Monday, April 30, 2007

Les Miserables

They're number one at it: the category of "co-operation in labour-employer relations" - that is, how workers get on with their bosses - France comes bottom of the league, in 125th place.

Whereas countries such as Denmark and Singapore score highly for their "generally co-operative" relations, France is seen by the [World Economic Forum] as having the most confrontational workplace environment in the world.

...."The class conflict view of things is very traditional in France," says economist Fabien Postel-Vinay. "Trade unions have been given a lot of bargaining power and they push this idea that there is a conflict of interest between employers and employees."

Pay and conditions in France are covered by a highly-centralised system of collective bargaining.

The proportion of the workforce that actually belongs to a trade union is less than 10%.

However, thanks to a government decree dating from 1966, five big union confederations bargain on behalf of 95% of workers.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The French, they are different from us

Says British journalist Matthew Parris, they don't accept economics:

His name was Alex, he was about 20, and working as a kitchen porter near Tower Bridge. He could not find work in France. ....

He came round for a cup of coffee a few weeks later. At the time Dominique de Villepin, the French Prime Minister, was trying slightly to loosen employment protection laws, making it easier to hire and fire young people under the age of 26. The aim was to make young workers (who find work hard to get in France) more attractive to employers; but Mr de Villepin was encountering such fierce popular opposition, including from the trades unions and from students, that he was destined finally to abandon his plan.

I assumed Alex would support the thinking. He was himself a victim of youth unemployment in France; he had chosen Britain where there is much less job security; and his family were in business: he wanted to start a business himself.

But to my surprise Alex hated de Villepin’s plan. It would allow employers to “exploit” young workers. It was preposterous. Alex said the economic logic had been explained and he understood it. But he simply couldn’t stomach the idea of employers “exploiting” workers through a “loophole” in the law – and nor, he said, could most of his friends of his own age.

Alex is not stupid. He is articulate, economically literate and quick-minded; and he would consider himself a freethinker: in no way doctrinaire. What was blocking his mind had little to do with the intellect. It was more like an emotional failure: a failure to punch his way out of a cultural box. The “protection” of workers by the State was for him a given: an assumed good. Job security was an assumed good. A France like that could still prosper in a competitive world.

No right-thinking Frenchman wanted to be exposed to “exploitation” for employers’ profit.

Alex and his kind are the future of their country. If anybody is ready to accept the free-market shock being proposed by Nicolas Sarkozy, it should be them. Yet de Villepin’s plan was met by a widespread sense of national revulsion. It is hard to believe there has been since then, or could be by some wave of the electoral wand, the deep emotional change required for Mr Sarkozy’s presumed economic revolution to take root.

Talking it to the bank

Can't read the numbers? Not your fault, maybe, says Scot:

A dyslexic man is suing two major banks over charges he claims are unfair because he cannot understand their statements.

Self-employed property developer Robert Neil claims Barclays and the Royal Bank of Scotland are in breach of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 by failing to take into account his difficulties in comprehending written words and figures.

The 43-year-old says the banks' failure to communicate with him verbally, in a way he can understand, has led to stress, a bad credit rating and thousands of pounds in bank charges.

...."I have repeatedly explained my problems but they refuse to allocate me someone trained to deal with a person with my disability. Instead, I am forever speaking to people who have no understanding of my difficulties.

"When I receive a bank statement, with say 30 or 40 items all on top of one another, it takes me ages to add them up, even with a calculator.

"I also forget the bigger financial picture, so if I've got £2,000 in my account and I tot up what I've spent that month, I’ll forget about a couple of items, so I get overdrawn, and on comes a £35 bank charge."

.... He is seeking compensation of £50,000 for hurt feelings and the return of a raft of charges.

Mr Neil also wants a ruling that a loan for £20,100 by the Royal Bank of Scotland is unenforcable because he did not understand its interest rate....

Let the Games Begin

But, they already have. The financial games to cover up the costs of the Olympics:

The Government has been accused of covering up a £1 billion "black hole" in the finances for the London Olympic Games when Britain submitted its bid.

Ministerial aides were told by accountants - two months before the bid's submission and 10 months before the capital knew it had been chosen to host the Games - that the estimated bill for the Olympics of £3.4 billion was significantly short of the mark.

The consultants warned aides in September 2004 that the bill was going to be £1 billion more then expected, taking it to at least £4.4 billion. In the event, even that figure proved hopelessly overoptimistic, with the revised bill mushrooming by March this year to £9.35 billion - nearly four times the original £2.4 billion estimate.

....The revelations are embarrassing to Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, who is poised to take over as prime minister from Tony Blair. When London submitted its bid, he portrayed himself as gatekeeper for the Games, saying the Government would act as "ultimate guarantor" of their final cost.

George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, accused the Government and Chancellor of "trying to cover their tracks". He said: "These startling revelations raise more questions about Gordon Brown's integrity and competence. It's taxpayers who are going to pay the price."

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Die Harder?

Post War business giant passes away:

Warren Avis, who died on Tuesday aged 91, was the founder of the pioneering airport car rental chain that still bears his name.

A decorated bomber pilot during the Second World War, Avis was frustrated at the lack of ground transport available at American airports: in order to rent a car, the arriving passenger invariably had to take a taxi to a downtown garage. So he started his own car rental business in 1946....

In 1953 Avis Rent A Car began to expand internationally, with franchises in Europe, Canada and Mexico. The following year, however, Warren Avis himself sold out for $8 million, a considerable fortune at the time. Facing fierce competition from the market leader, Hertz, the Avis business went through a long period of financial difficulties, eventually recovering - under its famous slogan "We're only No 2. We Try Harder" - to become one of the world's best-known brands, with more than 4,000 outlets in 160 countries.

....Avis kept homes in Manhattan and Acapulco - where he waterskied until he was 89 - and moved in glamorous circles which included the likes of Sammy Davis Jr and Playboy's founder Hugh Hefner. "If you don't enjoy the money, then the money doesn't have any value," he once told an interviewer.

You've come a long way, babes

The glass ceiling is about half full of Brit women:

Women account for nearly half of the millionaires in Britain for the first time, research has revealed.

Huge success in their careers - or the divorce courts - has made them extraordinarily wealthy.

Around 46 per cent of the country's 376,000 millionaires are female, according to a survey by researcher Datamonitor.

The report, which labels women "the richer sex", says the number is growing by almost 11 per cent every year.

Within a few years, they could overshadow their male counterparts.

The report says the rise is partly due to "a new generation" of so-called kitchen table tycoons - female entrepreneurs who are setting up hugely successful businesses.

We're not wild about him here either

Australia has troubles enough without importing more, they say:

Rapper Snoop Dogg has been banned from entering Australia after failing a character test, according to officials.

....The 35-year-old had his visa cancelled after recently pleading no contest to gun and drug charges in the US.

"He doesn't seem the sort of bloke we want in this country," Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews told Sydney's Macquarie Radio.

"This man has been a member of a Los Angeles gang, and is still associated with it apparently, that's been involved in murder, robberies and drug dealing in the LA area," Mr Andrews added.

....And last month he was forced to scrap his UK tour with fellow rapper P Diddy after authorities denied him a visa.

On a previous visit to the UK, the rapper and members of his entourage spent a night in jail after being accused of starting a fight at Heathrow Airport.

He was also held overnight by police in Sweden on suspicion of using drugs.

Back to the Future Tolls

The state of Washington learns how it used to be:

Washington's highway system entered a new age Wednesday by issuing its first-ever electronic tolling devices, for use on the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge later this year.

In the "Good to Go" program, drivers who stick a transponder on their windshields will be able to pay as they whiz down the road, instead of stopping at a toll booth.

Antennas mounted above the highway will read an electronic chip attached to the small sticker, and money will be deducted from the driver's pre-paid account — much like using a rechargeable debit card, coffee card or gift card.

....The same transponder technology will be tried on Highway 167 in the Green River Valley next year, for an experimental "high-occupancy toll" or HOT lane, where people driving alone will be able to pay to enter the high-occupancy lane. A future Highway 520 floating bridge would also use electronic devices to collect tolls.

"It's the wave of the future, as far as tolling in this state," said Janet Matkin, spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Transportation.

....Bridge tolls used to be common in Washington state, and toll roads are proliferating in many states.

No tolls have been collected here since 1990, when a 10-cent toll expired on the Maple Street Bridge in downtown Spokane. A 70-cent toll on Highway 520, collected on the eastern shore of Lake Washington, ended in 1979. A toll on the Hood Canal Bridge expired in 1985 at $4.

You must remember this

In India, a kiss is still amiss, even as time goes by:

NEW DELHI — A court issued arrest warrants for Hollywood actor Richard Gere and Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty on Thursday for kissing at a public function, news reports said.

Judge Dinesh Gupta issued the warrants in the northwestern city of Jaipur after a citizen there filed a complaint charging that the public display of affection - which he called an "an obscene act" - offended local sensibilities, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

....Such cases against celebrities - often filed by publicity seekers - are common in conservative India. They add to a backlog of legal cases that has nearly crippled the country's judicial system.

Gere left India shortly after the kissing incident and it was not immediately clear how the warrant would affect him.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

It's easy being green...

...when you can make a few bucks on the side, in Washington DC:

The Washington Post reports (Apr 23) that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well among the bureaucrats of Washington DC, even at the IRS. They've been trading transit vouchers like crazy - to the tune of at least $17m, probably much higher according to the Government Accountability Office GAO).

Transit vouchers called Metrocheks are designed to encourage WDC workers to ride the Metrorail or bus system by providing free rides up to $105/month. They are a tax-free fringe benefit, and are paid for by employers - in practice almost entirely by federal government departments and agencies, wanting to earn 'green' brownie points for encouraging transit use.

The civil servants have been taking the vouchers, even auctioning them on eBay, selling them by word of mouth and at the entry to busy rail stations, while continuing to drive their cars to work - often to free parking spaces in federal buildings.

.... The [GAO] report produced these examples:

- a USDOT man receiving the maximum amount of transit subsidies since 2004 who gets a ride with a neighbor or slugger and otherwise rides his motorcycle - sold $1,080 of Metrocheks on Ebay

- a couple working at the Department of Defense each received Metrochek cards but drive to work together - they sold 61 lots of Metrocheks worth $6k on eBay

- the IRS worker who had got the Metrochek cards and also a free parking space at work since 2004 who sold cards for $930

Not a song of sixpence

The Government is in the countinghouse
Counting out its money

About $60 million worth:

Parents are to be taught to sing nursery rhymes to their children in a £30million Government initiative recently unveiled.

A parenting academy is being launched to improve child-rearing skills.
The centre - to be based at King's College, London - will train a "parenting workforce" to promote proven techniques among new mothers and fathers.

Children's Minister Beverley Hughes has said the academy will even train workers to help families sing to their children and read stories.

In a controversial recent speech, she declared: "Some parents already know that reading and singing nursery rhymes with their young children will get them off to a flying start, often because this is how they themselves were brought up.

"For other parents without this inheritance, these simple techniques are a mystery and are likely to remain so unless we act and draw them to their attention."

Dept. of Swords to Plowshares

Croatia goes from mines to wines:

Some of the best-known vineyards in Croatia have reopened after being cleared of mines left over from the war of the early 1990s.

The former leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, owned a villa among the vines, which was used as a base by the notorious Serbian war criminal, Arkan.

....During the break-up of that country in the early 1990s the town of Vukovar became a battlefield. More than 1,000 Croats were killed and dumped in mass graves.

Landmines were laid by both sides. The Serbian paramilitary group known as Arkan's Tigers used Tito's villa as their headquarters for raids into Bosnia. When they left they scattered more mines throughout the area and dynamited the villa.

The building still lies in ruins, but now, all these years later, the mines have at last been cleared.

....It will take around three years before the last areas to be cleared of mines produce grapes that can be used for the region's famous white wines.

Traminac has been made since 1710, and was served at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Despite the blood that was shed in this area just over a decade ago, Serbian workers now cross the Danube to work alongside Croatians in the vineyards.

And, one place they will be able to work is at native Croatian, and Napa Valley legend Mike Grgich's vineyard:

In 1972, Mike joined Chateau Montelena as winemaker and limited partner. Four years later the success of his Chardonnay at the [Judgment of] Paris tasting led to fulfilling his life long dream of owning his own winery. In 1977, joining forces with Austin Hills of the Hills Bros Coffee family, Mike created Grgich Hills Cellar, located in Rutherford, the heart of the Napa Valley. The following year, Mike scored another huge victory in "The Great Chicago Showdown." There, 221 Chardonnays were brought together for a historic first, the largest blind tasting ever held of wines made from a single varietal. And Mike's Grgich Hills 1977 Chardonnay emerged triumphant with a first place ribbon. Mike later became affectionately known as the "King of Chardonnay."

Mike's influence also continues to spread. In 1996, he returned to his native Croatia and opened a new winery, Grgich Vina, to make fine wines and to bring Croatia the latest in modern winemaking techniques. In one of his proudest accomplishments, in 2002 Mike played an instrumental role along with U.C. Davis Professor Carole Meredith in tracing the mysterious roots of California Zinfandel back to a surprising source: his native Croatia.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Warren Farrell researches the incomes of men and women and finds the real reasons for differences between them:

First, men do not earn more than women for the same work, but for different work. Dr. Farrell identifies twenty-five such differences (e.g., willingness to take the most hazardous jobs, and work in more technical fields such as engineering; do more traveling, moving, and so on).

Second, the most startling truth: women now earn more than men--for the same work. Not at the same job title--male doctors, lawyers, and accountants all earn more than women. Why? Though their titles are the same, they do not work at their jobs the same way--the men are more likely to work more hours, be in private practice, or work for big private firms (vs. HMOs or nonprofits). In the case of physicians and surgeons, the men are more likely to be the surgeons, requiring more specialization, and dealing with the trauma of people dying under their knife, as well as working uncontrolled hours (cardiac surgeon); the women are more likely to avoid surgery, to prefer working with little blood, with healthier people, during predictable and normal work hours (psychiatrist or pediatrician).

Third, Dr. Farrell, in the spirit of "what women can do about it," startles women with 80 fields in which women now earn more than men--despite women's different work patterns. He tells women how much each of the twenty-five ways to higher pay are worth, and what the lifestyle trade-offs are. For example, people who work 44 hours a week make almost twice as much as those who work 34 hours per week?

High pay, as it turns out, is about trade-offs. Women's choices balance income with a desire for fulfillment, safety, potential for personal growth, flexibility, fewer hours per week, and proximity-to-home. These lifestyle advantages lead to more people competing for these jobs and thus lower pay.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Say Again

And speak up:

BRUSSELS – Almost one in five (17.8 percent) young people in Flanders is suffering some degree of hearing loss because of excessive exposure to loud music or noise during their free time.

A survey of Flemish youth between the ages of 16 and 19 shows that more than half have noticed that their hearing is not optimal. In the 1970s that figure was hardly 1 percent.

Bataille Royal

It's Nick v. Sego in the runoff. And, it's a choice not an echo:

The two contenders for the French presidency say the work ethic is vital to boosting growth and jobs, but while right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy prefers market-driven measures Socialist Segolene Royal favours state intervention.

....To spur hiring and boost incomes, Sarkozy would scrap payroll tax and social charges on overtime pay, thereby circumventing the 35-hour working week that was brought in by a Socialist government.

Furthermore, people who turn down work could lose their unemployment benefits under his plans.

Royal proposes lifting the minimum monthly wage from 1,250 euros to 1,500 euros (1,900 dollars) over a period of five years. She would create 500,000 state-backed "stepping stone" jobs for youths, seniors and long-term unemployed.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

License to Kill...

Branson, Richard Branson's image on the competition's airliners:

The Virgin Atlantic chairman, who makes a brief cameo appearance in Casino Royale, the latest James Bond film, is somehow missing from the version shown on British Airways flights.

In the cinema version, Sir Richard is seen passing through a security arch at Miami airport. However on BA flights, while he can be seen from the back, the scene when he turns round and faces the camera has gone.

Even the slightest glimpse of a Virgin plane was enough for the scissors to come out and when it could not be avoided, the distinctive Virgin tail fin has been painted over.

This is not the first occasion that BA has been sensitive about the appearance of its rival on screen. Scenes filmed in Virgin's premium cabin were cut out of The Wedding Date before it was deemed suitable for BA passengers.

The customer may not always be right...

...but, he is always the customer, says Michael Dell:

Responding to customer demand Dell has restarted selling new PCs with Windows XP installed on them.

The decision reverses a policy begun in January that meant Windows Vista was the only operating system available on almost all new home machines.

The change came after Dell's feedback site was swamped with calls for the return of the venerable software.

....Dell changed the policy in response to pleas posted on its Ideastorm website which invites customers to post suggestions about how the PC maker can meet their needs.

....In response Microsoft said that Dell was responding to a "small minority" of customers who had a very "specific" request.

It is not clear how long Dell will be able to keep its offer to install XP going. From the end of January 2008 PC makers will no longer be able to buy new licences for the operating system.

Friday, April 20, 2007


Bohemia's storied brewing history --which includes Good King Wenceslas and the beginning of the Thirty Years War--continues, as its most famous beer strives to be available at the drop of a coin:

Legally, beer may not be sold to anyone under 18. But in 2005 two Czech businessmen, Karel Stibor and David Polnar, began the quest for a solution that would enable legal beer sales without any labor cost.

“When walking on the street, you’re surrounded by various vending machines,” Polnar explains. “But there were none selling such a typical thing here as beer.”

Compelled to fill that niche, he and Stibor began researching what was needed to launch their vision of beer vending machines.

....In mid-March, the team, together with Pilsner Urquell brewery, announced the smart beer vending machine.

“We’ve developed a special reading device that can scan buyers’ IDs and passports, in order to determine their age,” Stibor explains. “If a buyer is under 18, coins inserted in the machine’s slot are returned and the machine does not dispense the beer can.”

....Pilsner Urquell’s corporate brand manager, Vladimír Jurina, says the brewery supported the new technology because it’s a boon for beer sales.

“Retailers are interested because this machine will enable 24-hour sales without the need to employ sales attendants,” Jurina said.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


You should be so lucky. It's likely worse:

Powerpoint presentations, beloved of the business executive, are so ubiquitous that there are even PowerPoint presentations on how to do a PowerPoint presentation.

Now research claims to have proved what millions of bored workers have suspected all along - they have little power and even less point.

According to the report, the brain cannot cope with having too much information thrown at it at once.

Having someone speak and point to a screen full of facts and figures at the same time causes it to switch off.

The study, at the University of New South Wales, branded PowerPoint presentations a disaster and called for them to be scrapped.

.... "If you have ever wondered why your eyes start glazing over as you read those dot points on the screen, at the same time words are being spoken, it is because it is difficult to process information if it is coming in the written and spoken form at the same time."

They teach economics there, don't they

A Northwestern grad learned about the importance of comparing at same point in business cycle:

When Bill Clinton became president in 1993, he was dealt the greatest hand since Phil Jackson became coach of the Chicago Bulls with probable future hall-of-famers Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen already on the team. The U.S. economy was already expanding, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union seemingly meant that defense spending could come down–which encouraged Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to cut interest rates. Then Clinton got a Republican Congress in 1995 that was also eager to bring the budget into balance.

By contrast, Bush inherited an expansion that was on its last legs, and then he had to raise defense spending to deal with the biggest attack on America in its history–of course, neither Bush nor Congress has shown a whole lot of interest in controlling nondefense spending. Now, one way to statistically compare the two economic records is by looking at the Bush expansion vs. the Clinton expansion. And 21 quarters into each, the economy has grown 16.6 percent under Bush vs. 19.9 percent under Clinton–advantage No. 42. And the unemployment rate 22 quarters into each expansion–jobs numbers come out more frequently – show that the current unemployment rate is 4.4 percent vs. 4.5 percent under Clinton. Slight edge to No. 43. Now, when you add in–or subtract out–the effects of the stock market (for Clinton) and housing bubbles (for Bush) and where each president began, I think this ends up as a "pick 'em" situation at this point.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Killer Corn

And not only because it's raising tortilla prices in Mexico:

Switching from gasoline to ethanol — touted as a green alternative at the pump — may create dirtier air, causing slightly more smog-related deaths, a new study says.

Nearly 200 more people would die yearly from respiratory problems if all vehicles in the United States ran on a mostly ethanol fuel blend by 2020, the research concludes.

....Each year, about 4,700 people, according to the study's author, die from respiratory problems from ozone, the unseen component of smog along with small particles. Ethanol would raise ozone levels, particularly in certain regions of the country, including the Northeast and Los Angeles.

"It's not green in terms of air pollution," said study author Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University civil and environmental engineering professor. "If you want to use ethanol, fine, but don't do it based on health grounds. It's no better than gasoline, apparently slightly worse."

Down and Out in Paris

For the lefties:

PARIS, April 18, 2007 (AFP) - Four days ahead of the first round of presidential elections, France's political left is facing an awkward realisation: not since nearly 40 years ago has its combined vote been so low in the opinion polls.

While the socialist Segolene Royal can count on around 25 percent of votes on April 22, support for six minor candidates adds up to just ten percent -- an overall of no more than 35 percent for personalities campaigning on the ideas of the left.

The last time the left scored as badly was in the election that followed Charles de Gaulle's resignation in 1969 -- when the combined Communist, Socialist and Trotskyite support came to some 31 percent. That election was won by the right-winger Georges Pompidou.

...."In normal times France leans to the right, but it is generally of the order of 55 percent to 45. If these figures are correct, then it is not just a swing -- it is a tsunami," said Jean-Philippe Roy, politics professor at Tours university in central France.

"In politics there is a concept which we call a 'critical election' -- an election in which the left-right balance makes a dramatic shift and taboos are broken. Nothing is the same again. Maybe we are heading for one here," he said.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

They Emulate the Ostrich... Zimbabwe, by hiding their eyes:

THE Central Statistical Office (CSO) this week deferred the announcement of the latest inflation figures to avoid creating panic and fuelling the black market.

The figures were due to come out on Wednesday but sources said the government instructed the CSO to postpone the announcement indefinitely.

The Zimbabwe Independent understands that the inflation rate for March hit a new high of 2 200,2%, up from 1 729,9% in February.

....This means that on average goods and services normally purchased by a household for final use in Zimbabwe were about 23 times as expensive last month as they had been 12 months before.

Think a Second Time

From January 2006, words come back to haunt:

A bill that would have given college students and employees the right to carry handguns on campus died with nary a shot being fired in the General Assembly.

House Bill 1572 didn't get through the House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety. It died Monday in the subcommittee stage, the first of several hurdles bills must overcome before becoming laws.

The bill was proposed by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, on behalf of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. Gilbert was unavailable Monday and spokesman Gary Frink would not comment on the bill's defeat other than to say the issue was dead for this General Assembly session.

Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker was happy to hear the bill was defeated. "I'm sure the university community is appreciative of the General Assembly's actions because this will help parents, students, faculty and visitors feel safe on our campus."


The French voters hold their noses, and not because of their smelly cheeses:

"I'll probably vote for Sarko -- but with no great enthusiasm," said cheese-porter Thierry Dumesnil, 40.

"We've become a society of do-nothings. Everyone's on welfare. It's all very well being 'France -- land of asylum', but ordinary people end up paying the tab for the immigrants. I can't vote left. In France, we've tried that. If the Socialists get in again, it really will be the end of the road."

Florian Sicard, selling wheels of "comte" cheese from eastern France, said he is hesitating between Sarkozy, 52, and centrist candidate Francois Bayrou, 55.

"It's not that I find Sarkozy scary -- which some people do -- but I do think he can be a bit extreme.The problem with Bayrou is that nothing will change with him. He's too soft.

....Even supporters of the Socialist candidate Segolene Royal, 53, said that Sarkozy's campaign themes of ending welfare dependency and encouraging people to work harder are factors in their choice. Royal has herself spoken of the need for welfare recipients to give some service to society in return.

"All the ideas are getting mixed up. Sarkozy's got some left-wing ideas and Segolene's got some right-wing ones. So in the end it comes down to personality, and I find Segolene more reassuring -- less scary," said Karfalla Sylla, 47, a fruit and vegetable porter born in Ivory Coast.

"But the welfare problem is really important. Here we keep getting people looking for a job, but when they're told the pay they say it's not worth their while. As soon as they start work, they'd lose all these advantages like free television licences and free public transport," he said.

"The big problems facing France are the lack of freedom to do your own thing, the lack of reward for people who take risks, and an administration that never changes, that blocks everything," said Albert Ohayan, who runs the Raphael fruit and vegetable wholesale business.

"I would vote for Sarkozy, but I can't -- because when he was interior minister he was the one who put up all the speed cameras and set the police against ordinary motorists. It's his coercive side. Giving police all that power is not right.

"What with the rioting in the 'banlieues', he's managed to get everyone united against the police -- good guys and bad guys alike," he said.

Monday, April 16, 2007


The French are in the final week of the first round of their Presidential election, and it's not pretty:

One opinion poll last year showed that only a third of the French thought that the free market economy was the best economic model.

To this, add a slow-moving bureaucracy, a labour code as thick as the Bible, and a climate of opinion that often equates the word "patron," the French for boss, with an evil oppressor.

These attitudes stem from economic illiteracy, according to some observers.

"The French have an extremely superficial knowledge of their own and the world economy," said Michel Gurfinkiel, one of a growing band of commentators whose lamenting of France's problems has marked them out as "declinologists."

"They are kept in this phenomenal ignorance by the media and the politicians," he said.

"Globalisation is what helps keep France alive. But the French don't understand this. They're free riders on US power. They take advantage of a global system largely run by the US, and France relies on US military power for stability in the world," said Gurfinkiel.

....And many economists agree that the three leading candidates have identified the right issues. Their campaigns focus on ways of boosting employment, they want to reconcile voters with business, and help small businesses grow.

But Royal has said she would renationalise the former electricity and gas monopolies, EDF and GDF, and that she wants to raise the minimum wage.

Sarkozy is seen as the most economically liberal, but he also indulges in crowd-pleasing rhetoric, saying recently he saw free trade as "a policy of naivety."

Golden, Them Thar Hills Sisters

Mark Steyn gives us the skinny on the economics of the most popular ditty ever sung:

The story begins in a parking lot in Louisville, Kentucky.... it's called "The Birthday Lot". Odd sort of name for a parking lot. But that's because it's a tribute to two daughters of Louisville, Mildred J Hill and her sister Patty Hill. .... In 1893, Mildred was teaching at the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School where Patty was principal, and one day Mildred wrote a simple tune - one line sung thrice, but with the merest of variations to provide a kind of middle section. Patty put words to it - also simple, just seven words, no rhymes.

.... "Happy Birthday To You" is a legally enforceable intellectual property. .... by Warner Chappell, the world's biggest music publisher and thus in a position to take their copyrights very seriously. If you want to use "Happy Birthday" in a movie or TV show, they'll charge you many thousands of dollars for the privilege, which is why it hardly ever happens: the world's most performed song is a routine feature of the cultural landscape yet all but entirely absent from our film and television catalogues. See for yourself - the next time there's a birthday scene in the movie, watch for the cake, the candles, the wishes, but wait in vain for the "Happy Birthday" singalong. And, if they do sing it, it'll be just an excerpt. There's a party scene in The Rocky Horror Show in which someone calls out "Start to sing 'Happy Birthday' but don't finish it", and (doubtless on legal advice) Dr Frank N Furter cuts off the caterwauling after one line. That's also why the more nervous restauranteurs insist the wait staff serenade their customers with limp pseudo-funky birthday greetings, just in case the Ascap enforcement squad is on the prowl.

Warner Chappell make several million dollars a year in royalties from "Happy Birthday" and they've no desire to see that wither away: When it comes to happy birthdays, it's better to receive than to give.

Warner Chappell's grip on "Happy Birthday To You" has never been tested in court, in part because they've got the deepest pockets in the world and you haven't. But it rests on the curious proposition that there are two entirely different songs: "Good Morning To All", a copyrighted song whose copyright has expired and is in public domain, and "Happy Birthday To You", a copyrighted song that remains in copyright and is eminently enforceable. And they're both written by the same people. This is a very bizarre interpretation of law. For a start, the only musical difference between the two songs is one note: The "good" of "Good morning to you" is one syllable whereas the "happy" of "Happy birthday to you" is two syllables, so an extra note was found to accommodate it. In no other circumstances has that ever been regarded as sufficient to make something an entirely separate composition....

And, if that one note is sufficient to make "Happy Birthday" legally an entirely different song from "Good Morning", then so is every variation sung at every birthday party in the world: after all, every time you sing "Happy birthday, dear Billy-Bob" or "Happy birthday, dear Victoria", you're adding at least as much new lyrical content and (in the case of polysyllabic names) musical content as the "composer" of "Happy Birthday To You" added to "Good Morning To All". As for the lyric, the first recorded publication of "Happy Birthday To You" was as the second verse of "Good Morning To All".

And that's before you go back to the 19th century and address the similarities between "Good Morning To All" and "Happy Greetings To All" and "Good Night To You All", both of the last published in 1858 and almost certainly known to a musicologist such as Mildred Hill.

But do you want to spend a gazillion dollars telling that to Warner Chappell? As they say in the music biz, where there's a hit there's a writ. And there's no reason why the boffo-est song of all should be an exception to that. So the Hill sisters' interest in the song passed to their nephew, Archibald Hill, the world renowned linguist whose most lucrative asset was a handful of simple words for a children's jingle. On what we hope is the first of many birthdays for the SteynOnline Song of the Week, we celebrate the whims of American show business that give the heirs of two 19th century Louisville kindergarten teachers a lifelong insurance policy in the 21st century.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Survival of the Fittest Tax Code

On April 15, Kevin Hassett opines:

Like a finch in the Galapagos Islands, the tax code has gradually evolved in a manner that maximizes its chances for survival. So a natural history of our tax system provides an interesting mirror on ourselves and reveals some surprising facts.

....The similarity between the tax proportion for the high-income family and that of the middle-income family will surprise many. That's because the federal income tax, which is steeply progressive -- the higher your income, the more you pay in taxes -- gets all the media attention. But other taxes that are less visible, such as sales taxes, hit lower-income families with a heavy thud and quickly fill in the gap between their lower federal income taxes and the higher rates paid by those with high incomes.

....The federal income tax in 2003 for the family earning $50,000 was about $3,800, whereas it was about $17,500 for the family bringing in $150,000. But everything else worked to more than offset this difference. Middle-class families spent a larger share of their income and thus paid more sales tax. Gasoline and property taxes also ate up a larger share of the middle-class family's budget. Finally, the payroll tax is limited to 15.3 percent of income, so the wealthy paid a smaller share.

Governments at all levels have voracious appetites for cash, but taking revenue from the middle class is a politically risky maneuver; after all, that's where the votes are. So lawmakers have crafted ingenious ways around the dilemma, imposing hefty levies on those with lower incomes but relying on stealth taxes to do it. If you're going to tax widows and orphans, you'd better be quiet about it; use a sales tax.

Government thus takes more from the wealthy through income taxes, but extracts more from the poor with all the other taxes. By doing this, politicians get to pretend that they are virtuously redistributing wealth from the richer to the poorer, and they can maintain that fiction without sacrificing the cash. Voters seem to like this approach.

First, Do No Harm

In the finest tradition of politics--if it moves; tax it, if it keeps moving; regulate it--the Washington State legislature can't take people solving their own problems:

For years, doctors who started so-called "concierge" medical practices, offering personalized care in return for fixed retainer fees, have existed in legal limbo.

State regulators have argued that the arrangement is essentially medical insurance and should be subject to the same rules. Doctors and patients insist it's the antithesis of insurance: middleman-free deals between patients and doctors.

....In Washington, Senate Bill 5958 passed the House last week, 90-5, after passing the Senate in slightly different form. It has been sent back to the Senate for concurrence and is expected to go to Gov. Christine Gregoire for her signature.

Under the bill, doctors offering concierge care would have to inform patients what services they provide and that they don't take insurance. They would have to refund fees if they stop seeing a patient.

The doctors would be barred from raising prices more than once a year, but there would be no limit on how high they could raise them. The bill also warns doctors not to cherry-pick healthier patients, but only by saying that doctors can't reject patients "solely" because of health status.

The bill specifies no penalties for violating its provisions. Instead, that would be addressed by the state Medical Quality Assurance Commission under existing "unprofessional conduct" codes.

The insurance commissioner's office would be directed to analyze the effects of concierge practices on overall patient access, health-insurance premiums and patient demographics, and report back to lawmakers in five years.

Friday, April 13, 2007


In second place, and coming on rapidamente:

A modestly dressed Mexican with a taste for expensive cigars, baseball memorabilia and bonsai trees has overtaken the American investor Warren Buffett as the world's second richest man and is quietly closing in on Bill Gates as the richest man on the planet.

Carlos Slim, a magnate whose empire supplies Mexicans with everything from cheap flights to cigarettes, has seen his fortune soar by more than £4 billion (£2.02 billion) in two months to $53.1 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

....Since last year, his fortune has increased by $19 billion because of a strong Mexican economy and soaring stock prices for his businesses.

...."It's virtually cradle to grave," Prof George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, told the Los Angeles Times. "You are engulfed by Slim in Mexico."

....The workaholic's charitable foundations have benefited hundreds of thousands of Mexicans. He has funded hospitals, a national archive and an art museum named after his late wife Soumaya, including works by Degas, Monet and the largest Rodin from her private collection.

Mr Slim recently told Forbes that his vision of a businessman's role differed to that of Mr Buffett, who is to donate $ 1.5 billion every year to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"Our concept is more to accomplish and solve things - not going around like Santa Claus," he added. "Poverty isn't solved with donations."

The French May Have a Word For It...

But, the thing itself is in danger:

The headaches of running a small business in France are legion.

To a slow-moving bureaucracy can be added the oppressive weight of social security charges, a labour code as thick as the bible, and a climate of opinion that too often equates the word "patron," the French for boss, with an evil oppressor.

A typical French pay-slip for example contains between 30 and 40 deductions, for a bewildering array of social insurance charges accumulated over the years. For every 100 euros paid in salary, a business pays an extra 45 to the state while the employee surrenders 20.

For many entrepreneurs, taking on new staff is prohibitively risky not just because of the cost but also because of the difficulty of shedding workers when times go bad. A mistake in the complex dismissal procedure can lead to an employment tribunal and a heavy fine.

Above all there is the constant feeling that the system works against them.

"When a young person starts a business, within days he gets letters from the pensions and social insurance people. He is filling out forms and paying money even before he's started his activity.
It is a total disincentive," says Jean-Eudes du Mesnil, secretary-general of the Confederation of Small and Medium Businesses (CGPME).

"The biggest problem is culture. Here in France people aren't taught about how business works. In schools the subject isn't mentioned till the last year, and in teacher-training colleges there is no obligation to learn about the real economy," he says.

en idea segunda

Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to show you could be intimidated by bombings:

MADRID - Islamist terrorist attacks in North Africa have revived concerns in Spain about threats made by Al Qaeda to recover what Arabs know as "Al Andalus".

National Court Judge Baltasar Garzon warned in an interview published on Thursday by the daily La Vanguardia that there exists a "high risk" Europe will suffer a new attack by fundamentalist Muslim terrorists.

....Spanish defense minister Jose Antonio Alonso emphasized the need to be "very attentive and prepared" and not to downplay "any threat" after terrorist attacks in Algiers and Casablanca.

....The Algiers attacks were claimed by the Al Qaeda Organization in the Countries of the Islamic Maghreb, which - in a statement released on the Internet - swore not to rest until it had liberated "the land of Islam from Jerusalem to Al Andalus".

....Referring to the Al Qaeda message about the Algiers attacks, Garzon said it "can and must be considered the relaunching of its terrorist campaigns".


'Cause you might get what you wish for:

...with Imus' career in tatters, the fate of the controversial shock jock is stirring quiet but heartfelt concern in an unlikely quarter: among Democratic politicians.

That's because, over the years, Democrats such as [Harold Ford Jr] came to count on Imus for the kind of sympathetic treatment that Republicans got from Rush Limbaugh or Sean

Equally important, Imus gave Democrats a pipeline to a crucial voting bloc that was perennially hard for them to reach: politically independent white men.

...."This is a real bind for Democrats," said Dan Gerstein, an advisor to one of Imus' favorite regulars, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). "Talk radio has become primarily the province of the right, and the blogosphere is largely the province of the left. If Imus loses his microphone, there aren't many other venues like it around."

Jim Farrell, a former aide to 2000 presidential candidate and Imus regular Bill Bradley, said the firing "creates a vacuum."

This week, when Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) was asked by CNN why he picked Imus' show to announce his presidential candidacy, Dodd explained: "He's got a huge audience; he gives you enough time to talk, not a 30-second sound bite, a chance to explain your views; … and a chance to reach the audience who doesn't always watch the Sunday morning talk shows."

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Gente Vieja a Casa

Hard as it may be to visualize, some day she'll be old and gray...and with plenty of company:
MADRID – In 35 years Spain will have the oldest population in the world, according to a United Nations report published on Thursday.
The number of people over the age of 60 will be 32 percent of the world population in 2050 – a larger proportion than the number of children.
“There is a dramatic change happening which is going to affect the development of the world,” said Somnath Chatterji, coordinator of the global study on ageing and adult health, carried out by the World Health Organisation.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Hate the man. Love the manner.

In the banlieu:

The name of Nicolas Sarkozy is mud in high-immigration French suburbs hit by the riots of 2005, but behind the angry rhetoric often lies a nuanced view of the right-wing candidate's ideas on work, welfare, discrimination and integration.

In the Val Fourre housing complex of Mantes la Jolie, about 55 kilometres (35 miles) west of Paris, locals blame the former interior minister for his tough views on policing and immigration, and warn of a new outbreak of violence if he is elected France's new president on May 6.

...others in the estate made clear that -- even if they may not vote for Sarkozy -- they share many of his ideas.

"What is the root of France's problems today? The answer is work," said Arif Bilgic, a 29-year-old greengrocer, echoing one of Sarkozy's rallying-cries. "If he has said some stupid things, it is because he has to appeal to the far-right for the election -- but that is just campaigning."

"When I was in London I had three jobs at once -- two jobs waiting tables and one as a delivery man. It was that easy to find work," said Tariq, a 30-year-old social worker. "Me, I'm a liberal and I always have been. I am for the 60-hour week."

According to Bernard Kossoko, Radio Droit de Cite's manager: "We all expect too much from the state. We need a system where people can't keep turning down job offers and claiming benefit. They've got to be put under an obligation -- and I don't care if it is a right-wing thing to say."

Guess We'll Just Go Eat Dirt

And be happy about it:

Exposure to friendly soil bacteria could improve mood by boosting the immune system just as effectively as antidepressant drugs, a new study suggests.

Researchers exposed mice to a harmless soil microbe called Mycobacterium vaccae and had the rodents perform a behavioral task commonly used to test the efficacy of antidepressant drugs.

The mice were placed in a large beaker of water for five minutes and watched to see how long they continued swimming and searching for an exit before giving up. The researchers found that the bacteria-exposed mice continued paddling around much longer than the control mice.

....Scientists think the lack of serotonin in the brain is thought to cause depression in people.

Previous studies have linked early childhood exposure to bacteria to protection against allergies and asthma in adulthood. The new finding take this idea, called the “hygiene hypothesis,” a step further, and suggests bacteria-exposure not only boosts our immune systems, but alters our vulnerability to conditions such as depression as well.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

In Service...

And in the money, in Southern California:

Wealthy families need more chefs to prepare meals, more maids and butlers to serve them, more housekeepers to keep mansions tidy, and more nannies and night nurses to tend offspring.

....The number of private household workers jumped 67 percent in Southern California over the past five years to nearly 150,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This total doesn't include illegal immigrants or anyone paid off the books.

Dennis Meyers, principal economist at the California Department of Finance, says such strong growth isn't surprising.

"We have so many new millionaires," he says.

....The burgeoning service industry now has its own glossy magazine, CelebStaff: Managing Mansions and Estates. Its offices are in Beverly Hills.

"For the average Joe, this type of lifestyle is unimaginable," the CelebStaff editors write, "but those that live it will have it no other way!"

If the average Joe only knew, those in the field say, he could be upgrading his own life by working for the wealthy.

"He could be making $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 a year at a mansion in Bel Air with museum-quality furnishings, rather than cooped up as a $9-an-hour computer programmer in a cubicle in Mid-Wilshire," says Baker, who started his company in 2004 after a stint as a recruiter for a search firm.


Perhaps an XXX-Large wardrobe?:

Aimless internet surfers are spending an average of two working days a month mindlessly searching cyberspace with no real purpose.

More than two thirds of the UK's 33.7 million internet users admit to "wilfing" (What Was I Looking For?).

....research, conducted by, also reveals shopping websites are the biggest cause of wilfing - while men are much more likely to be wilfing than women.

In fact, a third of males quizzed in the nationwide study even admit wilfing has had a damaging effect on their relationship with their partner.

A possible cause of this was that almost one in five men confess to being distracted from work or study by adult entertainment sites.

Jason Lloyd, from, said: "The internet was designed to make it easier for people to access the information they need quickly and conveniently.

"However, our study shows that although people log on with a purpose, they are now being offered so much choice and online distraction that many forget what they are there for, and spend hours aimlessly wilfing instead."

Supersize Me

Say Brit kids:

School uniforms are being made in enormous sizes to cope with British children's expanding dimensions.

As boys get taller - and sometimes fatter - one outfitter has launched blazers with a 52in chest and trousers with a 42in waist.

Fifty years ago the largest blazer available for a 16-year-old had a 36in chest.

But the National Schoolwear Centres says it has already sold a blazer with a 48in chest to an 11-year-old.

Monday, April 09, 2007

For Crying Out Loud

Got misery? There's company for you:

Loss is one of a new breed of crying clubs to arrive in the UK from Japan, where tears have become something of an industry in recent years.

In Tokyo, stressed businessmen can rent rooms by the hour to watch weepy movies or pay £5 a time to attend group cryathons and 'tear therapy' meetings.

Crying in public seems to have caught on in the United States, too.

New American website, allows users to post pictures of themselves weeping into their food alongside a short explanation of the cause of their distress ('global warming', 'always expects the worst and is never disappointed').

The site already has cult status, receiving thousands of hits in the past few months alone.

For Crying Out Loud

Got misery? There's company for you:

Loss is one of a new breed of crying clubs to arrive in the UK from Japan, where tears have become something of an industry in recent years.

In Tokyo, stressed businessmen can rent rooms by the hour to watch weepy movies or pay £5 a time to attend group cryathons and 'tear therapy' meetings.

Crying in public seems to have caught on in the United States, too.

New American website, allows users to post pictures of themselves weeping into their food alongside a short explanation of the cause of their distress ('global warming', 'always expects the worst and is never disappointed').

The site already has cult status, receiving thousands of hits in the past few months alone.

Hurry up already...

With the Global Warming:

Major League Baseball may be forced to tinker with its schedule after a weekend series in Cleveland was wiped out by a snowstorm and a cold snap forced the postponement of six games during the first week of the season.

Worried that more unseasonable weather could hit Cleveland again this week, baseball may send the Indians to warm up in Anaheim instead of making the Angels head east.
And temperatures aren't the only thing that's way down: Home runs plunged during the season's frigid first week to their lowest level since 1993, with average dropping from 2.4 in last season's opening week to 1.8 this year. It hadn't been that low since a 1.6 average 14 years ago, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

"You can see it. Some of the swings, not the quickest at-bats," Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said following a game in the 20-degree wind chill of windy Chicago.

After pitching an inning Sunday at Yankee Stadium, where snow flurries fell late, Andy Pettitte was happy to get out of New York and head to Minneapolis. Yes, the forecast called for a gametime temperature of 38 degrees Monday, but the Twins play in a dome.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Good Morning, Iran

Meet MOP, who says, 'You can dig, but you can't hide from me.':

As U.S. concern about the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran have grown, weapons designers have been working on bombs capable of destroying those countries' underground nuclear sites.

....The latest of these weapons is the MOP — short for Massive Ordnance Penetrator — built by Boeing's Advanced Systems unit in St. Louis. The 20-foot-long bomb that weighs 30,000 pounds — much heavier than the 21,000-pound MOAB, or Massive Ordnance Air Burst bomb, unveiled in the prelude to the Iraq war.

....The MOP was successfully tested earlier this month at White Sands, N.M. A Boeing handout last week made clear the weapon's likely targets:

"The weapon's effectiveness against hard and deeply buried targets allows the warfighter to hold adversaries' most highly valued military facilities at risk, especially those protecting weapons of mass destruction," said Bob McClurg, Boeing Advanced Systems MOP program manager.

At Wired magazine's defense blog, Danger Room, David Hambling says that the MOP has much more penetrating power than military's best current non-nuclear option, the 5,000-pound BLU-113, which can penetrate 22 feet of concrete:

MOP will go a lot deeper — 200 feet of 5,000 psi concrete. ....

The U.S. also has nuclear "bunker busting" weapons, in particular the B61-11, which was developed in the 1990s.

Greg Mankiw, 'Call your office.'

The Pigou Club is best advised not to recruit in Denmark:

High taxes on cars effectively put the brakes on the country's economy, according to a study conducted for the Danish National Union of Metalworkers.

The country's 180 percent registration fee makes Denmark one of the most expensive countries in which to own a car. If the fee was reduced, some 200,000 people would have an easier time finding work, the union found.

'High demands are made to employees' mobility, but efforts that make it easier or less expensive for people to be more mobile are few,' Mikael Bay Hansen, an economist for the union, told Berlingske Tidende newspaper.

Dead Dad Not To Be Girl's Best Friend

Foiled by the court, in Germany:

A German woman's plan to turn her dead father's ashes into a diamond was thwarted on Tuesday by her grandmother.

A district court in Wiesbaden ruled the 19-year-old could not take the cremated remains to Switzerland where a company creates synthetic diamonds from ashes.

"The daughter of the deceased could not provide sufficient proof that it was his final wish to be pressed into a diamond," the court in western Germany said, ruling in favour of his 86-year-old mother.

....The ashes are placed in a press under intense pressure and heat, replicating the forces that create a natural diamond, over a period of several months. Synthetic diamonds have been manufactured from carbon since the mid-1950s.

Fast We Can Do...

In record time:

The TGV train went so fast through eastern France that cheering spectators watching from bridges and other vantage points saw it go by in a blur.

No-one could even see the exact number on the speedometer as the specially built train raced down the rails on the Paris-Strasbourg line. It hit "574 and a bit more", a spokesman for the manufacturer Alstom said. Official recorders later declared the speed at 574.8 kilometers (357.2 miles) per hour -- a new world record for a train on traditional rails.

But, slow will take a little work:

PARIS, April 5, 2007 (AFP) - More than 70 people were injured on Thursday when a train carrying hundreds of rush-hour commuters hit the rail buffer of a Paris station, firefighters said.

The driver was held for questioning by police after the nine-carriage train carrying 600 passengers struck the buffer as it pulled into the Gare de l'Est station, in eastern Paris.

....The regional train travelling from Chateau-Thierry, east of Paris, hit the buffer on track 21 at a speed of about five to seven kilometres per hour (three to 4.5 miles per hour

....The accident caused disruption and delays for other suburban rail services to the station, a major hub for trains from the eastern outskirts of Paris.

A SNCF spokesman initially dismissed the accident as minor, saying that some passengers had suffered "a few bruises".

"It's not an accident, but an incident, which happens from time to time," said the spokesman, adding that the train had "hit the buffer a bit roughly."

People of the Book

The French election as seen through the Best Sellers List:

PARIS, April 5, 2007 (AFP) - Bookstores have become a key battleground in the last mile of the French presidential race, with a record 110 titles hitting the shelves, from nuts-and-bolts analysis of the issues to intimate confessions from the candidates themselves.

Bad news for the Socialist candidate Segolene Royal, currently second in the polls: a virulent attack on her campaign and personality, written by a senior defector from her party, currently tops national sales across all categories.

"Who knows Madame Royal?" by the Socialists' former economics chief Eric Besson, who resigned in a row over the financing of Royal's campaign promises, describes the candidate as a glory-hunting populist.

....Book sales have mirrored the fortunes of the main candidates: a book by the centrist Francois Bayrou, "Project of Hope", shot into the best-seller charts last month as he emerged as a possible "Third Man" in the race. As his poll figures have levelled off, so have sales of his book.

Right-wing frontrunner Nicolas Sarkozy stole a march on his rivals with the release last summer of a political autobiography called "Testimony", which has sold at least 160,000 copies nationwide -- 300,000 according to his editor.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Debloque Box

Anthony de Jasay has a 'retarded child' named France on his hands:

For 14 years under Mitterrand and 12 under Chirac, all governments leaned left in constructing, completing and embellishing with bells and whistles the proud "French social model", reputedly the envy of other nations. It had two mainsprings. One was an almost laughably elaborate labour law, a code of over 2,600 pages which came close to giving the worker a right to his job. By making it very difficult to fire, it has spread a fear of hiring.

The other, and probably more destructive, mainspring of the "model" was a comprehensive system of insurance against sickness, old age and unemployment, financed mainly by paying workers only about 55 per cent of their earnings in cash and (by legal fiat and with union complicity) withholding the remaining 45 per cent, calling it "employers' and employees' contributions" to social insurance. ....

The comic side is the length to which the rights of the unemployed have been pushed. For instance, genuine or self-styled actors, actresses and other show-business personnel are entitled to year-long unemployment pay if they can prove just a few days of paid employment—a proof that can be procured for a little love or money. It should surely cause no surprise that over the 13 years of the scheme, the show business population drawing benefits from it grew from 41,000 to 104,000 and its cost rose fivefold.

....M. Chirac declared the "social model" sacrosanct, "Anglo-Saxon" liberalism as bad as communism and always dreaded confronting the unions. A deeper reason, though, was the "retarded child" mentality of French collective opinion.

There is a subconscious belief in France that the state does not pay Paul by taking the money from Peter. It just gives it to Paul, and Peter is not made worse off. This is so because the money sits in an imaginary reservoir and the state can "unblock" it (debloquer is the French word used to describe this happy event). Consequently, when a group gets a costly favour, when "generosity" prevails toward the needy and when 35,000 young people are hired to oversee schoolchildren and dissuade them from running riot, some gain and nobody loses. The money needed has been "unblocked" and that, surely, is what public money was for. There is always enough left in the reservoir, waiting to be debloqué.

This amazing failure to understand the realities of public finance—indeed, to understand reality—explains why in France the move of one pressure group to grab resources or "rights" is hardly ever countered by the resistance of other pressure groups that would have to bear the cost. Polls say that endlessly recurring rail strikes are approved by the majority of commuters who suffer great inconvenience from them. When tobacconists claim, and get, compensation for falling cigarette sales, everyone thinks that this is the least the state can do, and when imports make food too cheap, it is thought only fair to French farmers for the state to make it dear again. In the process, France, potentially so rich, is becoming a poor country "trying to travel first class on a second-class ticket" and feeling bewildered that the attempt does not quite work.

Un Mensaje por PGL

Senor Newt answers the Angry Bear:

Newt Gingrich: Spanish is a Ghetto Language

It's Not Easy Being Green

When Fidel weighs in:

Writing in the Granma newspaper, Mr Castro said a US drive to back crop use for fuels would raise prices and cause more hunger in developing countries.

....In Wednesday's column, Reflections of The Commander-in-Chief, Mr Castro criticised President Bush's plan to increase the use of foodstuffs like corn for fuel to run cars.

He said Mr Bush had "declared his intention to apply this formula on a world scale, which means none other than the internationalisation of genocide".

....Mr Castro wrote that dozens of nations do not have oil and cannot produce corn or other grains to make ethanol because they lack water.

The surge in demand for corn would push up grain prices while the threat of a US invasion of Iran keeps oil prices high, he wrote.

He asked: "Where are the poor countries of the Third World going to get the minimum resources to survive?"

Favorite French Whine

The old wine can't be put in newly labeled bottles, says a French court:

Châteaux producing Saint Emilion wines in the Bordeaux region have been banned from giving their bottles the coveted "grand crus classé" label, which enable them to charge significantly higher prices.

....Founded in 1954, Saint Emilion's classed grands crus are re-judged every10 years by a jury of brokers, merchants, oenologists and a wine professor.

They conduct blind wine-tastings of vintages from the previous decade, but also judge a range of other criteria, such as terroir - quality of the soil - the blend of the grapes, bottling conditions and price.

Early this year, a new list of top wines for 2006 to 2016 was released and the number had shrunk from 68 to 61 "grands crus classés".

....Saint Emilion is the second wine area in Bordeaux to be hit by such a suspension in weeks. Last month, the first official classification of "crus bourgeois" in Médoc was also cancelled in court.

....The move was intended to reassure drinkers attracted by cheaper New World wines that the premium charged by French wines was backed up by stringent quality control. Châteaux bearing the new official label sold their wines for roughly a third more than declassified rivals.

....But the rulings mean that two of the Bordeaux five classed groups - designed to help wine lovers choose from among the region's bewildering 57 Appelations d'Origine Contrôlée - are currently nul and void.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Taking it to the bank

In India the poor and illiterate get a little help from technology:

These days Mahendra Sahni, a daily wage worker in India's most backward state of Bihar, struts up to a gleaming new cash machine in his village to withdraw his hard earned money.

....For years he used to waste nearly a day getting to the bank and queuing up to get his wages.

Now, when he inserts a cash card into the machine, he is greeted with an voice instruction in Hindi: "Please put your thumb on the specified space."

When he does that, crisp currency notes roll out of the machine with the voice saying, "Your cash is ready. Please accept it."

....The biometric cash machines are custom-made for people who cannot read or write and use features like fingerprint verification and voice guided animated screens and easy navigation.

...."It is basically for poor workers like Sahni who cannot read or write their names. Banking for them will become easy with these cash machines," says the bank's local manager Pranay Kumar.

Fogies Unite...

You've got nothing to lose except your spare change if Belgium gets its way:

BRUSSELS - From 2009, an employee's age may no longer be a factor when determining his or her salary. The Federal Employment Minister Peter Vanvelthoven (Flemish socialist) told the unions and bosses on Monday that the current situation, whereby older employees often receive a higher salary than their younger colleagues, is contrary to the EU anti-discrimination directive.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Strangelove's Revenge

Or, How Gregg Easterbrook Learned to Quit Worrying and Love the Bomber:

The withering away of the bomber corps reflects planning assumptions a quarter-century old. Then, the thinking was that precision-guided munitions delivered from low altitude by jet fighters would take over nearly all conventional bombing roles. As recently as a few months before 9/11, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered the mothballing of 30 B-1 bombers on the theory that they'd never be used in a modern, fighter-dominated air war anyway. Pentagon planners assumed that bombers would play a secondary role while low-flying fighters put the smart explosives on the target.

Instead, unexpected technical breakthroughs resulted in extremely accurate munitions that can be dropped from high altitude by bombers, at less cost and risk than using low-flying fighters. The result has been that during the Afghanistan and second Iraq campaigns, most of the air punch has been delivered by a handful of the remaining bombers. Some 80 percent of the bombs dropped during the U.S. seizure of Afghanistan fell from bombers; the share dropped on Iraq since March 2003 is nearly as high. Though bombers have in this decade turned out to be far more important to U.S. military action than Pentagon strategists expected, the government still plans to invest fantastic amounts of money in fighter planes that would be used mainly to drop bombs.

Which demonstrates better than a Tullock-Buchanan book how government works...and why:

A bomb called the JDAM was developed that locates itself in three-dimensional space using GPS signals, and continuously corrects its position via satellite guidance as it falls. First dropped in 1999 during the NATO campaign to force the Yugoslavian army out of Kosovo, the JDAM proved almost eerily accurate, reliably striking within about 10 feet of its target. And because JDAMs have no engines—little fins adjust the bomb's position—these munitions aren't expensive by military standards, about $30,000 each. Other advances, like the development of tracking devices that work at high altitude, made bombers even more attractive. Suddenly lumbering, high-altitude bombers could do what only low-flying fighters with crack pilots had been able to accomplish, putting bombs exactly on the aim point. And the bombers could do it much cheaper, with much less risk of being shot down.

....In the Afghanistan and second Iraq campaigns, a few dozen bombers did the work tacticians assumed would require hundreds of fighter planes.

Yet the Pentagon plans a breathtaking new investment in fighter planes, while doing naught but study what type of bomber might be built decades in the future. One reason is that the emergence of the accurate bomber just wasn't in anyone's playbook.

....There are other factors at play. One is that almost two decades of lobbying and logrolling stand behind that $320 billion fighter purchase plan. The fix is in with key congressional committees, and the pork has been elaborately scheduled for division among constituents and congressional districts. The aerospace contracting lobby does not want any change in the copious money flow now authorized for new fighters.

....This is why the Pentagon has not been crowing much about the success of its bombers above Afghanistan and Iraq: If that were understood, the case for spending $320 billion on smart-bombing fighters would fade.