Expressing Themselves

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“They need to express themselves from time to time…”

Thus did the friendly lady at the Budget Rent-a-Car counter analyze the cause of yesterday’s strikes and demonstrations in France. Which is why your editor was at the counter in the first place: the strike had brought to a halt much of the country’s rail traffic; we were obliged to travel by automobile.

Our clerk’s casual explanation differed little from others we’ve heard: “It has been 40 years since the last major student uprising,” said a Parisian friend. “They don’t really have anything to demonstrate against, but that doesn’t stop them.”

In the opinion of their learned elders, the young people raising hell in France are selfish, shortsighted and dumb. “They have no ideals,” said the president of the Sorbonne, “they only have illusions.”

The biggest illusion they have is that they won’t have to compete with two billion Asians working at a tenth the price.

“The stupidity of youth…” begins a column in the Times of London. But the tadpoles really aren’t so stupid. What they want is no different from what most Americans want — protection from the real world. A little longer in the fish tank before they get thrown into the river to struggle upstream.

At issue in the French brouhaha is a minor piece of quack legislation — which would soften up some of the bad consequences of still other quack legislation. In France, employers are reluctant to employ. And little wonder. There’s no one worth employing. Take our mason…Monsieur Goupil. He is a gem of an artisan; a master worker whose plaster and tile work is flawless. Now in his 60s, he continued to tote heavy bags of plaster up three flights of stairs all by himself until he retired last year. Now in the small town in which he lives, there is no one to replace him. No one else knows anymore how to do that kind of work.

“Why don’t you get a young assistant?” we once asked him, “Someone to carry the heavy bags of plaster…and someone to whom you can teach your trade?”

The question seemed to us a logical one. France has a lot of young men with time hanging on their hands. “Immigrant groups” — code language for newcomers from Africa — have unemployment among their young people that runs as high as 40%.

“What! Are you kidding?” Monsieur Goupil guffawed. “Young people don’t want to do this kind of work. It’s too hard. And it takes too long to learn how to do it right. Besides, I wouldn’t want to hire anyone anyway. Too expensive…and too much trouble. You have to do all that paperwork. And then you can’t get rid of them if it doesn’t work out.”

What triggered the riots and demonstrations was a new law that would make it easier for Monsieur Goupil to hire someone. It would give him two years to train his apprentice without having him for life. During those two years the young employee could be fired without his boss having to justify himself in front of a labor tribunal or pay a heavy severance.

You’d think young people would be in favor of such a law; it would after all make it easier for them to find work. But that just shows how out-of-touch you are. Young people in France don’t want to find work…at least not the kind of work where there’s a risk they might fail. They want well-paid, fail-safe jobs — with the government, of course — with six weeks’ paid vacation…and lush benefits. And if they can’t get a job like that, then they don’t want any job at all. Just keep those unemployment checks coming!

How can anyone expect such things anymore in an economy that has become globalized…in a world where millions of Asians are ready, willing, and able to do the same work as Europeans and Americans for 10% of the pay — and none of the safety net?

In France, at least, it is only the young who cling desperately to such illusions. In America, on the other hand, practically everyone grabs for them. How else to explain the mounting talk of protecting U.S. industry from foreign competition…as if the United States could prosper by pretending the rest of the world did not exist. No people ever got richer by denying itself whatever others are willing to offer — whether cheaper labor rates or finer products. We might as well board up all our Italian restaurants, dump out our French wine, and send back the Mercedes. Let’s all just buy inferior products at higher prices. That’s sure to make everyone’s standard of living go up, right?

There is probably no need to explain why protectionism is imbecilic. Everyone already knows it is. If you could really get richer by refusing to trade with the rest of the world, North Korea would be the richest country on the planet. Instead, its people are starving.

But here at The Daily Reckoning, we don’t quarrel with the facts of life. We take the world, and its people, as they are. Things degrade and degenerate, no matter what we might think or what we might want. It is in the nature of them. A free, robust republic pokes its head up like a tender bamboo shoot and prospers at first. Then, if it is lucky, it begins to age, like an oak. And finally, not too much later, it becomes infested with worms, bugs, vermin and parasites, all of which have a keen interest in keeping it going as long as possible — in its senile, decaying form, of course.

u2022 The logic of degeneracy runs much the same way as the logic of imperial finance.

As we noted once before, the process of financing an empire practically guarantees that at some point, the United States will put up trade barriers. As it is, America pays the costs of globalization by providing security through hundreds of military bases all over the globe. She can kick butt on any continent — it’s too bad she can’t make a sale. Not with all those competitors willing to work longer and harder for less money. So while the foreigners’ incomes rise steadily, America’s own working class struggles. It gets further and further into debt just to stand still in the same place. And who holds the debt? Why, the very same foreigners! Is it any wonder Americans cry for protection? Is it any wonder their craven politicians promise it?

Meanwhile, the logic of degeneracy points in exactly the same direction. As the great oak begins to totter, more and more dependents, cowering under its branches, have a stake in making sure it doesn’t fall down. Yes, the forest might be a much better place if only the old fossil would get out of the way and make room for new saplings. Yes, if only the old dinosaur would keel over, newer, brainier species might crawl out of the bog. But that will never be. There are simply too many pensions, benefits, and bribes dangling like swamp moss from the old tree. Labor wants its jobs protected. Business wants its markets protected. Politicians want their careers protected. It is amazing that the Bush administration — which can’t seem to resist a bad idea — has so far resisted the notion of protectionism. But it probably won’t resist much longer…

More on the culture of dependency later…

u2022 And back in Paris, we saw no burning cars. If there were any mobs, we didn’t see them either. Then again, we didn’t stay long in the city. Instead, we went out to Normandy to inspect our money pit…er…chateau.

“Well, yes, it is taking a lot longer than we thought,” explained the architect. “But we have a problem. It’s the same problem we’ve had for months…we’re caught between two bureaucracies. The one insists that the building be safe. The other insists that it be historically correct. One insists that we put safety bars in front of all the windows. The other insists that we don’t. What am I supposed to do?”

The question was not a rhetorical one. It was a practical request aimed at your editor.

“This problem is not going away. I had them both out here last week. One said we had no choice but to put on the window restraints. The other said we couldn’t do it. One of these bureaucrats is going to be disappointed. Which one do you want me to disappoint?” asked our architect.

“Which one can shut down the job?” we wanted to know.

“Both.”

“Oh…hmmm…”

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise Of An Epic Financial Crisis.

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