The Unbearable Obscurity of
Le Monde

Jude Wanniski
July 2, 1997


Memo To: Website fans and browsers
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Reuven Brennerís critique on the premier newspaper of France

[Reuven Brenner, our friend at McGill University Faculty of Management in Montreal, in a piece originally written for the Asia Times, critiques Franceís premier newspaper, Le Monde, thereby giving us some insights on why the French economy is such a mess.]

The Unbearable Obscurity of LeMonde
by Reuven Brenner

It has been a wonderful idea for Asia Times to sign an agreement with Le Monde, the French daily, to translate its articles occasionally. The Asian readers can get first hand acquaintance with, probably, the most pretentious, obscure, ignorant and boring daily published today (the Toronto-based Globe and Mail comes a close second). So that Asian readers can learn with whom they are dealing, I am not making this statement because I write occasionally for the Figaro, the other French daily. 

Having lived in France, I have tried to read Le Monde (and living now in Canada, I read the Globe and Mail -- rarely). Oh, did I try. But I have to confess that I do not remember ever -- not once -- being able to read an article in that newspaper from beginning to end. Each time I tried, Shakespeare's  "Words, words, mere words, no matter of the heart," in ďAll's Well That Ends Well,Ē came to my mind -- and more. Le Monde's words were no matter of the mind either, and it is no wonder that things do not go very well in France.  A place which considers this newspaper to be its most prestigious and influential in domestic political circles, is heading toward oblivion.  Obscure language is a sign of obscure thinking.

Take a concrete example: Ignacio Ramonet -- Le Monde Diplomatique's editor-in-chief and director -- recently wrote an article entitled, "Democracy Sacrificed on the Altar of Globalization," translated on the pages of this newspaper (May 27, 1997). Consider this passage:

"The revolution in information technology is replacing more and more functions of the human brain by the computer...Productivity continues to increase while the demand for a whole range of job skills is disappearing. The result is soaring unemployment, as such employment as remains is becoming increasingly precarious...Globalization is above all proceeding apace in the financial sector, which dominates the economy. The financial markets, operating in accordance with rules they alone determine, are now in a position to dictate the laws of states...Turning to the sociological arena, these two revolutions are bringing about a crisis in the concept of power.  Power was formerly vertical, hierarchical and authoritarian. It is becoming increasingly horizontal, interlinked and, thanks to manipulation by the media, consensual."

Letís start looking more closely at this statements, going backward. Mr. Ramonet must have been daydreaming and make sexual associations when writing the last sentences: I know that sex can be vertical, hierarchical, authoritarian, consensual, and, as one gets older, even horizontal. But, pray, what does consensual and horizontal power mean?!

And what does it mean that the financial sector dominates the economy? The financial sector is part of the economy which, when allowed to operate relatively unhindered, prevents persistence of mistaken decisions, be it by managements, entrepreneurs or governments. However, since governments can raise money through taxes and inflation -- which, fortunately, companies cannot -- mistaken decisions can last longer if made by governments than by private companies. Only when governments have made many mistakes, whose costs accumulate at compounding rates, and there is a risk of default, will financial markets refuse to advance additional credit, and force upon governments policy changes. If such event is not on the horizon, lenders do not mind advancing additional credit: if taxpayers do not revolt and are ready to cough up money for governments' increasing follies, so be it. Tax revenues cover the interest payments and the principal.

"Productivity increases and unemployment soaring" -- now where are Mr. Ramonet's facts? In the country in which productivity has been increasing at the fastest rate, where most of the defining innovations of the last decade has been coming from, and have been commercialized -- the United States -- unemployment has been diminishing, and it is at the lowest level in decades (5%). Unemployment has been soaring in France and Germany (stubbornly hovering around 10-13%), and they also fall behind in the commercialization of innovations. Yes, a whole range of jobs have been disappearing in the U.S. --  but a whole new range has been created too. 

And what does it mean that "employment remains precarious"? When the unemployment rate is as low as in the U.S., it means that even if one loses a job, one can find another very easily. So why does it matter if one does not have tenure? Employment is precarious when there is a lot of stubborn unemployment because employers can, one way or another, use their existence as a bargaining chip. But when the demand for people is soaring, which employer wants to lose a good employee?

As to the information technology: it is replacing one function of the brain -- memory. That is what the Internet, once efficiently organized, will achieve: a depositary of easily accessible information (and misinformation: Le Monde will be there, I am sure), which people using computers will then retrieve and reshape rapidly. But I do not know of any other function of the brain that computers have replaced. Though when reading some journalists' output, or listening to politicians and bureaucrats, I wished.

Mr. Ramonet continues that "Ordinary people have no illusions about where power really lies. In a recent opinion poll, 64 percent of respondents stated that most power in France today was vested in financial markets." Mr. Ramonet does not say if the French found that there was anything wrong with that: maybe they loved the idea that the French government will not be able to build another Arc of something, or a new Chateau Chirac to the memory of another French president. The poll should have asked the French a question raised in a recent poll conducted in the U.S. When 1006 adults were asked to rank professions by their prestige, journalists hit rock bottom -- only union leaders were ranked below them. I do not know if people thought about tabloid journalists, ideologues, or those talking heads on TV who use the kind of pompous, imprecise language so typical of Le Monde too, when answering this poll. But something about journalists has obviously bothered them and struck a very unpleasant chord. 

Back to Mr. Ramonet's piece: What is he exactly complaining about? He complains that the power of the state has eroded. Yet he should ask people around the world, who lived under communism and other dictatorial regimes if they find a problem with that. Mr. Ramonet implies that somehow Western democracy has been weakening. Where his evidence is on this point, I do not know. After all, Europe has been moving toward more decisions being taken through referenda and initiatives -- direct democracy -- which means giving citizens more, not less, power over their governments. Isn't that the true meaning of democracy?

He complains about the "dogma of globalization" -- though he does not define the term, and does not say what is the alternative: the idea of retreating in Iran-type solitude?

There is one observation that Mr. Ramonet makes which is accurate: that the Western European countries are in crises. And that is true. But their crises has to do not with the "dogma of globalization," not "with financial markets dominating the economy," not with "monetarism, privatization," or any of the other terms he uses.

Their crisis has to do with the fact that until ten years ago, these Western democracies together with the U.S. and a few other countries benefited from movement to their shores of both human and financial capital from the rest of the world. West Germany alone got 12 million well-trained Germans thrown out of eastern Europe, or fleeing the East German communist paradise. Meanwhile, during the 1960s, Southeast Asia was racked by civil wars, Latin America by bloody coups, and in the rest of the world Communists ruled. Who wanted to move there, or put money there?

The movement of capital to the stable Western Europe's shores, combined with the fact that people in the rest of the world were prevented from competing with the West's employees, had the combined effect of both bidding up their price and allowing Western governments to tax and redistribute wealth. Where could the taxed entrepreneurs move?

These special circumstances of post-World War II misled many in Western Europe to conclude that they were entitled to easy prosperity, and that governments can achieve and sustain prosperity. This world does not exist anymore, yet Le Monde -- and its journalists are not alone -- perpetuates the myth that this world can somehow be restored.

There is a good saying on Wall Street: "Do not confuse brains with a bull market." Many in Western Europe still do, and believe that their post-World War prosperity was due to their own "brains." In part, yes. But in great part the prosperity was due to the fact that much of the rest of the world was in the stages of disastrous political experiments. That world is over, and if Western Europe wants to prosper, it has to count more on getting itself back in shape, rather than living with illusions that its post-World War II glory was due to their governments' wise policies. Presenting people the facts and writing in clear language would be a first step in that direction.