Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Hillary Thinks About Europe

What do Hillary Clinton and Nicolas Sarkozy have in common? Both are thinking about Europe's need to diversify its long-term energy supply. Here is Hillary:

What are we doing to work with Europe so that they will come up with a common policy through the EU on their own energy needs?

Good question. What are we doing? We know that Sarko has been active on this front. Has the US been talking to him about energy, or does it see him as an obstacle: an independent player who has been circumventing the EU in order to promote French interests in the energy sector (a theme that I have frequently touched on here)? (h/t Judah Grunstein)

Court Packing

Shades of Franklin Roosevelt: Sarko has figured out how to get around the Conseil Constitutionnel's opposition to the carbon tax. He has a chance coming up to replace three members of the panel, and he will seize the opportunity.

To Burqa or not to Burqa

Leave it to the Socialists to sow confusion at Internet speed. No sooner had Benoît Hamon, the party's official spokesman, announced that the PS would oppose a law to prohibit the burqa, than Aurélie Filipetti contradicted him: "The party has not taken a position," she said. Business as usual.

Après Copenhagen

Daniel Cohen, after describing three "utopian" strands of thought that helped to boost hopes for the Copenhagen conference, recommends focusing on more limited and pragmatic objective in the wake of its failure. The point is at once obvious and important. To the extent that hope was built on naive belief in the imminence of world government and limits to growth, it is now time to see what realism can accomplish. And the first step toward realism is to recognize that, while the consequences of climate change may affect 192 countries around the world, the causes are more concentrated and need to be dealt with by seeing what we can do about changing our own behavior.

Will the Grandes Ecoles Buckle?

The battle over the Grandes Écoles is heating up. When you have Alain Minc and François Pinault joining forces to declare the position of the GE "reactionary," you know that something is up. What's behind this blast is of course Valérie Pécresse's pressure on the GE to increase the percentage of scholarship students from around 15 to 30. The GE counter that this would force them to "lower standards." A careful discussion of this issue would require a lot of time and a lot of statistics, and I'm short of both at the moment. But to paint with broad strokes: it is true that the GE are unusually selective by international standards. The size of each GE cohort has not increased relative to the total university population in more than a century, despite huge changes in the social demand for highly educated labor. A proper solution to the problem therefore requires not just an increase in the proportion of scholarship students but an increase in the size of the GE in absolute terms. Current admissions "standards" are geared to the necessity to keep classes small. Expansion of the GE should therefore accompany any change in admissions standards. But to expand the GE will require the commitment of major resources, and this seems to be the element missing from Pécresse's proposal, which imposes a quota on a numerus clausus. This accounts for the internal opposition, which is not so much reactionary as pragmatic.

It is true, as a recent study of the US has shown, that competition for admission to the most selective universities has increased sharply over the past 3 decades, while entrance standards to universities in general have declined. The overall picture is clouded. If the value of a "college diploma" (without further qualification) has decreased, the value of the "best" diplomas has increased. The number of universities in the "elite" category has increased, as has the output of students with credentials comparable to the French GE. The flexibility of the US system is undoubtedly an advantage in a dynamic economy, but it is a flexibility financed largely by private means: the willingness of American families to pay extremely large sums for the privilege of an elite education for their children. Both the American and the French systems of selection are "unfair," and the pretense of meritocracy cannot really withstand scrutiny when one looks at how students are prepared for success in either system. Pécresse's proposal seems to be aimed at alleviating that unfairness on the cheap; it would be better to achieve greater inclusiveness by increasing the size of the pie while diversifying its ingredients.

(The text issued by the Conférence des Grandes Écoles is here. Charles Bremner's take here, with link to Descoings-Tapie debate on the subject. And a Descoings text here.)