Thursday, April 10, 2008

China Doll

That nude portrait of Mme Sarkozy sold for $91,000 to a Chinese art collector. Sarko may decide to boycott the Olympics, but the missus will hold an honored place in China whether he goes or not. A photo of Brigitte Bardot went for twice that sum. De gustibus non est disputandum.

Hat tip to Sarkozy the American.

Est-ce possible ...

... that Ségolène Royal has really named her pre-Congress Web site "CongrèsUtileEtSerein.com -- Consultation Participative"? Useful and serene? Really? And is there any kind of "consultation" that is not "participatory"? Telepathic, perhaps?

In case you need prodding, ten useful questions are provided for your serene contemplation. For instance:

Question 1: Il faut sortir du fossé entre un discours pseudo révolutionnaire dans l'opposition et un conformisme économique au pouvoir : de quelle façon ?

No answer has yet been proposed. I wait with bated breath. At least we are told whom to blame:

Ségolène Royal, François Rebsamen, Vincent Peillon, Jean Louis Bianco, Manuel Valls, Gilles Pargneaux, Delphine Batho, David Assouline, Guillaume Garot, Aurélie Fillipetti, Michel Sapin, Jean-Pierre Mignard, Jean-Jack Queyranne, Jacques Auxiette, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, Pascal Terrasse, Dominique Bertinotti, Michèle Delaunay, Jean Guerard, Gilles Savary, Pierre-Yves Le Borgn, Jean Burneleau, Françoise Billy, Jacqueline Dahlem, Régine Lange

Convergence

What newly elected leader chose to enact the following program:
1. Reduction of the wealth tax
2. Reduction of the inheritance tax
3. Reduction of payroll charges to firms
4. Tax credits for housing

Why, it sounds so much like Sarkozy's TEPA (minus the detaxation of overtime) that it has to be a right-wing government, right? Wrong. It's Zapatero's Socialist government in Spain. Here we have evidence in favor of a hypothesis that lies behind many of the posts I've made on this blog: that the constraints on European governments are such that there is little room for maneuver in economic policy-making. Differences between right and left henceforth lie in the details, not in the fundamental conception of economic policy. Thus Zapatero offers an increase in the minimum wage as a sweetener and emphasizes education, R&D, infrastructure investment, and increased service sector competition.

A Word on the GMO Mess

I should add, regarding the vote on the GMO bill and Monsanto 810, that, unlike some commenters, I am not at all sure what the "right" vote was. I deplore the way Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet was treated by her party, but whether she handled the floor debate well or not I don't know enough to say. What I do know is that she was in an impossible position. The UMP is divided on the issue. There are the "productivists," including many farmers, who believe that in the absence of compelling evidence of harmfulness anything that increases productivity and competitiveness is good; and there are the so-called "blue ecologists" (of whom NKM is one) who adhere to a broad interpretation of the "precautionary principle," which holds that the burden of proof falls on those who claim the innovation is innocuous. Finally, there are also the politiques, who want to thread the needle between the two positions and get Bové off their backs without alienating the solid support of farmers' organizations. A lot of deputies, and Borloo, le ministre de tutelle, preferred to avoid taking a firm stand, and so do I, because I haven't done my homework and what I have done tells me that I'm not going to be able to resolve the issue without a lot of effort, and perhaps not even then. So rather than cede to either the enragés or the illuminés, and rather than cast my lot with the cynical politiques, I content myself with defending the damsel in distress. I thus throw my hat into the ring in the concours de lâcheté that Kosciusko-Morizet denounced, but at least I hope I haven't been inélégant.

Action Center Court

Several notes have leaked recently from the Élysée to suggest that Sarkozy is uncommonly obsessed with the political destruction of François Bayrou, a man who, if you were to count up votes commanded, seats held, and local and regional governments controlled, would seem to pose no threat to him whatsoever. So why the fixation?

To be sure, there may well be an element of personal retribution. Bayrou made no secret of his visceral hostility to Sarkozy during the campaign, and it's only to be expected that Sarko would want revenge.

But there is also political calculation. The action in French politics has moved to center court. Sarko's strategy has shattered the FN and absorbed its electorate, at least in national elections. (The inability to mobilize this same electorate for the municipals may have contributed to the UMP's lackluster showing, but presidential politics is different). What he has to worry about now is holding on to his centrist contingent. Why should that be a concern?

In various posts over the past few days, I've mentioned the disaffection of the left of the PS, represented by the Fabiusien Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who floated the idea of a split in the party and a reconfiguration of the Left of the Left. This would mirror the emergence of Die Linke in Germany and realignments in the Scandinavian countries as well. But the Socialist left is dominated by the center, which is where the real leadership struggle is taking place.

Meanwhile, the center-left in the person of Strauss-Kahnien Pierre Moscovici has strengthened itself by forging an alliance with Arnaud Montebourg and his friends. If the PS were to split, this could become the nucleus of a new center-center-left party that could draw centrist voters who went to Sarkozy in the second round of the presidentials. If Sarkozy seems unable to push any further with his economic reforms, sentiment in favor of such a reconfiguration could grow. Of course there is also the possibility of movement in the other direction: Jean-Marie Bockel is an example, and now Michel Mercier after Jean Arthuis.

In any case, Sarko wants to head off any possibility that Bayrou might figure in such a realignment. At the same time, by rewarding the ambitions of those who might follow Bayrou, he complicates the task of the center-left in reaching out to the center-right.

If you follow me ... sometimes it seems as though France is back in the good old days of the Fourth Republic, a country with as many political parties as it has cheeses.

FOR MORE, see this interview with Marielle de Sarnez.

"The Ideal of the Pigsty"

As part of the "politics of civilization," President Sarkozy has invited economists Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz to reflect on how society measures what it wishes to achieve with economic policy. If it isn't, or oughtn't to be, to maximize GDP or some such measure, what is it? Those given to the hedonic calculus have always preferred what they like to call "happiness" to anything so vulgarly materialist as money. Happiness is supposed to lie closer to the heart, whereas money, Freud taught, is rather linked to a nether portion of the anatomy.

This proposition has been granted a certain dignity in the economics profession by way of something called "the Easterlin paradox": an economist named Richard Easterlin claims that measures of economic development such as GDP per capita are not correlated with "subjective well-being" or "average levels of happiness." And how is the "average level of happiness" measured? Well, by asking people whether they are happy ("very happy," "happy," "not so happy"). There is something called the World Values Survey, which purports to quantify felicity on a scale of 1 to 5: in a funk, blue, blah, smiling, ecstatic, as it were. The numbers ground out in this way can then be compared to tons of pig iron, imports of flat-screen TVs, and outlays for cruise missiles using such "sophisticated" techniques as ordered logit and heteroskedastic ordered probit. When this is done, Richard Easterlin claims that ecstasy and output don't march in lockstep. But now Profs. Stevenson and Wolfers find otherwise. Hélène Rey doubts the usefulness of such poll-based indices of happiness but nevertheless likes the idea of quantified felicity. Sen and Stiglitz can save themselves the trouble of thinking, Rey suggests; the UN has already solved the problem.

While the practitioners of the dismal science squabble about the true nature of the felicific calculus, it may be worth recalling what a scientist of another stripe had to say about the question of happiness:

"I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves- such an ethical basis I call the ideal of a pigsty…The ideals which have guided my way, and time after time have given me the energy to face life, have been Kindness, Beauty and Truth." -- Albert Einstein

Spanked

The very public humiliation of Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet was difficult to watch. After the discipline came the bondage: she was installed as deputy secretary-general of the UMP, the party whose failure to support her had elicited first her comment that it was run by "cowards" and then the swift response. Worse than the coerced apology from NKM was the gloating afterwards. Fillon could not suppress a smirk when he announced that "l'incident est clos," even as his spokesperson let it be known that the presence of the woman who, in exasperation, had dared to speak her mind was not "souhaitable" on the prime minister's upcoming trip to Japan. Global warming isn't as urgent a matter, it seems, as putting the presumptuous female in her place.

Of Fillon, Pierre Moscovici writes frequently on his blog that, despite the prime minister's mild manner, he is in fact un dur.* I hadn't really seen it until yesterday. But it seems that Fillon was acting on orders from his collaborateur en chef, whose idyll with the Lady of the Woods is evidently over (see the link above for a charming picture of the head of state on horseback in the company of NKM, who seems more comfortable on her steed than Sarko, hunched slightly forward in the saddle as if unable to decide whether he is to emulate a jockey or a cowpuncher).

As for Copé, whom NKM had accused of "inelegance" as well as cowardice, he was glad to tell the press that "one's little heart can bleed, quite simply--that's what happened to me," but all was forgiven now that the lady had come to him "in a calmer mood, equanimity restored, with a little emotion even," to eat humble pie and offer assurances of future submissiveness. What greater proof could he give of his "elegance" and "courage" than to wear his stricken heart on his sleeve?

* For example: "Arrêtons, je ne cesse de le dire, de le croire gentil parce qu’il a l’air sage : c’est un dur, un sectaire, cessons de le sous-estimer."

Or, to vary the formula: "Sarkozy et Fillon sont des faux durs, qui savent faire les gros yeux mais pas vraiment faire respecter l’autorité de l’État."