Monday, April 25, 2011

The Other French Paradox.

The French Paradox is usually the claim that French people have relatively low level of heart disease, despite a diet relatively rich in saturated fats. 
But here's another French paradox for you :
the French are the most pessimistic people in the world about the future of their economy (Time) YET they keep having more babies - with the 2nd highest birth rate in the European Union, almost as high as the United-States' - and spend more time shopping, eating and drinking than any other western nation (our post).
So what to make of this French paradox? The French may believe their country is doomed, but they also believe it has a future, or else why have babies? 

It is true that the French tend to focus on their private social life and separate it from public life. They can easily see no contradiction with whining about their boss, or their country, bureaucrats and politicians, and yet be happy with their individual situation.  
There is also something inherently French about pessimism.It is in literature and in movies. (The French will often snub hollywood endings for being so positive!).  It is in the French education (here). 
But there's more to it.  Expression of joy and/or optimism is akin to being either naive (a major faux-pas) or uncaring towards the poor and the less privileged. I claim that there is some sort of societal pressure to sound more pessimistic than you may really be.
To a certain extent, there is also something almost "fashionable" about being pessimistic, like wearing black and not smiling.
So really, in the end, what the French say in polls about pessimism should really be taken with a grain of salt. Deep down, and when you get to know them, they may be a lot happier.

Is Globalization Real?

As we have seen in our recent posts on the OECD results,"exposing intuitions to hard data" can either confirms and contradicts assumptions we may have when we discuss crosscultural differences. My point is that even though hard data can also be twisted and misinterpreted, they can also be a lot of fun, if you need to add hard science to subjective conversations. 

This is partly what I find the idea behind Pankaj Ghemawat's book "World 3.0: Global Prosperity and How to Achieve It" fascinating - Ghemawat claims to challenge our views of globalization by showing that many indicators of global integration are actually quite low : 
- only 2% of students are at universities outside their home
- only 7% of rice is traded across borders. 
- only 7% of directors of S&P 500 companies are foreigners
-  less than 1% of all American companies have any foreign operations. 
-  exports are equivalent to only 20% of global GDP
-  foreign direct investment (FDI) accounts for only 9% of all fixed investment
-  less than 20% of venture capital is deployed outside the fund’s home country. 
- only 20% of shares traded on stockmarkets are owned by foreign investors. 

And this one surprises me the most : less than 20% of Internet traffic crosses national borders.

Ghemawat also concludes that globalization is actually shaped by very concrete elements such as distance and cultural ties. 
For example two similar countries will engage in :
- 42% more trade if they share a common language than if they do not, 
- 47% more if both belong to a trading block, 
- 114% more if they have a common currency 
- 188% more if they have a common colonial past.

Finally, Ghemawat disagrees that globalization means homogenisation - a point hard to prove though  - 
McDonald’s serves vegetarian burgers in India and spicy ones in Mexico, where Coca-Cola uses cane sugar rather than the corn syrup it uses in America. MTV, which went global on the assumption that “A-lop-bop-a-doo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom” meant the same in every language, now includes five calls to prayer a day in its Indonesian schedules.
(source The Economist)

This deserves more studies and hard data but I like the idea that so many figures can challenge today's assumption that "The World is Flat" - i.e. that individuals are competing in a global market where historical and geographical divisions are becoming increasingly irrelevant. - cf. Tom Friedman's highly influential book. A book to read! 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Is Law and Order a Cultural Phenomenon or a Political Choice?

Here's another result from the OECD which I find worth giving because the numbers are so impressive :

The US has the greatest prison population rate in the world and not just a bit - 11 times the rate of France and 5.4 times the rate of the OECD average.

Prison population rate, per 100 000 population in 2008

This graph is very impressive. In fact, between 1972 and 2010 prison population increased 705%.

The reason is tougher longer sentences for crimes that that would not necessarily produce prison sentences in other countries such as dug use.

Even though the crime rate has recently declined in the U.S. it is still about 4 times the level of Europe - especially when it comes to violent crime. (here)

So is toughness on crime a distinct feature of American culture? Not according to Tocqueville anyway :
"In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States.", he wrote in 'Democracy in America' (Book III, chapter I)

Here's an interesting point raised by this 2008 NYTimes article :

Some scholars have found that English-speaking nations have higher prison rates.
"Although it is not at all clear what it is about Anglo-Saxon culture that makes predominantly English-speaking countries especially punitive, they are," Tonry wrote last year in "Crime, Punishment and Politics in Comparative Perspective."
"It could be related to economies that are more capitalistic and political cultures that are less social democratic than those of most European countries," Tonry wrote. "Or it could have something to do with the Protestant religions with strong Calvinist overtones that were long influential."
The American character — self-reliant, independent, judgmental — also plays a role.
"America is a comparatively tough place, which puts a strong emphasis on individual responsibility," Whitman of Yale wrote. "That attitude has shown up in the American criminal justice of the last 30 years."
French-speaking countries, by contrast, have "comparatively mild penal policies," Tonry wrote.

There are also major differences within the U.S. which may be culturally significant :
"Minnesota looks more like Sweden than like Texas," said Mauer of the Sentencing Project. (Sweden imprisons about 80 people per 100,000 of population; Minnesota, about 300; and Texas, almost 1,000. Maine has the lowest incarceration rate in the United States, at 273; and Louisiana the highest, at 1,138.)

From a European perspective, there is definitely a sense that the U.S. is a tough place to live. And as you get older, you tend to be less fascinated by the opportunities and more concerned by the toughness of the system - it be health-care, high violent crime, costly education or a harsh judicial system.

Another more objective major difference is that judges and prosecutors are elected in the U.S. which while being more democratic makes them giving in to popular demand and be "tough on crime". Watch any episode of Law and Order to see what I mean.

To be fair, it must be noted that for the first time in about 40 years, the American jail population has actually declined in the past 2 years (but not its prison rate)

For the second consecutive year the U.S. jail population has dropped -- by 2.4 percent in the 12 months ending June 30, Justice Department officials said.
Report author Todd D. Minton, a statistician at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, said the number of inmates in local jails mainly operated by a local law enforcement dropped from 767,434 to 748,728, following a 2.3 percent decline in 2009. (

A change of heart? Hardly. Pure American pragmatism - crowded jails and soaring costs are impossible recipes in an economic crisis that makes even close schools. (see here and here)

The vast majority of states and local governments are operating under severe budget difficulties and correctional administrators have been told to cut spending. Elaborate explanations will be offered but the heart of the matter is budget. Cities, counties and states can no longer afford the current rates of incarceration. (source)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011



Even if the United States is a country of immigrants, it is only 12th on the list for immigrants and 11 out of 34 OECD countries have a higher foreign-born population share.

Despite the Sarkozy government's obsession with immigration France is below the OECD average.

Foreign-born population, as a % of the total population, 200





OECD average


On the other hand, with almost 2 children per woman France has the highest fertility rate in OECD-Europe and the 9th highest in the OECD (the OECD average is 1.74 children per woman.), slightly under the U.S. (7th highest in the OECD)

Other key figures are the various positive and negative experiences reported by the participants of the OECD surveys. I believe some of the results may be culturally revealing.

Proud of something you did


Positive Experience index




Negative Experience


























For instance, according to these results, the French tend to be more angry and much less proud of something they did than the average OECD or the average American.
For sure, pride is certainly not something highly valued in France (maybe because of its catholic heritage) but there is more than that - French education is not generally about encouragement and the school system itself (including grading) is about what the students do wring not what they do well. From an early age, the French are conditioned into seeing their errors and mistakes and not their positive performances. Typically in France, you will emphasize what is wrong in the hope of making improvement and will consider compliments and positive reinforcement unnecessary.
This, in my opinion, is the core of what is wrong with the French educational system.
Whether this is related to "anger" is impossible to say. My tentative explanation is that the French tend to aim at perfection and idealism (and thus do not emphasize pragmatism which is sometimes seen as poor compromise) which causes frustration and anger. This is pure conjecture, I confess but it makes sense to me.

According to the OECD, Americans, on the other hand, seem to be more bored and depressed. I have no particular explanation for that one. Maybe too much emphasis on material gains turns out to be unsatisfactory in the end.

Overall though, the Americans tend to be happier (enjoyment is quite high) and feel more positive than either the French or the average OECD.


The United States has the 2nd highest household income after taxes and benefits in the OECD (31000 US$) after Luxembourg. France is just above OECD average (21000 US$) - that is in part due to the higher taxes and benefits.

But US income is distributed relatively unequally with the 4th highest rate of income inequality in the OECD. This is not really a surprise.
The US comes 29th out of 31 countries in terms of poverty level, and France is 6th (before Denmark, Sweden, Czech Republic, Austria & Norway) - 1/5 of the American population is considered poor.

The average income of the richest 10% in the U.S. is the highest level in the OECD. However, the poorest 10% of the US citizens have an income about 20% lower than the average for OECD countries. (see here)

According to the OECD, this is due to 2 factors :
- greater distribution of earning in the U.S. than in other OECD countries (by 20% since the 1980s)
-the low level of social benefits (such as unemployment and family benefits) : only 9% compared to 22% in the OECD.

Poverty rate

(persons living with less than 50% of median equivalised household income.)

GINI coefficient







OECD average



However, in France – the poorest 20% get just 16% of spending on benefits, which means that a great deal of the social spending gets to the middle-class.
France is one of only five OECD countries where income inequality and poverty have declined over the past 20 years. (see here)


The French are not very generous : only 31% of them give money, help strangers, or do volunteer work, compared to 60% of American and the OECD average of 39%.

This, I believe, is correlated to the high taxes and social benefits in France as the national consensus is that social problems are the government's responsibility through taxes - not the private citizens'. (A lot of them will use the high level of taxes as a reasoning for not giving more - "On paie déjà assez!)

So "fraternité" is supposed to be a Republican ideal secured by the government not an individual requirement.

The same applies to the wealthy - not any time soon will a French Bill Gates give half his fortune to a foundation. Contrary to the U.S. philanthropists have always been a rare kind in France.