In his Sunday New York Times column, "Real Men Tax Gas," Thomas Friedman had admiring words commenting on the French. Drawing sharp contrast between Americans, designated as "wimps," while the French are lauded for generating some eighty percent of their electricity from "clean" nuclear power plants. In contrast it is pointed out that we haven't built a nuclear facility since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. The United States generates 20 percent of its electric energy through nuclear power whereas France's electric grid quotient from "clean" nuclear power is 80%. Friedman's contention, that the paucity of our commitment to nuclear power combined by our lack of gumption to reduce our oil consumption through a gas tax or carbon tax, qualifies us as being wimps. This in sharp contrast to the likes of France, and as also cited in his column, Denmark. That we, in essence have become the "The Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys."
But in making this broad brush judgment a key point is lost. The issue doesn't simply attain to limiting fossil fuel consumption by significantly increasing gasoline taxes, as Friedman suggests. It attains to something much more fundamental. France's governance emanates from an elite corp of public servants, graduates of the "grands ecoles" who run the sinews of the Ministries of State. It has given France a government whose dedication and commitment to the general weal is keenly suited to a fiercely competitive world. Ours, by contrast is progressively dysfunctional, where the electorate has become increasingly powerless, neutered by moneyed and narrow constituencies whose parochial interests are served by an increasingly token government molded to do their bidding and override the general good with growing abandon.
France, has a government with vision, having the welfare of the general public foremost in its sights. Examples of its accomplishments in recent years has not only been a uniquely efficient power grid, but according to the World Heath Organization, France is first in the WHO's ranking of world health systems. This while the United States lingers 37th in ranking. (Behind, with apologies, such countries as Malta, Morocco, Colombia, Cyprus, Costa Rica, and on. I'm sure you get the drift.)
In addition, France has what is generally understood to be the most efficient high-speed rail service in the world, with plans to expand it to the four corners of the nation (please see "High Speed Rail Speeding Ahead at Snail's Pace"). This required years of planning and determination, the kind of vision that once, too many years ago, brought us to the moon. France's high-speed rail network is so successful that Guillaume Pepy, president of the French Rails, SNCF, would comment a year ago that not building a four-track high-speed railway roadbed had been a mistake. Other than the lame Amtrak corridor in the northeast, which is only intermittently conducive to high speed travel, we have none.
Further, the French government's priorities address lifestyle and quality of life issues in a dimension barely understood by those who govern us. Fully cognizant of the importance of Culture and Art in all its disciplines to the full life of its citizens, the French Government's commitment is massive compared to ours where our government grudgingly sets aside slightly in excess of $150 million a year toward the budget of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). Were the budget of the NEA comparable to the budget of France's Ministry of Culture on a pro rata basis, then the NEA's budget would be approximately $9 billion. Yes, the mandates are not altogether the same, but the sums speak volumes.
Culture is integral to the French government's call for better ways to calculate a nation's economic health. It is their contention, with the advent of the financial crisis, that a broader basis of measurement is called for. That the obsession with "gross domestic product" needs be altered to include such factors as health care availability, leisure time, as well as environmental concerns triggered by over consumption. To quote France's head of state, Nicolas Sarkozy, "The (financial) crisis doesn't only make us free to imagine other models, another future, another world. It obliges us to do so."
The French government is also aware of the dramatic divergence between the earnings of the general workforce and the egregious excess of executive compensation, and those of bankers and traders who have brought the "free market" to the edge of ruin. Where we have been slow to act, the French government has reacted with vigor and focus, setting forth tough rules and declaring clearly that those banks that do not abide by the new program limiting pay and establishing disclosure rules of bonus payments will be barred from the generally lucrative and supportive government mandates. To that end, Sarkozy stated clearly and unequivocally, "We will not work with banks that do not apply the rules."
But lest this be considered a paean exclusively to French governance, consider China. Here is a society with an elite corps of public servants. Only the best and the brightest from the very top schools gain access to what is today the almost ludicrously misnamed the "Communist Party." As David Brooks, with aplomb and tongue in cheek, appropriately observed in a long ago brilliant New York Times column, "The Dictatorship of Talent," "Imagine the Harvard Alumni Association with an Army... this is a government of talents. It rules the way a wise father rules the family." To further quote Brooks, "In the West there are tensions between government and business elites. In China these elites are part of the same social web, cooperating for mutual enrichment." And by "mutual enrichment" he had the general good of the nation in view, not as here the "mutual enrichment" of Wall Street cronies.
And how does that play out? I can report from personal experience. In 1980 I was in Beijing. I had organized the first sale of a cargo of American produced chemical fertilizer (diammonium phosphate -- don't ask) to mainland China . Beijing was a sea of bicycles, with a sea of mankind peddling away in Mao suits. Perhaps the tallest building in Beijing at the time was the Beijing Hotel whose access was restricted to foreigners and government authorized personnel. Fast forward thirty years later. China is a teeming landscape of modern cities, unruly traffic in spite of a purring infrastructure of roads and rail. In three decades, 350 million people have been brought into the consumer class, an accomplishment of herculean dimensions. Yes, there are issues of civil liberties and pollution. But these are being addressed. China is already lapping the United States on environmental technology and as to Mr. Friedman's lament about America's reticence to build nuclear power plants, know that China plans to build 25 by the year 2025.
All this raises a much more fundamental question: Given our current structure of government and the way it functions, how are we going to compete, and to hold our own in years to come as we go head to head with societies that are far better equipped to deal with the exigencies of the future and the long-term planning that is essential is to meeting the challenges ahead?
We are hardly a nation of wimps. Sadly, we have a government that is barely functioning. We have a government class too readily looking after its own interests and those of their campaign paymasters, rather than the nation as a whole. This has not always been the case. The American people are and have shown themselves to be capable of extraordinary accomplishments throughout their history. But today, in this world, given the leadership of other societies, much needs be done to change the way we govern ourselves and the way our government functions.