zondag, november 13, 2005

Covering riots, Economist magazine reporter somehow accidentally transported to Bizarro World, not France

Sensibly deciding to steer clear of the maniacal Islamofascism-obsessive explanation for the French riots of Steyn, Pipes and Hitchens, the Economist nevertheless once more hasn't missed an opportunity to argue for greater labour market deregulation and attack the free and democratic association of workers, otherwise known as trade unions. For the libertarian pointy-heads at the magazine, the rebellion is obviously the natural result of France's thirty-five hour working week, job protection laws, high minimum wage and bolshy unions.


Arnold finds the Economist's reasoning somewhat specious.

I swear, if the Economist did an investigation into why my roommate always leaves a consumated roll of toilet paper in the toilet without changing it, they would conclude that it all boils down to the continued existence of a public monopoly on meat inspection in Wales. Got athlete's foot from the gym changing room? Its due to over-regulation of the Danish toy industry. Egg with no yolk? Well, if Catalonia didn't subsidise access to museums for students and seniors… An asteroid headed for Earth to destroy life as we know it? Plainly it's the fault of Corsican pay-roll taxes. Invasion of lizard-men from one of Saturn's moons? Public funding of New Zealand's national opera company. The Rapture and the subsequent thousand-year reign of Satan? Swiss air traffic control unions.

The magazine - sorry - 'newspaper' - does recognise that in the suburbs there is a 'toxic mix of poor housing, bad schools, inadequate transport, social exclusion, [and] disaffection among Muslims who are discriminated against,' and the main problem is, 'above all, mass unemployment'. And this is indeed absolutely correct - the country's official youth unemployment rate is 23 per cent and in the suburbs climbs to 40 per cent, and 70 per cent of all new contracts are only temporary, according to Prime Minister de Villepin himself, with 80 per cent of new contracts for young people being temporary.

However, for the Economist's journalists, this mass un- and underemployment is not a product of economic sabotage on the part of very profitable French capital, which is, like its German cousin, attempting to discipline both government and electorate into a still-further deregulated business environment. No, for them, the problem is that 'the French labour market is throttled by restrictions such as the 35-hour week, a high minimum wage, and tough hiring and firing rules,' or, 'what economists call an "insider-outsider" labour market: full-time permanent jobs are so protected by law that employers try not to create many, preferring instead temporary workers or interns whom they can shed more easily when times get tough.'

'This suits the insiders,' continues the article, ' particularly those on sheltered public-sector contracts. But this leaves a whole swathe of youngsters with the very sensation of insecurity that the social system is designed to prevent.'

Thus in the Economist's Bizarro World (the upside-down backwards world from the pages of Superman where everything is the opposite of what it is on Earth, where up is down, ugliness is beautiful and alarm clocks dictate when to go to sleep), it's not the beatific corporations' fault for preferring short-term, part-time, ill-paying contracts and interns, but the avaricious full-time permanent employees and powerful unions, selfishly fearful that they too will be thrown on the scrap heap, who are to blame.

There has been much vilification of the country's 35-hour-working-week law, when in fact, between 1995 and 2003, France actually increased its work hours, if only marginally, according to the OECD, despite the existence of the law. Furthermore, French workers are some of the most productive in the world, ahead of Britain, Germany, the United States and Japan, according to the European statistics agency, Eurostat.

The danger here in all this is that the Economist's conclusion will also be that of France and, more broadly, of the European Union, when it comes to any post-riot consensus. Already, prior to the riots, the UK Presidency of the Union was pushing the Anglo-Saxon model hard, given its 'record levels of employment'. In the wake of the violence, such a model will look even more attractive.

However, the low unemployment rates in the UK and US have not resulted in riotless Shangri-Las of social peace. They are the product of an explosion in McJobs, well exposed by American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich in her bestseller, Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, and exactly the sort of short-term, low-pay, part-time positions the Economist pretends to be so concerned about in France. America's middle class is fast disappearing as the McJob dynamic colonises even traditional middle-class white collar jobs, a phenomenon that Ehrenreich has also now written about, in her latest book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. Precarity is the order of the day even for well-educated citizens. It is this very deregulation which causes the creation of McJobs, as it has been in France. Other countries are as much of a tinderbox as France is.

The republic needs more job protection, not less.


Oh, and one quick note on the riots that seems to have been underreported: The rioting has involved poor whites as well, though admittedly not in the same numbers as those from north or west Africa.