Sunday, April 09, 2006

Propaganda from the NYT (via IHT)

I came across "Economics, French Style" when I awoke this morning, and I thought it would make for some conversation.  In typical NYT/IHT style, it glosses over reality and paints France in a backward light.

PARIS Danielle Scache tries to avoid using the term "capitalism" in her economics class because it has negative connotations in France.

Instead, she teaches her high school students about the market economy, a slightly less controversial term she started using last year after a two-month internship at the dairy giant Danone. That was an experience that did away with more than one of her own prejudices, she said.

"I was surprised to see that people actually enjoyed working in a company," said Scache, who is 59. "Some of them were more enthusiastic than many teachers I know."

"You know," she confided with a laugh, "in France we often think of companies, especially multinationals, as a place of constant conflict between employees and management."

This view of bosses and workers as engaged in an endless, antagonistic tug-of-war goes some way toward explaining the two-month rebellion against a new labor law.

In this world, beyond the political fault lines of left and right, companies and the market cannot be trusted. Any measure that benefits them necessarily hurts employees. The invisible hand in this world is the state, or the "public powers" to use the French term, whose role is to tame companies, protect workers and hold sway over economic growth with public spending.

It is a world that many people here still prefer to live in. In a 22-country survey published in January, France was the only nation disagreeing with the premise that the best system is "the free-market economy." In the poll, conducted by the University of Maryland, only 36 percent of French respondents agreed, compared with 65 percent in Germany, 66 percent in Britain, 71 percent in the United States and 74 percent in China.

The findings suggest that French reluctance to introduce flexibility into the labor market - the embattled new law makes it easier to fire young workers - goes beyond the reform fatigue and nostalgia for the post-World War II welfare state evident in some other European countries. As Finance Minister Thierry Breton put it last week: "There is a significant lack of economic culture in our country."

Hmmm, is it possible that people in France disagree with "capitalism" and "free" markets, not because they are less educated, but because they are more so, because the upsides and downsides of political and economic systems are discussed more openly?

Not surprisingly, all of this gets blamed on education:

"The question of how economics is taught in France, both at the bottom and at the top of the educational pyramid, is at the heart of the current crisis," said Jean-Pierre Boisivon, director of the Enterprise Institute, a company-financed institute that sponsors the internship program for economics teachers that Scache took part in.

"In France we are still stuck in 1970s Keynesian-style economics - we live in the world of 30 years ago," he said. "In our schools we fabricate a vision of society that is very different from the one that exists in other countries."

True enough.  As so many of Jérôme's diary have shown, quality of life and economic growth do not differ significantly in France, and though unemployment is an issue, even the numbers there do not suggest France is a radical outlier.  Economy, as taught in France, in its elite schools, does not seem to differ from the pro-globalization econ taught in so many other places like London and Chicago:

French and international economists agree that the material taught at France's top universities and elite business schools, like HEC, or Hautes Études Commerciales, and Essec, or École Superieure des Sciences Économiques et Commerciales, does not differ markedly from that taught elsewhere. Indeed, France has a long tradition of excellence in academic economics; Europe's most famous economist is Jean-Claude Trichet, the Frenchman who heads the European Central Bank.

What is interesting is that the author of the story forgot to mention the revolt that took place in France in 2000 and gave birth to "Post Autistic Economics".  This revolt did not come from the lower strata, but from the students at the very top of the grandes écoles.  Students at Harvard followed suit by protesting the intro to economics there, which has been taught in essentially the same way for 30 years.  Clearly, if this article were a true discussion of the economic thought in France it would mention all of this.  It does not, and that is revealing and it suggests that the author of the article is penning yet another "hit job" on France.  She goes on to discuss how economics is taught in high schools: "But in high schools, the "economic and social sciences" branch - one of three options that is chosen by about a third of all students - appears to dwell more on the limitations of the market and the state's task of addressing those limitations than on the market itself."

Then the author really gets to the true danger to economic "education" in France:

And then there are the textbooks. One, published by Nathan and widely used by final-year students, has this to say on p. 137: "One must analyze the salary as purchasing power that you could not cut without sparking a deflationary spiral and thus higher unemployment." Another popular textbook, published by La Découverte, asks on p. 164: "Are there still enough jobs for everyone?" It then suggests that the state subsidize jobs in the public sector: "We can seriously envisage this because our economy allows us already to support a large number of unemployed people."

These arguments were frequently used on the streets in recent weeks, where many protesters said raising salaries and subsidizing work was a better way to cut joblessness than flexibility.
Et voilà, now we understand the real culprit behind the civil disobediance--high school teachers and text books.  That's right, it's all those unreformed Soixante-huitards inculcating Maoist propaganda into French youth!

I'm not saying that the textbooks aren't simplistic or even wrong, but I would suggest a more thorough analysis of them before jumping to any conclusions.  Textbooks have been a political issue for decades now in the U.S., and the effect has been to stifle discussion of economics, slaver, class, sexuality and any number of "controversial" subjects.  If the French students are brainwashed, then the American ones are

simply robots, if textbooks are to be believed.

Anyway, that's my take on an article I found rather offensive this morning (or afternoon, depending on your location...).