The French Get a Slap in the Face on Productivity

Not only was it a slap in the face, it was backhand, with a ring on:

“The French workforce gets paid high wages but works only three hours. They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three,” Taylor wrote on February 8 in the letter in English to the minister, Arnaud Montebourg.

“I told this to the French union workers to their faces. They told me that’s the French way!” Taylor added in the letter, which was posted by business daily Les Echos on its website and which the ministry confirmed was genuine.

 “Titan is going to buy a Chinese tire company or an Indian one, pay less than one Euro per hour wage and ship all the tires France needs,” he said. “You can keep the so-called workers.”
Well, sacre merde on a stick!  In the words of the Great Turqsidian Muse, “that’ll leave a mark.”
Now, anecdotally, this comes as very little surprise.  Happycrow worked in Europe for several years and was always amazed at how hard-working his European peers thought he was.  We at Chez Happycrow are absolutely no strangers to taking the weekend to monomaniacally obsess over a project until it’s done and done right (need a freelance copy-editor, we are totally your guy, though you probably can’t tell that from this casual, error-ridden blog), but on any given Tuesday, working smart rather than hard is the order of our day, and we just plain avoid jobs where we can’t do that (need a guy to  run up and down a drill rig for sixty hours and then negotiate purchasing contracts for another seven, we are totally not your guy).
Why?  Because compared to many, many Americans, Happycrow is a lazy butt, that’s why.  Paul Harvey wouldn’t approve.  This superbowl ad isn’t lying, by the way.  Happycrow knows people who work that hard every week, and they’re not even farmers.
But let’s look behind the scenes for a moment.  Just how productive are French workers?  Here’s what wikipedia says:
Country GDP (PPP)
per hour 2009
Norway Norway 76.8 1
Luxembourg Luxembourg 74.5 2
Netherlands Netherlands 65.1 3
United States United States 59.0 4
Belgium Belgium 58.5 5
France France 54.7 6
Republic of Ireland Ireland 54.0 7
Germany Germany 53.5 8
Austria Austria 51.9 9
Australia Australia 51.6 10
And, not to slight the French, here’s some folks on a European forum discussing the same issue: on THIS list, France is sitting right at #2.
Luxembourg : 57.5
France : 56.6
Belgium : 55.9
Ireland : 51.8
Italy : 50.3
Austria : 46.4
Germany : 45.0
Netherlands : 44.5
Sweden : 42.6
Finland : 42.6
Now, let’s set any Asian comparisons from the top list aside for a moment.  Happycrow’s sum total experience of working in Asia was moving furniture in Japan for a summer, and that hardly counts: the vast majority of the workers were Japanese, but  the company was a US-Japanese public/private partnership designed to get furniture made for the Air Force in the 1950s in and out of third-floor apartments made for the Japanese in the 1980s.  A colorful experience?  Absolutely.  An experience that gives him a keen awareness of Asian productivity?  Uh, what’s an eight-letter word beginning with ohHELLno?
So, just sticking with Europe, let’s ask a question.  Is there anyone in Europe who actually believes that the French are more productive than the Germans?
::cricket noises.  In the distance, a dog barks.::
Yeah, that’s what we thought.  GDP is a terrible way to measure per-worker productivity, because GDP measures a nation’s government spending as fully equal to the real value created by its society.  That, of course, would come as no shock to Frenchmen, for whom Bastiat, arguably one of the world’s greatest economists, is a mysterious and shadowy figure that few have heard of and to whom fewer still pay any attention.  But for the rest of us, that’s a no-brainer.  It’s not even a tiny surprise that the private sector produces real goods, and the public sector spends money sloppily, wastefully, and frequently, corruptly. 
That’s not to say that people working for various governments don’t work hard.  But find me somebody who works for a government and doesn’t say that it pisses money down the drain left and right, and I”ll find you a man who’s either hallucinating or a hardcore bureaucratic turf-warrior who’s thinking of running for office or getting into lobbying.
Gross Private Product (GPP) is a much better tool for the job.  Not that government doesn’t produce anything, but that by definition, what government spends is resources which have already been diverted away from other things that its society would have produced.  States produce things other than what the people in their societies would have produced if they still had those resources available.  That’s why GDP adds it in.  But GDP, unlike the private sector, can’t measure whether the resources the government spends have any actual value, or whether it’s just busywork.  You’d need to argue for years over what multiplier should be applied to government spending — and then argue over whether said multiplier was constant, or else varied based on the kind of spending undertaken: cue “NASA vs Entitlements” forever.  Helpful hint: pace Kahn, said multiplier, because it does involve waste, is less than one, and the French aren’t more productive than the Germans.  Back to Bastiat, a little economic lesson called “what is seen, and what is unseen.”

Ben, please, learn this lesson.

Above all that, there’s another lesson to be drawn here, and that’s one of arrogance.  The fellow producing tires for Goodyear is getting beaten up for talking to the french government arrogantly, and he’s apparently got a well-known reputation for “harshing your mellow” as a negotiating tactic.  But it’s not really arrogance — it’s math.  And the new math isn’t simply that expensive, poorly-productive workers get edged out by cheap, more-productive workers in Asia, but that hiring people to work is expensive, and it won’t be done unless the math adds up.
In a global marketplace, offshoring jobs are just as likely to be brought back “inshore” if that’s what productivity versus employment costs dictate.  That’s not because employers are bad guys, but because simple math says that if your worker doesn’t produce significantly more value than you pay him, you can’t afford to hire him.  And if your job can be done in the form of software and mechanical actuators, then the math says you don’t hire anyone:  you just lease a robot to do the work for you.  Robots don’t need pensions.
Employment is a zero-sum game:  if one person gets the job, another person has to lose the job.  It’s an unfortunate reality, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. And if the French unions choose not to provide a quality product, then not only will they not be hired, but companies will simply leave.  It’s already happening, and the era when unions could dictate terms to business is over.
So, yes, it’s a slap in the face.  Or a bucket of cold water in the face.  Either way, if the French don’t take a long look at their culture and step up to the plate, they’re going to fall into the kind of economic irrelevance that characterizes so much of the rest of the Mediterranean nowadays.  It’s a Red Queen’s Race:  you have to run as fast as you can, just to stay still.
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