Monday, April 10, 2006

France in Denial

Well, the protesting French students have "won," and the government has withdrawn the new labor law it had signed into law only a week earlier. I was in France for book promotion last week while the students were protesting, so I've been following the story with interest. What's going on there?

France's labor laws make it difficult to fire workers. Faced with the difficulty of firing employees, employers are reluctant to hire them pursuant to long term, restrictive contracts. As a result, most French workers work from one short term contract to the next, and unemployment in France is high -- about 10% nationally, about 22% for 15-24 year-olds; about 50% for residents of some distressed banlieus, France's ex-urban housing projects.

If labor laws are so restrictive that they're hindering the creation of new jobs, the solution seems clear: liberalize the laws. After all, the causal relationship between restrictive labor laws and high unemployment is hard to deny. Otherwise, why not raise the minimum wage to $20 an hour? $30? $50? Wouldn't that be good for workers, too? Well, it would... except that establishments would start hiring far fewer people if those kinds of wages were mandated. The trick, then, is to find the right balance between protecting workers who have jobs and creating new jobs for workers who don't.

And this is what Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has proposed. He wants to introduce a new law that would allow businesses to fire under-26-year-olds for the first two years of their employment. After two years, they would get legally mandated job security.

I admit that it's hard for me to understand the attitude of anyone who demands a government-mandated contract for lifetime employment. My attitude is, if you want lifetime employment, you figure out how to offer so much value for your employer that your employer will want to employ you for life. It's your responsibility to create that value, not the government's to insist on your employment in its absence. I have a feeling that Chinese and Indian workers must be equally bemused by the French students' stance -- and, in the 21st century global marketplace, those entrepreneurial (ironically, a word of French origin) Chinese and Indian workers represent the French students' competition.

So de Villepin's solution seems obvious (albeit insufficiently far reaching)... and yet, polls show that about 2/3 of France opposed the new law. Why?

Some people say the opposition came from de Villepin's lack of consultation with student groups and unions, and with the high-handed way he forced the law through parliament. There might be something to that, but I doubt the government could have wooed material numbers of supporters with nothing more than a better bedside manner.

Others argue that the opposition reflects France's inability to understand the correlation between restrictive labor laws and high unemployment. There's probably something to this argument, as well, but the correlation is clear enough so that you'd think it would be noticed by more than the 27% of the country that polls showed supporting the law.

It's also possible that the protesters were objecting not to the idea of liberalizing labor laws, but to liberalizing them only for under-26-year-olds. But the protesters weren't asking that the new law apply more broadly. They didn't want it applied at all (and indeed now it won't be).

Many commentators think the problem is that French students are lazy and have an entitlement attitude (as one of my guides assured me in response to my question about whether last week's strike would affect my morning departure to Charles de Gaulle airport, "Don't worry. Students who don't want to work would rather sleep late and start their protests in the afternoon"). Maybe a sense of entitlement has something to do with the protests. But students know that protected jobs are increasingly rare and that it's unlikely they're going to get one. So the question becomes, entitlement to what?

The answer is: to participation in a national labor lottery.

In a lottery, there are a few big winners who depend for their winnings on everyone else's loss. The analogy applies perfectly to France's labor market, where fewer and fewer people -- including, not coincidentally, lawmakers and bureaucrats -- win the fewer and fewer available protected jobs, and everyone else is either unemployed or forced to work pursuant to short-term contracts.

What's going on is, France's labor market has been insidiously turned into a lottery by the slow accretion of restrictive laws and their pernicious effect on societal attitudes. And the problem isn't just that the French labor market functions as a lottery. The real problem is that two thirds of French citizens find such a system acceptable. They shouldn't. A labor lottery isn't just a bad idea in theory. It has led in practice to an increasingly two-tiered society, and to seething anger and eruptions of riots. Over time, the lottery will erode France's prosperity and influence in the world. Think the recent riots in the banlieus were bad? Watch what happens as the banlieus get angrier and the French state gets weaker.

Maybe a better approach would be for the government to level with the country's people and enact a new law that would eliminate legally-mandated lifetime employment not just for the first two years of under-26-year-olds' first jobs, but across the board for everyone. Of course, a law like that would require government ministers to vote to eliminate their own employment guarantees. I guess the chances for this are about the same as... oh, I don't know, as American college faculties voting to eliminate tenure (which, as we all know, professors only want because it protects students, not because it protects professor's jobs). Or about the same as Congress voting to turn districting decisions over to independent panels.

Which means that the solution to France's unemployment rates -- and many other social woes -- is as obvious as it is unlikely to be implemented. And that today's withdrawal of the new law was as predictable as it is regrettable.


dkgoodman said...

Congratulations on your entry to the blogosphere!

I agree with your synopsis of the French labor situation. It appears to me to be similar to that of our own labor unions. Unions want to protect and enhance the wages of their members, protect their members from termination (in the labor sense, not John Rain's), and protect the re-election of the union bosses. All this protection comes at a price, but people don't like looking at price tags when they want the product at any cost. When have the consequences of our actions factored into our decision-making process that strongly? Not often enough, I'd say.

dkgoodman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

One protester was quoted saying that now they would have to do everything the employer told them to do or get fired. It's kinda hard not to think of them as spoiled and living in a fantasy world.
i feel sorry for the 27%, though.


Anonymous said...

That's a really interesting topic, especially since American and European laws are so different. Germany is currently going a similar way to France, and I think there's another reason for protests you didn't list up there.

The problem with the law is not only the ability to fire people at will (which in itself is a kind of insecurity at the job that Germans, and French, are hardly used to), but also that after two years, job security rises by a large amount.

So in an economy that is as unstable as it has been the past years, with ups and downs taking turns, people see the danger of not being hired for more than two years anymore. You can work until just before the job security sets in, then you get fired and replaced.

And it's not that that's unrealistic; in Germany right now, you are allowed to sign limited contracts that only last for a year, but if you do this several times with the same firm, the third such contract must automatically be a long-term employeeship. This has led to companies hiring people for one year, very rarely two, and then hiring different people just so they don't get stuck with them

I know; I've been on the receiving end of this where, even though my boss, my coworkers and even my boss's boss said I did good work, and even though the work I did was still needed, they let me go and hired someone else.

I know things are much different in the US; but in the case of work conditions, I don't think it (nor Japan) has an advantage to us. I'm just afraid that companies will only see the short-term benefit of "hire & fire" and not the long-term benefits of keeping someone that does good work.

Anonymous said...

The French students should do their homework and look at how employment of young adults is handled in other countries. The only way the US has guaranteed employment are those that join unions. Unions seem to protect those that are unable to hold a job on their own skills and work values. Before I retired I didn't need a union. I can fight my own battles. When you're hired you're told the pay, the benefits and whatever else to expect. If you don't like it, quit - find another job. Maybe the French students need unions to represent them since they seem incapable of thinking for themselves and development good work ethics.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

Barry, I doubt I'm smart enough to keep up with you, but I'll bet your blog will receive lots of attention. :)

Mindy Tarquini said...

Wow. I'm linking to you. Any chance you'll hit on the current demonstrations, discusion on Capital Hill regarding the border situation?

Bert said...

Welcome, Mr Eisler.

I love France, and so much about the French and their way of life. In a sense they want their cake and eat it. They have a history of protest, they don't let work rule their lives in the way it does in the UK etc etc. They are afraid (understandably) of change harming the things that are precious to them (and goodness know we haven't got it right in the UK), yet they have to move forward with the rest of the world. Sadly they have become the `grumpy old men' of Europe. Pride, protest and stubborness can be good things but not if they keep you on a treadmill.

Anonymous said...

This must be the famous "French Mayonaise" I've heard about. No one wants to throw out the bad potato salad, or the whole group will go hungry

Anonymous said...

I pretty much agree with your ideas and those of an op-ed piece in today's Wall Street Journal by Marie Josee Kravis,Contract with France.

The concept of France is the loser in this case.

France is making a case for itself to become a third world nation by European standards inspite of having a nucelear force de frappe and a nuclear based power grid.

Anonymous said...

Though I agree wholeheartedly with the point being made, there is one major flaw in the assertion to liberalize the French labor market: cultural relativism.

France has been established not only significantly longer than the US, but more importantly it has served as the birthplace of many cultural events and icons. It introduced to the world gothic architecture, da Vinci, prominent enlightenment philosophers, impressionism and other art forms, and even serves as a major fashion hub. Not to mention the fact that France was on the receiving end of direct war and riot almost continuously from 1914 until 1968. The combination of a proud, solidified history with a subsequent period of suffering almost forces the French people to rely on what they know best: culture.

The only problem with culture is that it is not easily adaptable to economic analysis, especially when it comes to labor markets. In the pursuit to maintain an institutional identity in France they have forced a higher wage for less skilled workers - comparable to other highly developed countries. In their market, there is only incentive to work in the skilled jobs since there is no stability in the lower wage earning ones. Now if France were to remove the labor laws, they would experience a sudden influx of highly skilled (comparable to France) workers that are being paid less elsewhere (as a result of exchange rate or government tax system, etc). This would be enticing for most business owners because they will be getting a higher skill level for the same price as before. If this were to happen, however, the cultural dynamic that is the essence of the French people would be disturbed in such a way to cause nationwide unrest.

Now if by chance this liberalized path still manages to succeed, there would be only one benefit. The unemployment rate is already high enough as it is, and replacing less skillful “real” French people will only increase it further; this will guarantee that there will be no increased foreign competition for the lower paying jobs. At least the French would still be solidified at the bottom.

Anonymous said...

Da Vinci is French?

France was very much on the GIVING end of war from 1918 to 1936, something that helped put it back on the receiving end by 1940. The tit-for-tat with Germany seems to have come to a halt, thank God.

Events in France demonstrate the evil that arises when government is involved in voluntary transactions such as occur between employer and employee. Plenty of that evil in the US, but not as much as we see here. Yet . . .

Anonymous said...

Thought-provoking stuff, presented in a balanced fashion. Now, when this blog tackles immigration to the U.S., that's when the gloves come off! This goes on the bookmark list!

Anonymous said...

Barry wrote: "I guess the chances for this are about the same as... oh, I don't know, as American college faculties voting to eliminate tenure (which, as we all know, professors only want because it protects students, not because it protects professor's jobs)."

A bit tangential to the topic at hand, but I wanted to point out that tenure has already largely been eliminated from many parts of academia. In the early 90s, two things happened: 1. The first Bush administration changed policy to encourage academica to behave more like a corporate enterprise and 2. The recession led to significant rentrenchment of funds to public institutions.

The result is that most tenure track positions were cut from fields of study that are not highly lucrative (i.e. anything that doesn't produce something that can be patented to make $$ for the institution, like pharmaceutical and biomedical research). Instead, academia now hires part time temporary teachers and pays them very little (with no benefits). Many of us (me included) who truly enjoyed mentoring young minds gave up teaching altogether and left for the corporate world or government jobs. You just can't make a living off of college level teaching anymore.

This is not good for students.

Tenure didn't just protect jobs. It was a way to attract and retain intelligent people who could easily have made more in the private sector than academia ever paid. It also protected academic freedom. Finally, tenure helped ensure that our academic institutions continued to support a diversity of academic inquiry, rather than only putting resources into departments and topics with big cash payoffs. IMO, we made a huge mistake in the early 90s, and we're already seeing the repercussions in our society. But that's another topic.

Anonymous said...

I hardly know where to begin - so many of your responses are just plain wrong. For the most part, unions are all that working people have on their side against the power of wealthy corporations and companies. Otherwise companies can run roughshod over their employees who can't do a thing about it except quit - often not a choice for a family man or woman with kids and a mortgage or rent to pay. Working conditions are an important issue and unions are there to jointly negotiate with companies to the benefit of both - including compromise. I have the benefit of a strong union but I began teaching in NYC before there was much of a union. So I know what conditions were like. Our principal was a "king" doing just as he wished often to the detriment of the learning process and the kids. Now with unions there's a system of checks and balances. By the way, this system is sorely missing now in the U. S

I. Michael Koontz said...

Like many people will say, there is a slippery slope when defining any group of advantaged/disadvantaged group by age. Why pick age 26? I wonder. Why not, say, 24? 21? 35? It would make more sense to me to define it as a period of time from date of hire, as is often done for benefits in the U.S. (such as 401k plans, health insurance, pensions, etc.) I understand the angst of those under 26 in France, for who's to say that some 24 year olds aren't more valuable employees than some 34 year olds?
I do, however, agree with the concept: an employer should not be forced to keep someone on that, all actual prejudices aside (such as race, sex, religion, etc), is not performing adequately on the job. And you're correct: a valuable employee WILL be kept on indefinitely because management naturally wants the most successful and valuable employees to remain with the company (it sounds so obvious it's stupid, but sometimes the obvious still needs to be said).
As one of the most left-leaning nations in "the West," (I remember when the Socialists first were elected there, many years ago), it should be no surprise that France is not accepting of this plan. I'm most surprised that those in power--who should be just as aware of their nation's political leanings as a guy in the Midwest U.S. like me--could not predict the reaction.
I am tempted to put in the obligatory Jerry Lewis comment here, but instead, will say this, to paraphrase Mencken: No one ever went broke underestimating the chaotic nature of French politics. And as far as the way the decision was put through, one could say that the French leaders certainly had a lot of Gaul.
Sorry--couldn't resist that one.

JA Konrath said...

Now with unions there's a system of checks and balances.

I'm the first to admit I know very little about politics, but aren't unions one of the reasons that US companies move to other countries to manufacture goods? Because staying competitive in a world market means they can't make a profit and still deal with unions?

Doesn't that ultimately mean less jobs for Americans?

We're a long way past the 'company store' days of the early 20th century...

Anonymous said...


I couldn't disagree more. I'm proud of the young French and wish Americans would follow suit. Since the unions lost their power in the US, who has suffered but the common man? The rich own the power here, and they use it to squeeze out the poor. How many companies provide pensions these days or even medical benefits? At least France is civilized enough to have national health care.

These French youth are smart. In the US, we would rather watch our co-workers drop like flies, have their work handed over to us, then do anything--unpaid overtime, poor working conditions, pay cuts, etc.--just to keep our jobs. Anyone ever see Office Space? "Uh, we're gonna need you to a go ahead and come on in on Saturday. Oh, yeah, and we're gonna need you to go ahead and come on in on Sunday, too. We had some layoffs."

I'll side with the French, who didn't want to join the EU because they didn't want to lose their 35-hour work weeks, holidays, and basically working their asses off for money they'll never see. You know, I'd rather work an abbreviated work week and take the extra hour each day in the dojo

Being in France, you probably missed last night episode of the Simpsons where Mr. Burns outsourced the nuclear power plant to India. He put Homer in charge and Homer gave the workers coffee breaks, benefits, free day care, severance packages, early retirement, etc. Mr. Burns finally had to take the power plant back to where the workers had it the worst: he returned it to the US. I agree it's satire, but remember satire is based in truth.

While I'm harping about the rich squeezing out the poor, I'd rather have my tax money buy school breakfast and lunches for kids (as my buddy GWB calls it "non-defense discretionary spending") than have it shoveled straight into Haliburton without passing go.

Besides the politics, I bought myself a copy of HARD RAIN this weekend, buddy, and I'm really looking forward to reading it. I really loved RAIN STORM.


Anonymous said...

Just to clarify, my reference to da Vinci was not that he was born in France; but rather, his original works and ideas greatly influenced that nation as a whole, and thus perpetuated significant cultural development.

Anonymous said...

Regarding unions: Many modern unions have become caricatures of themselves. They are guilty of excess, greed and selfishness. However, and this is huge - they are a necessary counterbalance to the senior management in most of corporate America. Remember the bonuses that the American Airlines execs voted for themselves after the union took pay cuts? Have you taken a look lately at the disparity between CEO salaries and average worker salaries? Go a bit farther back and look at the history of unions in America: sweat shops, child labor, unsafe working conditions - without unions all those abhorrent conditions might well still exist. Labor reform doesn't take place out of the kindness of management's heart. And there are still many places in this country where people don't get paid fairly for a hard day's work. One of my very favorite bumper stickers reads: Unions - the folks that brought you the 40 hour work week.

Regarding France: I was there a couple of weeks ago, and had some entertaining conversations with locals about it all (and overheard a few, which was even more fun). The general sentiment was: the law is stupid, of course they're demonstrating, Villepin and Chirac are clowns. I also read a fascinating article about a young people's movement that's gaining some popularity - it seeks to go even farther than did the failed law in terms of reducing job protection. It'll be interesting to see how it all plays out. I don't happen to agree with the students' position - what I really appreciate is that they were taking action. The government did something they didn't like and they exercised their right of assembly. I'd like to see more of it here (without, of course, the thug element).

Glad you're blogging, Barry, and thanks for the space to rant ;-)

Barry Eisler said...

Holy cannoli, thanks everyone for visiting my blog, for your well-wishes, and for your interesting responses. I wish I could respond to everyone, but I can see that's not going to be possible. So just a few thoughts...

MG and Ross, I've been thinking a lot about immigration lately and do plan to write about it. I think I have more questions on that subject than answers, but if they're the right questions they should provoke some good conversation and, I hope, lead us closer to the heart of the matter.

James, the situation with Iran, and how it relates to what's going on in Iraq, is another one I'm planning to write about. Stay tuned...

Peregrine, I understand your points about tenure. I can see the good it does, but there's bad, too, when it protects professors who aren't adding value anymore (I've seen both cases). The trick, I suppose, is to find a way to get the good that tenure aims at without the bad. I'm not sure how to do that. And I admit that I'm constitutionally leery of any kind of guaranteed employment, except maybe for the Supreme Court, and my opinions will reflect that bias.

Judy, likewise, I understand where you're coming from about unions. I think anyone with a sense of history would acknowledge the good unions have done for working conditions around the world and indeed for the spread of democracy in countries like South Korea and Poland. Again, finding the balance is key, and my sense is that in France, the unions are focused on protecting existing jobs to the exclusion of creating new ones. They represent the interests of certain workers, not of the country as a whole. As a disinterested foreigner who loves France, I'm writing about the balance that I think would be best for the whole country. Of course, France might not agree with me (Mon Dieu!), and it's up to the French to decide. But I hope they'll take the opinions of their friends abroad into account.

Joe, you bring up a key point about balance. If unions become too powerful, employers will try to avoid them by, for example, relocating abroad. I don't know what the right answer is. Maybe Wal-Mart is an example of where more union power would be desirable, and GM, as Bryon suggests, where there could usefully be less. How to achieve the balance, as Rae points out... that's the trick.

Tom, I hear what you're saying, but please be careful with the bombast... "The rich own the power here, and they use it to squeeze out the poor... In the US, we would rather watch our co-workers drop like flies," for example, isn't going to persuade anyone and doesn't add to your argument. I'm not trying to be critical; just a friendly reminder about the kind of tone that will make discussion on this site productive instead of acrimonious. As for the French deciding not to join the EU to protect their 35-hour work week etc., this is of course their decision to make, and if they make it knowingly, I won't argue with them. But their unemployment rates are high, and they've had some terrible social unrest lately, so they might usefully reconsider the mix they have and the factors behind it. If they decide all is well and nothing should be altered, that's their call as a sovereign nation.

BTW, I love France and hope my comments didn't come across as the usual ignorant bashing. And I agree that the US suffers from plenty of problems, too -- many of which you'll find discussed from time to time right here.

Thanks again, everyone, I'm amazed and gratified at the response and hope HOTM will become a haven for thoughtful, respectful discussion of some difficult issues.


Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

At least France is civilized enough to have national health care.

At this point in time that's about all they have. With the massive unemployment numbers, the country is about to fall on its knees. Their economy and GNP is in the toilet. And it won't be too many decades before their living standards and National health care foolow suit. When no one can pay taxes, governments go broke!

These French youth are smart I'm sorry...but their entitlement mentality is going to keep them lazy and unemployed just like that same attitude does to people here in the US.

Barry Eisler said...

Hi Bonnie, thanks for coming by; I feel I already know you from Joe's site and I hope I'll see more of you here, too. But you know, we might have visitors from France here at HOTM -- I hope we do, as I would welcome an on-the-ground perspective -- and, if we do, they might take issue with your suggestion that national health care is "about all they have," etc. The performance of many of their multinationals (Airbus, BNP Parabas, Canal Plus, L'Oreal, Michelin) belies your argument that their economy is in the toilet, as does their GDP and purchasing power parity rank in the world -- fifth and seventh, respectively. And I'm not sure what it means when a country "is about to fall on its knees...".

Forgive me, everyone, if I seem pedantic, but I really want all of us to avoid the bad internet habits that we've picked up by osmosis elsewhere. Said bad habits include substituting conclusions for evidence; avoiding subtlties by offering massive generalities; and anything that feels like finger-pointing or holier-than thou. Let's treat HOTM more as a place to learn than as a place to argue. And you learn more when you're listening than when you're talking...

Respect, baby. Listen and learn. Kumbayah.

Am I making sense? Or have I drunk too much Scotch tonight?


Anonymous said...

Well thanks Barry. Not only are we the luckiest readers around to have you faithfuly write us a book every year, we now have this web blog. Thank you very much. Having met you several times (MPLS) I feel your opinions are well thought. Keep up the common sense approach to world affairs, it's much needed in todays world. Is there any chance Barry that we will see some talk of our blundering inteligence, and if we can ever trust them again? Much distrust, and I am not sure we as a country will ever be the same.

Anonymous said...

Isn't anyone worried that Barry will spend so much time with HOTM that he wont have time for his next novel?

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

LOL...I don't know if you'd had too much sorta depends on what brand you choose to imbibe..LOL

By on their knees...I meant, the civil unrest from the outcome of this law...the growing problem with the large influx of Muslims...including the recent law they enacted about wearing headscarves...the riots...etc.

This type of maelstrom when combined with large unemployment numbers and uncertainty of even having a job, can only be equated to a cancer eating at the country from the inside out.

The country may look good on paper but if the poeple can't get social reform that includes equal opportunity for all workers...the country will eventually suffer.

Glad to have someone intellegent in politics for open discussions.

I'd be interested in the ordinary fFrenchman's point of view, especially one who'e been fired from a job because they didn't want to give him a long term contract!

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

And apparently at this hour of the night...I can't spell either...and I'm not even drinking Scotch! LOL!

Barry Eisler said...

DT -- you will definitely see (polite, respectful, open-minded) discussion of intelligence and policy blunders here soon.

Anonymous -- I know someone who's worried I'll blog at the expense of my novels: me! Mostly kidding there, but blogging is a serious commitment, which is why it took me so long to take the plunge.

Bonnie, thanks for the clarifications, and I agree that past a certain point umemployment becomes not just a burden to the unemployed but a danger to the larger society. But do metaphors like "maelstrom" and "cancer" clarify those arguments here... or obscure them? (It's true I'm a nice guy as most people seem to think, but I'm also so damn strict... ;-) )

I want all of us to make our points not just with respect, but with precision. Otherwise it's too easy for things to degenerate into useless flame wars. Bryon, I saw the kind mention on your blog; thanks for that, and I'll work hard to keep the substance and tone productive here.

Sean, welcome and thanks for the great thoughts, information, and reporting. Everyone, Sean Amico isn't published yet, but remember his name -- you will be hearing from this man, I promise.

Anonymous said...

A point to note on the French economy. There are more than quite a few traditional/historic UK companies that are now owned by French companies. These include transport, water, luxury goods and auction houses. Indeed no big UK auction house remains in British ownership. They must be getting something right?

Congratulations on starting your blog Barry! Looks like it will be interesting. Another one for page marking...

Anonymous said...

Jobs for life does not seem a sustainable concept in the global economy. I'd be interested to learn if there are any countries thriving economically under the same kind of system. It seems to me it would be hard to innovate and change in an atmosphere where job security trumps job performance. I'm not saying innovation and good things can't and haven't happened in the French economy...

de Villepin has proposed change at the expense of a particular group, a group that is vocalizing it's discontent. There are rumors that de Villepin will resign, and everything will remain the same. However, change is a given in the global economy.

Anonymous said...

The foundation of so much of the unrest is that all anyone wants is some respect, emploerers and emploees both.

Employers should be able to fire employees that are not doing their job without fears of lawsuits. If they can't then they will resist hiring anyone full time for any position at any age.

But no one will be loyal to a company that won't take a chance on them, invest time and training in them and trust them. Temp employment doesn't result in a productive work environment or a loyal base of workers.

Unions aren't needed if good workers are rewarded and management values a loyal, hardworking employee.

It's why the apprenticeship model worked well. The Just In Time corporate, disposable employee mentality undermines society as a whole.

No middle class, no stable foundation to tax, and kiss your civilised society goodbye.

Lack of respect/sense of fair play = poverty.
Poverty = war.

Love the blog.


Barry Eisler said...

Tim -- corruption in Japan is a fascinating subject. The best book I've read about it is Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons. Check it out if you have a chance; it'll make your hair stand up!

BTW, this morning I received the following response from Lee Child, a thoughtful guy who lives part time in France. For anyone who doesn't know Lee's Jack Reacher thriller series, you're missing out on a lot of fun. Reacher's a terrific character and I've yet to meet someone who likes John Rain who doesn't also love Jack Reacher.

Hi Barry

Love the blog ... but I don't know how to post on blogs.

I live in France part-time as you know. And obviously I used to live in Britain. And the French-British nexus is a huge, huge unstated factor in any French economic issue. The French see any kind of labor liberalisation as a move toward the kind of policy that has clearly failed in the UK. ("Liberal" means exactly the opposite in French ... GWB is an economic liberal, in French.) For all its alleged structural weaknesses France has a pretty hot economy - hi tech, aerospace, huge domestic auto, nuclear, etc, etc - with great numbers (by some measures productivity exceeds the US.) Britain has none of the above. Not even a domestic auto industry anymore. Even after 20 years of labor liberalisation.

Thus, there's a permanent feeling that says, "We ain't doing anything the Brits have done. Why should we? What did it do for them?" And they're right, in a way.

Plus, there's an unstated feeling that an economic solution is being sought for a problem that is actually rooted in post-colonial fundamentalist antagonism. The oft-quoted 50% unemployment among young immigrant males in the major suburbs hides the fact that employment among young immigrant females in the suburbs is just about dead-on the national average ... i.e. the boys have an anger-and-alienation problem, which ain't going to be solved by labor-law measures. (I'm not blaming here, just reporting.) So suspicious folk think, "Hey, this is all about sneaking Reagan-and-Thatcher big business measures through the back door."

And, the "entitlement" trope is too crude: it's forcing a US debating template onto a situation that is very different. It's really about consensus. The French say, "We have a social compact here that works pretty well, and we like it." It's positive, not negative. And it does work pretty well. Way better than the US-meets-Europe mess in Britain.


Anonymous said...

Looks like you are having fun here Barry. Only 24 plus hours old and you are rip roaring.

Totally agree about Lee Child, awesome! Neat thing that may happen is other authors like Lee joining in. Great!

Well you have me hooked, thanks Barry.

PJ Parrish said...

Welcome to blogworld, Barry!

As a longtime Francophile, I've watched this issue with great interest and am trying hard to grasp the nuances of the situation. (Shoot, I've spent decades trying to understand the French, period, and I planning to live there parttime someday). I do know, from my frequent travels in France, that there is a distinct French personality that comes into play here, and that attempts to apply American comparisons are facile at best. That "personality" carries the weight of centuries of history, much of it politically unstable and violent. The French, unlike Americans, are very wary of clean-slate changes. They also have very different ideas of what's public, what's private -- and that influences everything from morality and manners to business and politics. It is a clock that runs on a different set of gears than our own.

The current situation goes beyond a sense of entitlement on the students' part. The French system of rigid and cumbersome labor laws not only exacerbates unemployment, but it is eroding France's ability to compete in an increasingly global marketplace.

If France can't change, it will end up positioning itself as, if not a third-world power, but at least a third-tier marketplace. French politicians know this. They just don't know how to buck their own history and identity.

Tom Nixon said...

Unions do a number of things. One of the more important, in my opinion, for professors and teachers, is that it makes it difficult to be fired over political differences. This still happens.

I do know for teachers that the vast majority of states that pay the lowest also happen to be the ones with no or weak unions. Surely no one would make the argument that even in unionized states that teachers make too much money.

Adam Hurtubise said...

Welcome to the blogosphere, Barry. I've read a lot of your comments on Konrath's blog.

This is a fascinating post (I used to be a political consultant and I love these discussions).


Anonymous said...

Hi Barry,

Thanks for the email invitation to your blog! It's great!

How soon are we going to see a John Rain movie? Looking forward to seeing him on the big screen!

Dennis (St. Louis mall Tom Clancy fan who has switched to a Barry Eisler fan)

Barry Eisler said...

Hi Dennis, thanks for stopping by. No new news on the movie front; Barrie Osborne (Lord of the Rings producer) and company still have an option to the first three Rain books, but no no new action that I know of. When that changes, I'll let you know...

I'll be back in St. Louis this summer; as soon as the schedule is set, I'll let you know. It would be good to see you again.


Anonymous said...

Hi Barry,

Thanks! Would be good to see you too! Maybe you could sign my other John Rain books? Should I bring them along? Hope I'm not stepping out of bounds asking that.

Keep up the great work!

Barry Eisler said...

Dennis -- absolutely, bring your books and I'll bring the pen.


Anonymous said...

As a proud member of one of those "greedy, out of step unions" that so many here seem to detest, I'd like to offer a simple tale.

When I worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, I was chairman of the reporters' union, the Chicago Newspaper Guild. I witnessed firsthand how critical unions are in keeping workers from being stomped into the ground every time the CEO needs money for a new yacht.

When Rupert Murdoch bought the CST in 1982, the very first thing he grabbed for himself was the newspaper's pension programs. Thanks to foresight and successful investments by workers and management till the Murdoch takeover, all the pension systems at CST were brimming with money. Money designed to guarantee retirees actually collected the pensions for which they worked 30 and 40 years.

Murdoch wanted these millions of dollars for himself, to expand his then-fledgling Fox TV empire. So he declared them "excessively funded," broke the pensions, and put those millions in his own bank account, leaving just enough to pay the pension obligations if the economy remained sound. (Which, of course, it did not, as all the pension failures we read about now illustrate.)

The only pension fund in the building with the ability to fight back was the Guild's. Because we'd successfully negotiated joint pension management into the labor contract, we took Murdoch to federal court. The judge ruled that our contract made Murdoch's raid illegal, and that money stayed in our pension system. Guild retirees today have no fear of an Enron-type meltdown of their retirement, because the union guaranteed that could not happen.

That is one of the hundreds of outrages, big and small, against workers I personally witnessed over the years. Every time, those violations were thwarted because of the counterweights built into the Guild contract.

Many folks blame "the greedy unions" for what's happening at GM, Ford, United, et al. Wrong. Every single labor contract in the United States is signed by two parties--union AND management, the latter with the advice and consent of the nation's biggest law firms. Nobody held a gun to management's head to sign those contracts. And contrary to popular belief, no union has the power to make management decisions. The UAW did not tell GM to pooh-pooh the small-car market back in the Seventies--and lost huge market share to Honda, Toyota and Nissan as a result. GM's CEOs and CFOs did that all by themselves, thank you.

The final comment I'd like to address is Joe Konrath's, not because it's from Joe, but because it's so common. To quote: "American companies compete in a world market, and choose to avoid unions because aren't unions one of the reasons that US companies move to other countries to manufacture goods? Because staying competitive in a world market means they can't make a profit and still deal with unions?
Doesn't that ultimately mean less jobs for Americans? We're a long way past the 'company store' days of the early 20th century..."

First, anyone who believes that the "company store" is gone, I've got two words for you: Wal-Mart.

Second, should American workers accept Third World wages simply to have a job? No. How can we? Nobody can live in America on Third World wages. The living costs here are too high. Rather than allowing ourselves to accept the "world market" theory that we should sell our services to the lowest bidder no matter HOW low, we should be collaborating to raise wages.

As even uber-capitalist Henry Ford knew, it's smart business to pay your workers well. Otherwise, they can't afford to buy the very products they make. If Joe wrote his books for the money an author in, say, Pakistan did, he couldn't afford to keep writing. And we'd all would be poorer for not seeing his work.

America is the biggest, richest, nation on earth. We can afford to pay, and pay well, the men and women who make this country work. Henry Ford did not pay high wages for moral reasons--the man was a snake. He did it because it was smart business.

Why should we choose any less?

Shane Gericke