Saturday, May 30, 2009
Friday, May 29, 2009
They didn't call Mitterrand Le Florentin for nothing. The humiliating defeat finished off Rocard and delivered the Socialist Party to Jospin--and we know how well that worked out. Bien joué.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
If I were Liz, I'd stay away. Michelle Obama showed that it was possible to put one's arm around the queen with impunity. Thus licensed, Sarko would be likely to give her a shoulder massage, like the one Bush gave Merkel. This would definitely constitute lèse-majesté (or, in this case, lèse-Liz).
Interesting British comment here.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Monday, May 25, 2009
Couldn't help but chuckle over this, from an EU Observer wrap up of the EU-Russia summit. Apparently, prior to the summit, Czech President Vaclav Klaus got quoted as saying that, as a "big, strong and ambitious country," Russia deserved more attention than, say, Estonia and Lithuania. To which, in addition to summoning the Czech ambassador, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves replied:Translation from the Diplospeak: Who you calling a twerp, twerp?
I am surprised that such a regrettable phrase, which divides European countries into important and unimportant ones, were expressed by a Czech.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Saturday, May 23, 2009
How about what we’ve seen recently in France: the self-protective strikes by public sector and other favoured workers, in parallel with the far more self-destructive riots by the “racaille” in the banlieues. The first group are very much an insider class, and boast a string of prime ministerial scalps. The second are marginalised socially and geographically, with youth unemployment rates at or above one in four.
I’d argue that French labour laws show up in the figures whatever point of the cycle you’re at. Why else would you consistently find France at the top end of the productivity tables? It’s not because they’re worker ants – they’ll proudly tell you that themselves. It’s because French capitialism results in a mix of factors of production that’s comparatively light on labour.In response Quiggin cuffed me with the back of his hand. Its possible that's deserved, for all kinds of reasons, some of them karmic. I don't know if you have a view.
Well, I do have many views, but they don't cohere into a single "position." I agree that the insider-outsider problem has persistently beleaguered France. I'm not sure, however, that countries with more liberal labor markets don't simply disguise the problem: precarious employment exists everywhere, and those who move more fluidly from one short-term service sector job to another in the US acquire an experience profile that makes them unsuitable for anything else. Hence they are soon permanently confined to a range of jobs without a career ladder and with low permanent income prospects. The period out of employment may be lower, but the prospects of advancement, which I would argue are a key to social happiness, are just as bleak as in countries where the dual structure is embedded in laws rather than what Tocqueville might have called "mores," as is the case in the US.
There is also the familiar quarrel over statistics and measurement. America's 2 million incarcerated are not counted among the unemployed. If they were, the youth unemployment figures would swell, though not, admittedly, to French levels.
I agree with Quiggin that labor-market liberalization probably reduces volatility of employment but not necessarily the average level. This, indeed, may turn out to be the leitmotiv of our retrospective reassessment of economic theory in light of the crisis. Volatility not only of employment but also of GDP growth fell with the advent of neoliberalism. The latter phenomenon, known as the Great Moderation, was the focal point of my talk on economic theory and the crisis. Without much argument reduced volatility--following the so-called "smooth growth path"--came to be considered better than uneven growth with its concomitant jagged unemployment curve. This smoothing, largely the result of handing economic management over to central bankers and curtailing the "government business cycle," may have encouraged risk-aversion to dwindle and therefore borrowing to increase to unprecedented levels--with disastrous consequences in the end. If so, smoothing is not a good thing. Volatility--economic fevers, frequent but relatively mild booms and busts--may be better for our economic health than we realized. This is not a position, however; it's an instinct, a gut feeling, that calls for further reflection. I give you my half-baked thought because it's all I have at the moment.
According to the latest data, the unemployment rate in the US was equal to that in the EU-15 in March, and is now likely to be higher. Writing in the NY Times, Floyd Norris refers to the conventional wisdom that flexibility inherent in the American system — it is easier to both hire and fire workers than in many European countries implies that unemployment should be lower (at any given point in the business cycle) in the US than in Europe.
Although this is the conventional wisdom, the research on which it was based (by Lazear and others) has long since been qualified or refuted. I looked at this in the context of the Australian debate about unfair dismissal laws a few years back. Although the early research supported the simple view that more flexibility = more jobs, later research yielded the conclusion that employment protection laws lower the variance of employment and unemployment but have no clear effect on the average levels.
Friday, May 22, 2009
Two years later, we have The Economist featuring a cover in which the French model, essentially unreformed, is depicted as the survivor in the world financial meltdown. Sarkozy has (more or less) enacted his reforms, but the changes seem more incremental than far-reaching. 70 percent approval has turned into 70 percent disapproval (though a recent bounce has reduced this to something closer to 60 percent). France's problems seem to transcend the powers of its government, so that the day-to-day political often seems strangely irrelevant to what's on people's minds. The Socialist Party, whose reconstruction I had expected to be one of the major stories of the past two years, remains pretty much where it was immediately after the defeat: rudderless, divided, and unheard.
Some days it seems almost pointless to write about French politics.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Daniel Cohn-Bendit knows his mythology. He deplores the effect of what he calls the "presidentialization" of French institutions on the European elections, which have become, for some, a "sanction vote" against Sarkozy, for others, a training ground for a future presidential campaign and chance to buff their personal images as présidentiables.
It may well be that the French presidential regime has become "the disease of which it purports to be the cure" (as Karl Kraus said of psychoanalysis). It was intended to substitute order and authority for chaotic party bickering and pettiness, but it has drained the legislative process of substance, turned parties into baskets of crabs seeking to put a piece of the presidency in their pincers, and made it impossible to debate any issue without reference to its bearing on the current presidency and potential to define the race for succession.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
To American eyes, it's almost impossible to imagine how a judicial system functions without the possibility of guilty pleas--and the plea bargaining that goes along with them. Curiously, I have yet to see a discussion of plea bargaining in any of the press articles concerning the committee's recommendation. Plea bargaining is an essential tool of prosecutors. A defendant is allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for cooperation needed to pursue confederates in crime. Surely the French watch enough American TV crime shows to appreciate how the system works--and is sometimes abused.
Commentary by a noted jurist here.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Germany, it seems, had no housing bubble of its own, but German banks partook heavily of credit derivatives built on housing bubbles elsewhere. By contrast, France experienced a fairly substantial increase in housing prices, but its banks, as far as we know to date, were much warier of exotic derivatives. I haven't yet seen any good explanation for the differences in bank behavior. The difference in housing prices is partly a matter of demographics and partly due to the size and composition of the housing stock.
Une des principales raisons du marasme de l'Université française est qu'elle se trouve en situation de concurrence déloyale avec tout le reste du système d'enseignement supérieur (classes préparatoires et de BTS, IUT, écoles de tous types et de tous niveaux), toutes institutions en général mieux dotées per capita et davantage maîtresses du recrutement de leur public.
On touche là à un des non-dits récurrents de toutes les réformes qui se sont succédé en France. Cette situation est d'autant plus délétère que la gestion de l'enseignement supérieur dans son ensemble dépend d'autorités ministérielles et administratives distinctes (l'enseignement secondaire pour les classes préparatoires et les STS, les ministères sectoriels pour les écoles professionnelles diverses), voire échappe à tout contrôle politique. Imagine-t-on un ministère de la santé qui n'ait que la tutelle des hôpitaux publics !
Valérie Pécresse responded to this manifesto yesterday. She made a point of noting "convergences" between the government's position and that of the refondateurs and seemed to indicate that she was prepared for "constructive" dialogue. But consider her response to the point raised above:
L'université, c'est vrai, subit durement la concurrence de filières de formation et d'écoles sélectives. Alors est-ce une faiblesse irrémédiable pour notre service public d'enseignement supérieur ? Je ne le crois pas. C'est notre héritage. A nous de savoir en faire une force. Construire, pour les étudiants, des passerelles entre écoles et universités, permettre aux universités de mettre en place des classes préparatoires en leur sein, développer les cohabilitations de diplômes, créer des écoles doctorales communes : voilà ce que les universités et les écoles sont en train de bâtir, voilà ce que je souhaite et ce que j'encourage.
In the courts this would be called a "nonresponsive" answer. It is a good example, I think, of why the government's interlocutors claim that there is no dialogue while the government insists, or pretends, that there is.
Today, three of the refondateurs reject the notion of "convergence" as a transparent attempt at récupération:
Ces trois universitaires, impliqués dans le mouvement et désireux que le problème de l'université soit posé autrement dans la société, ajoutent que "pour dissiper tout équivoque, comptant parmi les initiateurs de ce manifeste, nous croyons pouvoir dire au minimum qu'il n'aurait pas recueilli 3 500 signatures à ce jour si nos collègues s'étaient aperçus de telles convergences
Monday, May 18, 2009
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Friday, May 15, 2009
More here. And on the depressing German plunge, see here.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
One of the most interesting panels in Grenoble featured educational sociologist Christian Baudelot, who presented the results of his study of the PISA surveys comparing educational systems in a range of countries (see his Elitisme républicain, written with Roger Establet). His belief is that the countries that do best do a good job of educating everyone to a decent level of competence. France does well by the best students and very badly by those at the bottom of the distribution. For Baudelot, it is scandalous that the number of students receiving the bac has multiplied 70-fold over the last century while the number of students admitted by Polytechnique has only doubled. There should be a push, he thinks, to expand the Grandes Écoles, but this is strongly resisted by those whose elite status stems from their exclusive educational credentials.
Today's Monde has a petition signed by a number of intellectuals that advocates a sweeping reform of the entire higher educational system.
In short, the PS has receded from its position in the last EU elections and is running behind the UMP. Not an auspicious beginning for Aubry.
The more the crisis unfolds, the more evident it is that incentives in the financial system were (and are) badly distorted. I sympathise with the conservative approach to crises, but not if it leaves in place the plethora of perverse incentives that created them.
S’agit-il, pour nous, de faire repentance ? Je préfère parler de manifestation de la vérité.
Still, one might detect in this speech, which mentions Chirac's role in the commemoration of the uglier parts of France's past, a mild rebuke to Sarkozy. One of those small chinks in the otherwise smooth armor of the Right that is worth mentioning from time to time.
The application of objective evaluation criteria is indeed one of the main sticking points in several of the reform efforts, and it's easy to understand why. Writing a paper, performing surgery, and judging a case are complex activities, and one "intervention" is not the same as another, so simply counting up numbers can be a highly misleading indicator of productivity. Everyone agrees that evaluation is necessary, but who does the evaluation, and how it is performed, should be the real issues. In the French universities, the problem seems to be that trust has broken down completely. The "managers" of the system do not trust academics to do peer review because "mandarins" take care of their own, entrenched local coteries do the same, and the result, in the managers' eyes, is stagnation. The academics do not trust the managers and their "international business consultants," because these outsiders have no understanding of what academics do. Hence the result is stalemate, bitterness, and endless recrimination.
Interestingly, in the session in which Caillé participated in Grenoble, one of the other speakers mentioned a survey that showed that when people are asked if they approve of democracy, some large percentage reply "yes" (I've forgotten the exact number), but when asked if they want "a strong leader who can make things run efficiently and silence petty dissent," they also answer "yes" by a very large majority. So, yes, as Caillé suggests, there may be a Führerprinzip behind the Sarkozy reforms, but such a principle is not necessarily a misinterpretation of the wishes of the majority. Sometimes the will of the majority must be resisted if there is to be a genuinely democratic outcome.
Travel always points up its share of absurdities. For example, there are French ticket machines. To purchase an RER ticket from CDG to Paris, you use a machine. Unlike most such machines in the US, you don't insert your credit card and then withdraw it in one motion. This doesn't work. You have to leave your card in the slot. But nowhere on the machine is this explained. Since most people using the machines have just arrived from some other country, this causes enormous frustration and leads to long lines. Fortunately, on one machine, someone has taped a piece of paper that says to leave the card in the slot. In French. As people decipher this message, the information passes to travelers standing in line at other machines, and gradually the stalled system begins to move again. Until a new generation of line-standers accumulates, and the whole hesitation waltz begins again. This might be taken as a metaphor for France. Some economist ought to propose a model. The paper could be called "Information Bottlenecks, Wasted Time, and Economic Stagnation."
At a borne électronique in an SNCF station, you can withdraw reserved tickets by entering a reservation number. The machine gives you the choice of withdrawing either the aller or the retour of a round-trip reservation, or both. Being a clever sort, I thought, Why withdraw both, I may want to change the return ticket and anyway I might lose it. But when I later went to pick up my return ticket, it turned out that taking only the aller meant that I could no longer get the retour from the machine. I had to stand in line for a guichet. When I finally reached an agent, I explained what happened, and he gave me that look that people at ticket windows reserve for the benighted and dull-witted: Ah, monsieur, ça risque de vous coûter cher. But he was just having me on. A few button presses and he had my ticket. I asked why, if there was a problem with taking only one ticket, the machine gave me that option. His answer: "Why, monsieur, these are very bad machines, the government didn't pay much for the software." This struck me as the sort of answer Tocqueville would have loved. Here was a cog in the bureaucratic machine who knew that a problem existed in the system but did nothing about it, preferring to blame that vague but ominpotent tyrant, "the government." So who knows how many agents in how many stations spend how many hours rectifying an error that could be changed by a simple modification of the software, if only there were some way to get the bureaucratic machine engaged. (Or perhaps the window agents are protecting their jobs; if the machines worked, fewer of them would be needed. Le Phénomène bureaucratique indeed.)
Last but not least, there are machines that take credit cards but don't have any indication of which way they should be inserted. At a place like the Louvre, where dozens of people line up at every machine, this simple oversight wastes countless hours. Of course it's better than the RER station at the Luxembourg, where the machines accept some credit cards but not others, with no explanation at all of why the cards are "non lue." Since there are four possible ways to insert the card, and the entire menu has to be repeated for each insertion -- well, you get the picture ... And of course the ticket window is under construction, and there is no sign to tell you that there is a temporary window across the street, by the Jardin.
But lest I be accused of French-bashing, the US takes the cake for bureaucratic absurdity: a new card for visitors without US passports asks the following question: "Are you a terrorist, or are you engaged in espionage against the United States?" I feel quite protected knowing that all foreigners who enter the US have answered these questions in the negative.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
For Marianne's take, go here.
Monday, May 11, 2009
Sunday, May 10, 2009
One other point: Tocqueville was struck, when he visited America, by the invisibility of the state, which in the France of his day was omnipresent in daily life. It still is. The colloquium took place in Grenoble's MC2, a vast cultural complex built with state funds (distributed through the region, I believe). There was also a reception in the splendid Musée de Grenoble, another state project, at which the mayor and a regional councillor spoke. We traveled to and from the hotel in the very efficient and modern tramway built by the city, and of course between Paris and Grenoble on the state-run railroad. Perhaps the public was passionate about a colloquium on democracy because the evidence of the state's activity is so clear.
The cover of the latest Economist depicts the French model as the current champion of Europe, though the article inside predicts that it won't last long. It's one of the magazine's more jaundiced and predictable pieces, but you might read it if you're in the mood for a bit of British conservative cheek.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Walking past the Sorbonne yesterday, I saw a handful of strikers gathered around a leader with a megaphone. Unfortunately, he hadn't switched the megaphone on, so I couldn't hear what he was saying, despite being only a few feet away. Pécresse, on the other hand, seemed inflamed with rage--though perhaps she was only mugging for the TV cameras in the chamber. Time, perhaps, for Sarko to step in and calm things down--though of course it was he who poured oil on the university fires several months ago with his insulting speech. But he has shown a knack for tactical retreat in the past, and this might be a good time to try another flanking maneuver.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
I learned about this from an interesting new news Web site call Boulevard Extérieur, which was founded by, among others, former Le Monde journalist Daniel Vernet. Registration is free.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Monday, May 4, 2009
The question is what common ground the two parties might find to stand on beyond their detestation of Sarkozy. Of course fundamental disagreements didn't prevent the Common Program from coming into being in 1977, and Le Figaro expressly looks back to Mitterrand's tactical maneuvering as an example. But François Bayrou is no Mitterrand. Nor is Ségolène Royal.
I frankly think the whole idea is far-fetched, although I wouldn't rule out the possibility that Bayrou could make it to round 2 in 2012 if the left remains in its current state of disarray. But voting for Bayrou as a fallback is a very different matter from committing one's fate to Bayrou as a strategic maneuver. Indeed, one might suspect Le Figaro of making its wish the father to its thought, because if the Socialists were to resign themselves to Bayrou as the sole viable candidate, they would essentially be giving up all hope of defining themselves as a party.
And here is Libé's version of the same idea. With this rather mind-boggling description of Bayrou:
De même Bayrou, solitaire, improbable, centriste reconverti dans l’insolence, ancien bègue maniant le verbe comme une épée, sorte de Démosthène des campagnes, est un franc-tireur qui a coupé les ponts avec l’establishment. Il pourrait devenir l’ennemi principal de l’Elysée en 2012. Il plaît surtout à gauche : notre sondage Libération-Viavoice (1) montre que les deux tiers de l’électorat du PS souhaitent un rapprochement avec le Modem. «Il veut prendre notre place», gémit le PS. Raison de plus pour se rapprocher de ses électeurs, idiot !
Does Joffrin really believe what he writes, or is he trying to persuade himself?
Saturday, May 2, 2009
The causal reasoning doesn't seem quite up to the label "historic," either. If the ras-le-bol goes no deeper than this, there's a good deal more gruel to be scraped before the bowl is truly empty. Perhaps now talk of a general strike will abate.
Friday, May 1, 2009
Meanwhile, in the US, Chrysler went bankrupt on Mayday eve, and the union, the much-maligned UAW, is now, in the person of its pension fund, among the directors of the company. Ironically, this turning of the tables pits retired workers against active workers. To turn the company around, the retirees on the board must draw upon the standard bag of tricks of creative destroyers everywhere: they will need to shed jobs, cut costs, eliminate product lines, close plants, downsize.
So French unions march for a boost to the "purchasing power" of workers, citing the consumption stimulus in the US as an example of what ought to be done, and Ségo marches shoulder-to-shoulder with beleaguered auto subcontract workers at Heuliez. Meanwhile, in the US, auto workers may not be taking much encouragement from any temporary stimulus to their purchasing power as their futures turn bleak before their eyes, and the union itself has become the capitalist ogre--for it must now, literally, devour its own children.
This may be the bleakest May Day in living memory, but in France the festive banners and lusty denunciations of the hyperpresident put all that out of mind for a bit, while in the US the loudest howls are coming from Chrysler's bondholders, and the mood among workers is too grim for parades. A May Day parade of Wall Street bond traders denouncing President Obama for "politicizing" the markets -- now there would be an interesting visual for the French TV news this evening. Something to talk about other than Sarkozy.