Poverty Under Democratic Socialism — Part II: Escaping the Padded Cage

There aren’t many signs that the French will soon free themselves from the trap they have sprung on themselves. The Macron administration had been elected to do something precisely about the strangling effect of taxation on French economic life and, on individual freedom. (The latter message may have been garbled during his campaign.) Are there any solutions in sight for the French crisis of psychic poverty, framed by both good social services and high taxes?

I see two kinds of obstacles to reform. The first is comprised of collective cognitive and of attitudinal deficiencies. The second, paradoxically, is a feature of French society that American progressives would envy if they knew about it.

Cognition and attitudes

After four months of weekly demonstrations, the gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) protesters had not found the language to articulate clearly their frustration. I mean, at least those who were left protesting. They seem to be falling back increasingly on crude views of “social justice” (“les inégalités”) as if, again, the issue was never to produce more, or to retain more of what they produce, but only to confiscate even more from the (fleeing) rich. Over the many years of democratic socialism, French culture has lost the conceptual vocabulary that would be necessary to plan an exit out of the impasse. Here is an example of this loss: In the past twenty years of reading and watching television in French almost every day, I have almost never come across the single word “libéral.” (That would be in the old English meaning of “market oriented.”) The common, nearly universal term is “ultra-libéral.” It’s as if favoring an analysis inclined toward market forces could not possibly exist without being “ultra,” which denotes extremism.

What started as a fairly subtle insult against those who discreetly appreciate capitalism has become fixed usage: You want more free market? You are a sort of fanatic. This usage was started by professional intellectuals, of course (of which France has not shortage). Then, it became a tool tacitly to shut off certain ideas from the masses, all the while retaining the words derogatory muscle. So, in France today, one can easily think of oneself as a moderate socialist – on the center left – but there is no balancing position on the center right. (3) It makes it difficult to think clearly, and especially to begin to think clearly about politics. After all, what young person wants to be an extremist, except those who are really extremists?

I saw recently online a French petition asking that French economist Frédéric Bastiat’s work be studied in French schools. Bastiat is one of the clearest exponents of fundamental economics. His contribution is not as large or as broad as Adam Smith’s but it’s more insightful, in my judgment. (He is the inventor of the “broken window” metaphor, for instance.) He also wrote unusually limpid French. Bastiat has not been part of secondary studies in France in my lifetime. His name is barely known at the university level. Marx and second, and third-rate Marxists, on the other hand, are omnipresent. (Some cynics would claim that whatever their conversation, the educated French do not read Bastiat, or A. Smith, but neither do they really read Marx!)

Few, in France, are able to diagnose the malaise that grips the country because it has ceased to have a name. The handful who understand capitalism are usually allergic to it because it does not guarantee equal outcomes. A minority, mostly business people, grasp well enough how it works and how it has pulled most of humanity out of poverty but they are socially shamed from expressing this perception. There is little curiosity among the French about such questions as why the American GDP/capita is 35% higher than the French. They treat this information as a sort of deed of Nature. Or, for the more ideological, among them, it’s the sad result of America’s unfairness to itself. A debate that ought to take place is born dead. How did this happen? Socialists of my generation, most good democrats, born during and right after WWII largely, early on took over the media and the universities. They have shaped and constrained public opinion since at least the sixties. They have managed to stop discussions of alternative economic paths without really conspiring to do so, possibly without even meaning to.

A really deep state

In 1945, after the long night of the 1940 defeat and of the Nazi occupation, many French people where in a mood to engender a new society. They created a number of novel government organizations designed to implement their vision of clean government but also, of justice. (They took prosperity for granted, it seems.) One of the new organizations was a post-graduate school especially designed to ensure that access to the highest levels of the government bureaucracy would be democratic and meritocratic. It’s called, “École Nationale d’Administration” (ENA). It accepts only graduates of prestigious schools. The ENA students’ per capita training costs are about seven times the average cost for all other higher education students. ENA students are considered public servants and they receive a salary. France thus possesses a predictably renewed cadre of trained administrators to run its government. And, repeating myself here, its members are chosen according to a strictly meritocratic process (unlike the most prestigious American universities, for example), a process that is also extremely selective.

In 2019, ENA is flourishing. The school has contributed four presidents and eight Prime Ministers to-date. Its graduates are numerous among professional politicians, as you might expect. In addition, they are teeming in the highest ranks of the civil service, and also of business. That’s because they go back and forth between the two worlds, with some benefit to their careers and to their wallets. This iteration does not imply corruption. Mostly, ENA graduates do not have a reputation for dishonesty at all. They help one another but it’s mostly above board. (4) This being said, it’s difficult to become really poor if you are an ENA graduate.

Graduates of ENA are often disparagingly described as a “caste,” which is sociologically inaccurate because caste is inherited. The word is meant to render a certain collective attitude of being smugly sealed from others. The intended meaning is really that of “upper caste,” of Brahman caste, to signify: those who think they possess all the wisdom.

All ENA graduates have made it to the top by taking the same sort of exam. The style of exams and the way they are corrected become known over time. Naturally, ENA candidates study to the exam. The ENA formula for success is not a mystery although it’s not just a formula; ENA also requires a sharp intelligence and character. ENA graduates have important traits in common, including a willingness to spend their adolescence cramming for increasingly difficult competitive exams. There are few charming dilettantes in their ranks. They all emerge from a process that does not reward imagination.

ENA graduates – dubbed “énarques” – seem overwhelmingly to share a certain view of the desirable interface between government and the economy. It’s not hard to guess at, based on thousands of their speeches reproduced in the media, and with the help of a little familiarity with French classical education. Its origin is neither in capitalism nor in socialism. (Sorry for the only slightly misleading title of this essay.) It predates both by 100-150 years. It’s rooted in the well known story of the Minister Colbert’s 17th century economic reforms. (It’s well known in the sense that every French school kid knows his name and a thing or two about the reforms themselves.) Colbert (1619-1683) raised tariffs, regulated production in minute detail and, above all, he created with public funds whole industries where none existed, in glass, in porcelain, but also in textiles, and others. I believe his main aim was only to increase government (royal) revenue but others think differently. At any rate, there is a widespread belief that general French prosperity rose under his administration.

To make matters worse, Colbert is a historical figure easy to like: hard working, honest, an effective patron of the arts. With such a luminary to look up to, it’s fairly effortless to ignore both the actual disorderly origins of capitalism, and also the initially compassionate roots of its socialist counter-reaction. (On capitalism’s origins, and originality, you might consult my entry: “Capitalism.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Blackwell Publishing. Vol. 2, Malden, Mass. 2006. Make sure of that particular edition – 2006 – my predecessors and successors were mostly opaque Marxist academic lowlifes.)

For seventy years, French economic policy has thus been made largely by deeply persuaded statists, people who think rule from above natural (especially as it takes place within a broadly democratic framework), who judge government intervention in economic matters to be necessary, fruitful, and virtuous, people who believe that government investment is investment, people who have given little thought to private enterprise, (although they occasionally pay lip service to it, largely as if it were a kind of charity). Almost none of them, these de facto rulers, is a bad person. Their pure hearts make them all the more dangerous, I believe. The result is there in France for all to see: a sclerotic economy that has failed to provide enough jobs for fifty years, a modest standard of living by the criteria of societies that industrialized in the nineteenth century, a worsening unease about the future, a shortage of the freedom of small pleasures for the many.

I do not use the conventional words of “tyranny” or “despotism” here because both are normally more less deliberately imposed on the populace. Nothing of the sort happened in France. On the contrary, lack of individual freedom in France is the accumulated consequence of measures and programs democratically adopted within the framework described above. Together, these well-meaning social programs are squeezing the liveliness out of all but the upper layers of French society.

There exists in the country a growing resentment of the énarques’ basically anti-capitalist rule. One recent president, Sarkozy, even declared he partly owed his election to bragging about not being a graduate from ENA. Yet, the thousands of énarques permanently at the levers of command for seventy years are not about to relinquish them, irrespective of the political party or parties in power. Few groups controlling as much as they ever does so voluntarily. The deep sentiment of their collective virtuousness will make them even more intransigent. Most French critics believe that the énarquesare incapable of changing as a cadre, precisely because they are really an intellectual elite of sorts, precisely because they are not corrupt. And, as I remarked above, ENA’s statist (“socialist”) reign has lasted so long that the French people in general have lost track of the very conceptual vocabulary an anti-bureaucrat rebellion would require. (We know what we don’t want, but what do we want?)


(3) It’s true also that historical accidents have deprived France of a normal Tory party. Its place is currently occupied by reactionary nationalists (currently the “Rassemblement national,” direct descendant of the “Front National,” of Marine Le Pen) who don’t favor market forces much more than does the left.

(4) I take the ENA graduates’ reputation for probity seriously because, right now, as I write, there are clamors for abolishing the school but its generating corruption in any way is not one of the reasons advanced.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part I, and here is the entire longform essay.]

The Capitalist Peace: What Happened to the Golden Arches Theory?

Many are familiar with the Democratic Peace Theory, the idea that two democracies have never waged war against one another. The point is widely recognized as one of the major benefits of democracy, and the hand-in-hand development of more democracies and fewer/less-devastating wars than virtually any other period of human history, is a tempting and enticing explanation.

Now, it is not overly difficult to come up with counter-examples to the Democratic Peace Theory, and indeed there’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to it. Here are some notable and obvious counters:

  • Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s
  • First Kashmir War between India and Pakistan War (1947-49)
  • Various wars between Israel and its neighbors (1967, 1973, 2006 etc)
  • The Football war (1969)
  • Paquisha and Cenepa wars (1981, 1995)

Some people even include the First World War and various 18th and 19th century armed conflicts between major powers (American War of Independence comes to mind), but the question of when a country becomes a democracy naturally arises.

There’s another, equally enticing explanation, the main rationale underlying European Integration: The Capitalist Peace, or in a more entertaining and relatable version: The Golden Arches Theory – as advanced by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in the mid-1990s:

No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against one another.

Countries, frankly, “have too much to lose to ever go to war with one another.” As a proposition it seems reasonable, an extension of the phrase apocryphally attributed to Bastiat: “When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will”. And not because your Big Mac meal comes with a side of peace-and-love or enhanced conflict-resolution skills, but because the introduction of McDonald’s stores represents close economic interdependence and global supply chains. After all, if your suppliers, your customers or your collegues consists of people on the other side of a potential military conflict, a war seems even less useful. Besides – paraphrasing Terry Anderson and Peter Hill in their superb The Not So Wild Wild Westtrading is cheaper than raiding. Even as adamant a critic as George Monbiot admits that a fair number of McDonald’s outlets “symbolised the transition” from poor and potentially trouble-making countries, to richer and peace-loving ones.

Not unlike poor Thomas Malthus, whose convicing theory had been correct up until that  point, reality rapidly decided to invalidate Friedman’s tongue-in-cheek explanation. Not long after it was published, the McDonald’s-ised nations of Pakistan and India decided to up their antics in the Kargil war, quickly undermining its near-flawless explanatory power of Friedman’s. Not one to leave all the fun to others, Russia engaged in no more than two wars in the 2000s to undermine the Golden Arches theory: the 2008 war with Georgia, and more recently the Crimean crisis. Adherring to their namesake creation, McDonald’s pull-out from Crimea was just a tad too late to vindicate Friedman.

The Capitalist Peace, the academic extension of the general truism that trading is cheaper than raiding, came undone pretty quickly thanks in part to our Russian friends. The updated version, the Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention, may unfortunately fall into the same trap as the Democratic Peace Theory: invoking ambiguous definitions that may ultimately collapse to mere than tautologies.

From the Comments: What’s worth reading from Karl Marx?

Given all the time I wasted reading Marx, I’d say I lost big time. If I had it to do over again I’d read Grundrisse and stop.

This is from Terry Amburgey, a now-retired Professor of Management from the University of Toronto’s business school. He got his PhD from the same sociology program as Jacques.

Here is a link to Grundrisse (pdf), and note that Marx spends a good deal of time near the end of his manuscript on “the Frenchman,” Frédéric Bastiat. Oh, and Grundrisse has over 800 pages of reading in it.

No, natural disasters are not good for the economy.

Every time there is a natural disaster old economic fallacies make their appearance. And they are usually always the same. In particular, the argument that a natural disaster is good for the economy. This should make little sense. Wealth is not created by destroying things. A natural disaster destroys wealth, doesn’t create it. I doubt anyone affected by a hurricane would argue that he is better off after the natural disaster than before.

The argument that an event such as a natural disaster is good for the economy rests in the positive impact seen in GDP (as is argued) after the natural event. If GDP increases, then the economy is doing better. But this is a misreading of GDP. This variable is a flow of wealth, it is not a stock of accumulated wealth. It is possible that wealth creation (flow) increases at the same time the stock of wealth is decreasing. And this is what happens during a natural disaster.

Imagine that someone’s house caught fire and burns down. Because of this situation, this person decides to start working extra hours to increase his income and be able to buy a new one. The extra hours makes his income (GDP) increase. But his situation is considerable worst because he lost his stock of wealth (remember Bastiat’s broken window fallacy…?). Arguing that a natural disaster (or a war, etc…) is good for the economy is like arguing that this person is better of because he has to work extra hours to recover his loss.

This is just another case of a too common fallacy in economics. We know that if the economy is doing better the result will be better GDP and unemployment indicators. But from observing a better GDP and unemployment indicators we cannot, and should not, conclude that the economy is doing better. More important than observing what is happening to GDP is understanding why is changing its behavior.

It could be argued that one of the problem of the Keynesian view of the world is the focus on what happens to output and unemployment rather than why these variables are moving. Not surprisingly, we get to the conclusion that going to war (or having a natural disaster) would be a good way to achieve full employment.

Still thinking about the Olympics

Rio Olympics are close to the end, and so far it has been a wonderful time for Brazilian athletes: the country is scoring 15 total in the medal table, quite high in its historical record. Brazil’s first Olympic medal in 2016 was won by Felipe Wu right in the first day of competition: silver in Shooting, 10m Air Pistol Men. Wu was followed by Rafaela Lopes Silva, who won gold in Judo, Women -57 kg, and then by Mayra Aguiar, who won bronze, also in Judo, Women -78 kg. Rafael Silva won another bronze for Brazil in Judo, Men +100 kg, and then Arthur Mariano won still another bronze, this time in Gymnastics Artistic, Men’s Floor Exercise. Diego Hypolito won silver in the same competition. On the tenth day of competition Poliana Okimoto won Bronze in Marathon Swimming, Women’s 10km and Arthur Zanetti won Silver in Gymnastics Artistic, Men’s Rings. The next day, Thiago Braz da Silva surprised everyone by beating favorite French Renaud Lanillenie and winning gold in Athletics, Men’s Pole Vault.

In the last few days other athletes followed the ones mentioned in this opening paragraph, but I limit the text to them for a reason: one highlight of these first 9 Brazilian medalists is that, with the exception of Hypolito, all of them are in the military, and some of my friends on what is considered “the right” in the Brazilian political spectrum are using this information to poke (in good spirit) my friends on the left. On the other hand, my friends on the left highlight that many of the Brazilian medalists also have in common coming from very poor backgrounds, and finding in government social programs the chance to become professional athletes. I want to be careful to say that both are wrong and I want to explain why (I hope I will still have some friends after this). Basically both ignore the concept of opportunity cost.

The concept of opportunity cost postulates that spending in one direction means not spending in another. In other words, that every choice comes with the cost of forgoing the next best alternative. It was developed in all but name by 19th century French economist Frédéric Bastiat in the parable of the broken window (also known as the broken window fallacy or glazier’s fallacy) that appeared in his 1850 essay Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas (That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Not Seen). The parable goes somewhat like this: a boy breaks a window. The window owner gets upset, but someone tries to comfort him by saying that this will give the window manufacturer the opportunity to work. In the end, the economy wins. Bastiat shows that this is a fallacy: the money spent in a new window could have been spent in another way, say, with new shoes. The world would have new shoes and still have a window, but now the world has a new window and no shoes. Bastiat proceeds to show the law of unintended consequences, or how our actions can affect the economy in ways that are “unseen” or ignored, and also to apply the concept to several areas of public policy. Two of these happen to be military expenditure and “Theatres, Fine Arts.”

Concerning military expenditure, Bastiat argues that spending money in order to defend the country against foreign aggressors can be a good investment, but that any money that goes beyond this necessity would have been better spent in other way. This argument goes against Bastiat’s contemporaries who argued that money spent on the military had the benefit of creating jobs, even if defense was not a real necessity. Bastiat’s conclusion is that if the money was left with the taxpayer, this person would find ways to spend that would create more and better jobs. Applying to current events, if Brazil is spending money in the military in order to protect its borders, this is a good investment. If instead it is spending money in the military in order to get Olympic medals, the money should be spent elsewhere.

Bastiat lived before modern Olympic Games, so he has nothing directly to say public spending in this kind of event, but I guess that what he says about “Theatres, Fine Arts” also applies here. Some of his contemporaries defended that the government should invest in Theatres and Fine Arts, because these things are good in themselves, created jobs, and so on. Bastiat was once more against what he saw as excessive public spending. This time his answer exposed him to the logical fallacy of the straw man, or misrepresenting one’s argument in order to make it easier to attack: his critics accused him of not caring about Theatres and Fine Arts. But if we examine the evidences carefully, that is not the case at all: to say that the government should not invest in Theatres and Fine Arts is not to say that nobody should invest in it. It is just to say who is supposed to make the investment, the government of individuals. I am not equalizing Theatres and Fine Arts with sports, but I believe the lesson applies in this field as well: to say that the government should not invest in sports is totally different from saying that nobody should invest in it.

In conclusion, it seems that public investment in the military and social programs is helping Brazil to win medals in this Olympics. But we can ask ourselves where would that money have gone had this investment not been made. Based on Bastiat, I believe that if the money spending was left for the individuals, Brazil would have better military, more Olympic medals, and less necessity of social programs, not to mention better jobs, and a better overall economy. Perhaps after this Olympic Games my friends both on the left and on the right can feel like investing more in sports. Or maybe they will realize they prefer to spend on something else.

Blind Faith

By Adam Magoon

On November, 26th Eric Liu, founder of “Citizen University”, a pro-government think-tank, wrote a telling article about having faith in government on the CNN opinion page. He begins the piece with a story about leaving his suitcase in a New York City cab saying:

“I had an experience recently that reinvigorated my faith in humanity — and bureaucracy.”

Keep that equivalency in your mind for a few minutes. Humanity and bureaucracy.

He goes on to explain that he did not even realize he left the suitcase in the cab for twenty minutes and only then began calling people for help. He explains this process in detail, emphasis mine:

“For almost three hours, various people tried to help me — two folks at my bank, whose credit card held the only record of the cab ride; three people at two yellow cab companies based in Long Island City; a service rep at the New York City Taxicab & Limousine Commission; people in my office back in Seattle.”

So Eric was helped by no less than eight individuals (counting the cab driver) in his successful search for his luggage. Eight people helped improve Eric’s business trip. He then claims this experience taught him three lessons.

First:

“Always, always get a receipt.”

This, as he says, is obvious.

Second:

“Another is that New Yorkers, contrary to popular belief and their own callous pose, are essentially nice.”

As someone born in New York I would like to think this is true, but I adhere to the maxim that terms such as “New Yorker” can only describe places where someone lives or is born. Saying “all New Yorkers are nice” is equivalent to saying “all Scots are drunks” or “all Scandinavians are attractive”. Essentially it is a non-statement that is easily refuted. There are just as many people who would have taken anything of value from his case and threw it into the nearest dumpster.

That is just the appetizer though, here is the main course.

His final lesson, and where the train totally leaves the rails, is this:

“But the third, even more deeply contrary to popular belief, is that government is not the enemy.”

Wait, what?! What kind of logic is Mr. Liu using? Of the eight people who helped him only one (the service representative at the New York City Taxicab & Limousine Commission named Valerie) even worked for a governmental organization and “she insisted she was just doing her job”. How did Mr. Liu get to “government is not the enemy” from that series of events? He goes on to claim that:

“Government is not inherently inept. It’s simply us — and as defective or capable of goodness as we are”.

Mr. Liu tries to rationalize his faith in government with a single good experience with a few select people. What he ignores though, is that many people are not “essentially nice”. If that were the case crime, corruption, and violence simply wouldn’t exist. There are people in the world who only seek to exploit and profit from the work of others and to quote the great classical liberal theorist Frédéric Bastiat:

As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true purpose — that it may violate property instead of protecting it — then everyone will want to participate in making the law, either to protect himself against plunder or to use it for plunder”

Even if we were to assume that most people in the world are “essentially nice” the very nature of government attracts precisely the opposite type; the corrupt, the malevolent and the lazy. His agenda finally becomes clear nearly two-thirds of the way through the article when Mr. Liu unabashedly asks us to not wonder what our country can do for us, but rather what we can do for our country in response to the failed Obamacare launch.

Individuals are expected to bail the government out when it fails at intruding into our lives? How can we expect the government to run healthcare without kickbacks and corruption when they cannot even get someone to build the website without it being a disaster?

Mr. Liu fails to offer any helpful advice on how to improve things but he does offer one revealing suggestion. He says that citizens should not expect the “state…to serve us perfectly” and that individuals should not “forget how to serve”.

The argument often goes that taxes pay for services provided by the government but Mr. Liu suggests we shouldn’t expect too much from those services. That we shouldn’t get upset when we pay a third of our labor to the government and it spends that money on things we do not want; in fact he implies we should fix for free the broken things they have already spent our money on.

If Mr. Liu goes out to dinner and his silverware is dirty when he sits at the table does he go back to the sink and wash them? Or does he expect more from the things he spends his money on? At least in that situation Mr. Liu could choose to spend his money elsewhere. With the government spending our money for us we aren’t even afforded that meager victory.

Rare Earth Elements: Stockpile or Markets?

Quick, what do you know about lanthanum, praseodymium, neodymium, or dysprosium? If you said they are chemical elements, you are right: numbers 57, 59, 60, and 66, to be exact. They and their neighbors on the periodic table, collectively “rare earths,” were once mere curiosities tucked in between barium and tungsten. Now they’re having their day in the sun, thanks to new technology, as did uranium and plutonium when atomic energy was developed. The military may begin stockpiling them.

Good idea or not?

My first encounter with these elements was a project that developed high-tech shock absorbers to protect a replacement camera for the Hubble telescope during the camera’s rough ride to orbit. These devices, called M-Struts, pioneered the use of permanent magnets for shock mitigation. The only material our team found that would provide sufficient magnetic flux density (a measure of the strength of a magnetic field at a given point) was a rare earth alloy, NdFeB (neodymium-iron-boron). This material could only be procured from China.

M-Struts were a one-off project that had no discernible effect on the demand curve for neodymium. But now the demand curve is crowding up against the supply curve largely because of rare earth applications in “green” energy devices such as wind turbines (extra points if you knew that). Continue reading