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03/30/2006

Vive la précarité!

Tocqueville

Whatever happened to the France of Alexis de Tocqueville, Jean-Baptiste Say and Frédéric Bastiat? (Or, for that matter, even the France that gave us Bic pens, Grey Poupon and Catherine Deneuve?)

Simply put, it's been swallowed up by the statist France that French psychologist Michel Schneider calls "Big Mother" (as distinct from Orwell's "Big Brother") a France of womb-to-tomb economic security and government-sponsored prophylaxis from all the rude, unpleasant shocks of life.

Obesity a problem? Then tax junk food and put warning labels on candy bars. Household accidents an issue? Then run public-service announcements on television reminding people to pick up their things like good little boys and girls.

Anyone up for a state-mandated afternoon nap? Obligatory milk and cookies? (Sorry: Forget the cookies. Could lead to obesity. And make that skim milk … organic skim milk.)

As Mathieu Laine wrote more than a year ago in The Wall Street Journal Europe:

Never have the requirements of "public health" and "collective welfare" been more prevalent, and politicians never stop citing them to encroach ever further into our own spheres of decision-making. Unfortunately, while government arbitrariness is the hallmark of the worst of tyrannies, a majority of Frenchmen do not perceive the extensive dangers looming. They even ask for more protection. As the great Tocqueville also predicted, "a great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large."

Much weakened by the economic crisis, the French state succeeds in stirring fears and inventing new missions to rationalize its existence. But this drift must be stemmed while there is still time. For, behind that flow of prescriptions and regulations, behind that supposedly nice striving to change man and make him healthier, if necessary against his will, the totalitarian monster against which so many men and women have fought in the history of our country is inevitably lurking.

Now more than a million protesters have taken to the streets of France to denounce a law, the Contrat Premiere Embauche (CPE), that makes it easier to fire under-26 workers without cause, during their first two years on the job. Never mind that the CPE would create more opportunities for young workers, whose unemployment rate is twice the national average. It violates the guarantees enshrined in Big Mother's vast Code de Travail—at the heart of which is a strictly-enforced 35-hour work week—and therefore must be resisted at all costs.

For U.S. workers under 30, by contrast, the chances of being fired at some point in their careers is about 90 percent. Even CEO firings are at an all-time high. Shockingly, here in the United States, we don't take to the streets to protest about it; we take to the streets and find new jobs. And if  the subtitle of a best-selling business book by Harvey Mackay is any indication, at least some portion of those fired look upon it as "the best thing that ever happened to us."

Yet even as protesters crowd the boulevards, France's economy sinks into the abyss.

The Telegraph
notes:

While Germany has bounced back as the world's biggest exporter, France is losing global share by the year, with a current account deficit of €28 billion ($34 billion) in 2005. Lombard Street Research warned that diverging fortunes may make it impossible for the pair to share a currency, dooming the euro itself.

France's national debt had risen from 20 percent of GDP in the early 1980s to 66 percent last year, growing faster than any major country in the world over the past decade.

The French treasury said the debt will mushroom towards 400 percent by 2050 without an overhaul of the welfare model.

So far, the reflex of French elites has been a retreat into "economic patriotism", an armory of protectionist laws to block foreign takeovers; a shotgun marriage of Suez with Gaz de France to lock out Enel; an ugly welcome to Mittal's bid for Arcelor.

The protesters may embrace the slogans of revolution, but their agenda is reactionary. They want to pretend that the socialist failures and capitalist successes of the last 20 years never happened, that Big Mother still watches over all her children from Callais to Cap d'Antibes.

If they wanted to be really revolutionary, they'd wave a banner like this:

L'état-nounou est mort. Vive la précarité!

The nanny state is dead. Let's live on the edge!

UPDATE: Stephen King (no, not that Stephen King)  makes a related point in The Independent about the globalization and its effect on putative employment and pension "rights":

Globalisation has increased capital and labour mobility. Capital goes to countries where labour is cheap and workers are prepared to work for longer than the French 35-hour week, thereby undermining French claims that a 35-hour week is a right. So long as those in work insist on hanging on to these privileges, those who are out of work will find getting a job difficult.

As Milton Friedman taught us long ago, there's no such thing as a free déjeuner. (HT: Dave Osler.)

Posted by Rodger on March 30, 2006 at 09:55 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

03/29/2006

Enquiring minds

Costner_accused_of_hotel_sex_romp

So I'm standing in the checkout line at Safran's Supermarket, gazing absentmindedly at the cover of The National Enquirer, when it hit me.

I've just sunk to a whole new level of dubious achievement.

From speechwriter to politicians and CEOs … to gossip-sheet snitch. (And I didn't even get paid for the tip!)

Tim Miles of the Enquirer writes:

A hotel masseuse claims Kevin Costner performed a sex act on himself as she gave him a rubdown—on his honeymoon!

The pretty spa therapist says she was left "disgusted" and "mortified" by the movie legend.

After she complained to her bosses, she was fired. At an employment tribunal, where she is claiming unfair dismissal from the tony hotel, Alexandrina Smith, 34, said: "It was disgusting, and even though he was a Hollywood superstar, I couldn't believe he thought he could get away with something like that.

"He abused me and I consider that a criminal act."

Costner, 51, had married wife Christine Baumgartner only a month before the alleged incident. The honeymooners were staying at the American-owned Old Course Hotel at Scotland's world-famous St. Andrews Golf Club in October 2004, where Costner was playing in a pro-am tournament with fellow stars Michael Douglas, Samuel L. Jackson, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Hopper and Hugh Grant.

Alexandrina told the civil court hearing in Scotland that on the first occasion she massaged Costner, the Dances With Wolves' star touched her on the back. "The following day he came back and asked how I was," she recalled.

"Mr. Costner asked if he made me uncomfortable by touching me the day before, but I said no. I was a professional and you have to learn to live with difficult clients.

"I asked how he liked his massage and he said he liked it 'sweet.' I thought it was a strange term to describe a massage.

"He asked me if I was comfortable touching him everywhere and I said no.

"Throughout the massage, he kept putting his hand underneath his towel but never kept it there long enough for me to suspect anything. He told me he smoked pot instead of drinking alcohol because it made him more creative. while writing his film scripts."

Suddenly, Alexandrina went on, Oscar winner Costner grabbed her wrist forcefully, whipped off his towel and pleasured himself.

She added: "I was mortified, when he removed his towel. It was disgusting. I left the room but a colleague went inside and saw what had happened.

"When I was giving his wife a massage afterwards, I wanted to tell her everything."

Reps for Costner said: "We find it unfortunate that Mr. Costner's name has been brought into what is essentially a dispute between a company owned by a good friend of his and a former employee, and that it would tarnish what was a wonderful time spent at the resort with his wife."

Costner's first marriage to Cindy Silva, with whom he has three children, ended after 16 years in 1994, following his reported fling with a hula dancer on Hawaii during the shooting of Waterworld.

In point of fact, the Enquirer story adds little more than the name of the therapist (which was mentioned over the weekend on a French blog)—and a photograph of her (below)—to what we've already seen elsewhere. But there's something about those all-cap headlines ("MASSEUSE SAYS STAR DISGUSTED HER WITH SICK SEX ACT ON HIS HONEYMOON") and lurid graphics that gives the whole sordid tale its proper context.

Alexandrina_smith
As a first-time Enquirer reader, I'm very impressed with the accuracy and thoroughness of the paper's reporting (apart from the fact, of course, that Mr. Miles never bothered to call to get my take on the story).

Actually, I haven't been able to put my copy of The National Enquirer down. I've been reading all about Oprah's 32-pound weight gain (she's really stressed out over the whole James Frey mess) and Star Jones' near-fatal breast lift. This is stuff I'd never find in Vanity Fair or The New Yorker.

In fact, just signed up for a subscription and strongly urge my loyal readers to do the same.

After all, enquiring minds do want to know.

Posted by Rodger on March 29, 2006 at 04:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Michael Douglas: an innocent man

Michael_douglas

This morning I found this comment from "dave" on my March 19 post, "Penalty Stroke?"

It's Michael Douglas. Catherine Zeta Jones is finally experiencing some deserved kharma

Okay, let me say it flat out: Michael Douglas isn't the Scottish spa wanker.

That was the whole point of my post and its follow-up, "Costner speculation goes mainstream."

Look, the Aussie papers have released the name on the massage therapist's complaint to the British labor authorities and have stated—flat out—that the actor in question was Kevin Costner.

And just to be clear: We don't know for certain if Kevin Costner did any of the things the complaint accuses him of. No one else appears to have been in the treatment room, so this boils down to a matter of he says/she says.

I'm inclined to believe the masseuse, however, for two reasons.

First, if she were simply making up a story about a celebrity to pocket some quick cash, I think she would have gone directly to the British tabloids rather than file a labor grievance.  I think she'll probably wind up with a settlement from Kohler, but I think she was looking to vindicate her reputation, which was sullied by her firing.

Second, I think her being fired by Natalie Black—the company's chief counsel, who also happens to be Mrs. Herb Kohler—speaks volumes about the sensitivity of the incident. A company doesn't fly in its big gun from Kohler, Wisconsin, on the corporate jet to fire an employee that far down on the totem pole without a reason. And that reason, I suspect, was to intimidate the masseuse into silence. The message was: You've offended people way above your pay grade, and you now need to slink quietly into that good night if you want to work as a massage therapist anywhere ever again.

Bear in mind, this is purely speculation on my part. We may never learn all the facts of the case.

What is known at this stage, however, is that Michael Douglas is an innocent man. At least where this particular massesuse is concerned.

Let's give him his props—okay, people?

Posted by Rodger on March 29, 2006 at 03:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Forty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong

Contre_la_prcarit

Or can they?

This morning's Wall Street Journal (subscription required) offers a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of those demonstrating against the relaxation of France's stringent Code du travail:

The uproar began as a protest against a new law designed to relax a rigid French labor market that makes it difficult to fire anyone. In the process, however, the unrest has crystallized a deeper French anxiety. In better economic times, France maintained an elaborate system of social protections that cushioned citizens from the demands of the free market. The new law, which students call a symbol of "précarité," or precariousness, undermines that idea.

France's most famous period of violent protests in 1968 saw students rioting against what they saw as a rigid and smothering state. Today, it seems, they want the state back. Serge July, director of France's main left-of-center newspaper, Liberation, and a '68 veteran, says his country is gripped by "anguish about the future." It is also suffering from, he says, a "crisis of identity."

According to a recent poll, France is the only country among 20 surveyed where those who don't have faith in the free market outnumber those who do. Only 36% of those polled in France agreed with the proposition that the free market is the "best system on which to base the future of the world"—compared with 71% in the U.S., 66% in Britain and 65% in Germany. In nominally communist China, 74% said they favored the free market, according to the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes.

Police put the number of protesters yesterday across France at 1.05 million, more than twice as many as the previous biggest protest on March 16. Trade unions, which organized the rallies, put the figure at three million. A one-day strike to coincide with the protest disrupted hospitals, schools, rail services and air traffic, halted delivery of newspapers, dented production at France's biggest oil refinery and shut down the Eiffel Tower.

In short, France would seem to be a nation in collective denial of economic reality.

The French want their mommy—and, if she's not available, then the nanny will have to do.

UPDATE: Dan Harris offers further insight into French economics on the new-to-me (and excellent) China Law Blog:

I lived in France for two years and I can barely remember meeting anyone who liked free markets.   A few years ago, while riding the Paris Métro I saw by his name tag of that I was sitting across from a French Economics professor who was in Paris attending an economics convention.  I asked him why my favorite chocolate bar, Valrhona, cost around $7 everywhere in Paris, yet cost only $3 in Seattle, one of the more expensive cities in the United States.  The professor then gave me a great lecture on French microeconomics.  He explained to me that the store from which I bought the chocolate probably had at least one extra employee it wished it could fire but could not because of French laws.  He explained that the store's employee taxes probably equaled close to half of what it paid each employee.  On top of that, being an employer and being a business, the store had to pay all kinds of other taxes as well.  Then, (and this was five years ago, mind you) he said that the employees, due to minimum wage requirements and all but required raises, probably made at least $15 an hour.

I'm going to bet on China but I will continue buying Valrhona. 

You do have to wonder if anyone in France is worried at all about the message that their demonstrations are sending to countries like China where the citizenry appreciates the value of free markets. I know that if I were running a company in China I'd try to go head-to-head with French competitors everywhere I could, particularly in their home market.

Hmmm … maybe Dan Harris would like to advise Valrhona on outsourcing its chocoate production to China.

Incidentally, on the Valrhona website, there's an excellent history of the chocolate trade, which includes this revealing sentence: "In the 18th and 19th centuries, industrialization, a decrease in taxes and the development of transport made chocolate more democratic." [My emphasis.]

Plainly, the author of this little corporate history fully understands that less government interference in business—whether by cutting taxes or reducing regulation like the Code du travail—makes products and services more competitive in the marketplace. It's a shame he and the professor on the Métro aren't in a position to explain that simple economic fact to the 1.1 million people who demonstrated in the streets of France yesterday.

Posted by Rodger on March 29, 2006 at 06:16 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

03/28/2006

Jettisoning Cargo

Cargo

Do American men really need a shopping magazine?

I guess the answer would be no.

Joining the ranks of Sync and Vitals Man is Condé Nast's Cargo, which is ceasing publication with its May issue.

The magazine's remaining subscriber—former U. S. Senator and 2004 Vice Presidential hopeful John Edwards—will receive GQ, another Condé Nast publication, for the balance of his subscription period.

Posted by Rodger on March 28, 2006 at 03:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Caspar Weinberger 1917–2006

Weinberger

Here rests the soul of our nation—here also should be our conscience.

—Veterans Day address at Arlington National Cemetery, November 11, 1986

Posted by Rodger on March 28, 2006 at 03:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Terrorists say the darnedest things

Moussaoui

A glimpse of jihadist humor, from yesterday's Associated Press story on the Moussaoui trial:

Asked by his lawyer why he signed his guilty plea in April as "the 20th hijacker," Moussaoui replied: "Because everybody used to refer to me as the 20th hijacker and it was a bit of fun."

Yep. We'll have fun, fun, fun till Daddy takes the 757 away.

Posted by Rodger on March 28, 2006 at 09:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

The world's great skylines

Pittsburgh_2

A gentleman named Luigi DiSerio has recently produced a ranking of the 15 best skylines in the world.

Most are in Asia—and, interestingly, only one in Europe (Frankfurt). Chicago, New York and Seattle made the list; San Francisco, surprisingly, didn't.

My hometown of Pittsburgh, however, merited an "honorable mention," at number 16:

Although Pittsburgh only has two buildings over 200m tall, its skyline is very impressive nonetheless. Pittsburgh has nicknames like the "city of bridges", "the Burgh" or the "golden triangle" which outlines its true characteristics. It is surround by three rivers and the CBD is shaped in a triangle and surrounded by golden color bridges. The city is also surrounded by hills and valleys giving access to great views of the city. The city has not had a major skyscraper raised since 1988, but good planning and a scenic surrounding region still makes it a great skyline.

No mention could I find at all of Denver.

Fans of Pittsburgh's spectacular skyline, by the way, should have a look at pittsburghskyline.com, which offers some remarkable photographs (like the one above) of the metropolis once, for a brief shining moment, known as The City With a Smile on Its Face.

Posted by Rodger on March 28, 2006 at 08:10 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

03/27/2006

Abdul the apostate

Abdul_rahman

Andrew Bostom, author of The Legacy of Jihad, has a very good piece on The American Thinker regarding Abdul Rahman's release and how sharia law regards him:

Even if Mr. Rahman gets a “dispensation” by the Karzai Government —for “mental health”, or other reasons, unfortunately, he is and remains guilty as per Afghan religious leaders, and Shari’a. As such, once released from prison, should any pious Afghan Muslim kill him (heeding the calls of local Afghan clerics), according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, (which prevails in Afghanistan), specifically the important legal text The Hidaya by al-Marghiniani (d. 1197),

If any person kills an apostate….Nothing [i.e., no punishment]...is incurred by the slayer.

At this stage, perhaps the only way to assure that Mr. Rahman avoids a tragic and gruesome fate (“We will call on the people to pull him into pieces so there’s nothing left,” maintained Abdul Raoulf a “moderate” cleric jailed for his previous opposition to the Taliban), is to find sanctuary for him outside of Afghanistan.

Let's hope this happens soon. But don't expect the controversy to end when it does.

Posted by Rodger on March 27, 2006 at 07:46 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

A policy of engagement

Tony_blair

Tony Blair gave one of the greatest speeches of his career today to a joint session of Parliament in Canberra, Australia:

We must not hesitate in the face of a battle utterly decisive in whether the values we believe in, triumph or fail. Here are Iraqi and Afghan Muslims saying clearly: democracy is as much our right as yours; and in embracing it, showing that they too want a society in which people of different cultures and faith can live together in peace. This struggle is our struggle.

If the going is tough—we tough it out. This is not a time to walk away. This is a time for the courage to see it through.

But though it is where military action has been taken that the battle is most fierce, it will not be won by victory there alone.

Wherever people live in fear, with no prospect of advance, we should be on their side; in solidarity with them, whether in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma, North Korea; and where countries, and there are many in the Middle East today, are in the process of democratic development, we should extend a helping hand.

This requires, across the board an active foreign policy of engagement not isolation. It cannot be achieved without a strong alliance.This alliance does not end with, but it does begin with America. For us in Europe and for you, this alliance is central. And I want to speak plainly here. I do not always agree with the US. Sometimes they can be difficult friends to have. But the strain of, frankly, anti-American feeling in parts of European politics is madness when set against the long-term interests of the world we believe in.  The danger with America today is not that they are too much involved. The danger is they decide to pull up the drawbridge and disengage. We need them involved. We want them engaged.

The reality is that none of the problems that press in on us, can be resolved or even contemplated without them.

Reading his words this morning, I realized how important Prime Minister Blair's rhetorical support has been to the success of the global war on terror.

Let's hope Britain's next PM is equal to the task.

Posted by Rodger on March 27, 2006 at 06:37 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)