France is almost a zombie country

Apr 8, 2011

Paris, France

Send in the philosophers! How the US went to war in Libya...and more!

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We have come to France 'a l'improviste' on a sad mission. We are on our way to a funeral. A 20-year-old neighbor was undergoing treatment for leukemia, and making progress following a bone-marrow transplant. And then, in his vulnerable state, an infection carried him away.

Here in France, we things much as we left them...

But that is the problem with France. Nothing much ever changes. At least, not for the better. It is as if it hit its peak under the Third Republic and has been in decline ever since.

"France is almost a zombie country," we told a friend in the US. "Walking dead.

"Name a single French filmmaker of international status," we challenged her. "Or a composer? Or a musical group of any sort? Or a writer?

"Try to describe the latest 'french style' in furniture...or architecture...or anything else...

"French cuisine was developed long ago. When was the bagette invented? Or, the croissante? Or soup a l'oignon? A long time ago. I don't know either, but it was probably before 1914. And French architecture? Paris was designed and built mostly in the second half of the 19th century. Most of what you see dates from that period. And the last notable developments in architecture were in the '20s - with art deco. In interior furnishings, there has been even less innovation. People decorate with Louis 15th or Louis 16th furniture...or California modern. Everything nowadays is imitation or derivative.

"And theatre? Entertainment? Paris had popular dance halls...Le Moulin Rouge...and the Follies Bergeres...a century ago. There were the bedroom farces of the '20s...but what after that? I don't know... 'Waiting for Godot,' -- that was by an Irishman. Then, there are those '60s plays like 'The Flies' and 'Deadend.' But seem almost silly today. There may be good theatre in France, but it must not travel very well. It's not known outside of the country.

"I already mentioned film...but what about philosophy? That's where the decline is perhaps most remarkable. In philosophy, the French started from a low point and worked their way down.

"At least French philosophy was popular in the '60s. People elsewhere tried to figure out what it was all about. Today, who cares?

"Now, few people can name anything at which the French are even close to leading the world - except public debt, where they're roughly tied with the US."

But what's this? France's leading TV philosopher -- BHL, Bernard-Henri Levy - is back in the news. What, exactly, is his philosophy? Beats us. We actually met BHL 30 years ago. We tried to decipher what he was talking about then. We never did make sense of it.

In the three decades since, BHL went on to be a star. He's on TV. He writes books. He's married to a famous actress. And he still has his hair. We can forgive him many things; but not that. If we can't have hair, no man should be allowed to have it.

But he's one of the beautiful people - rich, talented, handsome and smart. More importantly, he's an activist!

Yes, dear reader, that is the depth to which French philosophy has fallen. Activism! Meddling! World improving! But BHL didn't get there on his own. Generations of French philosophers had to dig to get down that low.

We blame Descartes for putting in the first spade. "I think, therefore I am," may have solved an important problem for philosophers, but it led the whole trade in the wrong direction. Suppose he had thought he was an onion? Could you have made soup out of him? No, the whole enterprise of French philosophy was doomed from the get-go.

And it didn't get better. In modern times, Jean Paul Sartre gave out the word that a person had to meddle in order to exist. It was the difference between 'being and nothingness.' You had to be "engaged" in politics, he said. Naturally, he married himself to the marxists...and never recovered.

And now we have BHL on the front lines. According to the news reports, he hitched a ride on a vegetable truck to sneak across the Libyan border. Then, he arranged for a clandestine meeting with the rebels. His mission? Well, we don't know what his mission was. But if you believe the article in Le Point, he was serving the French government as a kind of minister sans papiers. Sarkozy invited him to meet the rebels. BHL met with them and concluded that they were freedom fighters - in need of the West's support. Soon, the French air force was dropping bombs on Libya...bringing the Americans into the war with them.

But why Libya? Why not go to war in some other country with a leader BHL doesn't like. BHL answers:

"It was an accident of history. I happened to be in Egypt when Gaddafi sent his planes to shoot at the pacifist demonstrations in Tripoli. It seemed to me such an enormous, unprecedented thing, and I felt the Egyptian democrats around me were so horrified by it that I decided on instinct to go to Libya straight away."
*** A Paris street scene. Two gendarmes are standing outside the café. What they are doing isn't clear. But along came a small Italian car, with a small Italian driver in it. The car pulled up directly in front of the policemen. The car was practically in the middle of the busy street. Nevertheless, the driver got out. He nodded to the policemen...and came into to the café to have a drink.

One policeman looked at the other. He smiled, gave a 'gaullic shrug'...

When the driver returned to his car, the policeman asked what he was doing parking in the middle of the street.

"I was just getting a cup of coffee..."


*** More Americans will probably become "engaged"...politically.

The Ben Bernanke Fed is "murdering" the middle classes, says our old friend, Marc Faber.

Yes, there are two economies in the US now. There are the rich - those who make money from the Fed's reckless money-printing. And there are the rest of the population, who suffer the higher prices it causes.

Here, Vanity Fair takes up the issue:
"It's no use pretending that what has obviously happened has not in fact happened. The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation's income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent. One response might be to celebrate the ingenuity and drive that brought good fortune to these people, and to contend that a rising tide lifts all boats. That response would be misguided. While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. For men with only high-school degrees, the decline has been precipitous-12 percent in the last quarter-century alone. All the growth in recent decades-and more-has gone to those at the top. In terms of income equality, America lags behind any country in the old, ossified Europe that President George W. Bush used to deride. Among our closest counterparts are Russia with its oligarchs and Iran. While many of the old centers of inequality in Latin America, such as Brazil, have been striving in recent years, rather successfully, to improve the plight of the poor and reduce gaps in income, America has allowed inequality to grow.

"Economists long ago tried to justify the vast inequalities that seemed so troubling in the mid-19th century-inequalities that are but a pale shadow of what we are seeing in America today. The justification they came up with was called "marginal-productivity theory." In a nutshell, this theory associated higher incomes with higher productivity and a greater contribution to society. It is a theory that has always been cherished by the rich. Evidence for its validity, however, remains thin. The corporate executives who helped bring on the recession of the past three years-whose contribution to our society, and to their own companies, has been massively negative-went on to receive large bonuses. In some cases, companies were so embarrassed about calling such rewards "performance bonuses" that they felt compelled to change the name to "retention bonuses" (even if the only thing being retained was bad performance). Those who have contributed great positive innovations to our society, from the pioneers of genetic understanding to the pioneers of the Information Age, have received a pittance compared with those responsible for the financial innovations that brought our global economy to the brink of ruin.

"Some people look at income inequality and shrug their shoulders. So what if this person gains and that person loses? What matters, they argue, is not how the pie is divided but the size of the pie. That argument is fundamentally wrong. An economy in which most citizens are doing worse year after year-an economy like America's-is not likely to do well over the long haul. "
Vanity Fair goes on to misinterpret the situation. But what do you expect? That's why a revolution is coming...

Bill Bonner is the President & Founder of Agora Inc, an international publisher of financial and special interest books and newsletters.

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