Christopher Caldwell: Untrustworthy on Facts

Christopher Caldwell, senior editor of neocon house journal the Weekly Standard, once wrote a six-page feature in the New York Times magazine in which he claimed that Robert Kilroy-Silk would “transform European politics”. Despite this, he is still taken seriously by some people; disturbingly, this includes the editors of the Financial Times. In his column this weekend, he issues a rant against trades unions and specifically French ones. I am not going to trouble my readers by taking issue with his ideological position; this is well-known, hence there’s no informational gain in arguing with it.

Instead, I’m sticking to his factual assertions.

Sixty per cent of SNCF cancellations are due to strikes.

The only source for this statement I can find is the French Government’s spokesman; anyway, as the overall 10-minute punctuality rate is of the order of 90 per cent (source: SNCF Annual Report 2006), this is equivalent to saying that 3 trains in every hundred are affected by industrial action. In fact that is a considerable overstatement itself, as not all trains that run 10 minutes late are cancellations. Anyway, this is a theoretical issue; Le Canard Enchaine published the actual figures, according to which strikes accounted for 140 out of 6,043 delays recorded in 2006 – about 2 per cent. Caldwell is wrong.

The young anti-union orator Sabine Herold drew tens of thousands to her speeches during the strikes of 2003.

Fortunately, I’d recently seen some of her old election posters, so I actually knew who she was, which puts me ahead of the vast bulk of the French public. It is actually possible that Mme Herold pulled in at least 10 kilodemonstrators; French Wikipedia claims she did, citing Le Monde as saying she got 30,000, but I can’t find a root-source for this anywhere; just a lot of wingnuts clapping each other on the back. It hasn’t stopped her claiming 100,000 in order to sell books. But it’s hard to be sure, as her political party didn’t get enough votes to be broken out independently in the official results of the 2007 parliamentary election. Neither could they find 500 local councillors willing to sign their presidential nomination. To place a lower bound on her popularity, though, we can say with certainty that she pulled some 345 votes on her home turf, the very bourgeois 16th arrondissement of Paris. That is, 1.4 per cent of the vote. Her fellow leader, Edouard Fillias, pulled a whacking 228 votes in the 12th – 0.52 per cent.

This didn’t stop various right-wing anglophone papers lionising her; fortunately she kept the tributes on her own website. Here’s Matthew Campbell of the Sunday Times predicting that if Segolene Royal wasn’t elected, she might be. Here’s the Daily Telegraph asking whether she really did speak for millions. I think you got your answer, son.

Anyway, moving swiftly on:

They rest on government-accorded privileges, particularly that of compelling membership, whether formally or informally – a privilege that, if it were exercised by a church or a political party, would horrify the public.

“They” are trade unions; it’s a pity Caldwell appears not to know that the closed shop has been illegal in France since 1956.

Circular Logic Watch

The Independent’s John Lichfield, writing about Nicolas Sarkozy:

His ideas are based on two simple but accurate diagnoses of France’s economic decline in the past 30 years.

First, France does not work enough. Young people enter the workforce late; experienced people retire early; the standard working week is now just 35 hours. France works an average of just over 600 hours per inhabitant per year, taking into account all the people not in work; Britain 800 hours. Result: slow growth, low incomes and high unemployment.

Yes, he really did blame high unemployment on the number of people not in work. As it turns out, French people (if Lichfield’s figures are right) work 25 per cent fewer hours than the British, however, that includes the hours of potential work lost to joblessness. Of course, this is quite a valid reason to object to unemployment – it’s literally a waste of time, but this isn’t what he’s getting at. He seems to suggest that if only the others would work harder, they would either generate enough supply-which-creates-its-own-demand to create more jobs, or else they would spend enough extra income to create more aggregate demand and create more jobs.

Current UK unemployment is 5.5 per cent, French 8.4 per cent – so just over a third (34 per cent) greater. All other things being equal, you’d expect the hours gap to change pro-rata with the unemployment gap – that is, if like the Indy, you are stupid enough to contaminate your proposed cause with a measurement of effect. But clearly something is not equal. If the greater quantity of worklessness is too great to explain the lesser quantity of work, the excess must have been cancelled out by something – which can only be that the people in work are working harder.