Thursday, May 14, 2009

An Ingenious Plan for Economic Recovery


The University Reforms

I talked to a lot of professors in Grenoble, but not many students, so my impression of the status of the university reform and the strike is incomplete. The general feeling seems to be one of despair. Many had hoped that the reforms would succeed in one way or another, because something needs to be done, but no one is happy with the way things have gone. Many think the government blundered badly. Sarkozy's insulting speech was a disaster: even people relatively well-disposed to giving more power to university presidents found the president's crude criticisms of the professoriate difficult to swallow. An equal number find fault with the many ambiguities in the texts, the lack of details about evaluation procedures, etc. There is a widespread belief that the universities are going to be left to wither, with all serious effort directed to the Grandes Écoles.

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.

Dead in the Water

Martine Aubry's Socialist Party is dead in the water as far as the European elections are concerned. Two polls show the UMP outstripping the PS by more than 5 points. Bernard Kouchner, after initially attempting to pretend he isn't nominally in charge of the government's European policy, was whipped into confessing that he will vote for the UMP (though consistency, for Kouchner as for Emerson, is the hobgoblin of little minds: in '94, as a member of Rocard's ticket, he announced that he was voting for another slate). Meanwhile, the Left is fragmented as always among Greens, the Left Front (Communists plus Mélenchon's French Linke), the NPA (which polls at a realistic 7%, well below the fanciful 40+% likability ratings of Besancenot).

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.

Wolf on Obama's Conservatism

I post this link to Martin Wolf's column on Obama's conservatism. Although this concerns American politics, not French, I think that the implications extend to Europe, and Wolf's conclusion is absolutely essential for policymakers everywhere to understand:

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.

Juppé, A Latter-Day Wilberforce

Alain Juppé is opposed to slavery. And he's not against remembering Bordeaux's part in the slave trade. Does this mean he's become an abject apologizer, a Ségolène of the Right? No:

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.

Sylvie Laurent

One of the best of the talks I heard at Grenoble was Sylvie Laurent's comparison of Marx and Tocqueville on the United States. Sylvie's book, Homérique Amérique, is a must read, and you can consult some of her articles for La Vie des idées here. She will be a W.E.B. DuBois Fellow at Harvard next year.


Alain Caillé, whom I met in Grenoble, is the founder of the Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste en Sciences Sociales (MAUSS) and editor of its review. He has an article in Marianne on Sarkozy's reforms that makes two main points: the reforms, whether of the universities, the hospitals, or the courts, are designed to place decisive executive power in the hands of one person in each key institution, and decisions are to be based on "objective" criteria in keeping with the doctrines of the "new public management."

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.

Home, and the Absurdities of Travel

I am back home, and sick with something I hope (actually am confident ) isn't the swine flu.

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.