Tuesday, 10 November 2015

American dynamism vs French sclerosis: More cheese-eating, less cheese-making?

Warning: this post contains graphs. Many wonderful graphs.

According to conventional (read: conservative) wisdom, the Left has a problem. Sitting across The Channel, stinking of body odour and brie, lie the French. Literally lying there - lounging about in a feckless stupor of institutionally enforced laziness and cultural arrogance, surrounded by the decaying glories of their past, housed in a nation-state cum mausoleum along with their naive dreams of socialist economic rationality. Corbynites take note.

As if that wasn't bad enough, across The Pond in swaggeringly individualistic America reside a people who produce a huge proportion of the World's goods and services, innovate like maniacs, and, with the American Dream by their side, appear to actively relish their government's light-touch regulation and minimal social safety net. A promised land of laissez-faire creative destruction where hard work and a limber mind will get you far, unhindered by the deadening hand of the state.

So what's wrong with this picture? I mean, apart from the hyperbolic rhetoric and casual racism. OK yes, the French enjoy more free time and more high quality public goods. They even live a bit longer, too. Oh, and they have more celebrity philosophers. And yes, the Americans aren't all so enamoured with capitalism in tooth and claw. Despite being significantly richer on a per capita basis, they also have to endure higher levels of poverty, and lower levels of public health and education, along with many other human development indicators. Plus, ya know, Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump. But with an economy so much more productive and healthy than calcifying, atrophying France, even these problems will eventually fade with the panacea of boundless prosperity while across the ocean, the French drown in a sea of red tape and debt. And fondue. A debt-fueled death spiral into a lake of liquid cheese.

But surprise! The main problem with that picture is that it's total bollocks. Or couilles totales as the Lazy Ones probably don't say. 

More accurately - and as with most myths - it's a fabrication based on a few fragments of actual fact, supplemented by a few more 'facts' taken out of context or which used to be true but no more, and then just piled over with mountains of cultural stereotyping (you know, like in 2002 when Dubbya said, "The problem with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur"). 

More on the fun stuff in a bit. But first, here are some of those real facts:

 - There's no denying it, in terms of total GDP growth things look pretty ugly for France:

Figure 1
- Average GDP per capita in the US really is more than 25% greater than that of France (2013: $53,041 vs $42,503).

- The relative size of the state compared to whole economy is vastly different, and the gap's widening too:

Figure 2

 - The unemployment rate seems to confirm the notion that the French are either lazy bastards, or simply can't create enough jobs for themselves. Or both. (And the momentary convergence during and after the 2008 crisis only shows how inflexible and coddling their labour market is, too - bloody cry-babies.):

Figure 3

 - Youth unemployment looks even worse:

Figure 4

Pretty hard to come back from that to glorious victory you'd think. And you'd be right: I'm not about to pull a statistical rabbit out the hat here. France isn't somehow going to outstrip the US in a range of indicators that render the above totally meaningless. But if you peer a bit closer and add a little context, suddenly the French don't look like total basketcases either. In fact, these days there's not a huge amount to pick between them and their thrustingly entrepreneurial American cousins. 

Take total historical GDP growth. That huge disparity in Figure 1 is almost entirely explained by US population growth as this GDP per capita graph shows:

Figure 5

And you only have to peel back the surface layer for the GDP per capita to look quite different, too. For example, between 1975 and 2006 the US average GDP per capita grew by 32.2%, whereas France's lagged with only 27.1%. However, if we exclude the top percentile from the data we can get a far better idea of what's happening to the remaining 99%. In this case the French GDP per capita grew by roughly the same amount, 26.4%, whereas for the US the figure drops off a cliff down to a mere 17.9%. The Occupy movement's rhetoric about the massive enrichment of the 1% at the expense of the 99% in the US turns out to be depressingly true. Indeed, the bottom 50% in the US have seen real incomes (incomes adjusted for inflation) flatline or even fall for the last 40 years. 

What about unemployment? And especially youth unemployment? If one focuses on 'prime age' employment - that is the employment rate of those aged 25-54 - amazingly France out-performs the US:

Figure 6

What then explains the high youth and older age unemployment in France? Well, the latter is no mystery: they're all retired living on generous pensions playing boule, knocking back claret and writing obscurantist existential philosophy with which to torture the undergrads at the Sorbonne. But the youth picture seems more troubling, and it's true that the high minimum wage and other structural factors probably do account for some of the difference. But it's equally true that rock bottom tuition fees and generous in-education benefits mean that French students aren't forced to get jobs to pay for their university career in the way that many Americans are. 

At this point I think it's reasonable to ask, what do we want from a national economy? If the answer is that we want greater power and glory for our nation then the US wins hands down. But if the goal is to provide the sustainable economic conditions to enable our population to live materially and socially fulfilling lives, well, I don't wanna say that France necessarily triumphs in this head-to-head, but in economic terms it's a pretty close call. 

But what about that French (un)sustainability? Mountains of public borrowing and debt leading to inflation and sky high interest rates and then a loss of international competitiveness? Not exactly, no:

Debt levels aren't too different:
Figure 7

No sign of soaring prices:

Figure 8

The French actually pay less to borrow than the US:

Figure 9

And their trade balance, although not perfect, is actually marginally better than that of the US:
Figure 10

OK OK, enough graphs. So what's the takeaway from all this? Well, the main one is that there's more than one way to skin an economic cat. The US and France have long adopted divergent economic policies and yet on the majority of economic measures people care about, they appear to have converged anyway. That's not to say that policy doesn't matter at all, of course it does. Internally, the degree of inequality is clearly impacted by a government's fiscal strategy. Also, there are limits to how irresponsible in either direction a government can be and still rely on the underlying strength and resourcefulness of their people to see them through. But within what appear to be relatively wide bounds, people and economies just seem to get on with it, leading to outcomes that differ far less than we are led to believe.

So then why the apocalyptic rhetoric in the anglo-saxon world about the horrors of turning into everyone's favourite Gallic whipping-boy? It can only be politics. The French have long sought to balance the books by raising taxes on the rich. And in an act of rare global solidarity, the rich - who it must be noted, generally control both the government and press - have united in their defence of their shared values. That is, their wealth. Oh, and freedom! Mustn't forget freedom. The freedom of every man, should the fancy take him, to pull on a one-piece and take a nice leisurely dip in his pool.

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