Thursday, June 7, 2007

"Seriously"


Nicolas Sarkozy takes credit for persuading George Bush to agree to the insertion of the word seriously in the following sentence from the G8 joint communiqué:

"In setting a global goal for emissions reductions in the process we have agreed today involving all major emitters, we will consider seriously the decisions made by the European Union, Canada and Japan which include at least a halving of global emissions by 2050."
Angela Merkel reportedly thanked "Nicolas" for his "energy." Presumably it took a great deal of it to persuade George Bush, who had gone into the meeting refusing all quantitative goals, to accept the mention of a number, even if it is a suspiciously round number and projected four decades into the future. So the G8 will consider seriously decisions already taken by the European Union, Canada, and Japan. Which major greenhouse gas emitter and G8 member nation is omitted from this list? Isn't this rather like a drunkard saying that he will consider seriously his own resolution never to take another drink? Well, I suppose George Bush took that pledge seriously, so maybe he'll do as well with this one. A marvel of diplomacy, M. Sarkozy, given what you had to work with, but I don't think your reputation as a statesman is yet assured.

New Web Site of Interest

A promising new Web site for students of French politics:

From the editors' statement of goals:

Vox aims to enrich the economic policy debate in Europe and beyond. On the supply side, Vox makes it easier for serious researchers to contribute. On the demand side, Vox makes the knowledge of researchers more accessible to the public.

"A Consenting Attitude"


How to read Ségolène Royal's convoluted declaration of her ambition to take over the Socialist Party? Of her companion François Hollande's stated wish to remain as secretary general until the next party congress in 2008 and to lead the "renovation" of the party, she said: "C'est sa décision, je m'adapte dans une attitude consentante." I'm a translator, but I'm not sure how I'd tease out the nuances in that puzzling formulation. No doubt it's his promised exit from the stage that elicits her "consenting attitude," while the sluggishness of his going seems to be what requires "adaptation" on the part of the once and future candidate: "If he had resigned, I would have been a candidate" to succeed him, she added.

But I must remember this formula for future domestic use: "Je m'adapte, chérie, mais dans une attitude consentante." In ambiguity there is power.

Incidentally, Ségo may be in the process of acquiring a new inner circle of advisors: she met yesterday with François Rebsamen, former co-manager of her campaign; David Assouline, a Socialist senator from Paris (and historian of immigration); and Thomas Piketty, the well-known economist, who supported her before the election (and resigned from a position he had only recently accepted as head of the Ecole d'Economie de Paris at about the same time).

Human Rights and Watchdogs


Les chiens de garde (The Watchdogs) was the title of a pamphlet by Paul Nizan (1905-1940), friend of the young Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron, novelist, traveler, and Communist militant. The "watchdogs" of the title were academics who, in Nizan's eyes, guarded the temples of the Establishment (including his teachers Henri Bergson and Léon Brunschvicg).

Times have changed. The European Court of Human Rights has just issued a decision condemning the French government for violating freedom of expression in its conviction of two journalists who availed themselves of secret court documents in writing an exposé of an extensive program of wiretapping and surveillance ordered by President Mitterrand. The word "watchdogs" appears in the decision, but the metaphor now signifies the press, guardians of liberty rather than snarling protectors of the powers-that-be: governments should exercise "the greatest prudence," the court says, when prosecuting journalists who "are participating in a public debate and carrying out their mission as 'watchdogs' of democracy."

Mitterrand's surveillance operation, though justified in the name of "anti-terrorism" (long before 9/11), affected many figures in the public eye, and not only journalists and politicians (e.g., the actress Carole Bouquet).

Heures sup


"Work more to earn more": this slogan was a centerpiece of Sarkozy's campaign. The idea was simple: if French unemployment was high, if French economic growth was lagging, the solution was to work harder. Although the debate on this issue may at times have sounded like economics, its real thrust was moral. In their inner ear the French heard a parental and professorial voice admonishing them: "Encore un effort!" And took it to heart.

The economics of the matter is somewhat less straightforward. As I noted the other day, French hourly productivity is a point or two higher than that of the US, but productivity per worker is more than ten points lower. French technology has maintained its competitivity (for otherwise hourly productivity would not be so high), but perhaps--so the argument went--what Keynes called the "animal spirits" of the French had lost a little of the old ferocity. Had les acquis sociaux--the 35-hour week and the 5-week annual vacation--made them soft? No one was prepared to give up these boons, and no candidate dared to propose such a thing, yet a nagging guilt remained. Maybe we aren't working hard enough, the French said to themselves. And Sarkozy capitalized on that guilt.

Now the government has prepared its fortifying potion. In order to encourage the French to work additional hours--heures supplémentaires, as they are called, above the mandated 35 hours per week for full-time employment--and, equally important, in order to encourage employers to ask them to, it is proposing to eliminate taxes and charges on the additional hours worked. The charges (essentially the Generalized Social Contribution, or CSG, and the Contribution to the Reimbursement of the Social Debt, or CRDS) amount to 8 percent of wages. Since these are paid by the employer, eliminating them is an incentive to employers to ask for additional hours of work. The income tax is paid by the worker, so eliminating it is presumably an incentive to work more.

No one can really predict what the effects of these measures will be. The other day I mentioned some of the perverse effects that may come into play. Beyond that, economic models are in some ways hopelessly naive. The poor economist, faced with devising a measure of the "disutility of labor" (wonderful phrase, that!), ultimately finds herself reduced to choosing some function of the wage level, as if the animal spirits were all mercenary, as if the desire for an extra day of freedom a week or a summer away from work could be suppressed by administration of the proper pecuniary inducement. But lest I forfeit my credentials as a political analyst with such woolly thoughts, it's probably worth mentioning that the men with the green eye-shades and calculators aren't convinced either: a Figaro article on the subject bears the subhead, "Employers disappointed and judge the proposal to be 'scarcely an incentive.'" So said the CGPME, representing smaller employers, while the MEDEF is said to be dubious and awaiting further details.

But will the details matter in the end? Sarkozy could well be the beneficiary of an enormous stroke of luck. He comes into office at a time when growth appears to have resumed in both France and Germany. Unemployment is already down, and the European Central Bank, anticipating still stronger growth, yesterday raised interest rates to tamp down inflationary expectations. The relatively modest measure with respect to heures sup--though not cheap despite its modesty, since estimates are that it will cost the treasury between 3 and 6 billion euros--may turn out to have been unnecessary. But its ideological purpose will have been fulfilled even if its economic rationale proves nugatory.