Sunday, February 24, 2008

Intellectual Fraud: The McNamara Syndrome

Bertrand Dautzenberg, a lung specialist, reported to health minister Roselyne Bachelot that in the month and a half since the ban on smoking in public places went into effect, emergency admissions for heart attacks have dropped fifteen percent. The reporting of this fact--if it is a fact--is meant to induce readers to make an inference against which students of Statistics 101 are cautioned on the first day of class: correlation is not causation. Newspapers should be ashamed of publishing this story. Dr. Dautzenberg should be ashamed of submitting such a report. Mme Bachelot should be ashamed of commissioning it.

The only worthwhile reporting I've seen on this can be found here, on the blog Blogizmo, which mentions a few of the confounding factors one might want to take into account. I realize that ministers will probably be evaluated soon after the upcoming municipal elections, but is Bachelot really so desperate to put a number on the record that she would resort to a subterfuge of this sort? One problem with evaluating ministers by means of quantifiable metrics is that it encourages this kind of blatant nonsense. Believe me: having served as an unwilling conscript in the U. S. military in the McNamara era, when quantified evaluation was all the rage, I can tell you many stories of the bizarre deceptions and misrepresentations to which it can give rise ("body counts" were only the most notorious). This report is the first evidence that the French government will not be exempt from the McNamara Syndrome.

Circumventing the Constitutional Council

I've said my piece on the merits of the security retention proposal, on which the Constitutional Council has just ruled. Although the CC in essence approved the Dati law, which allows repeat offenders deemed under specified procedures "unrehabilitated and incurable" to be held beyond the expiration of their legal sentences, it refused to allow retroactive application to offenders convicted before the law was passed. Sarkozy wants to circumvent this ruling by appealing to the Cour de Cassation. Critics say that this maneuver is not allowed by the Constitution.

I am not by any means an expert in French constitutional law, but the appeal does seem to contradict the popular (though perhaps erroneous) notion that the CC plays a role analogous to that of supreme constitutional courts in other countries. It will be interesting, in any case, to see how this institutional ambiguity is resolved. I recall the somewhat ominous words of Carl Schmitt: "The sovereign is he who decides on the exception." Sarkozy, by raising the specter of an impending emergency if currently held dangerous offenders are released, is bidding to make himself the Schmittian sovereign. In a democracy, of course, the people are supposed to be sovereign, but since the voice of the people is always open to interpretation, and since the people speak at any given moment with the many tongues defined by the existing institutional structure, it remains to be seen who in this case will speak the loudest, and which proxy for the people will prevail.

Of course, in fairness to Sarkozy, it should be said that there is something disturbingly inconsistent in the ruling of the Constitutional Council. Once the principle of security retention is admitted on the grounds that some repeat offenders are too dangerous to release back into the population, and that this dangerousness can be ascertained objectively by competent authorities, then it is hard to understand why the ex post facto determination should become an obstacle to enforcement. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the CC is motivated mainly by the wish to save appearances, to establish itself as an independent entity rather than a rubber stamp for the executive, but unwilling to articulate a principled ground for its mild and very partial dissent. It has conceded the major point but quibbled about a minor one. Its decision is hardly a monument of constitutional jurisprudence.

A real dissent could have been built around the Badinter position: that punishment is reserved for acts, not conditions, and that confinement for a condition is an invitation to tyranny. But the CC was not willing to go that far. My feeling is that it was right not to do so but that the distinction it invokes utterly fails to draw the kind of bright line between permissible and impermissible confinement necessary to meet the concerns properly though hyperbolically raised by Badinter. To do that would have required some examination of the actual procedures envisioned for evaluation of the "dangerousness" of prisoners. If the CC had imposed procedural safeguards not currently required by the Dati law, it might have served a positive purpose with its dissent, but perhaps it lacked, or thought it lacked, the power to do so. Since the CC has so little history, however, it is still in the process of staking out its territory. The powers of the US Supreme Court were not only given in the Constitution; they were also won in combative practice. But Jean-Louis Debré is no John Marshall, and Jacques Chirac is not Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

More on the Salon de l'Agriculture

No, I'm not going to talk about the incident; commenters to yesterday's post have already done that. What is there to say? Sarko was rude to a rude heckler. We already knew that he is blunt, confrontational, and crude. He didn't hide his goujaterie before the election; voters elected him anyway. He has four more years in office. Get used to it.

Instead, I want to talk about the Common Agricultural Policy. Sarko wants to reform it. He has said so before, as I discussed in posts on Sept. 12 and Oct. 11 of 2007. I said at the time that the contours of any reform proposal remained vague and that France and the European Commission and EU partners did not appear to see eye to eye. These statements remain true, despite the passage of many months. Sarkozy added no detail at all to his express desire for a "complete reworking" of the CAP. Indeed, he may be setting the stage for a repeat of the disappointment he provoked with his failure to make good on a promise to increase purchasing power.

The two failures are not unrelated. What has changed since September is a sharp spike in inflation, and in food prices in particular. The rise in food prices is believed to be structural, as worldwide demand for food rises faster than global supply. Logically, this should mean greater pressure to reduce EU subsidies and to reduce prices through intensified competition. Sarkozy has said that he favors reduced subsidies and that French farmers agree with him, but at the same time he promises to resist any attempt to diminish or eliminate the "EU preference" in an effort to increase competition among suppliers. Yet he does want to intensify competition in the retail sector in order to lower prices to the consumer, and this could put additional pressure on farmers. To date he has given no clue to how he intends to resolve these tensions and continues to speak in wholly "voluntarist" terms about the coming French presidency of the European Commission, as if assuming that role will give him carte blanche to reform the CAP in line with whatever he decides the interests of French farmers are (he said not a word about the interests of other farmers or of the disproportionate share of EU farm subsidies that goes to France). This is clearly another case of promising too much in appearance while promising nothing at all concrete in reality. He is raising expectations beyond what he can deliver, ignoring the need to compromise with partners, and emphasizing the powers of the executive (in this case at the EU level) to the exclusion of the rest.

Has he failed to learn from past mistakes? It's too soon to tell, but the signs are worrisome. For an expert view of the CAP, this blog is useful. For instance, note the startling figure in this post (pertaining to UK only, I believe?).