France

Outgoing WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy has recently criticized EU-US and transpacific trade talks, which have the potential to create the world’s two largest free trade areas and measurably increase prosperity and growth for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people. He has a point. Several, actually. Regional trade agreements, though they may possibly serve as stepping-stones to global agreements, can also reduce the urgency with which their members approach global trade negotiations in the WTO framework. A transpacific or transatlantic trade agreement, in addition to excluding China, which already sees hostile intent in the transpacific talks, would also leave out some of the world’s most vulnerable economies and people, especially in Africa and South Asia. Lamy also expressed doubt that either of these incipient trade agreements would address agricultural subsidies, which are the most important trade distortion of all.

All true. And yet, given the paralysis affecting the Doha Round WTO trade talks, now in their 13th year, big regional agreements may be the best deal we can get. According to a study by the European Centre for International Political Economy, a transatlantic zero-tariff agreement, reducing existing tariffs from their current levels of three to five percent to zero, would add between 0.99 and 1.33 percent to U.S. GDP. Eliminating non-tariff trade barriers such as subsidies, and harmonizing product safety and drug approval standards, could add even more. The benefits from a transpacific agreement, which could cover forty percent of global trade if Japan’s efforts to join the agreement bear fruit, could be similar. And the wonderful thing about trade is that one party’s gains are not another’s losses. These agreements could raise everyone’s prosperity.

But relatively trivial disagreements could easily stall both sets of talks or derail them entirely. France has insisted that any trade agreement would have to allow it to continue to lavish subsidies on the French film industry. Japan, whose Liberal Democratic Party owes much of its support to wealthy farmers, insists that it should be allowed to protect its producers of rice, wheat, beef, and soy from imports. Japan has long imposed non-tariff barriers against a wide range of products, including skis, claiming the imported variety are unsuitable for Japan’s unique snow conditions. Such practices are not unknown in France either. At one point, all imported videocassette recorders and players had to be inspected in the customs shed in the city of Poitiers.

The French stance on film industry protection, surprisingly, has come in for more criticism from other EU members fearful of scuppering an immensely valuable deal than from the U.S. and its film industry, which seem fairly relaxed about the whole thing. In a country that has given its highest civilian honor to both Jerry Lewis and Sylvester Stallone, Hollywood has nothing to worry about no matter how much public money French film producers receive. Japanese farmers and their political supporters are, clearly, trying their luck demanding so many exemptions. Kobe and Wagyu beef notwithstanding, none of the products for which Japan is seeking protection has the iconic cultural status of rice, which is tightly bound to Japan’s sense of nationhood. Each year the Emperor conducts special public rituals of sowing, planting, harvesting and giving thanks for rice, while the ceremonies for enthroning a new Emperor include private rites in which he eats specially cultivated sacred rice in an act of communion with his ancestor, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu-ōmikami.

So here is a modest proposal. Each country gets a free pass to protect or subsidize one thing, regardless of fairness or logic. If the French want to give their money to cineastes in the form of subsidies rather than fork out 10 Euros to go see their films, fine. If Mrs. Watanabe wants to buy Japanese rice at a price some 700 percent higher than what she would pay for Thai or American rice, let her. It may not, strictly speaking, be fair to American rice farmers, but it is no more unfair than the subsidies those same farmers get from the U.S. Government (see my recent post on the farm bill), which apparently are legal under current international trade rules. The same rule, of course, would mean that the U.S. would have to choose just one thing to protect or unfairly subsidize. Arkansas rice or cotton growers? Florida sugarcane growers? New England dairy farmers? Archer Daniels Midland? Solar panel manufacturers? And once the choice is made, it’s made. No switching around based on election-year vote counting, depending on who is doing the counting.

On second thought, this is far too reasonable a proposition. It’ll never fly.

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It must come as some reassurance to Mitt Romney that he is not the only would-be President who says remarkably silly things he knows to be untrue. Last week Hillary Clinton, on a tour of sub-Saharan Africa, delivered a speech in Senegal in which she said that the United States would stand up for democracy and universal human rights “even when it might be easier or more profitable to look the other way, to keep the resources flowing.” In a barely veiled dig at China, she added, “Not every partner makes that choice, but we do and we will.” [click to continue…]

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The official visits to Paris during the first week of July by three African heads of state raised more questions than answers about the Africa policy of François Hollande, the newly-elected French President. On July 2 it was President Alpha Conde of Guinea, on July 5 Ali Bongo, President of Gabon, and on July 6 President Macky Sall of Senegal. Presidents Conde and Sall came to power through elections generally recognized as free and fair, but the 2009 elections that brought Bongo to power, succeeding his late father Omar Bongo, who had served as Gabon’s President for 42 years, were widely thought to have been rigged.

This series of visits came as something of a surprise, François Hollande having promised to put an end to “Françafrique,” the web of political, economic, and military links between France and its former African colonies, links that maintained France’s sphere of influence and allowed it to continue to think of itself as a world power. In the words of former President François Mitterrand, Without Africa, there will be no history of France in the 21st century. Françafrique, though it came to have a negative connotation, had already been official French policy since the founding of the Fifth Republic by Charles de Gaulle. [click to continue…]

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Few current issues have become more emotionally charged than the head coverings worn by many Muslim women, both in traditionally Muslim countries and in the West. This plays out in Turkey, where the ruling Islamist AK Party has struggled to allow women to wear the hijab in public universities and public buildings, something that has been banned for most of the past 85 years or so under resolutely secularist rule. Among Muslim countries, Tunisia, Syria, and Morocco have also imposed some restrictions on the practice. Now comes the latest salvo in the war on headscarves: French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s introduction of a ban on wearing of the face-covering niqab or similar garb in public, which comes into effect next month.

A brief taxonomy may be useful. In America we tend to lump the different categories of Muslim headgear under the catchall term “burka” – sometimes spelled “burqa,” but this is incorrect. The most common form of female Muslim head covering is the hijab, a headscarf that hides the hair and may or may not cover the entire neck. The hijab can be seen on women wearing tight jeans, high heels, jewelry and makeup. It can also be seen on women wearing shapeless, long-sleeved, floor-length garments, sometimes with gloves, and in just about any configuration between the two extremes. There is the chador, the black Iranian garment that covers the entire body and the hair, but leaves the face exposed. Similar to the chador is the abaya, typically worn in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, which may or may not be worn together with the niqab, a veil that covers the entire face, leaving only a slit for the eyes. Finally, there is the Afghan burka, typically light blue in color, which covers the head and body, with only a grid through which the wearer can peer dimly. Walking the crumbling pavements of Kabul can be a challenge in such a garment. Eating in public while wearing a niqab or burka is all but impossible. In Saudi Arabia restaurants have “family sections” in which women can relax their guard to a degree, sheltered from the lascivious glares of single men, but no such option exists in Afghanistan.

The French ban covers only the niqab, burka, and similar garments that cover all or most of the face. Many other European countries are debating similar bans, though only Italy, which bans all face-coverings (including motorcycle helmets) in public facilities, has enacted one. In Britain, both the House of Lords and an employment tribunal ruled several years ago that teachers could be prohibited from wearing a niqab, and could be sacked if they refused to comply with the prohibition.

It would be unfair to characterize all proponents of any kind of ban on veils as racist, though there is no question that many of them, apparently including Sarkozy, do pander to racist sentiment among the electorate. But there are legitimate concerns about the proliferation of the veil. Many, if not most, Turks favor a secular society, and Turkey has succeeded where few other Muslim countries have, in creating a Western-style separation of religion and state. This separation has come under increasing threat from the Islamist government (the wives of the President and Prime Minister both wear the hijab), and it makes many people uneasy. In the West, many immigrant Muslim populations have failed or refused to integrate. Some of this is certainly due to the host countries’ own attitudes and official policies, which can make it hard for Muslim immigrants and their children, religious or secular, integrate into a society they feel is closed to them. But there is no question that many immigrant communities, unlike preceding generations of immigrants, have no interest in integrating, and expect the host country to change its laws and practices to accommodate them. Leaving aside the idiocies of many countries’ immigration policies – why, for example, can it be easier for an illiterate Somali to gain the right of residency in the U.S. than for an Indian with a master’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT? – growing populations of immigrants who can’t or won’t integrate, many of whom seem to detest the culture and values of the countries that have taken them in, represent a real social problem, even if most right-thinking people would prefer to ignore it.

This is not to say that the “solutions” proposed by the likes of France’s National Front or Holland’s Geert Wilders (which include banning construction of new mosques, repealing the clause of the Dutch Constitution that guarantees equality under the law, imposing what Wilders calls a “head rag tax,” and a ban on preaching in any language other than Dutch) should be adopted. Wholesale deportation of immigrants, in addition to being unfeasible, is also undesirable. Banning public manifestations of religiosity is also unfeasible and undesirable. If a woman who, by tradition or choice, wears the niqab, how can banning her from going out in public improve her life? Still, secular Western countries – I wouldn’t presume to tell majority Muslim societies how to organize their social and religious arrangements – could apply some common-sense measures, which could include:

1.     First, reform immigration policy, not by banning immigrants but by encouraging immigration of people who have the education and skills to contribute to the economic and social life of the country, regardless of religion or country of origin. Does this mean that you may get an occasional suicide bomber who has an advanced degree and a good job? Yes, but a policy designed to eliminate the slightest risk of this will do much more harm than good.

2.     With regard to the hijab-niqab issue (I refer only to Western countries here – Muslim countries will need different approaches):

a.     Government employees may not wear the niqab or burka on the job (hijab, it’s up to the individual). As a citizen, you should be able to see the face of the official you are dealing with and the teacher who is instructing your children.

b.     Government offices do not transact business of any kind with anyone wearing the niqab or burka. Government employees should be able to see whom they are dealing with, while access to government buildings, already the object of security concerns, could legitimately be denied to anyone refusing to show his or her face (Italy already has such a policy, which applies to Halloween masks and motorcycle helmets as well as Islamic face coverings).

c.     Private companies or organizations should be allowed to make their own policies, but cannot require anyone to wear it (religious establishments excepted).

d.     Individuals should have the right to wear it in public places, including shops and other facilities that allow free public access. Access to public transport is more problematic.  Security concerns could dictate that all passengers show their faces.

e.     Driving while wearing the niqab or burka is strictly forbidden. Riding in a car while wearing it is no concern of the state.

It’s not a perfect solution, it may not fit all countries, and it is likely to infuriate some people on both sides of the question, but it’s a basis for discussion.

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Benjamin Franklin said, “Of two things you can be certain: death and taxes.” What was true in the 18th century is somewhat less so in 21st century America, at least where taxes are concerned. On this day, April 15, when most Americans are either submitting their annual tax returns or struggling to request extensions of the deadline, it is appropriate to consider the current state of taxation. It is widely reported that 47 percent of Americans pay no federal income tax, a number that has increased dramatically under the Bush and Obama presidencies. Yes, the members of this 47 percent remain subject to withholding for Social Security (pension) and Medicare (post-retirement health care) contributions, but they are exempt from personal income taxes. This obviously increases the burden on those who do pay taxes, but a far more important consequence is the establishment of a more or less permanent class of people who feel free to demand ever-more generous services from government knowing that someone else will pick up the tab. As a people we have already grown used to fighting wars in which other people will serve and die in our place, and we now have a society in which the demand for services is increasingly disconnected from any notion of responsibility to pay for them. This can’t help but erode the notion of what it means to be a citizen. [click to continue…]

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