Thursday, July 29, 2010

Le Socialisme Francaise

M. and I actually had a long conversation about this sitting in a cafe the other day. We had visited a bakery in the morning, via a little outfit that arranges visits to traditional French businesses. This was a tiny traditional place in the 18th, on the back side of Sacre Coeur from Montmartre. It was owned by a thirty-something couple who had inherited it from her father. The visit itself was cool, everything happens down in the basement, with 100 year old brick ovens and mixing machines that look like they came out of a factory in 1905.

The wife was supposed to be doing most of the talking, but after a while the husband, who was supposed to be making croissants, warmed to the audience and got rolling. Like most French businessmen, like most businessmen anywhere, he complained. He busts his ass, works 14 hours a day six days a week, he and his wife barely see each other because he works all night and she runs the shop all day. And for what? It's impossible to make any money, because there are 112 bakeries in the 18th arrondissement alone. Multiply that by 20 arrondissements, some of them a lot bigger and more populous than the 18th, and that's maybe 2,500 bakeries in Paris. They all make essentially the same thing, and they are all required by law to charge exactly the same for it. A baguette here is one euro, and it is better, by far, than anything you can get in the US. Well, in Cville, there is exactly one bakery that makes bread on that level, and they get three bucks for a baguette. The guy was amazed that anyone could charge like that for bread.

It's the same question I always ask while I am in the Grenelle market. How can there possibly be three wonderful fish stands within 100 yards of each other in the same market? They all sell the same thing, and they all charge more or less the same, though I don't think there is a law about fish the way there is for bread. The answer is that the markets are all rigged here, the various shops aren't really competing with each other. So the whole system is just a step away from some kind of Soviet deal where there is a ministry of bakeries that produces everything that people eat. Presumably Soviet bread was terrible, like most American bread turned out by giant corporate free-enterprise conglomerates. Yet somehow it works here.... the bread is great, the fish is wonderful. But that hard-working baker can't get rich, he is stuck grinding it out for a (I would guess) very basic middle-class income.

I have a conservative Republican friend who I sit and argue with every week or so. He teases me about spending time in France because it is anathema to the Fox News crowd, the ultimate example of a place where big government has their jackboot on the neck of the average man (he doesn't really talk like that, but lots of people do). But he does seem to think that I am a little crazy to want to spend time in a place that is less than perfectly free, as though I had bought an apartment in North Korea. But it doesn't seem that way once you are here, moment to moment it seems just as free as the US. You can go where you want, say what you want read what you want, just like anywhere else.

But I guess you can't make money like you want, and that says something about why liberals are liberal and conservatives are conservative. Economic freedoms are mostly lost on me. I always feel a little guilty at tax time, because I don't really care about paying taxes. All that Republican outrage that it is OUR money just doesn't bother me. I work in an "industry" where there are thousands of professors turning out more or less the same product and getting paid more or less the same amount of money. I could never live anywhere that was on the one hand entrepreneurial but on the other politically repressed. Singapore, I guess, where you can be busted for chewing gum on the street but it's every man for himself in the marketplace.

Anyway, Western Europe puts the lie to all the nonsense in the US about socialism. It's not that I necessarily think that the US needs to transform itself into Sweden, but it is certainly the case that Western Europe has shown that something like democratic socialism is possible to one degree or another. That Fox News meme that national health insurance is just one step away from the Soviet Union circa 1973 is just wrong. In the US, sooner or later one of the bakeries in the 18th would do a better job than the others, sell decent bread for a little less, force most of the other bakeries out of business, open up a big bread factory somewhere and supply everyone with crappy bread while the lucky, or talented, or hardworking bakery owner got really wealthy. Is that better than having a state-supported system that manages to turn out first-rate bread for a buck and a quarter a loaf, at the price of denying bakers the opportunity to strike it rich?


  1. Eric,
    Overall, I agree completely...
    But here's something that bothers me. The baguette achieved its current form when? Probably by 1900? Similarly for the other French consumer goods that are important in my life? Where is the French Macintosh (or Google)? What happened to these people to make them stop innovating? Is there something to the notion of "creative destruction" in the market?

    Is it just consumer goods? Did any of the scientific ideas that matter in your work originate France after 1900? I have trouble thinking of one. Similarly for philosophy -- thinking of what mattered to me as an undergraduate, I'm still reading Rawls, Foucault not some much. Is that just a matter of Anglophone domination? The French invented probability -- why did they apparently miss statistics?

  2. And, here is someone claiming that French cuisine is failing due to a failure to innovate.