Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cohen Makes Sense

A very astute comment by Élie Cohen, which puts in perspective Sarkozy's claims to have outwitted the Brits and taken over the EU.

Maurice Allais Pleads for ... Protectionism

"Belief" in the dogma of free trade is sometimes taken as the quintessential credential of the economist--by people in a hurry. Those with more patience for subtleties know that the truth is actually more complicated. But Maurice Allais, France's only Nobel laureate in economics, isn't interested in the subtleties either. He offers a rather Manichean defense of protectionism: there is good free trade (between countries of roughly equal wage levels) and bad free trade (between countries of very different wage levels). And he doesn't even mention the Stolper-Samuelson theorem. Nor is he interested in the new trade theory (of Krugman et al.). Still, there is a likable cantankerousness about his argument of a sort that used to be characteristic of French economics.

As for the dogma itself, I am reminded that Paul Samuelson, who died on Sunday, was once asked by the mathematician Stanislaw Ulam to name one theory in the social sciences that was at once nontrivial and true. It took Samuelson a couple of years to come up with an answer: the theory of comparative advantage. That it was true, he said, is a matter of simple logic; that it is nontrivial follows from the fact that many intelligent people fail to understand it even after it has been patiently explained to them over and over.

About Those Baseball Caps ...

La secrétaire d'Etat chargée de la famille et de la solidarité, Nadine Morano, a déclaré, lundi soir 14 décembre, vouloir du jeune musulman français "qu'il ne parle pas verlan", lors d'un débat sur l'identité nationale à Charmes (Vosges). "Moi, ce que je veux du jeune musulman, quand il est français, c'est qu'il aime son pays, c'est qu'il trouve un travail, c'est qu'il ne parle pas le verlan, qu'il ne mette pas sa casquette à l'envers", a expliqué la secrétaire d'Etat à un jeune homme qui l'interrogeait sur la compatibilité de l'islam avec la République.

Yeah, Nadine, I hear where you're coming from. It annoys me, too, when I see young guys wearing baseball caps backwards. Of course most of them, in this part of the world, are native-born Americans who can probably trace their ancestors back to the Mayflower, for all I know, so I'm not sure what this has to do with le jeune musulman français, but I can assure you that even if all the young Muslim men in France started wearing berets tomorrow, you'd still have a problem with high unemployment in the banlieues, crime, deteriorating housing, high dropout rates, etc. You see, that cap is a sign, the verlan is a sign, the lack of a job is a sign--and signs are not causes. For causes, you have to look a little deeper. I would nominate you for the political connerie of the year prize, but I know that you've taken to suing people who make negative comments about your intelligence on the Web, so I've got to be careful.

A Billion Here, a Billion There

President Sarkozy announced yesterday that 11 billion euros from the Grand Emprunt will go to universities (4 billion of that in the form of unprecedented "endowments," fonds propres) and 1 billion to the digitization of French books (closing the door to Google's offer to do the job for free, but with strings attached).

That's a lot of money for education and culture, but in my view it's money well spent. In fact, it's absolutely the right thing to do. The university move will be controversial, because it means that Sarko is now putting money where his mouth was, calling for the creation of four "national champion" universities, to become "the best in the world," as the president modestly put it. To be sure, such virile language is more appropriate to the soccer field than to the campus, but Sarkozy is right to conclude that equality among universities is a fiction that not only cannot be sustained but has never been more than a thin veil over a squalid reality. Concentrating resources is, alas, a bitter necessity, and Sarkozy has made the right choice. Good consequences are sure to follow. So are protests and complaints. But as he has done in every other policy domain, Sarkozy has here made a strategic choice that will divide the opposition, win over some of its most ambitious members, and leave the losers scattered in helpless disarray. To bow to reality while at the same time routing the enemy is the essence of realpolitik, a game at which Sarkozy has proven to be very good indeed.

Of course in tinkering with the universities, there is always the possibility of setting off some uncontrollable student reaction. My guess, however, is that the failure of the resistance thus far to deflect Sarkozy from his course has left much of the rank-and-file dispirited and resigned to getting on with it.

Join the Resistance ...

... with a new video game, which allows you to play at fighting Nazis in Paris. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.