Tuesday, October 9, 2007

What France Lacks

Having beaten the All Blacks at rugby this weekend, the French now have another--and far more significant if far less publicized--occasion for pride in the award of this year's Nobel Prize for Physics to Albert Fert (of Université de Paris-Sud/Orsay) and Peter Grünberg of Germany for their work on giant magnetoresistance. Now, I could bore you for some time on this subject, because quantum physics was once upon a time a passion of mine, but suffice it to say that GMR is employed in the small hard drive you'll find in your laptop, so it was a discovery that moved quickly out of the laboratory and into the factory. Unfortunately for France, that move took place not in French R&D facilities but in IBM's laboratories in the United States. France remains on the cutting edge of physics and other sciences, but it lacks the intermediaries needed to bridge the gap between the blackboard and the shop floor. The United States, which fosters close relationships between university labs and industrial research facilities, is often first to exploit technologies explicated by physicists in other countries.

The discovery of GMR was actually the initiating event in a whole new range of technologies known as "spintronics," because they exploit the quantum property of the electron known as "spin" rather than the property "charge," which is the subject of ordinary electronics. At Boston University, across the river from me, there is now an entire laboratory devoted to spintronics, whose industrial applications are burgeoning. Government-sponsored labs such as Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory are also involved in moving discoveries out of the universities and into production.

France needs to invest much more in this kind of R&D. A recent paper by Philippe Aghion et al. makes this point forcefully. How much of France's lag in this regard is due to cultural bias--a disdain for the practical in favor of the theoretical, an aversion to lucrative exploitation of "pure" products of mind--is a question that can be debated.

High-Level Debate

I was first drawn to the study of French politics because I thought, in the naïveté of youth, that political debate in France was more intelligent than political debate in the United States. Have I changed, has France changed, or both? Bernard-Henri Lévy and Henri Guaino have taken French debate to new depths, with Lévy characterizing Guaino as a "racist" and Guaino returning the favor by calling Lévy "a pretentious little jerk."

But Lévy, who refers to the left as a "corpse" in the title of his new book, saves some of his sallies for the dead horse he seems intent on flogging, and from whose stinking cadaver he cannot tear himself away, not even in response to the blandishments of his "good friend Nicolas." He accuses Jean-Pierre Chevènement, who, like BHL himself, advised the Royal campaign, of being a "Maurrassian" like Guaino and of "unloading bad dope" on the candidate, "la mauvaise came" being the writer's ingenious metaphor for the French flag, the disciplinary battalions, and the singing of La Marseillaise. Is the suggestion of the metaphor that symbols of patriotism and discipline are addictive? That they act on the autonomic nervous system or the reptilian brain? Or that in overdose they are lethal?

Stock Options

The idea of rescinding the tax break on portions of salary paid in stock options seems to be gaining ground. Eric Woerth, minister of the budget, is the latest to sign on. Oddly enough, the tax break was introduced by the Socialists when Jospin was prime minister. At the time, they wanted to "encourage growth" and prove that they were not hostile to business. The closing of the loophole was first proposed by Philippe Séguin of the UMP, now head of the Cour des Comptes. Evidently it now suits the UMP, which has no need to prove its friendliness to business, to show that it is serious about reducing the deficit (the measure is supposed to bring in 3 billion euros annually). Its usefulness as an incentive to growth has either been disproved or forgotten.

It's curious how weightless these interventions in the economy can sometimes seem. I'm reminded of the late Sen. Everett Dirksen (pictured left), who is famous for having said, "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money."