A Letter to a Cousin in France

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My dear cousin Gérard,

Thank you for giving me news from the old country. Congratulations on your acquittal! To whom do you owe the favor of the court's providential misplacing of these evidence files? Wait, on second thought, don't answer that question.

As for me, I have been totally aboveboard since I immigrated to the United States. As you remember, I left our profitable little organization because I was sick and tired of helping politicians pluck the country like a gullible goose. I wanted to leave behind the dirtiness, the lies, the posing.

I came to the US with some reverence, and, dare I say, a bit of awe. Yes, laugh me up. Nevertheless, you have to admit that the US was founded on principle and deeds quite above the bloody chaos that gave birth to many European republics. Take France, where people still think so highly of themselves in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary. Its line of absolutist kings was toppled by a demented slaughter calling itself a revolution, which gave birth to an emperor, more kings, another emperor, and a series of unsteady, depraved governments. Compare the rabid, bloodthirsty revolutionaries of Paris with the thinkers who authored the Federalist Papers — look it up online. It's obvious that the depth of thought that went into America's founding principles has few equivalents in Europe.

Not that we didn't have our moments of fun back in the old country. Remember when that guy wanted to found an anti-corruption opposition party? How we were called to handle it? I supervised the state's "security interventions" to cut power to the buildings the guy rented for his conventions, and you manufactured the rioting protests that destroyed the cars of the attendees while the national police watched. After a few weeks, nobody dared to attend the guy’s speeches. Good times, good times. And well-paid, too.

But it was becoming as painful as watching a pit bull ripping a kitten to shreds — over and over again. So I left home. I left the grime, the dishonesty, the corruption, and I started an honest business in this still mostly honest country. All these years, you told me, "You just wait." I didn't want to believe you.

But you were right, damn your cynical hide.

You probably have not heard of it — hell, even the American media barely mentioned it. But it started. The rot is taking hold. We — the USA, I mean — are becoming just like the old country.

It always starts when politicians get government employees to persecute their opponents. I'm not talking about finding dirt on the challenger in an election No, I'm talking about using the tax system to harass and suppress political opponents. I know, this is old news in France or Italy, but here, it was unheard of.

Yet that's exactly what Obama's IRS just did. The Federal tax administration singled out constitutional-government organizations and used tactics that I'm sure you'll find interesting: intimidation, extreme indiscretion, dereliction of duty, abnormal delays, and plain harassment. For example, the IRS (that’s what the tax outfit is called) was asking Tea Party chapters to provide the full biographies of all the officer's family members, their plans, their income past, present, and future, the works! They also wanted the news clippings that mentioned them, information about future meetings during the next two years, financial information on officers and their families. Better, they planned to make all that information publicly available! This, in a country where a Social Security number is enough to open a line of credit. And this abuse went on for years.

It’s so gross that even the leftist MSNBC television channel mentioned it. To give you context, this is a channel on which anchors interviewing leftists ask for their autographs. On the air.

Of course, the IRS pretends that this is all a regrettable mistake made by lowly clerks at a single IRS center in Cincinnati, that it was nothing political. That's a lie, obviously: discrimination against opponents was dished out by several IRS offices. And the IRS announced that there will not be a single slap on the wrist to punish this unbelievable abuse, which confirms that it was an operation led from the top.

This shattered my illusions about this country, and with them, my hopes for a republic as a form of government that could succeed somewhere. Yes, Gérard, I am naive. I am glad I am telling you this in writing. It will save me the trouble of slapping that annoying smirk off your face.

Which brings me to a business proposal. Obviously, the US is ripe for the next step. They have these amateurs in the Chicago "machine" that do more or less the same job as you, but lack the polish, the experience that you can bring to your operations. Why don't you open your "political consultancy cabinet" here? I'll help you, as I did in the past, for the same percentage. You will find it appetizing: a country of 300 million wide-eyed yokels, most of whom still believe what the media tell them.

Oh, and don't bother with a work visa. I heard they're going to have a big amnesty anyway.

Reluctantly yours,
Cousin Jacques




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Speaking Truth to Stupidity

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An amusing incident occurred recently in France, which not long back elected a Socialist government — an incident so amusing it warrants noting.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, an American tire company — Titan International — was looking at possibly taking over Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company’s unprofitable French factory in Amiens. Maurice Taylor, Titan’s CEO, visited the factory late last year to assess the economic viability of the proposed acquisition.

Taylor looked the place over and wrote an interesting letter to the French Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg, explaining why he was not going to pursue the deal — a letter that caused a hysterical reaction in a government much given to hysteria.

In his inspection of the plant, Taylor found that the communist-controlled union was totally obstructive to all the changes needed to make it profitable, including such mundane steps as requiring workers to work put in longer hours and permitting target layoffs of unneeded staff. He found that the highly-paid union workers were working only three hours a day on average. Worse, the workers were demanding that Titan guarantee all their jobs for a minimum of seven years.

In his letter to Montebourg, who had contacted Taylor in January to see why Titan wasn’t pursuing the failing factory, Taylor replied, “Sir, your letter states that you want Titan to start a discussion. How stupid do you think we are?” He went on to say, “Titan is the one with the money and the talent to produce tires. What does the crazy union have?”

This brought on Montebourg’s hysterical reaction. He told Taylor, “Your comments, which are as extremist as they are insulting, display a perfect ignorance of our country, France.” The furious Frenchie added the dig, “Can I remind you that Titan . . . is 20 times smaller than Michelin . . . and 35 times less profitable? That shows how much Titan could have learned and gained from establishing itself in France.”

However, the moronic Montebourg did not answer the obvious question of why, if the French tire maker Michelin is so marvelously profitable and skillful, it didn’t pick up the plant itself.

The exaggerated response showed that the Socialist government is once again on the defensive. It is making only the feeblest attempts at reforming France’s notoriously rigid and archaic workplace rules, rules that make laying off or cutting back the hours of workers extremely difficult, and so international business is continuing to avoid opening production facilities there.

I wish that I could revere CEO Taylor as an entrepreneurial hero speaking truth to politicians as stupid as they are powerful. But in his letter, Taylor accused the American government of being little better than the French because it hasn’t taken steps to protect America’s tire makers from Chinese competition.

It doesn’t seem to occur to Taylor that protectionist laws help domestic unions get similarly rigid and inefficient work rules for American workers.




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More Flush French Flee France

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In a recent piece for this journal, I talked about the interesting case of Gerard Depardieu, the famous French actor who returned his passport to the Socialist government and moved to Belgium (and now has a Russian passport) after the Socialists took power and raised taxes to astronomical heights. Depardieu’s departure touched off a firestorm of media controversy in France.

Well, more famous flush French are following Depardieu’s lead. The first is Bernard Arnault, the richest man in the country. Arnault, CEO of luxury retail-brand conglomerate LVMH, has moved his personal fortune of nearly $9 billion out of France and into Belgium, “for family inheritance reasons.”

In other words, he wants his family — his five children, to be precise — to be able to receive the bulk of what his business acumen has won him. And no doubt the Socialist’s goal of confiscating 75% of what he earns is also a motivating factor for Arnault.

Arnault made his billions by building iconic brands such as fashion lines Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton, and booze brands such as Moet & Chandon and Hennessy.

Belgium, by the way, has a 3% inheritance tax, much less than France’s current 11% (which is on its way up); it has no wealth tax. And its capital gains and income tax rates are much lower than what the Socialists plan for France.

Even more noteworthy is the announcement that former French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy is preparing to move to London — along with his famous supermodel wife Carla Bruni. He plans to set up a modest investment fund of perhaps $1.6 billion, from which he will no doubt earn a fair amount. By moving to London he will escape the 75% income tax.

No doubt an additional motive for his flight is that he is being investigated for various funding scandals as well as allegedly using public money to pay for opinion polling for his campaign.

It just gets more amusing by the day . . .




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More Ironies of the Left

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As Gary Jason recently noted in his Reflection "Galt’s Gulch: Somewhere Near Moscow?", some high profile people are leaving France after the latest round of tax increases. In particular, the new 75% income tax rate created by President Hollande hit a nerve. Well-known actor Gerard Depardieu settled in Belgium, publicly denouncing this tax, which kicks in at about $1.2 million a year. He was offered a passport from Russia, and he expressed admiration for that country, which, incidentally, also offers a 13% flat tax rate.

But ironically, Depardieu has firmly rooted leftist opinions.

In the ’80s, he campaigned for François Mitterrand, the head of the French Socialist Party, who became president in 1981. In 1993, he publicly supported the French Communist Party, which was disintegrating after the end of Soviet Union. In 2002, he made a large donation to a fund created for rebuilding the Party — with little success, fortunately. Later, he supported president Sarkozy, a "conservative" who picked many socialists for key positions of his government and continued the statist policies of the Left.*

Depardieu more or less willingly cultivates an image of an uncouth, rustic drunkard, and is prone to excess that raises some eyebrows even in France. Especially in 2011, when he got kicked off a plane, charged with pissing on the carpet. Needless to say, this doesn't make him less popular; au contraire, the paparazzi love him.

However, the man isn't a simple-minded boor. A highly paid actor, Depardieu invested wisely and has enjoyed for years a sizable income outside of the movie industry. He owns vineyards, restaurants, a media production company, and other profitable assets.

It is therefore obvious that his sudden interest in low-tax countries is entirely because of his personal financial interests. Sadly, I didn't find any article pointing out Depardieu's hypocrisy. When they criticized the actor, journalists merely deployed a tired class warfare rhetoric.

Depardieu is not an exception. Other left-leaning French showbiz celebs have said adieu to France, which was a taxpayer abattoir even before Hollande took over. Their favorite destination is Great Britain, where PM Cameron has announced he will roll out the red carpet for this exile of French notables. Many of the French nouveaux riches already live in Switzerland or Monaco, where streets are safe and taxes are low — two things that are now a memory to Parisians. However, the discreet exile of all this French talent and money never really caught the attention of the media.

Depardieu is not a role model. But his noisy, cantankerous escape from overtaxed France had the merit of drawing attention on the disgusting duplicity of rich leftists who cannot stomach the policies they wished for. High taxes for thee, but not for me.

*See this report from the French desk of the Huffington Post, and also this from the newsmagazine L'Humanité.




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Galt’s Gulch: Somewhere Near Moscow?

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I confess that I have been following the saga of the great French actor Gerard Depardieu with considerable fascination. I won’t rehash the entire tale, as I have written about it at some length elsewhere, but it has reached a surprising culmination.

In brief, the outstanding (if controversial) actor, who has appeared in about 170 films, and was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Cyrano de Bergerac in the eponymous 1990 film, decided to leave his native country after the Socialist Party won the recent French elections. Specifically, the Socialist government carried through with its threat to hike the taxes on the rich from the current 41% to a staggering 75%. The Socialists also jacked up taxes on total wealth, on middle-class incomes, and on capital gains, and imposed an “exit tax” on any entrepreneurs — a group already not well represented in France — who are enterprising enough to flee the confiscatory taxes.

The Socialists obviously regret that they can’t build a wall and shoot citizens who dare to depart the New Socialist Paradise. When Depardieu announced he was leaving, he touched off a firestorm, with key Socialist government officials excoriating him, while other actors came to his defense. He sold his Paris mansion, returned his passport to the French government, and moved his possessions to a town in Belgium. But the question then was — what nationality would he adopt?

The most recent report is that he has decided to become — a Russian! Yes, just recently President Putin signed a citizenship grant giving the hefty star a new home.

Why would a French actor be drawn to Mother Russia?

Certainly, he has a huge following among Russian film-lovers. In 2011 he went to Russia as part of the filming of Rasputin (ever notice that the last part of the name Rasputin is Putin?), in which he played the lead. And he is a familiar face on Russian TV, famous for his commercials for Sovietsky Bank and various consumer products.

But I suspect that the fact that Russia has a flat income tax of a mere 13% may be part of the reason.

All this has led to some delightful tension between the French and Russian governments. The — what? defection? — of a French star to Russia has embarrassed France and allowed Putin to advertise the fact that Russia is a low-tax state. But the fact that Depardieu has been chummy with Putin has angered some Russians critical of Putin, and led the French Green Party to suggest that France grant honorary citizenship for the girls in the band Pussy Riot, who were thrown in the clink after criticizing Putin in a performance.

Now, as the neosocialist Obama jacks up taxes on the rich (on top of neosocialist Governor Jerry Brown’s increase in California), it may be that our own successful citizens may also start considering moving to Russia. My only warning is that they should be prepared to work hard to master the language. It is a notoriously complex tongue . . .




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Not Miserable at All

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Victor Hugo's masterpiece Les Miserables has resonated with readers and viewers for over a century and a half. Even Ayn Rand said that Victor Hugo was her favorite author. Set in the decades following the French Revolution, Les Miserables is the tale of "the wretched ones" for whom the Revolution had meant little. They were still living hand to mouth, still tyrannized by authority and by public opinion; in short, still wretched.

Hugo frames his story as the classic conflict between justice and mercy. As a young man, Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving children. He is tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years of hard labor. His sentence is doubled when he tries to escape. As the story begins, he is finally paroled. But the sentence stays with him; since he must present his papers wherever he goes, he cannot find a job or even lodging.

Inspector Javert represents justice. He believes that a convict can never change, and he keeps a close watch on parolees. When Valjean breaks parole by changing his name in order to get a job, Javert is relentless in his pursuit.

Jean Valjean represents mercy and redemption. He is transformed by a kindness performed on his behalf — perhaps the first kindness he has experienced in his adult life. Because this kindness is shown by a bishop of the church when he deserves only justice, Valjean vows to become like that man of God by emulating his godlike service. Fittingly, the bishop is portrayed in this film by Colm Wilkinson, the Irish tenor with the soaring voice who originated the role of Jean Valjean in London's West End and has played him off and on for 26 years. Onscreen, at least, Jean Valjean has indeed become the man of God.

Valjean embodies the idea that a person can be reformed and redeemed through the power of love. He is one of the noblest characters in literature. Time and again he gives up his own safety, comfort, and freedom for the safety, comfort, and freedom of another. At one point as he prepares to trade his freedom for another’s, he sings, "My soul belongs to God I know; I made that bargain long ago. He gave me hope when hope was gone — he gave me strength to journey on." His sacrifices bring him joy, not sadness. In the climax, Valjean learns that "to love another person is to see the face of God."

Half a dozen film versions and a television miniseries have been made over the years, with varying success. Most of them focus on the wretchedness of the characters, not the joy that comes from being anxiously engaged in a good cause. The adaptation that immortalized the book is the 1985 musical written by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Alain Boublil (original French lyrics), and produced by British theater impresario Cameron Mackintosh. "Les Miz," as it is affectionately known, has been seen by over 60 million people in 42 countries and 21 languages. It has won nearly 100 international awards.

Valjean embodies the idea that a person can be reformed and redeemed through the power of love. He is one of the noblest characters in literature.

Ironically, the stage version did not win the British Tony for 1985; that prize went to a musical comedy revival of Me and My Girl. The critics were not kind to Les Miz on opening night. But the audiences were more than kind. They were spellbound. I know — I was there at the Barbican during one of the preview performances. I had read Hugo's book, of course, but I had never heard the music. Few people had. Hearing it cold like that, especially the multi-layered "One Day More" that closes the first act, was the most profound experience I have ever had in the theater. I saw it at least a dozen times, taking our London visitors whenever they came to town.

Make room on the shelf, Mr. Mackintosh, because your awards will soon be in triple digits with the triumphant film version of the musical.

Mackintosh is executive producer of the film version, and it shows. He and director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, 2010) wisely decided to make few changes. They avoided the temptation to add unsung dialogue or additional background scenes except as they appear in montage during the songs. Instead, they simply trusted their source material and let the music carry the show. They also took the risk of using the voices as the actors performed them, rather than fixing them up in post-production or dubbing the voices of professional singers, as was done so often in the musicals of the 1950s and 60s (that's Marni Nixon's voice singing as Maria in West Side Story, Eliza inMy Fair Lady, and Anna in The King and I, as well as a slew of others).

The result may not produce as satisfying a movie soundtrack album; the voices in this film are occasionally unbalanced or even off-key. But the film is a richer, more intimate experience than the stage version. Hooper is a genius at eliciting natural emotion from his actors. Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the factory worker unfairly cast into the streets by a spurned, lecherous foreman, displays such excruciating agony that it seems almost voyeuristic to watch her sing "I Dreamed a Dream." Similarly, the montage of expositive actions as Valjean sings "Who Am I?" brings a depth to his character not possible in the stage presentation. The entire film is a glorious experience. By contrast, the soundtrack of the recent 25th anniversary sung-through version is pitch perfect, but it lacks the emotional power and passion of this film.

I wasn't thrilled with the casting decisions; when I heard that Hugh Jackman would be playing Valjean and Russell Crowe would be playing Javert, my initial reaction was "right men, wrong parts." Valjean is a big, burly man, capable of lifting a 500-pound cart or carrying a man through the sewers. Crowe would be perfect as Valjean. On the other hand, Javert is tall, dark and slender, just like Hugh Jackman. It's the worst casting decision since Marlon Brando was given the romantic lead as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls while Frank Sinatra was given the supporting role as the lovable lummox, Nathan Detroit. I understand the reasoning; Jackman is a tenor with the Broadway credits to pull off a difficult role, while Crowe, let's just say, is not known for his singing. A masculine Marni Nixon would have been needed for sure.

But under Hooper's skilled direction, Crowe's weakness becomes Javert's strength. As an actor, Crowe is a megastar, confident and sure, but when he sings, there is an uncertainty in his voice and face. This uncharacteristic tentativeness inadvertently reveals the inner struggle of the character. Javert is a powerful representative of the law, confident and sure about the sanctity of justice, but in the face of Valjean's great mercy, Javert's certainty falters. Crowe's uncertainty as a singer serendipitously communicates Javert's uncertainty as an officer of the law. Crowe's imperfection is surprisingly perfect.

This is the best movie musical since the 1960s. Great story, noble hero, glorious music, moving lyrics, and a director who knocks it out of the park. The emotion is always right on the edge of rawness without falling into the maudlin. As one of my friends said, "the right guy at the right time for the right film." Don't miss it.


Editor's Note: Review of"Les Miserables," directed by Tom Hooper. Working Title Films, 2012, 157 minutes.



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The French Disease

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The French were just handed an affront to their out-sized pride. Moody’s has just downgraded their national debt. France has now lost its sterling AAA rating, dropping a notch to Aa1.

Moody’s cited a number of reasons, including France’s rigid (i.e., over-regulated) labor market, its lack of innovation, and its high level of national debt. The first two factors seem likely to lead to the undermining of its industrial base, and the last leaves it open to the bad debt problems of Greece and Spain, the agency noted.

Of course, it is unlikely that the new, avowedly socialist regime of Francois Hollande will alleviate any of these problems — in fact, it will likely exacerbate them by further poisoning the economic system with statist nostrums.

But lest we laugh too loudly at the French, we need to remember that we have the same disease. The neosocialist regime of Obama has also massively proliferated restrictions on the labor market. Start most notoriously with Obamacare, whose onerous provisions become fully operational in 2014, and which will slap huge new expenses on companies for employees working 30 or more hours a week (at least for companies with 50 or more employees). Add the aggressive use of the NLRB to force unions on hapless employees and businesses, insane new regulations on fossil fuel energy (especially coal production), the Lilly Ledbetter Act, dramatically expanding the ease of filing sex discrimination lawsuits, and so on, and you have the same fate in store for our productivity and innovation.

Regarding our national debt, we are already worse than France, not just in absolute amounts (we are a bigger country), but as a percentage of GDP. The French are at about 90% debt to GDP ratio, while we exceeded 100% early in Obama’s profligate tenure.

No doubt this is what has moved Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to call for a radical new change in our legal system. He recently proposed that America should just eliminate the limit to debt altogether, knowing that the existing limit will be hit in the very near future, and not relishing a congressional fight over the matter. Let’s just borrow money with no limitations, until we spend ourselves into prosperity.

Jason’s Law of Karma in political ethics is that people get the government they deserve. This is just as true for us as it is for the French. We are all Greeks now.




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Europe’s Next Tax Horizon

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If they weren’t so snide, smug, and supercilious, you would almost be tempted to pity the wretched Europeans — you know, the culturally superior members of the human race. I mean, they are more or less bankrupt, what with their “generous” and “compassionate” welfare states now running out of tax money. And, brother, do they have taxes — in the matter of taxation, they are the wet dream of Obama-worshipers. They have confiscatory income taxes (in France, now set at 75% for the highest bracket), massive property and gas taxes, and national sales taxes (aka VAT taxes) in the mid-20% range that is standard in the rapidly declining continent.

The idea of cutting the sickeningly bloated welfare state is unpopular in these benighted regimes, and normal tax sources are now taxed to the max. So the challenge to the welfare statists is to come up with new tax sources.

The Germans — ever keen and crafty — may have solved the problem. It was recently reported that the more left-wing German political parties (the Social Democrats and the Greens) are now suggesting a wealth tax of 1% on total assets of 2 million Euros or more. So even if you are retired or otherwise unemployed, but along the way you and your spouse have managed to buy a nice home, jewelry, perhaps a portfolio of stocks and bonds, maybe some artwork — the total value will be assessed (at no doubt inflated valuations — remember, the entity doing the assessment will be precisely the one that pockets the money), and looted.

Anyway, that’s where it will start. Remember, the original American federal income tax started very low (top rate of 7%). So did the VAT tax in all the European countries cursed with it. What happens is that the burst of new revenue always results in not just the expansion of existing social welfare programs but the creation of whole new ones, which — like bay cockroaches — will only grow and multiply further.

Indeed, one German “thinktank” has called for a one-time tax of 10% on all wealth over 250,000 Euros. This would likely bring in about the equivalent of 9% of GDP, and an eager exit of capital from the country.

But again, who believes it would be done just once? The same egalitarian arguments for doing it once will be used to justify doing it (say) every other year, or even every year, or even every 6 months, or even . . .




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The Paradoxical Comfort of Bureaucracy

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Back in the days when your grandfather was still looking at your grandmother with inquisitive lust, I spent about 18 months on an aircraft carrier. I was a draftee in the French Navy, untrained for anything and possibly the lowest man on the totem-pole. I was 21 when I got out. In good time, I attended the university and graduate school in the US and I became a scholar in organizational theory (a pretty good one if I say so myself).

But my brief military experience remains vivid in my memory. In part, that's because everything you do at 20 tends to live in the brain in Technicolor and in Panavision. In part it's alive in my mind because interesting things happened there. When I write now about my naval period, I feel almost forced to apply a bit of organizational analysis to my memories. It's a slightly disturbing experience because being a small cog in a bureaucratic organization, a state organization at that, unexpectedly fails to evoke bad feelings.

It's disturbing because life and work within a bureaucracy is at the antipodes of libertarian utopian imagery. It's disturbing, additionally, because government routinely acts as the principal agent of routine state oppression in societies with a constitutional government such as the US. This malaise is also an opportunity. I believe that people who think of themselves as libertarians, even those with a mere libertarian bent, don't spend enough time thinking about disconfirming evidence, about experiences that run counter to their main existential choices. Here is a brief analysis, one that may speak a little to the issue of why some people are attached to bureaucracies in spite of their libertarian leanings.

In the navy, for days and weeks on end, I lived in an environment made entirely of steel except for the small patch of linoleum I cleaned every morning and the occasional spare piece of rubber connection. To be completely accurate, I have to specify that there were also plastic curtains around the bunks and part-cotton sheets inside. And the metal surroundings were all not especially unpleasant. Perhaps, if you are going to venture on the treacherous ocean, it's good to do it in a vessel made of thick sheets of steel joined together by large and visible steel nuts and bolts.

I felt the same about the organizational environment as I did about the physical environment of the ship. In general, I felt safe on the aircraft carrier. There were several reasons, some of which it costs me to remember because doing so constitutes a confession of sorts.

First, there were well-thought-out and well-rehearsed routines for everything, at least for everything that I knew then and, to a large extent, even for what I now know. (I never experienced naval combat, but I think the same principle prevailed there.) You could believe that whatever happened, the people doing something about the whatever would not be improvising a response. You could also be confident that their response would be familiar — familiar to them, that is, however alien it seemed to you.

Perhaps, if you are going to venture on the treacherous ocean, it's good to do it in a vessel made of thick sheets of steel.

Even my living-quarters close neighbors, the bosun's mates who were operating under the influence of alcohol most of the time, projected an air of competence. Bringing two small boats smoothly side by side in a choppy sea did not seem to tax the young guys who I would have bet could probably not negotiate the gangway to get themselves ashore for a fresh drink.

The second behavioral factor contributing to this feeling of safety was chronic overstaffing. I think that personnel redundancy is a general organizational principle in navies, military organizations, as opposed to merchant fleets, for example. The aircraft carrier is a special case because of its multiple functions. So I will focus on the case of a small destroyer that is similar in size to many cargo-ships of the pre-container period. My considered, serious guess is that the crew of a destroyer was at least three times larger than the crew of a freighter of similar tonnage. Or, to put it another way, the captain of a small freighter of the day could easily have boasted: “I can run this destroyer with my eighteen men. Just put ashore its current excessive crew of sixty. We will do the job, no problem. Perhaps, leave one gunner behind; no big deal.”

Overstaffing is a luxury that ensures that few if any organizational members will be stressed by overwork, except perhaps at the very top. There were telling details supporting this perspective, details that would have bespoken laziness in any framework other than a military one. Thus, when the officer on watch on the bridge made an announcement over the ship's public address system, he did not conclude his address with a greeting or introduce himself or give a summary, nor did he hang the mike himself. He had an enlisted gopher standing by to make these small gestures for him.

Another way to speak of overstaffing is to refer to underwork. My boss was the Chief of Operations, the third ranker on board. He had one full yeoman, a guy who had signed up voluntarily and who had been more or less trained by the navy. I, a draftee, had received no training beyond boot camp. My boss agreed early in our acquaintance that his assistant-yeoman, myself, was to deliver each day a given, limited amount of work. The amount was one single typed stencil. That would have been the amount of typing a careful, well-trained professional typist (working on terra firma) could easily have supplied in one hour. The key to understanding the apparent waste is this: At any one time, my boss the Operations Chief knew that he could put seaman Delacroix to work to do the urgent or the unexpected — hand-carry a message, sharpen his pencils, or pick up his laundry in a raging storm — without sacrificing any other aspect of his, the Chief's, responsibilities. So the abundance of underutilized work capacity was a source of comfort for all aboard ship; it implied that those with serious responsibilities were unlikely to be overwhelmed by them.

The principle of overstaffing, or of an underutilized work force, ran throughout and up and down the complex organizational chart of the aircraft carrier. There were three apparent exceptions. First, some menial functions might be understaffed for a short time. Second, one crucial but rarely performed task apparently failed to command sufficient personnel. Third, the most industry-like subpart of the ship's organization seemed to be perennially short of qualified bodies.

First, the menials. It might happen occasionally and for a brief period that some small functional department was short one man. That would always be in areas of activity where overworking the remaining men, by giving each the equivalent of half a civilian work load, for example, would not seriously endanger other operations. I am literally referring to peeling potatoes and to cutting hair while at sea. It was common practice among petty-officers to bribe the crewmen thus rudely put upon, with a couple of bottles of beer. (Yes, there was and there is alcohol on French naval ships. Their crews may not shoot straight but they are not stressed!)

A second exception to the rule of underutilization of personnel still puzzles me a little. There was only one old senior petty-officer on board who was able to steer the huge ship through certain narrow harbor entrances in very stormy seas. This scarcity perplexes me because the task was in no way comparable in its importance to peeling potatoes, for instance. The preservation of extremely expensive matériel and possibly the safeguarding of many lives demanded that this skill be available.

Yes, there was and there is alcohol on French naval ships. Their crews may not shoot straight but they are not stressed!

I have no solid explanation for this queer penury. Here is my best guess though: most of the functions to be performed on the ship could be reduced to small gestures that could in turn be described concretely and thereby routinized. Most of those functions could be reduced to routines that were easy to learn even for the moderately gifted. Producing in advance of need a ready supply of people to perform those functions was not a big deal. Those common functions demanded only carefulness for successful performance. By contrast, the ability to drive a gigantic floating object battered by winds and contradictory wave conditions through a narrow passage depended on tacit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge is knowledge that is difficult to transfer deliberately. It's what can be learned but cannot be taught, or only taught to a limited extent. Tacit knowledge is found also in art, in dress-designing, in bread-baking and of, course, in the brewing of beer. I mean with respect to the latter that it's easy to brew beer and fiendishly difficult to brew good beer. Because much of tacit knowledge cannot be taught, precisely, it may often be in short supply. Alternatively, it may occur naturally more commonly than is objectively necessary (as with artists, for example). Such oversupply does not receive much notice, naturally. Only shortages are noticeable.

The third exception to the principle of overstaffing keeps sticking in my mind because it does not make obvious sense in spite of my best efforts.The flight deck crewmen often complained of overwork. Their jobs were both essential (obviously, we were on an aircraft carrier) and as minutely divided and routinized as anything, anywhere on earth. So, if the principle of overstaffing did not apply to them, it was not because their work relied on tacit knowledge that was hard to find. Neither were they expendable like the potato jockeys I evoked earlier. I just don't know for sure why they said they were overworked. This want of an explanation mars my nice analysis, but I must almost leave it at that. I say “almost,” because I sometimes had the thought that being overworked — or proclaiming oneself overworked — was cool for flight deck personnel but not for other crewmen.

They, the flight deck crewmen, had to work day in and day out with pilots whose own exalted status was likely to create different emotions around them. Come to think of it, I had an intuition about that cultural proximity factor right then. I spent much time observing landing and takeoff maneuvers on the flight deck from a safe spot. And I was well aware of aviation crewmen’s complaints about overwork. Nevertheless, their complaints never troubled my own sense of comfort, although my tiny office, with me inside, bent over my typewriter, could have easily been wiped out by a single misdirected landing.

I hope the reader understands that the few preceding paragraphs constitute a kind of regrettable but real declaration of faith in well-designed bureaucracy. Of course no one asked that particular bureaucracy to be efficient. It was expected only to be effective, to get the job done, almost irrespective of cost.


Editor's Note: This essay is adapted from Delacroix's as-yet-unpublished memoir, “I Used to Be French: An Immature Autobiography.”



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Who are the Real PIGS?

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As Europe continues to flounder, and as people continue to wonder whether (or more likely, when) Greece is going to default on its sovereign debt, various commentators have bandied the epithet “PIGS” (or “PIIGS”, depending on which nations a commentator wants to include).

By this acronym they refer to a group of countries — Portugal, Ireland, (Italy), Greece, and Spain — that have borrowed profligately, unlike such disciplined places as France, Germany, and the United States. What the miserable PIIGS need to do is start getting their snouts out of the troughlearn to manage their economies efficiently, as their betters do.

It’s obvious that the PIIGS need to liberalize their economies and better manage their fiscal houses. But the morally supercilious tone of the commentary annoys me. I don’t think the US or the major European states are in any position to be giving lectures. Their own levels of debt are outrageous, too.

A recent report brings the point home. If you don’t look at sovereign debt by sheer amount, but look instead at per capita debt — that is, take the aggregate national debt and divide it by the number of citizens in a country — you will see that the PIIGS aren’t as piggish as we are.

Spain’s per capita debt is $18,395. Portugal’s is slightly more, at $19,989. But France’s per capita debt exceeds these two by a wide margin. It’s $33,491.

Again, Greece is outrageous at $38,937, Italy at an amazing $40,475, and Ireland — Erin go Bragh!—at a staggering $43,887.

But the US, the paragon of fiscal rectitude, already stands at $44,215 per capita — more porcine than any of the PIIGS. And under Obama’s latest budget plan, that debt will reach $75,000 per capita (in current dollars) within a decade.

Americans can truly join the PIIGS as they squeal “Oink! Oink!”




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