Monday, July 23, 2007

Stop Making Sense

Photo via Frogsmoke

Friend ES sent me this entertaining IHT version of the plea last week by Sarkozy's Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde - in a moment of performative confirmation - for the French to quit thinking so much and try to make more money.

In proposing a tax-cut law last week, Finance Minister Christine Lagarde bluntly advised the French people to abandon their "old national habit."

"France is a country that thinks," she told the National Assembly. "There is hardly an ideology that we haven't turned into a theory. We have in our libraries enough to talk about for centuries to come. This is why I would like to tell you: Enough thinking, already Roll up your sleeves."

Citing Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," she said the French should work harder, earn more and be rewarded with lower taxes if they get rich.

In other words, become more American. That hurts. We're the people the world looks to when you want stupid. But... the philosophes snort back.

"How absurd to say we should think less!" said Alain Finkielkraut, the philosopher, writer, professor and radio show host. "If you have the chance to consecrate your life to thinking, you work all the time, even in your sleep. Thinking requires setbacks, suffering, a lot of sweat."

Bernard-Henri Lévy, the much more splashy philosopher-journalist who wrote a book retracing de Tocqueville's 19th-century travels throughout the United States, is similarly appalled by Lagarde's comments.

"This is the sort of thing you can hear in café conversations from morons who drink too much," said Lévy, who is so famous in France that he is known simply by his initials, BHL. "To my knowledge this is the first time in modern French history that a minister dares to utter such phrases. I'm pro-American and pro-market, so I could have voted for Nicolas Sarkozy, but this anti-intellectual tendency is one of the reasons that I did not."

UPDATE (24 July):

But then, take a look at this op-ed by Krugman discussing the rise of French on-linery. I think this was basically a fairly simple problem. Technologically, France was at the forefront of interactive web technology early on with Minitel, a basic internet service provided to nearly all homes as early as the late 1980s. Minitel was always primitive, especially in hindsight (which is the same for most technologies), but it offered quick searches on addresses, movie showtimes, and so on. It was transformed by users into an online dating service, thus underscoring the potential flexibility of this kind of technology.

But when it came to the internet as we know it today, the problem in France was the near monopoly France Telecom had on telecommunications technologies. This was not simply because it was a near-monopoly, however, so the French system cannot be interpreted in a knee-jerk "monopolies-are-bad" sort of way. The problem was the pricing system for services. French telephone users paid by the minute. Most internet connections were via a phone modem with the same pricing structure. You paid by the minute. It became extremely expensive to engage in aimless internet surfing, as Americans and others were doing. In other words, the incentives for building up an online presence were backwards for the French. This has changed, however, with the breakup of France Telecom's grip. France has become a country of software innovation and a rapidly growing online presence. Krugman notes that France has more broadband users today per hundred than the US. Ultimately, this will entail not only greater online presence, but also greater innovation. Anyway... those French sure work hard.


Unknown said...

I'm pretty sure Americans tend to assume we're on top of the technology heap just because we're Americans. But we're not on top. Our broadband is slow and too expensive. Same goes for our cell phone networks.

Since the turn of the century Europeans and Asians have been doing things with their cell phones that we're just now beginning to. Of course here these "G3" cellphone networks are mainly based on novelty (I can watch ESPN at my daughter's recital 'cause I'm an asshole!) and just tapping into their capabilities costs an arm and a leg.

I know Korea runs rings around us in terms of broadband access (I think they beat everyone in this regard), and I'm pretty sure India's cell phones kick our's asses for a lot less rupees. If we can make all of that accessible and affordable for the price of a couple thousand bureaucrats, sign me up.

Unknown said...

Also, this thinking vs. working (we'll call it "doing") duality reminds me of one the late great Dr. Manuel Davenport's jokes:

Descartes said, "to do is to be." Sartre said, "to be is to do." And Sinatra said, "doo bee doo bee doo."

helmut said...

Nice. I had forgotten that Davenport-ism.