The trouble with Paul Johnson

Both Instapundit and Andrew Sullivan (surprise!) link to this Paul Johnson article in Forbes that purports to explain what is “wrong with Europe.” One might have guessed a particularly un-insightful piece would follow given the title “Europe’s Utopian Hangover.” One would have been correct. Were we to offer a shorter Paul Johnson, it would go something like “France and Germany suck big time.” But let us take a longer route. Given Sullivan’s link, Johnson’s opening is truly bizarre:

One thing history teaches, over and over again, is that there are no shortcuts. Human societies advance the hard way; there is no alternative.

So I guess the grand master plan of invading one Middle East country in order to lead to a Western style democracy in said country and its neighbors is a truly great idea, right? But wait — Johnson wants to say Europe sucks, and clearly this is what matters:

The EU is built on a fantasy–that men and women can do less and less work, have longer and longer holidays and retire at an earlier age, while having their income, in real terms, and their standard of living increase.

From the picture that accompanies the article, we see that Johnson is not a young chicken. But though he has lived through several decades, Paul is completely and entirely unaware of anything since, say, the industrial revolution. Standards of living in much of the world have improved dramatically in the last, oh, let’s say 100 years. Vacation time has increased. Working hours have been reduced. Where the government provided little schooling, education is now free in many countries. Child labor is no more in much of the world. The same for slavery. But for this “eminent British historian” it is a utopia that we can achieve an increase in our standard of living while doing exactly what we have been doing for several decades. Such is perhaps the news Mr. Johnson hears while he walks his fields discussing political events with his serfs, but it’s hard to see what planet he is talking about. But let’s get back to some good old French bashing!

The EU is a French concept and is still largely run according to French ideas. And France is the archetypal EU country. If you have a regular job in France, your life is, in theory, lyrical. You work 35 hours a week. You generally get four weeks of holiday in August, plus a further three weeks throughout the year, in addition to 11 state holidays. Full medical care is provided, even in retirement. Retirement age varies, but it is now typically 55.

Even if you do share the shock that comes from the horror of citizens being covered by health insurance (it’s scandalous I tell you – pass the brandy,) the sad reality is that Johnson’s “typical” Frenchman is anything but that. Being ignorant of history, Johnson shows his knowledge of the French economy is, how shall we put it, moins que rien. According to sources not entirely ignorant:

An insured person who has paid contributions over 150 quarters, is entitled to a pension at the age of sixty, at a level of 50% of the average salary (up to a certain maximum) over the 10 most favourable years of employment. If there was an involuntary interruption in the payment of contributions, for example during periods of sickness or unemployment, a person is considered to have paid contributions over this period.

Wait — we have more:

Outside the U.S., mandatory vacation time ranges from 10 days in Canada and Japan to 20 days in the Netherlands and the UK, 24 days in Germany, 25 in Sweden and France.

Twenty five days, by our math, works out to five weeks, not seven. So far then we have a historian that doesn’t know history, economics, or math. An impressive feat! What else does our eminent British scholar offer?

All this is wonderful, but it is dependent, even in theory, on the European Union’s expanding continuously, its economy running at full throttle, its productivity steadily increasing and a profound peace cocooning the world in a nest of luxurious tranquility.

Ah yes, the ever so interesting debate about productivity. It came as no surprise that Mr. Johnson doesn’t know that workers in several European countries are, in fact, more productive (per hour worked) than their American counterparts according to a recent study by the International Labour Office (ILO.) European workers do work fewer hours than their American counterparts. But when they do work, Frenchmen do it better:

The figures for output per hour worked show Norway, France and Belgium ahead of the US since the mid 1990s.

Bonus points: France is well, well ahead of “competitiveness and productivity paradise” known as the United Kingdom measured both per hour and per person. Our British scholar continues!

France and Germany–those two former military giants that once made the world tremble–have been mere spectators

This is preposterous on two counts: One, no one we can think of on either side of the Atlantic has had reason to fear France’s armed forces for quite some time now, and it appears that whatever history Johnson does know, it is not military. Second — as far as Germany (and its neighbors and allies) is concerned, having limited armed forces is exactly the right thing to do. You know, the world wars and so on. There’s also that bit of the German constitution that deals with the armed forces. It might just play a role here — but what do we know?

As a result, the workers went on strike, and virtually all the great cultural festivals that are the pride of France’s tourist industry had to be canceled.

A minor point but typical of the article: some festivals were cancelled because of the strike. The only thing we can say with confidence is that “virtually all” of Johnson’s factual claims in this article are entirely unsupported by facts. He also can’t tell the difference between the EU and France:

While the American economy is picking up, the EU’s remains in stagnation, bordering on recession. The 35-hour workweek is splendid, provided you have a job.

But the 35-hour workweek is a French policy, and not one that applies to all workers. Meanwhile, please let us know when US unemployment starts going down. Germany is often singled out for its 10% unemployment rate — but it reflects not only Germany’s (overly) regulated labor market, but also continued difficulties with the integration of the country formerly known as East Germany. The unemployment rate in West Germany is around 8% — making the Germany-US gap much smaller. EU countries’ average unemployment rate is 8.1%. Too high, but worthy of such a long (and largely unsubstantiated) screed?

In a desperate attempt to get its economy moving, France is set to cut income taxes.

Uh, right, only France would come up with such a crazy idea! When France doesn’t cut taxes, critics (rightfully) point out they are too high. When it does, it’s a sign of desperation. Another shorter Paul Johnson: “It doesn’t matter what France does, it’s always wrong.”

The biggest bill of all–the cost of generous state pensions, which in most EU countries are underfunded–is looming. It’s true that most advanced countries are having difficulties meeting pensions because people are living longer and work forces are expanding more slowly (or not at all). Britain is running into a pension crisis. [snip] But at least Britain has a properly funded public pension plan.

Make up your mind! Also note that America’s pension plan is not “properly funded.” Ah, those annoying facts.

And the British economy is moving forward, perhaps not as fast as America’s, but at a healthy and accelerating rate.

Perhaps? Perhaps?!? Dude, pick up a newspaper and look it up. People get paid to write shit like that? According to The Economist, Britain’s GDP will grow by 2.4% in 2004, ahead of France (1.9%) but behind Spain (2.6%) and well behind the US (3.6%.)

The entire plan for perpetual improvement upon which the EU depends is based on continuous economic expansion. There is no provision for stagnation.

This is not a EU problem though — there is provision for stagnation in capitalism. The EU has been around for close to fifty years, and the standard of living of Europeans has continued to improve during that time. We agree that the EU can be too bureaucratic, that many countries would do well to reform their economies, etc… But the EU has also managed to achieve a full common market, with the free circulation of capital, goods and services, and workers. The incoherent and off the mark ramblings of (EU member) British historians only provide fodder for EU bashers who do not concern themselves with what is wrong, what isn’t, and why.

PS: While looking for more Johnson insight, we came across this June 2003 article credited to “Paul Johnson.” (But without a bio, so if anyone knows whether this is the same, please let us know.) Mr. Johnson writes: “It [US] will continue to promote international efforts of proven worth, like GATT…” Good luck to the US — since 1994, GATT is no more.


Comments: 3


You’re just mad at Mr. Johnson for 2 reasons:

1: You don’t like it that the French are wimps.

2: Mr. Johnson isn’t as “full of it” as you think.


It’s the usual ol’ story: when one doesn’t agree with the “liberal” establishment, he / she is labelled as “ignorant”, “full of it”, etc.


Socialism/Comunism does not work!One need only look at North Korea. Comunist China has learned this after starving the people for decades.Socialist Countries of Western Europe are hard pressed to pay the benefits to the non-working.Working folks in Germany pay in excess of 50% in payroll taxes and still it’s not enough. Non of these countries have an effective Military. Why? Because Nato will defend them,and where would they be without the United States of America.


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