut-feelings and on their sensitive hearts which make them comparatively indifferent to hard facts. That’s why they voted for  Pres. Obama. That’s why they voted for Mrs Bill Clinton against all strong evidence (known evidence, verifiable, not just suppositions) of her moral and intellectual unsuitability. That’s why many of them still can’t face emotionally the possibility of buyer’s remorse with respect to Mr Obama. That’s why they can’t collectively face the results of the 2016 election. So, conservatives have a special duty to wash out their brains of fallacy often.

It’s the task of every conservative to correct important errors that have found their way into fellow conservatives’ mind. Here is one I hear several times a week, especially from Rush Limbaugh (whom I otherwise like and admire). What’s below is a paraphrase, a distillation of many different but similar statements, from Limbaugh and from others I listen to and read, and from Internet comments, including many on my own Facebook:

“Government does not create jobs,”

and

“Government does not create wealth (it just seizes the wealth created by business and transfers it to others).”

Both statements are important and both statements are just false. It’s not difficult to show why.

First, some government actions make jobs possible that would not exist, absent those actions. Bear with me.

Suppose I have a large field of good bottom land. From this land I can easily grow a crop of corn sufficient to feed my family, and our poultry, and our pig, Gaspard. I grow a little more to make pretty good whiskey. I have no reason to grow more corn than this. I forgot to tell you: This is 1820 in eastern Ohio. Now, the government uses taxes (money taken from me and from others under threat of violence, to be sure) to dig and build  a canal that links me and others to the growing urban centers of New York and Pennsylvania. I decide to plant more corn, for sale back East. This growth in my total production works so well that I expand again. Soon, I have to hire a field hand to help me out. After a while, I have two employees.

In the  historically realistic situation I describe, would it not be absurd to declare that the government gets no credit, zero credit for the two new jobs? Sure, absent government tax-supported initiative, canals may have been built as private endeavors and with private funds. In the meantime, denying that the government contributed to the creation of two new jobs in the story above is not true to fact.

Second, it should be obvious that government provides many services, beginning with mail delivery. Also, some of the services private companies supply in this country are provided elsewhere by a branch of government. They are comparable. This fact allows for an estimation of the economic value of the relevant government services. Emergency services, ambulance service, is a case in point. Most ambulances are privately owned and operated in the US while most ambulances are government-owned and operated in France. If you have a serious car accident in the US, you or someone calls a certain number and an ambulance arrives to administer first aid and to carry you to a hospital if needed. Exactly the same thing happens in France under similar circumstances. (The only difference is that, in France, the EM guy immediately hands you a shot of good cognac. OK, it’s not true; I am kidding.)

In both countries, the value of the service so rendered is entered into the national accounting and it does in fact appear in the American Gross Domestic Product for the year (GDP) and in the French GDP, respectively. The GDP of each country thus increases by something like $500 each time an ambulance is used. Incidentally, the much decried GDP is important because it’s the most common measure of the value of our collective production. One version of GDP (“PPP”) is roughly comparable between countries. When the GDP is up by 3,5 % for a year, it makes every American who knows it, happy; also some who don’t know it. When the GDP shrinks by 1%, we all worry and we all feel poorer. If the GDP change shrinks below zero for two consecutive quarters, you have the conventional definition of a recession and all hell breaks lose, including usually a rise in unemployment.

Exactly the same is true in France. The government-provided French ambulance service has exactly the same effect on the French GDP.

Now think of this: Is there anyone who believes that the equivalent service supplied in France by a government agency does not have more or less the same value as the American service provided by a private company? Would anyone argue that the ambulance service supplied in France, in most ways identical to the service in America, should not be counted in the French GDP? Clearly, both propositions are absurd.

Same thing for job creation. When the French government agency in charge of ambulances hires an additional ambulance driver, it creates a new job, same as when an American company hires an ambulance driver.

By the way, don’t think my story trivial. “Services” is a poorly defined category. It’s even sometimes too heterogeneous to be useful (not “erogenous,” please pay attention). It includes such disparate things as waitressing, fortune-telling, university teaching, and doing whatever Social Security employees do. Yet it’s good enough for gross purposes. Depending on what you include, last year “services” accounted for something between 45% and 70% of US GDP. So, if you think services, such as ambulance service, should not be counted, you should know that it means that we are earning collectively about half to three quarters less than we think we do. If memory serves, that means that our standard of living today is about the same as it was in 1950 or even in 1930.

Does this all imply that we should rejoice every time the government expands? The answer is “No,” for three reasons. These three reasons however should only show up after we have resolved the issue described above, after we have convinced ourselves that government does provide service and that it and does create real jobs, directly and indirectly. Below are the three questions that correspond to the three reasons why conservatives should still not rejoice when government enlarges its scope. Conservatives should ask these three questions over and over again:

1 Is this service a real service to regular people or is it created only, or largely, to serve the needs of those who provide it, or for frivolous reasons? Some government services fall into this area, not many, I think. Look in the direction of government control, inspection, verification functions. Don’t forget your local government.

Often, the answer to this question is not clear or it is changing. Public primary and secondary education looks more and more like a service provided largely or even primarily to give careers to teachers and administrators protected by powerful unions. It does not mean that the real, or the expected service, “education,” is not delivered, just that it’s often done badly by people who are not the best they could be to provide that particular service; also people who are difficult or impossible to replace.

2   Is this particular service better provided by government or by the private sector? Is it better provided by government although the provision of the service requires collecting taxes and then paying out the proceeds to the actual civil servants through a government bureaucracy? That’s a very indirect way to go about anything, it would seem. That’s enough reason to be skeptical. The indirectness of the route between collecting the necessary funds and their being paid out to providers should often be enough to make government service more expensive than private, market-driven equivalent services. Note that the statement is credible even if every government employee involved is a model of efficiency.

The US Post Office remains the best example of a  situation where one would say  the private sector can do it better.

Only conservatives dare pose this question with respect to services one level of government or other has been supplying for a long time or forever. The Post Office is inefficient; if it were abolished, the paper mail would be delivered, faster or cheaper, or both. Some paper mail would not be delivered anymore. Many more of us would count it a blessing than the reverse. While there is a broad consensus across the political spectrum that children should be educated at collective expense, there is growing certitude that governments should not be in the business of education. In many parts of the country, the public schools are both expensive and bad. Last time I looked, Washington DC was spending over $20,000 per pupil per year. Give me half that amount and half the students or better will come out knowing how to read, I say. (It’s not the case now.)

3   This is the most serious question and the most difficult to answer concretely: Does the fact that this service is provided by government (any level) have any negative effect on our liberties? This is a separate question altogether. It may be that the government’s supply of a particular service is both inefficient and dangerous to freedom. It may be however that government supply is the most efficient solution possible and yet, I don’t want it because it threatens my freedom. As a conservative, I believe that my money is my money. I am free to use it to buy inefficiently, in order to preserve liberty, for example. I am not intellectually obligated to be “pragmatic” and short sighted.

To take an example at random, if someone showed me, demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt, that Obamacare would reduce the cost of health care without impairing its quality, if that happened, I would still be against it because of the answer I would give to the third and last question above.

I don’t want a any government bureaucracy to make decisions that are ultimately decisions of life and death on my behalf. The possibility of blackmail is too real. Even thinking about it is likely to make some citizens more docile than they otherwise would be. So much power about such real issues must have a chilling effect on the many.

The rule of thumb is this: Every expansion of government reduces individual freedom. That’s true even if this expansion creates and efficient and effective government agency, say, a real good Post Office we don’t even know how to dream of. And this is not an abstract view. The well-intentioned and in other ways laudable recognition of homosexual marriage was followed in short order by threats and fines against a hapless baker who declined to bake a cake for a gay wedding. We must keep in mind at all times that, of course, the power to fine, like the power to tax, is the power to destroy.

An efficient but ethically objectionable government service is not something I worry much about, in the case of Obamacare specifically, by the way. It is inefficient, ineffective and dangerous to individual liberty all at once.

Conservatives don’t do enough to proclaim that their opposition to big government has an ethical basis, that it’s a moral position independent of the quality of big government. This silence makes if easy for liberals to caricature conservatives as just selfish grouches who don’t want to pay taxes.

Most of the time, I don’t want to pay taxes because I don’t want to be forced. I would gladly give away twice the amount of my taxes if there were a way to do it voluntarily instead of paying taxes.

I am so opposed to this kind of force that I think even the undeserving and obscenely rich should not be despoiled by the government. It’s an ethical position, not a pragmatic one. And, it sure cannot be called “selfish.” (WTF!)

On How Poor France Was in the 18th Century?

I have recently completed a working paper which has now been submitted (thank you a great many scholars who provided comments notably Judy Stephenson and Mark Koyama). That paper basically went back modestly on one datapoint in the work of Robert Allen which was published in 2001 in Explorations in Economic History. 

Probably one of the greatest ten papers in the field of economic history for the last twenty-five years, Allen’s article has had a tremendous influence. It introduced a new method of comparing real wages at a time when very few goods were traded internationally and most prices were determined at the local level. In using what we now call “welfare ratios” (which are akin to poverty lines), Allen managed to compare many countries before the industrial revolution.

My entire research agenda has been to improve on this stupendous work and to increase the constellation of observations as part of an “uncoordinated” (many scholars are working on this separately) effort to map living standards prior to the mid 19th century. The main part of my agenda is to add Canada and devote more attention to the important issue of relative prices in comparing old world (high labor to land ratios) and new world (high land to labor ratios) economies. In the process of comparing parts of the world, I had to re-examine some data for some established countries. One of my reconsiderations was for Strasbourg in France where I found that Allen might have misclassified wages of skilled workers which included in-kind payments as unskilled workers receiving full compensation in money wages.

When I enacted corrections to the money wage rate, I found that the Alsace region where Strasbourg is located had living standards more or less in line with those observed in Paris (rather than living standards at less than half the level of Paris). If you’re interested, the note is available here.

Note: For those who are interested, I really recommend reading this short article in Cliometrica by Sharp and Weisdorf who also discuss comparisons between France and England (and how it may relate to topics like the French Revolution).

French Expatriates and Foreign Francophiles

First, a definition: an expatriate is someone who lives outside the country of his birth on a more or less permanent basis. I am dealing here with French expatriates specifically, a fairly rare breed in relation to the size of the French population, rarer than English and American expatriates, for example.

The French expatriates often land in a particular town of a particular country at a particular time for no particular reason. They may have been heading somewhere else and gotten stuck along the way. They always include wives and former wives of natives who may have divorced them, or died. Coming from different epochs (such as before and after the establishment of French social democracy in the 1980s), they form historical strata. Each stratum remembers a different France, and the strata may entertain disparate and often incompatible visions of the fatherland.

They have developed new habits in the country where they live and, without knowing it, they have drifted far from their culture of origin. Many disseminate patently false notions about the country where they were raised; they do it more or less innocently because myth-making and absence go well together. Their French self is forever a young person, or even a child. Their own children are simply natives of their land of residence with a smattering of the French language and no real curiosity, forever strangers to their parents.

The Francophiles are yet another story. They are people who don’t have the luck to have been born French but who love what they imagine is French culture with a degree of repressed hysteria. No part of the world is free of them. I have bumped into them everywhere I have been; they have victimized me everywhere with their undeserved love. Many but by no means all are also francophone to some extent. Some gain standing in their own mind via their real or imagined mastery of what they have decided is a superior national culture.

They are usually very parochial, doubly so because they are fixated on France and on their own country, to the exclusion of knowledge of any other part of the world. Others are teachers of French who feel professionally obligated to revere that which they teach and, by extension, everything French. Often, they don’t even know the language very well, limited as they are by the cramped discourse of textbooks, without awareness of the vigor, of the colorfulness, and, especially, of the frequent crudeness of the real French language of both literature and everyday life. (“Cul-de-sac,” for example, means “ass of a bag.”)

Once, a long time ago, in Bolivia of all places, I observed that the two groups mixed well. It was at a Bastille Day celebration at the French consulate. The French expats and the Francophiles shared the rudimentary popular imagery of the 1789 French revolution, that beheaded a king for the sake of “public salvation,” and his pretty, frivolous young queen, just in case. (That was after storming a prison-fortress, the Bastille, that was largely undefended.)

Think of reading my book: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. It’s available from Amazon, under my name. I need the bucks. Please!

A moral inquiry

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


Note: I was born and reared mostly in Paris but I spent most summers in Brittany. Brittany summers left a deeper mark in me than the Paris school year.

In the Breton architectural fashion, my grandmother’s granite house shared a wall with the houses of two neighbors. On one side was the good looking old guy and his too virtuous old wife. On the other side of my grandmother’s house was a family of fishermen: old Pop, old Mom, grown daughter and grown son. They all lived in a single room that served as kitchen, dining room and bedroom. The parents shared a carved oak armoire-bed, accessible by climbing on a trunk and equipped with a sliding door to provide privacy. The adult children each had their small iron bed, placed at opposite corners of the room, I am pleased to report. There was no bathroom, of course, only an outhouse in the backyard. It was never scooped, never moved. It was surrounded by the most beautifully, healthy cabbage I have ever seen. The fisherman’s children never married. Perhaps they were too afraid of their parents; or, they liked each other too much. (But this is only hearsay.)

At the end of the dirt road, fifty yards away, lived the town ditch-digger and his large brood. The ditch digger’s boys were always hungry. They stole eggs, from wild birds’nests and from hen houses alike. They also picked wheat and toasted it in the fields, which was tolerated. In September, ripe hazelnuts were available for the picking. I don’t know what they did after September and I will never know because my family never stayed beyond that month. But school was back in session then, and there, they got at least one square a day.

Sometimes, we would climb over the priest’s orchard wall to steal his excellent pears. This happened less often than one might think because it presented moral problems: Everyone knew that the priest would not beat you hard if he caught you so, it was kind of unsporting to pick on him. And there was the issue of having to tell him in confession that you had stolen his pears. We discussed whether one would go to Hell for abstaining from confessing that single particular sin. There was no theological consensus.

The struggle for life

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


In elementary school, grades were handed out in class in a terrifying monthly ceremony. The same deranged Principal would walk into each classroom in turn holding a thick pile of “livrets scolaires,” individual grade-booklets, rather than simple, one-shot report cards, under his arm. There was one livret per student per year with numerical scores and verbal comments for each subject matter, and a monthly overall ranking of students. The Principal would lay the grade-books upside down, in reverse order of students’ ranking for the month ending hence, lowest-ranking student first.

For several years, every month, without fail, the lowest-ranking pupil and the first on the mental scaffold was a runty, scrawny, rheumy-eyed boy who always sat in the last row, “Colinet.” The Principal would start ranting as he entered the room; his glasses would drop down his nose and he would deliver himself of the same furious tirade at the top of his voice against miserable, crouching Colinet. He was a large middle-aged man whose eyes became globulous when he was angry. He would foam at the mouth and spittle would dribble down his shirt as he promised Colinet the guillotine or worse. Colinet never got used to it. I sure did not. I almost crapped my pants several times although I was sitting near the front row and the Principal was staring over my head, straight at the back of the room, as he yelled and screamed. As he called out names from Colinet to the higher-ranking pupils, he would calm down, his voice would subside, and his comments became briefer. By the time he reached the livret of the tenth-ranker, his manner had become civilized as if there had been no raging storm minutes earlier.

In my family, there was a completely arbitrary rule that only the first six places were acceptable. I think my parents secretly thought only the first five were really acceptable but added the sixth because it made them feel magnanimous. Once the Principal had called out the ninth-ranked name, my body began to relax and I was breathing normally. If the Principal was down to the fifth livret and my name had not come up, the sweet song of victory began ringing in my heart. “Very good, my boy,” the Principal would say in a low, calm voice as he handed me my livret (to be signed by both parents).

Communism and reading

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


My parents pro-Americanism must have been displayed often because faith in Communism was on the ascendancy during the miserable post-war years. That was when a significant fraction of French public opinion became mindlessly and reflexively anti-American, seemingly forever. Yet, rampant anti-Americanism hardly interfered with American cultural influence. The first movie I saw was a Charlie Chaplin, the first cartoon, Snow White. Every week, when I had been good, I had my copy of Mickey Mouse Magazine (“Mikay Mooze”), although there were excellent French and Belgian children’s periodicals. One of the best French-language children’s periodical had a Far-West serial, “Lucky Luke” that still amazes me for its historical and geographic accuracy. Somebody in the France of the fifties was an attentive student of Americana. Made-in-America action hero comics were forbidden fruits though. To this day, I don’t know why they were prohibited. Perhaps my mother thought them “vulgaires,” like many other things. Later, the first music I paid attention to was jazz.

Movies played a big role in shaping my world-view. I did not develop a sense for what was an American movie rather than a French movie until I was about fifteen. My real second language was thus the extremely bad, stilted French dubbing of American motion pictures. The dubbing is awful to this day. When the hero shoots the bad guy in the gut with a “Take this, you motherfucker!” it comes out in French like this: “This will teach you a lesson, mean man.” All dubbing is done in France by people who don’t know English well, I suspect. The same dozen voices are used over and over again. The dubbers are immortal, it seems. You might say that I was brought up in good part by a curiously distorted Hollywood.