Swamp Rabbit and I were jawing about a NY Times report on the high unemployment rate in France. The story seemed to imply that those left-leaning Frenchies had turned their country into an economic basket case by not scrapping a law that was supposed to limit most workers to a 35-hour work week:
Analysts question whether the 35-hour week has brought economic benefits — or merely bureaucratic burdens.
Companies were expected to recruit more employees to compensate for the reduced hours for any one worker. While the French statistics agency Insee estimates that 300,000 to 350,000 jobs were created shortly after the law was passed [in 2000], economists said that the pace of jobs creation had not been maintained. And critics say the rule is a reason that France’s unemployment rate is more than double Germany’s rate of 5 percent.
Note the reporter’s evasiveness. She uses the phrases “analysts question” and “critics say” but doesn’t present information that would shed light on whether the critics she quotes are correct in assuming a cause-and-effect link between the 35-hour work week and high unemployment. What about other factors? Most obviously, the ongoing recession in Europe caused by the disastrous casino-style lending policies of America’s major investment banks? At one point, the reporter seems to contradict the point of her article by stating that France’s 35-hour work week is “largely symbolic.” She writes, “All told, French workers put in an average of 39.5 hours a week.”
I said to the rabbit, “Remember Mark Twain’s words – there are lies, damn lies and statistics.”
“Disraeli said them words first,” the rabbit replied. “But I know what you’re gettin’ at.”
I was getting at the fact that France’s economy isn’t in great shape but is doing better than America’s mainstream media would have us believe. As Paul Krugman wrote in August:
Why … does France get such bad press? It’s hard to escape the suspicion that it’s political: France has a big government and a generous welfare state, which free-market ideology says should lead to economic disaster. So disaster is what gets reported, even if it’s not what the numbers say.
Here’s a statistic the Francophobes don’t like: France has a higher unemployment rate than Germany, but its worker productivity levels are among the highest in the world. They score even higher than the Germans.
France also has a higher unemployment rate than the United States, but the out-of-work rate for French workers who are in the prime of life is lower than it is for the same group here. Our overall unemployment rate is lower than France’s only because of the number of students and old people who have to work in this country in order to survive.
French employers are like employers everywhere, always looking to spend as little as possible on labor. The 35-hour work week is bad only insofar as it allows French employers to hire part-timers in order to escape paying benefits, the same thing employers do in the U.S.
In fact, the Times story is as much about the disappearance of a social safety net in America as it is about unemployment in France. The rich get richer, in France and America, but only in America are the poor getting poorer, thanks to the big banks, politicians who only look after the interests of the one percent, and corporations such as Walmart that don’t pay a living wage and count on increasingly stingy government sources to keep workers from going hungry and losing their homes.
Footnote: A libertarian friend of mine on Facebook saw the Times story, noted France’s high unemployment rate and concluded: “Only socialists would try to tell somebody how much they can work to support their family.” Which is, I think, the sort of response the anti-socialist Times story was meant to elicit. It’s funny how Krugman always seems to be refuting statistics in news stories that appear in the paper that pays him for his opinions.