Sunday, August 10, 2008

Market values

A few years after Margaret Thatcher came to power and launched what at the time seemed a futile war to compel the English people to embrace business values, I found myself dazed and confused in a London corner shop.

Down one aisle and up the other, I paced but found no trace of what I'd come for: the world's finest pseudo-cookies. The shelf that once held those delicious McVitie's wafers coated with milk chocolate was now stocked with less desirable items.

At length, I went to the middle-aged shop owner and asked where she'd hidden my favorite treats -- this gift from the gods to those of us who want to pretend our cookies are merely crackers.

"We used to stock those,'' she said, sweetly, "but we kept running out, so we've stopped.''

Right then I thought: Thatcherism is doomed.
--Michael Lewis, Bloomberg, on pre-Thatcher England

In case you missed it, Nicolas Sarkozy, the new French president, has decided that the French need to become more productive. He eliminated the law forbidding work weeks longer than 35 hours, and he's making noises about changing the rule that allows unemployed Frenchmen to turn down job offers that they feel are beneath them and remain on the dole instead. ...

Sarkozy's poll numbers have plummeted. The very same middle- class, white-collar workers who elected him have taken to the streets to protest his callous disregard of the role of leisure in French life. ...

Inflicting market values upon the British circa 1980 felt a bit cruel, but visiting it upon the French circa 2008 feels almost like an unnatural act, like forcing a cat to fetch.

Their problem isn't an incapacity for selfishness, or for individual initiative. Anyone who has ever watched a middle-aged Parisian male muscle aside a pregnant lady with a baby and steal her taxi can see that the French have what it takes to succeed in the modern world. They just don't want to.

They want to take all those selfish impulses that might be directed into improving productivity and efficiency and wealth- accumulation and channel it into being ... French.

And if you want to be French -- if you want to be able to describe the smell of thyme or the sound of cicadas or simply to lounge around some tropical island in a disturbingly small bathing suit -- you need time. And not just a little time. You need so much time that when your president puts an end to a preposterous law limiting the work week to 35 hours, you think nothing of going out into the street and marching around for hours protesting.

There is also the question of competitive advantage. Most nations gain their advantage by making things more efficiently, and at lower cost, than their competitors.

To the extent that the French enjoy a natural advantage, it is in their inefficiency: They are the world's most efficient producers of structured indolence. They are the kept women of the global economy; their status depends, in part, on their practical uselessness.

Reinvent the British and you get a global finance center, edible food and better service. Reinvent the French and you may just get more Germans.
--Michael Lewis dissing the French

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