Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The "Illiterate" Working Class

In his first interview, Emmanuel Macron tripped over his silver tongue d'énarque. Evoking the difficulties of workers at the troubled Gad meatpacking plant in Brittany, he noted that the advice that employees likely to lose their jobs seek work elsewhere was impractical because in order to travel to nearby factory towns, they would need driver's licenses, which are costly to obtain in France (as much as €1500), and in any case, many of these workers are women and "illiterate" (or more precisely "unlettered"--illettrées as opposed to analphabètes). Macron no doubt thought he was commiserating with the plight of these malheureuses rather than insulting them, but even if their knowledge of Racine and Grevisse is deficient, they're sufficiently literate to decipher the colloquy between the indéboulonnable J.-P. Elkabbach and the Boy Wonder of Bercy and to recognize that the word illettrées expressed, if not contempt for their status, at best a condescension unbecoming in a minister of the Republic. Macron quickly made amende honorable before the chamber of the Assembly, but the damage was done.

Yet the new minister, however insensitive, was not entirely wrong, it seems, about the literary capacities of the Gad work force:
Selon le député du Finistère Gwenegan Bui, la proportion de salariés dans cette situation dans l’usine Gad de Lampaul-Guimiliau serait d’environ 20 % (contre 7 % en moyenne en France), rapporte leMonde. Cela crée des problèmes de reclassement. Emmanuel Marcon décrit une réalité qui existe.
Je défie quiconque aujourd’hui de dire précisément ce qu’est un illettré. Un analphabète n’a pas appris à écrire et à lire : là au moins la situation est nette. Certains dits-illettrés savent rédiger des lettres mais font des fautes. C’est ce qui fera qu’on les qualifiera d’illettrés. Cette catégorie n’est pas très sérieusement définie. On présuppose par ailleurs qu’il y a un lien direct, de cause à effet, entre le fait de ne pas avoir les bonnes qualifications et la perte d’emploi ou la difficulté à en trouver. On occupe la jeunesse au chômage depuis très longtemps par la formation, c’est une solution d’attente, qui peut parfois être utile. Quand dans les années 70, le chômage s’est installé de manière structurelle, les pouvoirs publics ont répondu au problème par le retour à la formation. C’est à cette époque qu’a émergé la notion d’illettrisme. On a inversé la causalité. Le moment où l’on a commencé à observer des gens qui avaient des problèmes à l’écrit – une cause d’échec scolaire – correspond au moment d’apparition du chômage. Les mines et les usines sidérurgiques ferment. Les formateurs disent des chômeurs qu’on leur envoie : ‘ils ont du mal à lire et à écrire’. Le chômage a été une condition de mise en évidence de l’illettrisme, mais on a fini par en faire une des causes du chômage. Il y a de nombreux emplois pour lesquels être fort en orthographe n’est pas très important. Les “illettrés” avec un emploi sont des citoyens comme les autres, qui payent leurs impôts. Mais au moment où ils perdent leur emploi, on commence à rendre leur illettrisme responsable de leur situation. Et certains discours ont laissé entendre que les dits “illettrés” ne seraient pas des citoyens comme les autres.

This incident is thus revealing. The new technocrat on the block is clearly well informed, but his knowledge of the Gad dossier, which he was so eager to show off to the veteran interviewer, who had not asked him about it, betrayed the sensibility that has done so much harm to the Socialist Party. The minister knows his numbers but not his people. He has been too long in Paris and sees the remote provinces only through the wrong end of the statistical telescope. He knows the problem, he may even have ideas about how to solve it, but he can't explain it to the "illiterates" he wants to help. The Good Samaritan is hoist by his own petard.

Manifesto of ENS Socialist Section

This manifesto by the PS section at the Ecole Normale Supérieure makes some good points and some less good ones, but this diagnosis of the party's ills strikes me as accurate:
D’abord celle des années 80, quand, aux élites intello-militantes formées dans les années 60 –les Joxe, Rocard, Chevènement, Jospin–, succèdent les techno-élites à la Hollande-Sapin, fils de leur temps et de l’ENA. Eduquées dans l’ombre du pouvoir mitterrandien, qu’ont-elles retenu du vieux Sphinx, qu’elles singent à grand peine et sur la tombe duquel elles se prosternent encore régulièrement? La vanité de toute ambition politique face au réel qui, lui, ne ment pas; la patience de l’alternance; les accommodements avec le pire des institutions de la Ve République; la conviction que toute difficulté est soluble dans la technique administrative; la pratique du double langage et de la langue de bois; le goût des intrigues de palais et des combinaisons de congrès. Pour cette génération sans histoire ni ego, la politique, c’est durer.

Pour la génération des élites communicantes grandies sous le jospinisme triomphant, une bonne politique est avant tout une succession de coups médiatiques réussis.
La génération suivante, celle des élites communicantes grandies sous le jospinisme triomphant, considère elle qu’une bonne politique est avant tout une succession de coups médiatiques réussis. A ses yeux, le 21 avril 2002 est d’abord le résultat d’une communication défaillante. Peu soucieuse de s’affranchir de ses aînés, préférant le buzz et les plans com des spin doctors aux controverses idéologiques, elle s’est soumise avec délice aux exigences des nouveaux médias, réseaux sociaux et chaînes d’info en continu. Pour la génération des années 90, tout en surface, la politique, c’est raconter de jolies histoires.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The FN Conquers New Territory

Le Monde today has an interesting piece on the FN's inroads in Normandy, a part of France in which I've just spent several days. As in other regions of France, the FN did well in Sunday's senatorial elections in this region, capturing the votes not only of its own few grands électeurs but also of others not formally affiliated with the party. This suggests not only that traditional anti-FN taboos (associated with Catholicism and trade unionism) are breaking down but also that the FN is reaping the benefit of a broad rejection of "the system" supposedly represented by the mainstream parties of left and right. "System" of course means an amalgam of capitalism, globalization, the EU, the euro, US dominance, borders open to trade and immigration, etc.

In La Manche, where I was staying, the FN leader is Fernand Le Rachinel, a printer and meilleur ouvrier de France. In conversation around the dinner table, I was interested to hear that Le Rachinel presents himself not as an extreme right ideologue but as a political fixer in the classic big-city politician mold--except that he operates in a rural region, one of the world's most beautiful countrysides, where cows graze peacefully in impeccable green fields and the largest industry is the manufacture of butter and cheese. "If you have a problem, Le Rachinel will take you by the arm and offer to solve it," one resident told me. He is everyone's best friend, the region's Godfather. This is retail politics, and it works where soaring speeches about the need to build a unified Europe and make the world safe from terrorism do not. There are lessons here for the mainstream parties, but they don't seem to be learning them.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Une semaine en France

I've been in France for a week and have somehow managed to avoid much discussion of politics. The country certainly looks less morose than it is said to be: the restaurants are full, the gardens are manicured, the shops look prosperous. Appearances are deceiving, to be sure, and the beautiful Indian summer surely helped, but the atmosphere is not charged with crisis. I did catch bits of the president's marathon news conference, Castro-like in length if not in passion. Hollande no doubt hoped it would reaffirm his authority or at least remind his countrymen that he exists. He failed. The headlines the next day were about the Scottish referendum and, more ominously for Hollande, Sarkozy's comeback.

Lying on my bed in a "hotel of charm" in the Vexin, I tried to fathom Hollande's problem as I faded in and out of sleep. His soporific effect is surely among his handicaps: he is one of the worst public speakers I can remember, numbing in his rhythms and utterly lacking in the ability to project affect or conviction. Whether the subject is computers in the classroom or waging war on ISIS, his tone never varies. The job is hard, he said several times. No one doubted him. He, too, was disappointed in the lack of results but full of confidence that relief was just around the corner. Something would turn up. Meanwhile, Paris Match (provided free with my Hertz rental) featured "Love Story in San Francisco," a gauzy spread on the new affair between ex-ministers Montebourg and Filipetti, no doubt arranged by Montebourg's media consultants as Step 2 in his Plan to Claim the Presidency in 2017--following the Sarkozy model of the coup d'éclat followed by the carefully photographed amourette.

On the right, the maneuvering has begun in earnest. Various knights-errant have pledged fealty to Sarkozy, while Juppé courts support more quietly and hopes that the courts and the judges will take care of Sarkozy. There is little policy discussion from any quarter of the political landscape. Le Point published a puff piece on Francois Rebsamen, who is charged with the revision of the labor code, but beyond keeping closer tabs on the unemployed, what he intends to do wasn't clear.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Antisemitism in France: A Strange Report from Le Monde

Le Monde today reports a "sharp increase in antisemitism" since the beginning of this year, but the accompanying graph paints a different picture:


A more balanced way of presenting the data would be to say that overt acts of antisemitism have decreased sharply since the early 2000s, with a mild uptick in the first half of this year. Frankly, these numbers are rather encouraging, since the last nine months have seen both the Dieudonné affair and the protests against the war in Gaza. Of course, counting overt acts of antisemitism (vandalism, attacks, etc.) does not tell the whole story, but these numbers give the lie to the assertion that there has been a marked deterioration in the situation in France in recent years. Quite the contrary.

Monday, September 8, 2014

7 of 25 "Brightest Young Economists" Are French

According to the IMF

1. Nicholas Bloom, 41, British, Stanford University, uses quantitative research to measure and explain management practices across firms and countries. He also researches the causes and consequences of uncertainty and studies innovation and information technology.
2. Amy Finkelstein, 40, American, MIT, researches the impact of pub- lic policy on health care systems, government intervention in health insurance markets, and market failures.
3. Raj Chetty, 35, Indian and American, Harvard University, received his Ph.D. at age 23. He combines empirical evidence and economic theory to research how to improve government pol- icy decisions in areas such as tax policy, unemployment insurance, education, and equality of opportunity.
4. Melissa Dell, 31, American, Harvard, examines poverty and insecurity through the relationship between state and non-state actors and economic development, and studies how reforms such asgovernment crackdowns on drug violence can influence economic outcomes.
5. Kristin Forbes, 44, American, Bank of England and MIT, has held positions in both academia and the economic policy sphere, where she applies her research to policy questions related to international macroeconomics and finance.
6. Roland Fryer, 37, American, Harvard, focuses on the social and political economics of race and inequality in the United States. His research investigates economic disparity through the development of new economic theory and the implementation of randomized experiments.
7. Xavier Gabaix, 43, French, New York University (NYU), has researched behavioral economics,finance, and macro- economics, including corporate executives' compensation levels and asset pricing.
8. Gita Gopinath, 42, American and Indian, Harvard, studies international macroeconomics and trade with a focus on sovereign debt, the response of international prices to exchange rate movements, and the rapid shifts in relative value among world currencies.
9. Esther Duflo, 42, French and American, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Jameel Poverty Action Lab, focuses on microeconomic issues in developing economies, including household behavior, education, access to finance, health, and policy evaluation.
10. Matthew Gentzkow, 39, American, University of Chicago, applies micro- economic empirical methods to the economics of the news media, including the economic forces driving the creation of media products, the media and the digital environment, and the media's effect on education and civic engagement.
11. Emmanuel Farhi, 35, French, Harvard, is a macroeconomist who focuses on monetary economics, international economics, finance and public finance, including research on global imbalances, monetary and fiscal policy, and taxation.
12. Oleg Itskhoki, 31, Russian, Princeton University, specializes in macroeconomics and international economics with a focus on globalization, inequality and labor market out- comes, international relative prices and exchange rates, and macroeconomic policy in open economies.
13. Hélène Rey, 44, French, London Business School, focuses on the determinants and consequences of external trade and financial imbalances, the theory of financial crises, and the organization of the international monetary system.
14. Emmanuel Saez, 41, French and American, University of California, Berkeley, is recognized for using both theoretical and empirical approaches to income inequality and tax policy.
15. Jonathan Levin, 41, American, Stanford, is an expert on industrial organization and microeconomic theory, specifically on the economics of contracting, organizations, and market design.
16. Atif Mian, 39, Pakistani and American, Princeton, studies the connections between finance and the macro economy. He is coauthor of the critically acclaimed House of Debt, which builds on powerful new data to describe how debt precipitated the Great Recession and continues to threaten the global economy.
17. Emi Nakamura, 33, Canadian and American, Columbia University, is a macroeconomist whose fields of research include monetary and fiscal policy, business cycles, finance, exchange rates, and macreconomic measurement.
18. Nathan Nunn, 40, Canadian, Harvard, focuses his research on economic history, economic development, political econ- omy and international trade. Of particular interest is the long-term impact of historic events such as slave trade and colonial rule on economic development.
19. Parag Pathak, 34, American, MIT, played a role in apply- ing engineering approaches to microeconomics. His research focuses on market design, education and urban economics.
20. Thomas Philippon, 40, French, NYU, studies the interactions of finance and macroeconomics: risk premia and corporate investment, financial crisis and systemic risk, and the evolution of financial intermediation.
21. Amit Seru, 40, Indian, University of Chicago, researches financial intermediation and regulation as well as issues related to corporate finance, including resource allocation within and between firms, and organizational incentives.
22. Amir Sufi, 37, American, University of Chicago, is coauthor of House of Debt. He studies links between finance and the macro economy, including the effect of house prices on spending and the effect of corporate finance on investment.
23. Iván Werning, 40, Argentine, MIT, is a macroeconomist who aims to improve tax and unemployment insurance policies via theoretical economic models. As well as optimal taxation, he studies stabilization and monetary policy, including macroprudential policy.
24. Justin Wolfers, 41, Australian and American, Peterson Institute for International Economics and University of Michigan (on leave), studies labor economics, macroeconomics, political economy, law and economics, social policy, and behavioral economics. In addition to his research, Wolfers is a columnist for The New York Times.
25. Thomas Piketty, 43, French, Paris School of Economics, is known for his research, with Emmanuel Saez, on the distribution of income and wealth. His bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, argues that global inequality will increase because the rate of capital return in developed economies is higher than the rate of economic growth, exacerbating wealth inequality..

Tax Refund Scam

A few minutes ago I posted a copy of an e-mail purportedly from the French fisc offering me a tax refund. As I should have realized at once, the e-mail was a phishing scam, and the links in it should not be clicked. I've taken the post down, but some of you may have received a copy through a subscription service. Don't click on the links.

The French Economy

Le Monde has an intelligent and balanced discussion today of the state of the French economy.\


Friday, September 5, 2014

Thirteen Percent

It didn't seem possible that things could get worse for François Hollande, but they have. A new poll has his approval rating at 13 percent. The new secretary for--get this for incoherence--foreign trade, tourism, and French living abroad apparently doesn't like to pay income tax and was forced to resign after 9 days on the job, when the ethics police caught up with him. Prime Minister Valls, whose popularity was supposed to boost the president's baleful numbers, lost 14 points in his own approval rating, which plunged to 30%. The most "approved" party in the country is the Greens (which doesn't mean that those who approve of it will vote for it, of course), after Hollande booted its leader, Cécile Duflot, and Valls trashed (not without reason) her signature act as minister of housing. The mood in Paris is grim.

And speaking of income tax, my fellow blogger Arun Kapil informs me that his income tax bill just doubled. The middle class was already groaning last year about tax increases under the Socialists, and now this, just as payroll taxes paid by firms are being reduced (again, not without reason).

On the vie privée front, as everyone surely knows by now, the ex-soi-disant Première Dame published her secrets d'alcôve yesterday, alleging that, yes, the president did drive her to a suicide attempt, and what's more, he was contemptuous toward the poor he is supposed to represent, allegedly referring to them as "toothless." In response, French journalism yesterday discovered the dental problems of the bottom decile of the French income distribution (apparently they have 15% fewer teeth on average than the rich--a distributional marker that Thomas Piketty somehow missed).

In foreign policy, Hollande yesterday was compelled to reverse his decision on the 2 Mistral amphibious assault vessels that France had been scheduled to deliver to Russia. With Russia on the march in Ukraine, the pressure from NATO to scotch the deal was too much. Again, it was the right decision, but it came only months after Hollande and his foreign minister Fabius had forthrightly stated that a deal was a deal, that international law forbade them to prevent delivery just because Russia was making menacing gestures, etc. So Hollande looks weak for standing strong.

To top it all off, the European Court of Justice ruled that a state subsidy to the semi-private ferry company SNCM was illegal, a decision that will likely drive the firm into bankruptcy. The illegal subsidy was paid by the previous government, but the current one will be left holding the bag when the firm collapses, throwing 2,000 people out of work. Hollande just can't catch a break.

This government is the Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight, Les Pieds Nickelés, the Keystone Cops, and The Three Stooges all rolled into one. It would be amusing if it weren't so alarming. The loss of legitimacy has been precipitous. Disgust is mounting, as is unemployment, while deflation looms to the point where Mario Draghi was forced to take unprecedented action yesterday, dropping central bank rates to an historic low and commencing purchases of asset-backed securities, hitherto taboo in Europe. And meanwhile Europeans are worrying about whether they will be asked to "die for Donetsk," and a million Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes in a proxy war between Moscow and Kiev. And the specter of ISIS fighters returning from Iraq and Syria to wage jihad in infidel Europe is also weighing on people's minds. Dark times.

Thursday, August 28, 2014