Poverty Under Democratic Socialism — Part I: the French Case

I saw a televised investigation by the pretty good French TV show, “Envoyé spécial” about current French poverty. It brought the viewer into the lives of six people. They included a retired married couple. The four others were of various ages. They lived in different parts of mainland France. All sounded French born to me. (I have a good ear for accents; trust me.) All were well spoken. The participants had been chosen to illustrate a sort of middle-class poverty, maybe. Or, perhaps to illustrate the commonness of poverty in one of the first countries to industrialize.

All the interviewees looked good. They seemed healthy. None was emaciated; none was grossly obese, as the ill-fed everywhere often are. All were well dressed, by my admittedly low standards. (I live in the People’s Democratic Republic of Santa Cruz, CA where looking dapper is counter-revolutionary.) None of those featured was in rags or wearing clothes inappropriate for the season.

The reporter took the viewer into these people’s homes. There was no indoor tour but you could see that the outside of the houses was in good repair. Most of the interviewing took place in kitchens. Every kitchen seemed equipped like mine, more than adequately. There was a range and a refrigerator in each. Every house had at least one television set.(I couldn’t determine of what quality.) No one said he or she was cold in the winter though two complained about their heating bills.

The show was geared to sob stories and it got them. Each participant expressed his or her frustration about lacking “money,” precisely, specifically. It seems to me that all but two talked about money for “extras.” I am guessing, that “extras” mean all that is not absolutely necessary to live in fairly dignified comfort. One single woman in her forties mentioned that she had not had a cup of coffee in a café for a year or more. (Keep her in mind.)

Another woman talked about the difficulty of keeping her tank filled. She remarked that a car was indispensable where she lived, to go to her occasional work and to doctors’ appointments. Her small car looked fine in the video. The woman drove it easily, seemingly without anxiety or effort.

A woman of about forty, divorced, took care of her two teenage daughters at home two weeks out of each month. She explained how she went without meat for all of the two weeks that her daughters were away. She did this so she could afford to serve them meat every day that they were with her. I could not repress the spontaneous and cynical reaction that most doctors would probably approve of her diet.

Yet, another woman, single and in her thirties, displayed her monthly budget on her kitchen table. She demonstrated easily that once she had paid all her bills, she had a pathetically small amount of money left. (I think it was about $120 for one month.) She had a boyfriend, a sort of good-looking live-in help whose earnings, if any, were not mentioned.

The retired couple sticks to my mind. The man was a retired blue-collar worker. They were both alert and in good shape. Their living room was comfy. They also talked about their bills – including for heating – absorbing all of their income. The wife remarked that they had not taken a vacation in several years. She meant that she and her husband had not been able to get away on vacation, somewhere else, away from their house and from their town. They lived close to a part of France where some rich Americans dream of retiring some day, and where many Brits actually live.

I ended up a little perplexed. On the one hand, I could empathize with those people’s obvious distress. On the other hand, I got yanked back to reality toward the end when the retired lady blamed the government for the tightness of her household budget. Then I realized that others had tacitly done the same. The consensus – which the reporter did not try expressly to produce – would have been something like this: The government should do something for me (no matter who is responsible for the dire straights I am in now).

Notably, not one of the people in the report had a health care complaint, not even the senior retired couple.

So, of course, I have to ask: Why are all those people who live far from abject poverty, by conventional standards, why do all those people convey unhappiness?

The first answer is obvious to me only because I was reared in France, where I retain substantial ties: Many small French towns are dreadfully boring, always have been. That’s true, at least, if you don’t fish and hunt, or have a passion for gardening, and if you don’t attend church. (But the French are not going to church anymore; nothing has taken the social place of church.)

And then, there is the issue of what the French collectively can really afford. This question in turn is related to productivity and, separately, to taxation. I consider each in turn.

French productivity

According to the most conventional measure – value produced per hour worked – French productivity is very high, close to the German, and not far from American productivity: Something like 93% of American productivity for the French vs 95% for the Germans. (Switzerland’s is only 86%.) However, to discuss how much money is available for all French people together, we need another measure: the value of French production divided by the number of French people. Annual Gross Domestic Product per capita is close enough for my purpose. (The version I use is corrected to incorporate the fact that the buying power of a dollar is not the same in all countries: “GDP/capita, Purchasing Power Parity”).

For 2017, the French GDP/capita was $43,600, while the German was $50,200. (The American was $59,500.) Keep in mind the $6,600 difference between the French and the German GDP/capita (data).

If French workers are almost as productive as the Germans when they work, what can account for the low French GDP/capita? The answer is that the French don’t work much. Begin with the 35/hr legal work week. (1) (A study published recently in the daily Le Figaro asserts that 1/3 of the 1.1 million public servants work even less than 35 hours per week.) Consider also the universal maximum retirement age of 62 (vs 67 in Germany), a spring quarter pleasantly spiked with three-day weekends for all, a legal annual vacation of at least thirty days applied universally, a common additional (short) winter (snow) vacation. I have read (I can’t confirm the source) that the fully employed members of the French labor force work an average of 600 hours per year, one of the lowest counts in the world. Also log legal paid maternity leave. Finish with an official unemployment rate hovering around 9 to 10% for more than thirty years. All this, might account for the $6,600 per year that the Germans have and the French don’t.

There is more that is seldom mentioned. The fastest way for a country to raise the official, numerical productivity of its workers is to put out of work many of its low-productive workers. (That’s because the official figure is an arithmetic mean, an average.) This can be achieved entirely through regulations forbidding, for example, food trucks, informal seamstress services, and old-fashioned hair salons in private living rooms, and, in general, by making life less than easy for small businesses based on traditional techniques. This can be achieved entirely – and even inadvertently – from a well-meaning wish to regulate for the collective good. The more of this you do, the higher your productivity per capita appears to be and also, the higher your unemployment, and the less income is available to go around. I think the official high French productivity oddly distorts the image of real French income. I suspect it fools many French people, including public officials: They think they are wealthier than they are.

La vie est belle!

The French have nearly free health care – which works approximately as well as Medicare in the USA, well enough, anyway. (French life expectancy is higher than American expectancy.) Education is tuition-free at all levels. There are free school lunches for practically anyone who asks. University cafeterias are subsidized by the government (and pretty good by, say, English restaurant standards!) Many college students receive a stipend. Free drop-off daycare centers are common in big and in medium-size cities. Unemployment benefits can easily last for two years, three for older workers. They amount to something like 55% of the last wages earned, up to 75% for some.

That’s not all. The fact that France won the World Cup in soccer in 2018 suggests that the practice of that sport is widespread and well supported. It’s mostly government subsidized. Other sports are also well subsidized. French freeways are second to none. They are mostly turnpikes but the next network of roads down is excellent, and even the next below that. This is all kind of munificent, by American standards. The French are taken care of, almost no matter what. The central government handles nearly all of this distribution of services directly and some, indirectly through grants that local entities have to beg for.

Someone has to pay for all this generosity. After sixty or seventy years, many, perhaps most French people, still believe that the rich, the very rich, have enough money that can be pried from their clutching hands to pay for the good things they have, plus the better things they wish for. (No hard numbers here, but I would bet that ¾ of French adults believe this.) In fact, multi-fingered, ubiquitous, invasive taxation of the many who are not very rich pays for all of it.

French taxation

The French value added tax (VAT) is 20% on nearly all transactions. When a grower sells $100 of apples to a jelly producer, the bill comes to $120. When the jelly-maker in turn sells his product to a grocery wholesaler, his $200 bill goes up to $240, etc. Retail prices are correspondingly high. The French are not able to cheat all the time on the VAT although many try. (Penalties are costly on the one hand, but there exists a complicated, frustrating official scheme to get back part of the VAT you do pay, on the other hand.) I speculate that the VAT is so high because the French state does not have the political will nor the capacity to collect an effective, normal income tax, a progressive income tax. Overall, the French fiscal system is not progressive; it may be unintentionally regressive. To compensate, until the Macron administration, there was a significant tax on wealth. (That’s double taxation, of course.) It’s widely believed that rich French people are escaping to Belgium, Switzerland, and even to Russia (like the actor Gérard Dupardieu).

The excise taxes are especially high, including the tax on gasoline. In 2018, the mean price of gasoline in France was about 60% higher than the mean price in California, where gas is the most taxed in the Union. An increase to gasoline taxes, supposedly in the name of saving the environment, is what triggered the “yellow vests” rebellion in the fall of 2018. Gasoline taxes are particularly regressive in a country like France where many next-to-poor people need a car because they are relegated to small towns, far from both essential services and work. (2)

All in all, the French central government takes in about 55% of the GDP. This may be the highest percentage in the world; it’s very high by any standard. It dries up much money that would otherwise be available to free enterprise. Less obviously but perhaps more significantly, it curtails severely what people individually, especially, low income citizens, may spend freely, of their own initiative.

What’s wrong?

So, with their abundant and competent social services, with their free schooling, with their prodigal unemployment benefits, with their superb roads, with their government-supported prowess in soccer, what do the French people in the documentary really complain about? Two things, I think.

Remember the woman who couldn’t afford to take her coffee in a café? Well, the French have never been very good at clubs, associations, etc. They are also somewhat reserved about inviting others to their homes. The café is where you avail yourself of the small luxury of avoiding cooking chores with an inexpensive but tasty sandwich. It’s pretty much the only place where you can go on the spur of the moment. It’s where you may bump into friends and, into almost-friends who may eventually become friends. It’s the place where you may actually make new friends. It’s the best perch from which to glare at enemies. It’s where that woman may have a chance to overhear slightly ribald comments that will make her smile. (Not yet forbidden in France!) The café is also just about the only locale where different age groups bump into one another. The café is where you will absorb passively some of that human warmth that television has tried for fifty years but failed to dispense.

This is not a frivolous nor a trivial concern. In smaller French towns, a person who does not spend time in cafés is deprived of an implicit but yet significant part of her humanity. The cup of coffee the woman cannot afford in a café may well be the concrete, humble, quotidian expression of liberty for many in other developed countries as well. (After all, Starbucks did not succeed merely by selling overpriced beverages.) The woman in the video cannot go to cafés because the social services she enjoys and supports – on a mandatory basis – leave no financial room for free choice, even about tiny luxuries. She suffers from the consequences of a broad societal pick that no one forced on her. In general, not much was imposed on her from above that she might have readily resisted. It was all done by fairly small, cumulative democratic decisions. In the end, there is just not enough looseness in the socio-economic space she inhabits to induce happiness.

She is an existential victim of what can loosely be called “democratic socialism.” It’s “democratic” because France has all the attributes of a representative republic where the rule of law prevails. It’s “socialistic” in the vague sense in which the term is used in America today. Unfortunately, there is no French Bureau of Missing and Lost Little Joys to assess and remedy her discontent. Democratic socialism is taking care of the woman but it leaves her no elbow room, space for recreation, in the original meaning of the word: “re-creation.”

The second thing participants in the documentary complain about is a sense of abandonment by government. Few of them are old enough to remember the bad old days before the French welfare state was fully established. They have expected to be taken care of all their adult lives. If anything is not satisfactory in their lives, they wait for the government to deal with it, even it takes some street protests. Seldom are other solutions, solutions based on private initiative, even considered. But the fault for their helplessness lies with more than their own passive attitudes. An overwhelming sense of fairness and an exaggerated demand for safety combine with the government’s unceasing quest for revenue to make starting a small business, for example, difficult and expensive. France is a country where you first fill forms for permission to operate, and then pay business taxes before you have even earned any business income.

The French have democratically built for themselves a soft cradle that’s feeling more and more like a lead coffin. It’s not obvious enough of them understand this to reverse the trend, or that they could if they wished to. There is also some vague worry about their ability to maintain the cradle for their children and for their children’s children.


(1) I am aware of the fact that there exists a strong inverse correlation between length of week worked and GDP/capita: In general, the richer the country, the shorter the work week. Again, this is based on a kind of average. It allows for exceptions. It seems to me the French awarded themselves a short work week before they were rich enough to afford it.

(2) You may wonder why I don’t mention the French debt ratio (amount of public debt/GDP). All the amenities I describe must cost a lot of money and the temptation to finance them partly through debt must be great. In fact, the French debt ratio is lower than the American: 96% to 109% in 2018 according to the International Monetary Fund. This is a little surprising but all debtors are not equal. A country with near full employment and plenty of talent is better able to pay off its debts than one with high long term unemployment and a labor force decreasingly accustomed to laboring. The latter is, of course, a predictable result of inter-generational unemployment and underemployment. Nowadays, it’s common to cross paths in France with people over thirty who have never experienced paid work. International investors think like me about the inequality of debtors. Investors flock to the US but they are reserved about France.

[Editor’s note: You can find the entire, longform essay here if you don’t want to wait for Parts II and III.]

Empire effects : the case of shipping

I have been trying, for some time now, to circle an issue that we can consider to be a cousin of the emerging “state capacity” literature (see Mark Koyama’s amazing summary here). This cousin is the literature on “empire effects” (here and here for examples).

The core of the “empire effect” claim is that empires provide global order which we can consider as a public good. A colorful image would be the British Navy roaming the seas in the 19th century which meant increased protection for trade. This is why it is a parent of the state capacity argument in the sense that the latter concept refers (broadly) to the ability of a state to administer the realm within its boundaries. The empire effect is merely the extension of these boundaries.

I still have reservations about the nuances/limitations of state capacity as an argument to explain economic growth. After all, the true question is not how states consolidate, but how they create constraints on rulers to not abuse the consolidated powers (which in turn generates room for growth). But, it is easy to heavily question its parent: the empire effect.

This is what I am trying to do in a recent paper on the effects of empire on shipping productivity between 1760 and 1860.

Shipping is one of the industry that is most likely to be affected by large empires – positively or negatively. Indeed, the argument for empire effects is that they protect trade. As such, the British navy in the 19th century protected trade and probably helped the shipping industry become more productive. But, achieving empire comes at a cost. For example, the British navy needed to grow very large in size and it had to employ inputs from the private sector thus crowding-it out. In a way, if a security effect from empire emerged as a benefit, there must have been a cost. The cost we wish to highlight is the crowding-out one.

In the paper (written with Jari Eloranta of Appalachian State University and Vadim Kufenko of University of Hohenheim), I argue that, using the productivity of the Canadian shipping industry which was protected by the British Navy, the security effect from a large navy was smaller than the crowding-out from high-levels of expenditures on the navy.

While it is still a working paper which we are trying to expand and improve, our point is that what allowed the productivity of the Canadian shipping industry (which was protected by Britain) to soar was that the British Navy grew smaller in absolute terms. While the growth of the relative strength of the British Navy did bolster productivity in some of our tests, the fact that the navy was much smaller was the “thing in the mix that did the trick”.  In other words, the empire effect is just the effect of a ramping-down in military being presented as something else than it truly is (at least partly).

That’s our core point. We are still trying to improve it and (as such) comments are welcomed.

Ten best papers/books in economic history of the last decades (part 1)

In my post on French economic history last week,  I claimed that Robert Allen’s 2001 paper in Explorations in Economic History was one of the ten most important papers of the last twenty-five years. In reaction, economic historian Benjamin Guilbert asked me “what are the other nine”?

As I started thinking about the best articles, I realized that such a list is highly subjective to my field of research (historical demography, industrial revolution, great divergence debate, colonial institutions, pre-industrial Canada, living standards measurement) or some of my personal interests (slavery and the great depression). So, I will propose a list of ten papers/works that need to be read (in my opinion) by anyone interested in economic history. I will divide this post in two parts, one will be published today, the other will come out tomorrow.

  • Higgs, Robert. “Wartime Prosperity? A Reassessment of the US Economy in the 1940s.” Journal of Economic History 52, no. 01 (1992): 41-60.

Higgs’s article (since republished and expanded in a book and in follow-ups like this Independent Review article) is not only an important reconsideration of the issue of World War II as a causal factor in ending the Great Depression, it is also an efficient primer into national accounting. In essence, Higgs argues that the war never boosted the economy. Like Vedder and Gallaway, he argues that deflators are unreliable as a result of price controls. However, he extends that argument to the issue of measuring GDP. In wartime, ressources are directed, not allocated by exchange. Since GDP is a measure of value added in exchanges, the wartime direction of resources does not tell us anything about real production. It tells us only something about the government values. As a result, Higgs follows the propositions of Simon Kuznets to measure the “peacetime concept” of GDP and finds that the prosperity is overblown. There have been a few scholars who expanded on Higgs (notably here), but the issues underlined by Higgs could very well apply to many other topics.  Every year, I read this paper at least once. Each time, I discover a pearl that allows me to expand my research on other topics.

  • Allen, Robert C. The British industrial revolution in global perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

I know I said that Allen’s article in Explorations was one of the best, but Allen produces a lot of fascinating stuff. All of it is generally a different component of a “macro” history. That’s why I recommend going to the book (and then go to the article depending on what you need). The three things that influenced me considerably in my own work were a) the use of welfare ratios, b) the measurement of agricultural productivity and c) the HWE argument. I have spent some time on items A and C (here and here). However, B) is an important topic. Allen measured agricultural productivity in England using population levels, prices and wages to proxy consumption in a demand model and extract output from there (see his 2000 EREH paper here). As a result, Allen managed to compare agricultural productivity over time and space. This was a great innovation and it is a tool that I am looking to important for other countries – notably Canada and the US. His model gives us the long-term evolution of productivity with some frequency. In combination with a conjonctural estimate of growth and incomes or an output-based model, this would allow the reconstruction (if the series match) of a more-or-less high frequency dataset of GDP (from the perspective of an economic historian, annual GDP going back into the 17th century is high-frequency). Anyone interested in doing the “dirty work” of collecting data, this is the way to go.

  • Broadberry, Stephen, Bruce MS Campbell, Alexander Klein, Mark Overton, and Bas Van Leeuwen. British economic growth, 1270–1870. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

On this one, I am pretty biased. This is because Broadberry (one of the authors) was my dissertation supervisor (and a pretty great one to boot). Nonetheless, Broadberry et al. work greatly influenced my Cornucopian outlook on the world. Early in my intellectual development, I was introduced to Julian Simon’s work (see the best of his work here and here and Ester Boserup whose argument is similar but more complex) on environmental trends. While Simon has generally been depicted as arguing against declining environmental indicators, his viewpoint was much broader. In essence, his argument was the counter-argument to the Malthusian worldview. Basically, Malthusian pressures caused by large populations which push us further down the curve of marginally declining returns have their countereffects. Indeed, more people means more ideas and ideas are non-rival inputs (i.e. teaching you to fish won’t make me unlearn how to fish). In essence, rising populations are no problems (under given conditions) since they can generate a Schumpeterian countereffect (more ideas) and a Smithian countereffect (size of market offsets). In their work, Broadberry et al. basically confirm a view cemented over the last few decades that England had escaped the Malthusian trap before the Industrial Revolution (see Crafts and Mills here and Nicolinni here). They did that by recreating the GDP of Britain from 1270 to 1870. They found that GDP per capita increased while population increased steadily which is a strong piece of evidence. In their book, Broadberry et al. actually discuss this implication and they formulate the Smithian countereffect as a strong force that did offset the Malthusian pressures. Broadberry and al. should stand in everyone’s library as the best guidebook in recreating long-term historical series in order to answer the “big questions” (they also contribute to the Industrious Revolution argument among many other things).

  • Chilosi, David, Tommy E. Murphy, Roman Studer, and A. Coşkun Tunçer. “Europe’s many integrations: Geography and grain markets, 1620–1913.” Explorations in Economic History 50, no. 1 (2013): 46-68.

Although it isn’t tremendously cited yet, this is one of the best article I have read (and which is also recounted in Roman Studer’s Great Divergence Reconsidered). This is because the paper is one of the first to care about market integration on a “local” scale. Most studies of market integration consider long-distance trade for grains and they generally start with the late 19th century which is known as the first wave of globalisation. However, from an economic historian perspective, this is basically studying things once the ball had already started rolling.  Market integration is particularly interesting because it is related to demographic outcomes. Isolated markets are vulnerable to supply shocks. However, with trade it is possible to minimize shocks by “pooling” resources. If village A has a crop failure, prices will rise inciting village B where there was an abundant crop to sell wheat to village A. In the end, prices in village A will drop (causing fewer deaths from starvation) and increase in village B. This means that prices move in a smoother fashion because there are no localized shocks (see the work of my friend Pierre Desrochers who argues that small local markets were associated for most of history with high mortality risks). In their work, Chilosi et al. decide to consider the integration of markets between villages A and B rather than between country A and B. Basically, what they wonder is when geographically close areas became more integrated (i.e. when did Paris and Bordeaux become part of the same national market?). They found that most of Europe tended to be a series of small regions that were more or less disconnected from one another. However, over time, these regions started to expand and integrate so that prices started moving more harmoniously. This is an important development that took place well before the late 19th century. In a way, the ball of market integration started rolling in the 17th century. Put differently, before globalization, there was regionalization. The next step to expand on that paper would be to find demographic data for one of the areas documented by Chilosi et al. and see if increased integration caused declines in mortality as markets started operating more harmoniously.

  • Olmstead, Alan L., and Paul W. Rhode. Creating Abundance. Cambridge Books (2008).

This book has influenced me tremendously. Olmstead and Rhode contribute to many literatures simultaneously. First of all, they show that most of the increased in cotton productivity in the United States during the antebellum era came from crop improvements. Secondly, they show that these improvements occured with very lax patents systems. Thirdly, they show how crucial biological innovations were in determining agricultural productivity in the United States (see their paper on wheat here and their paper on induced innovation). On top of being simply a fascinating way of doing agricultural history (by the way, most economic history before 1900 will generally tend to be closely related to agricultural history), it forces many other scholars to reflect on their own work. For example, the rising cotton productivity explains the rising output of slavery in the antebellum south. Thus, there is no need to rely on some on the fanciful claims that slaveowners became more efficient at whipping cotton out of slaves (*cough* Ed Baptist *cough*). They also show that Boldrine and Levine are broadly correct in stating that most types of technological innovations do not require extreme patents like those we know today (and which are designed to restrict competition rather than promote competition). In fact, their work on biological innovations have pretty much started a small revolution in that regard (see one interesting example here in French). Finally, they also invalidated (convincingly in my opinion) the induced innovation model that generally argued that technologies are developped merely to ease scarcities of factors. While theoretically plausible, this simplified model did not fit many features of American economic history. Their story of biological innovations is an efficient remplacement.

Why Rising Prices May Indicate Abundance

I am currently writing a piece with Pierre Desrochers (University of Toronto at Mississauga) regarding environmental trends and economic theory for the conference of the Association for Private Economic Education (see here). In the process of writing up the first draft of the article, I had to revisit another article I wrote (with Desrochers) and I found a passage which now offers me a greater value than when I initially wrote it. In that piece, me and Desrochers basically argued that rising prices for certain environmental goods may not always indicate rising scarcity. In fact, we argued that prices could increase even if a resource grew in abundance.  Here is the passage from our article currently undergoing revise and resubmit:

Thirdly, technological innovations that increase productivity might drive up the price of a commodity without this truly reflecting the scarcity of the resource. Whale oil is a case in point. The decline of the whaling industry in the United States began around 1850 at which point real prices began to increase (Bardi 2007). However, economic historians agree that this was not because of resource depletion or overfishing (Davis, Gallman and Hutchins 1988). Brook Kaiser (2013) thus found that the increasing demand for illuminants created pressures on prices, which in turn motivated the development of substitutes like petroleum-derived kerosene. However, whale bone and oil prices did not fall as kerosene production expanded and, in spite of falling demand, prices stayed high and even increased. The answer to this conundrum is opportunity cost as the important surge in American labor productivity was greater than the observed increase in productivity in the whaling industry. This meant that the opportunity cost of using workers, capital and other resources in the whaling industry was great. These workers, capital goods and other resources were progressively reallocated to other industries. In the process, the whaling industry faced higher costs relative to productivity. While marginal players in the whaling industry exited, the supply of inputs to the whaling industry decreased and prices had to be increased [by the remaining firms in order for economy-wide equilibrium to be achieved]. Hence, prices in that situation are not reflective of depletion or expansion of resource stock.