Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sarkoy, Bush and Words

Even though this may seem very trivial to most Americans, the idea of a French president not speaking properly may irritate a lot of French people, and lately much has been said about Sarkozy's butchering the French manguage :

Mr Sarkozy jangles nerves with colloquial tics such as dropping the “ne” between pronoun and verb in negative sentences. “J'écoute mais je tiens pas compte,” he said the other day. (I listen but I don't take notice).
He often uses the slangy “ch'ais pas” for “je ne sais pas” and “ch'uis” instead of “je suis”.

Like Tony Blair with his pseudo estuary-speak, Mr Sarkozy is a lawyer with a posh education who uses low-class tones as a way of endearing himself. The style grates because of France's attachment to language as a unifying force. Most previous leaders have cultivated a literary side, including military ones such as Charles de Gaulle and Napoleon Bonaparte.
The President stands accused of setting a bad example when he is trying to stem a
decline in literacy.
His language mistakes are even compared to those of George W.Bush (An insulting comparison in France,) with a smilar goal of trying to reach "everyday Joe". There is for sure a comparison to be made in the divisive nature of both presidents' rhetoric.

".... the visceral dislike of Sarkozy that is so widespread in France [is likened] with the Bush phobia that was until recently so rampant in the US." More interesting, is the idea that "one of the reasons Obama won was that he never ceded to the facility of Bush-bashing. I think there's something to this observation."

On his blog, Arthur Goldhammer says...
[he] has been struck at times by Sarkozy's fluency without a teleprompter. Bush could never have survived if presidential debates in the French format were a part of American campaigning. He could occasionally read a speech well, but on his own he was helpless, and his face always revealed his panic. Sarkozy is never at a loss for words, and he doesn't always "parler peuple" when on his own. He is an actor, who knows how to control his effects and his voice. His body language needs work, as does his superego: his greatest vice, it seems to me, is his inability to conceal contempt without great effort. He likes to let people know how little he thinks of them.

As for recognizing that reasonable people may disagree with what he says, yes, but with one caveat: he has a (lawyerly) habit of reducing complex issues to a stark alternative: it's either X or Y, and Y is so clearly inferior that what would you have me do, if not X? I've remarked on this before, and on the often obvious R,S,T, U,V,W, and Z that might be discussed as alternatives. It's a lawyer's trick, but one that he uses well, unlike Bush, who occasionally tried it ("You're either with us or against us" comes to mind), but so crudely that the gambit was pointless.

As for the penchant for "parler peuple," times change.
Roosevelt could become a secular saint even with his patrician accents, but I don't think any American politician with that accent could be elected today (think of how Bush Sr. was ridiculed whenever he showed patrician touches). Even Obama does it. Even I do it: I don't speak with the same grammar or diction to the UPS deliveryman or the carpenter as I do to my colleagues. It's instinctual, not calculated. And I am more likely to think of an American-born professor who affects an Oxbridge accent as a hypocrite than I am of a politician who modulates his tone to what he believes his audience expects. And as for literature, Richard Poirier thinks that the distinctive mark of one of our greatest literary stylists, Saul Bellow, was his unparalleled ability to veer from the high-flown to the demotic in mid-sentence. In a sense this pliability is the essence of the American language, and in this respect, perhaps, the epithet "the American" really does attach to Sarkozy. Destarching official French has its virtues.
I agree Sarkozy is more convincing than Bush ever was and he is in his own way a master of (populist) rhetoric, but even though Sarkozy's speeches appealed to the French when he was a candidate for the presidency, they have made people really tired. The French expect more from a man who represents their country anyway.

Besides, however powerful it may be, Sarkozy's habit of reducing complex issues to binary solutions is something that makes me uneasy. I suspect it is not the sign of good pedagogism (as in Obama's case) but that it reflects his lack of understanding of the complexity of many of those issues. This binary view may be the reasons for many of the hasty decisions and the ill-conceived laws he has initiated.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

As a note on our previous post on "Optimism in the American news", here's a not so-surprising study : optimists live longer, healthier lives than pessimists.

It makes sense as optimists are also less likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes or smoke cigarettes but of course there's more to the secret of long healthy life. Indeed, the French live longer and healthier than the Americans... so pessimism may not be so bad after all.

I also suspect that the French like the idea they're pessimistic and cynical because that's the way to be cool in France, but really they aren't.

But, shush.... don't tell them or they might take offense!


Optimism in the American News.

It is often assumed that one of the major differences between France and the United-States is that whereas the French are a pessimistic or even cynical people, the Americans are always more upbeat and optimistic - and in many respect it is true.

Of course, the current economic crisis offers a very serious challenge to that old time American optimism......Or does it? You wouldn't believe it anyway if you've been following NBC news this month.

Only in America do people write their news anchor to complain that the news is too depressing and the anchor (Brian Williams on NC) actually responds by giving people what they want : more positive news!
Even he [Brian Williams] was shocked at the thousands of responses he has received in less than two days after asking viewers to suggest some good news to report.

"I'm looking at a stack of printed e-mails," Williams said Friday. "We have more stories than we could humanly cover if we combined all three network newscasts. It's hit an unbelievable nerve."
Williams said he's been hearing it repeatedly from people he meets on the street or viewers who send e-mails: The news is so bad every night that it's a burden to watch. Wrote one viewer: "We all know it's bad, but the news makes us feel like crawling under a rock." (
I have often been very impressed with American optimism. A lot of French people may see it as naive, but I find it more helpful than cynicism which is so pointless and makes things just a little bit tougher to go through.

Of course, the French have many perfectly valid reasons to feel a bit cynical and our different histories have shaped how we see the world - the French have had revolutions, the Enlightenment, world wars and have somehow managed to make sense of it all and find comfort in their reverence for those intellectuals and philosophers who have helped them to put it all into perspective. Hence the high suspicion of the French towards idealism. (of course, this is all gross generalisation)

The Americans, on the other hand, have been busy settling the land, fighting indians and building a new country isolated from any threat with great military superiority. In a nutshell, it has escaped some of the worst disasters of Europe and its success has given its people many reasons to be optimistic. (and this is also gross generalisation as things are necessarly more complicated about it, but let's not be too French here).

But as much as I can appreciate optimism, it can also sometimes amount to denial, and I think that's exactly what Brian Williams has been condoning here. The news should not be feel-goodism. It is just the news - period. If you don't like it, or think it's too depressive, find something else to do. God knows there are plenty of ways of being entertained these days - go watch Foxnews for instance!
The stories Williams has run like "nominating people doing good work, perhaps a random or regular act of kindness in a cruel economy" may "FEEL GOOD" but those are just cheap anecdotes, NOT NEWS.

The problem is precisely that people see the news as a form of entertainment and they judge its value by how they feel about it. That's why (some) conservatives watch Foxnews. - not because it is "fair and balance", but because it re-enforces their political bias and makes them "feel good" about it (even by making them feel angry at times which feels good at times).

So I am disappointed that a great journalist like Brian Williams should into into such a cheap trap.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Happy B-Day!

While the U.S. invented the Net, the Europeans invented the World Wide Web (at the the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or Cern, in Geneva), which just turned 20 last week.
Definitely, the one European-American invention that changed our lives the most!

Note : Cruel irony; Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, fell victim to online fraudsters who set up a bogus store on the Internet.


Are Americans from Mars and Europeans from Venus?

I may disagree with them on many points, even on their basic political-economical pro-free trade/globalisation phislosophy but at least The Economist offers very well-informed news, sharp arguments, and consistancy, and that's why I read it.

This week, they tackled the arguments of many right-wing thinkers in America that the Obama's policy is turning the U.S. into Europe (read "freedom-killer socialists").
Roger Cohen, a liberal New York Times columnist, worries that “one France is enough”. Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard economist, says “I take the 2008 US elections as marking a turn toward continental Europe.” Six years after Robert Kagan claimed that “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus”, there is a growing feeling that the two planets are destined to merge.

Because their editorial is (really) fair and balance they disproved that right-wing argument that you hear these days.

There is nothing particularly “European” or “socialist” about Mr Obama’s stimulus package. Countries the world over are spending public money in a bid to boost demand and shore up the banks. Indeed, some of the most stubborn resistance to deficit financing has come from Europe, particularly from
Germany and the EU finance ministers. Messrs Gingrich and Romney might note that the man who set this ball rolling was not Mr Obama but Mr Bush, the most
un-European politician imaginable.

What about Mr Obama’s plans to raise taxes and redirect policy? There are plenty of plausible criticisms of these (such as the fact that his numbers do not add up), but the idea that they entail “full-scale Europeanisation”, as Mark Steyn, a columnist, argues, is one of the least persuasive. Mr Obama’s budget will return the top tax rates to 36% and 39.6%—back to where they were during Bill Clinton’s administration.
I would ad that whenever right-wing conservatices use this argument (that the US is becoming dangerously European), ask they what they mean exactly, ask for specific examples , and ask what they know about Europe, and you'll soon find out about their abyssimal cluelessness of European politics and economics.
Just for the beauty of it and because I think the last part of the article reflects in the best possible way the vision of this blog, here's the end of it:
The fury about “European socialism” is not just wrong as a matter of fact. It is foolish as a matter of policy. Europe has plenty of things to teach the United States (particularly about running a welfare state), just as America has plenty to teach Europe (particularly about igniting entrepreneurialism). Indeed, a more telling criticism of the Obama administration is not that it is borrowing too much from Europe but that it is learning too little.


Europeans and Americans are never likely to coalesce: their cultural traditions are too strong and their solutions to the problem of regulating capitalism too distinctive. But they nevertheless have plenty in common—ageing populations, exploding entitlements and above all, at the moment, a wrenching recession. Europeans have thankfully toned down the America-bashing that was popular a few years ago. Americans might consider returning the compliment.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Shakeaspeare's True Portrait

According to scholars, this is what Shakespeare may have looked like after all.... more a handsome bard than the "hippie uncle — balding, moustached, longish hair in back." we usually imagine. This is may be no less than "the only true likeness we have of the greatest writer of the English language" (Time)
(looks smart too - must have to do with the large forehead....)


Sunday, March 08, 2009

Deregulation and the Economic Crisis (part 2)

I am baffled by how so many conservatives (see CPAC or the comment by one of our reader on a previous post) continue with same old “cut tax” and “less regulation” remedy as if nothing had happened. Their denial that deregulation is at the core of the current economic crisis we are in is beyond reason to me.

Their argument can be summed up in these few points: it is the fault of the FED (who of course regulated too much), Freddie and Fannie (which are institutions created by the government and worse originally created by the Roosevelt administration), as well as the Community Reinvestment act of 1977 (“which encourages lenders to lend to uncredit worthy borrowers”) and the “too big to fail institutions which became too big because of regulatory capture”.

The culprits may be the right one (the Fed and F&F for instance), but the reason is not too much regulation, it is not enough of it added with much encouraged greed.

1. Yes, the Fed and Alan Greenspan are largely responsible for a lot of the subprime mess but it is because he encouraged bad mortgages and refused to reign in. Here’s a good example:
"American consumers might benefit if lenders provided greater mortgage product alternatives to the traditional fixed-rate mortgage," Greenspan recommended in a speech to the Credit Union National Association in February 2004.
(Greenspan, by the way, has been a proponent of Ayn Rand’s political philosophy of “Objectivism” which is basically a glorification of the right of individuals to live entirely for their own interest).

2. As for Freddie and Fannie, the main problem was indeed that profits were privatized but the risks were socialized – a bad combination if there is no regulation. It is the need for more profits (and the pressure of shareholders) that caused them to push for unreasonable measures. The Clinton administration is also partly guilty as they pushed for more mortgages for poor(er) people. Their intention may have been good but the consequences, not so much. However, it is in 2004 (under the Bush administration) that the problem got worse and got us into this mess. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development helped fuel more of the risky lending and got F&F into that sort of business they previously shunned – and that was a political decision. Not only did HUD not play its regulatory role over Fannie and Freddie but it forced them to take risks.

3. As for the idea that the 2007 mortgage crisis was the result of a 1977 law, it is obviously ludicrous. Besides, most subprime loans were made by firms that were not subjected to the CRA anyway (which is not surprising since the CRA program required higher supervision)

4. There’s been a coherent path towards deregulation in the last 8 to 10 years so I am curious to see how the argument of “too much regulation” may be even remotely used to explain the current mess.

Before deregulation banks were restricted to certain businesses and could not for instance enter into the insurance or brokerage business. Regulation also obliged banks to evaluate risk and the creditworthiness of borrowers (loans could not be sold to the secondary bond). So banks could not package the subprime loans into complex financial instruments.
Not only did deregulation eliminate all the firewalls between commercial banks, investment banks, insurance companies, and securities firms but it also resulted in dangerous mergers.
It is also the lack of regulation in the loan industry that allowed all sort of dubious people to “sell loans” without any background check - no state or federal regulatory body required a license. The pizza guy could become a loan officer!

In the banking industry, it is because the FEC did not do its job (since it relied on “voluntary” supervision program) that banks could run amok.
Competition and free-market are good but just like anything else in human nature, there needs to be a balance. For competition to work, you need fairness. When companies become too big, they disrupt the market. (hence the need for anti-trust laws such as the Sherman laws of the 19th cent.).
The market alone does not have the “the discipline ensued from competitive forces would allow things to be put in check”. With freedom comes responsibility and when companies become too big, the risk they take has ripple effect onto the community at large, and they know it (indeed they become “too big to fail”).


Back to the Farm... or to the Show?

Last week French news was marked by the success of France's Agricultural Fair. To put it a nutshell, it is as if the biggest American state fair were hosted in Manhattan. This year it reached an all-time record with 670, 000 visitors over 9 day.

This week's The Economist suggests that this success may be partly due to the recession and the desire to go back to something reassuringly tangible (le terroir) as the "French remain intimately tied to the produce of their local terroirs through reguional cuisine and open-air markets."

With its roots in the soil, farming is everything that complex financial capitalism is not. You know what you put in—and what you get out usually ends up on the dinner table.

That may true, but as they also did not fail to notice : "there are 80,000 unfilled farming jobs, even though unemployment in France is 8.3% and rising". Will French now flock to these jobs and back to the countryside? Maybe, but the Paris Farm Show seems so much better when you can dream of an ideal past without doing the hard work.


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The New Media

I was jogging on the treadmill this morning (something about preferring not to run on ice and slush that pushes me indoors in the winter) listening to a podcast of one of my favorite shows (On Point with Tom Ashbrook). The topic was television and new media. I learned that Americans on average watch 151 hrs of television per month. Not just on the television, of course, but through a variety of media: podcast, Hulu, TiVo, etc. I'm a fan of Hulu myself. We watch Battlestar Galactica, SNL and The Office online. Rarely do I watch anything anymore on the actual television screen, mostly just sports and political broadcasts.

The manner in which we get our news and entertainment is fundamentally changing. Newspapers are closing their doors left and right in the US. I was on the receiving end of some criticism recently for my viewing habits, something about ruining the good ol' American newspaper. I read all my news online. I read my hometown paper online rather than buying the print version. That paper is now in bankruptcy court. I readily accept my role in the paper's demise. And to be honest, I have no regrets. There is an evolution going on in media right now. While the content remains largely unchanged, the delivery of that content is the subject of much speculation and negotiation. Print newspapers are going to die. It's as simple as that. Certain family members disagree with that prognosis, but mostly because it's an uncomfortable reality for them. Large regional papers cannot survive when so much of what they print is redundant by the time of its printing (which is, paradoxically, why smaller local papers may survice, because they provide local coverage that local readers can't find anywhere else). Television provides immediate coverage of events and issues. Magazines survive by providing a narrative to these events and behind-the-scenes access to the players. Newspapers trying to find some middle-ground are left with nothing. As the generation of print subscribers dies off, fewer and fewer people are willing to pay for a physical newspaper. And as connectivity improves and news content moves to centralized sites of distribution on the internet, print papers will cease to exist.

The NY Times may survive the longest given its important status. I'm certain that its cultural role will survive, if only in modified form. USA Today, the McPaper of the America press, survives for now based on its non-local coverage and its contracts with the many hotels that distribute it for free to their guests. Already in the last two weeks we have heard that the Rocky Mountain News, Colorado's oldest paper, has folded and that Hearst has put the San Francisco Chronicle on the chopping block. Every newspaper of note has had to build its web presence. Some have tried to charge for access to this web-based content, most notably the NY Times, but none has been able to make that revenue model work for them. It remains to be seen what sort of model will come from this. We can complain all we want about declining international coverage in the news media, but unless it provides revenue what is there to motivate its inclusion?

Ten years ago who could have imagined the ways in which news media would have shifted? We may not have even seen the new new media. My bet is that within ten years the majority of American newspapers will have either closed their doors or migrated online. Any takers?


Sunday, March 01, 2009

Environmentally Friendly Consumption.

Doing what is right for the environment can be complicated if you want to take everything into account. Here are some surprising numbers I just read in this week's The Economist :

Consumers may already be aware of the environmental impact of producing goods in terms of energy or pollution, but they might be surprised to learn how much water is needed to create some daily goods.

A cup of coffee, for example, needs a great deal more water than that poured into the pot. According to a new book on the subject, 1,120 litres of water go into producing a single litre of the beverage, once growing the beans, packaging and so on are measured. Only 120 litres go into making the same amount of tea. As many as four litres of water are used to make a litre of the bottled stuff. Household items are even thirstier. Thousands of litres are needed to make shoes, hamburgers and microchips.

(click on the picture to enlarge)