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Morning Feature: Digging Deeper

October 19, 2010

Morning Feature

Morning Feature: Digging Deeper

Yawn. Stretch. Yawn. Stretch. Sip.

Yikes! How did you all get here?

Oh, that’s right. We need a Morning Feature. But not just any Morning Feature…something new for Tuesdays.

When fellow faculty member Professor of Neuroholdemology Caractacus decided to take his sabbatical about 6 years early, the resident and satellite faculty at Blogistan Polytechnic Institute opened up the intertoobz, cranked up the old communicator machine, and strategerized about what to do.

The “Things We Learned This Week” series was fun and popular, but I’m not sure anyone else could follow in Dr. C’s footsteps. When the bar is set that high, wouldn’t it be better to find another bar?

Our new bar….

Not that kind of bar, even if faculty do get the keys to the wine cellar library. Instead we’re starting a new Tuesday feature – “Digging Deeper” – that gives you a chance to host a discussion without needing Dr. C’s research skills. For this feature, all you need is an interest in the news and in digging deeper into a news item or two that catch your attention.

At BPI Campus we get news from these RSS Feeds:

1. Talking Points Memo
2. Think Progress
3. McClatchy
4. Washington Independent
5. International Herald Tribune
6. The Onion

In my job as news aggregator on for the Noontime News series, I have noticed that the news falls into four categories:

1. Gossip stories – This is “what crazy thing did someone just do”.
3. Followup stories – Next day stories once news organizations had time add a little more backstory.
4. Ongoing topics – Topics that span several news cycles and might be interesting to dig into a little bit.

An observant student (yes, Sally? You have your hand raised?) would notice that the word “dig” is in that last numbered point and also in the title. Very good.

Ongoing topics are the types of news stories we’d like for “Digging Deeper.” Not the gossip, not the breaking news, not even the next day stories. Stories that have had a chance to percolate.

I found a couple of topics this past week that I wanted to dig deeper into. I will offer one here to get our feet wet.

National Strike in France

On September 7, French workers staged a one day strike over a proposed change in retirement:

Just back from summer vacation, French unions carried out a one-day national strike on Tuesday, snarling transportation just as Parliament was to begin debating a measure that would raise the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has called the pension bill the last major legislation of his first term and vowed that the government would not bend on the essentials of the proposal, which is intended to avoid large and growing deficits in the pension system as people live longer and baby boomers start to reach retirement age.

But after an anxious summer of urban violence and a government effort to harden its security policy, aggressively deporting non-French Roma who overstay their allowed period in France, Mr. Sarkozy finds himself at a political crossroads — historically low in the opinion polls and with his own party divided and dispirited.

The unions said 2.5 million people went on strike, exceeding their goal of 2 million, while the Interior Ministry said the figure was considerably lower, 1.12 million, in 220 protests across France.

On September 23 another strike was staged:

French workers sought Thursday to test President Nicolas Sarkozy’s resolve on overhauling the pension system, staging a major strike that snarled transportation and closed schools and public offices for the second time this month.

Protesters rallied in 232 demonstrations around the country to protest Mr. Sarkozy’s plan to raise the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60 beginning in 2018, and to raise the age at which full pension benefits can be received to 67 from 65. At least 1.1 million people joined demonstrations Sept. 7 for the same cause.

The changes in the pension system have already been adopted by the National Assembly and face a hearing Oct. 1 in the Senate. Mr. Sarkozy’s party comfortably controls both houses, and the government hopes to have the law on the books by November. But public opposition has led governments to water down such measures before.

More strikes are supposed to kick in on Tuesday (today) with airlines and other services expected to be affected.

Why is this story interesting and worth digging deeper into?

First, French workers are protesting increasing the retirement age…something that is being contemplated here in the United States.

Second, this snippet from Monday’s news:

Mr. Sarkozy, who was aiming to be able to present himself for the next two years as a courageous reformer in the national interest, may instead end up with the image of an elitist imposing unwanted reforms on the poor. A widely quoted survey in Le Parisien on Monday said 71 percent of respondents either supported or were sympathetic to the strikers. The telephone poll of 1,002 people was conducted Oct. 15 and 16.

So in the comments lets dig deeper into this story, find the heroes and the villains, the winners and the losers, the short term and the long term and, most importantly, what we can learn from it.

And the good news? We have not yet dug this hole so deep that we can’t get out of it. But we are looking for a volunteer for next week. Sign up in the Comments.


At BPI our Progressive Agenda is:
1. People matter more than profits.
2. The earth is our home, not our trash can.
3. We need good government for both #1 and #2.

  • JanF

    I think it is extremely interesting that the self-identified “courageous reformer” became the “elitist imposing unwanted reform on the poor”.

    Social Security (in the U.S) and retirement (in France) seem to still be the third rail of poiltics. When Bush decided he wanted to spend “political capital” to push to privatize Social Security in 2005, it was the beginning of the end of his presidency.

    • NCrissieB

      That shift may reflect the French media’s focus shifting from President Sarkozy’s own narrative to the people’s response.

      President Sarkozy’s initial narrative gained media traction because it was echoed among the business community in France and elsewhere in Europe. His “courageous reform” was to bring more pro-investor policies to France. (Note how advocating for the wealthy against the mass of ordinary people is described as “courageous.”)

      But then ordinary citizens objected. Not just in blogs or letters to the editor, but with mass marches and even general strikes against policies that would hurt them to benefit the wealthy. Enough participated that their narrative – “elitist imposing unwanted reform on the poor” – gained media traction.

      President Sarkozy may reflect a Conservative Winter in France, but theirs has been a balmy, Mediterranean winter. In the U.S., the political climate has always been cooler: our Conservative Winters are more harsh and our Progressive Summers are shorter and tempered by the cooling currents of long-entrenched corporate interests.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

      • JanF

        Our conservative winters are harsh … maybe because they come with all the baggage of “picking yourself up by your bootstraps”. We need to evolve past the point where it is okay to say “you got what you deserve…live with it” to “we are all in this together”.

        I was just reading that the republicans who are planning their new committee assignments in what they assume will be a republican House of Representatives have put “investigating the government loaning money to poor people to buy houses” high on the list…instead of the foreclosure fraud crisis.

        • NCrissieB

          Socialism never gained as much traction in the U.S. as it did in Europe, and any traction it had gained was wiped away in the Red Scare of the McCarthy era. There is a real Left in Europe, and that pushes the European Overton Window to the left. The European center is farther left than U.S. “liberalism,” and “centrist” U.S. politicians would be right-wingers in Europe. In my climate metaphor, Europe has hotter summers and temperate winters while the U.S. has temperate summers and colder winters.

          Thus, the obvious (U.S.) response to the foreclosure crisis is to investigate the poor people who got government loans … not the wealthy bankers who crashed our economy.

          Good morning! ::hugggggs::

          • JanF

            I love this corollary to your climate metaphor:

            In my climate metaphor, Europe has hotter summers and temperate winters while the U.S. has temperate summers and colder winters.

            It would seem, then, that one of our goals is to make that less possible. To move our Overton window far enough to the left that when the cycle changes back, not as many people are left out in the cold.

            • NCrissieB

              I’d like to see that happen, Jan. However, we won’t get there quickly in the U.S. Many people supported Ralph Nader in 2000 because they wanted a true Left party to move the Overton Window leftward. It had exactly the opposite effect. This may be a situation where “timing is everything,” and Nader 2000 was abysmal timing.

              Good afternoon! ::hugggggs::

  • NCrissieB

    I like this new Tuesday series idea, Jan! 😀

    My first thought upon reading the stories of the strikes in France is a line from one of the people featured in Michael Moore’s SiCKO:

    In the U.S., people are afraid of the government. In France, government is afraid of the people.

    While I’d rather neither the government or the people were afraid of each other, I like that the French feel empowered enough to stage mass protests and even general strikes to voice objections with government policy. When the U.S. Congress raised our retirement age and the age of eligibility for Medicare, few of us even noticed … and those who objected were marginalized. About the only way protesters can get (positive) attention in the U.S. media is to march in favor of Big Business….

    So two heroes of these stories are the French people, who haven’t lost their sense that democratic government should answer to them, and the French media who still cover truly populist protest movements.

    Good morning! ::hugggggs::

    • JanF

      I agree and I would hope that governing could be done without fear.

      I do believe that the French media would wonder about what passes for media in the United States. I may have to set my Googles to work and Dig Deeper. 😉

  • JanF

    Did anyone else notice the disputed “counts”?

    The unions said 2.5 million people went on strike, exceeding their goal of 2 million, while the Interior Ministry said the figure was considerably lower, 1.12 million, in 220 protests across France.

    Minimizing the importance of a movement by disputing the counts appears to be a time-honored tradition of the right wing.

    It seems like “a major strike that snarled transportation and closed schools and public offices” might not need a certain body count to be successful.

    • NCrissieB

      Faux Noise lead: “Two French socialists called in sick yesterday….” 😉

      Seriously, arguing the numbers in mass protests does have a long history. But as you note, it’s difficult to dispute this:

      a major strike that snarled transportation and closed schools and public offices

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

    • winterbanyan

      Not only did they snarl traffic, but they shut down a few airports and 14 refineries. And the ongoing strikes are making the French government very nervous because they are verging on a gas shortage, and maybe worse, they’re running into problems with aviation fuel, which means they’ve had to reduce air traffic by about 14%. Tourists are getting po’d too. 😀

  • winterbanyan

    I really like this idea, Jan. You’ve already got me thinking. More than once I’ve wanted to “dig deeper” into a story, but I’ll have to see if I have time.

    But it’s a great idea! I’m all for it.

  • addisnana

    France 24 says that unemployment is over 10% and that their economy is shrinking by 2.3% this year.

    One can look at the government actions to cut benefits and costs through the filter of affordability or the filter of rights and entitlements. Either filter has points of legitimacy and some historical weight. Both are clearly hanging on to an economic model that has probably outlived its usefulness.

    The economic model that exists to generate more wealth for the wealthiest can only result in less for the masses if the economy is not growing. As long as we had the prospect of economic growth labor was in a “share with me” bargaining position. What needs examination IMHO is the idea that the privileged always get to retain their privileges and that the laws and the economic systems be set up to ensure this.

    France 24

    • JanF

      In the zero sum game, the subtractions always seem to come from the poor, don’t they?

      In our own country we are trying to adjust the tax rates to change that and the blowback is fierce…even from Democrats.

      To me, extending the Bush tax cuts means that we have decided to give up on fairness. I will be watching that lame duck session debate very closely.

    • NCrissieB

      This is a key point, addisnana:

      Both are clearly hanging on to an economic model that has probably outlived its usefulness.

      Capitalism is based on the “bigger pie” theory. No need to change how we slice the pie. If the poor aren’t getting enough, just bake a bigger pie (i.e.: economic growth). But what happens when you run out of new resources and markets, thus you can’t bake a bigger pie, and the people getting the biggest slices insist that their slices keep getting bigger?

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

      • addisnana

        For some reason I am finding this almost depressing, but then for some people we are in a depression.

        I wish there was more serious out of the box thinking on alternative economic models and ways for us to work together and take care of each other and the earth. I fear selfishness will do us in.

        • NCrissieB

          There’s actually quite a lot of thinking on alternative economic models. (The econ-geek name for it is Heterodox Economics.) Some of it is “serious” thinking, in that the proponents approach their ideas rigorously and are willing to respond to thoughtful challenges. Some of it is as ideological as mainstream economics, i.e.: don’t bother me with evidence that people in Realworldia aren’t like the people in my model.

          And “people in Realworldia” are the real challenge for any economic model. To be useful, an economic model must factor in how real people make real decisions in the real world … and there’s no One Size Fits All answer to that.

          People can be generous and altruistic, and selfish and cruel. People can be cautious and thoughtful, and careless and impulsive. I could go on….

          The upshot of the vagaries of human behavior is that maybe rather than “which economic model” (singular), we should be asking “which economic models” (plural) to employ. Maybe some areas of the economy thrive with decentralized approaches, while others need centralized planning. Maybe some social goals are best achieved through profit incentives, and others through regulatory disincentives. Maybe giving people lots of choices is better for some things and giving people fewer choices is better for other things. Maybe there is no One Best Economic Model.

          Good morning! ::hugggggs::

          • JanF

            The study of economic models, their failures and their successes as relates to prediction, has always been very interesting to me. Maybe it is my business degree … maybe it is from being in business in Realworldia.

            You had a series last year that touched on the predictive abilities of economic models. It might be interesting to revisit that after the elections. Eventually life will settle down and we can get back into the theoretical.

          • addisnana

            Thank you Crissie. Something new to go off and learn about. I’d love a series called out of the box. Whether its economic models, renewable energy, transportation, agriculture… there are probably people stretching the sense of the possible and/or challenging the in the box thinking. I’m off to google and see what’s out there.

  • winterbanyan

    Interestingly, Germany did not follow Sarkozy’s policies at all after the crash actions and is anticipating its complete recovery to turn into a boom. The economy is so good in Germany, the government is actually talking about raising wages across all sectors.

    So the question becomes: what did they do right and what have we (and the French) done wrong?

    • NCrissieB

      That’s a very intriguing question, winterbanyan. Germany did make some (small) cuts to the social safety net, but not many. They also didn’t bail out their banks, or at least not to the extent we did here. I’d have to research their response to the 2008 crisis to answer in detail … but they clearly found a better solution.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

      • winterbanyan

        I wish you would do that, Crissie. I don’t have the economic horsepower to get into these weeds, but I’m sure it would be fascinating.

        German economists are arguing that the government should delay a little on its plans to raise wages, but no one is even remotely suggesting they aren’t going into a boom year. Everyone is agreed on that. And their recovery is now complete.

      • JanF

        Another piece of that is how Japan reacted to their downturn which led to the Lost Decade. Many people think we have started our own lost decade and some of it is because the politics moved the focus to the deficits too soon. It is like leaping from roof to roof between two buildings and changing your mind halfway there. We need to finish the leap … get our bearings and then decide which roof to leap to next. Stopping in mid leap will get us killed.