More on American Gun Control

In the summer of 2000 I found myself sat at the counter of a small bar somewhere on the coast of Virginia, USA.  The barman, a man in his 40s with long hair and a beard, was friendly enough and we were chatting (the place wasn’t busy).  I don’t remember what we talked about and I would have otherwise forgotten being there were it not for one thing he said regarding Britain:

“Well, you guys just need to get the fuck out of Ireland.”

I wasn’t particularly annoyed by the remark – dumbassed comments on the Northern Irish situation were common enough back home – but it remained with me as a perfect example of somebody passing a remark on a highly complex and protracted foreign situation which revealed almost total ignorance and should best be ignored.  Which is what I did.

I was reminded of this episode last week in the wake of the shootings in South Carolina, when herds of British and Australians, led by that idiot Piers Morgan and backed up by the comedian John Oliver, took to the internet to launch both criticism and advice at America which can be summed up as follows:

1) Americans are stupid.

2) Ban all guns now.

When it comes to foreigners talking about American gun laws, there seems to be an inverse relationship between passion and knowledge of the subject.  Many of those foaming at the mouth, who confess they consider this issue to be the gravest America faces, were unaware that gun laws vary considerably from state to state.  Others claimed the issue of gun control is one that has never been debated in the US, leading one to wonder how the Federal Government, 50 states, and the District of Columbia managed to pass legislation on the subject.  As Wikipedia tells us:

Policy at the Federal level is/has been governed by the Second Amendment, National Firearms Act, Gun Control Act of 1968, Firearm Owners Protection Act, Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, and the Domestic Violence Offender Act. Gun policy in the U.S. has been revised many times with acts such as the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which loosened provisions for gun sales while also strengthening automatic firearms law.[94] At the local and state level gun laws such as handgun bans have been overturned by the Supreme Court in cases such as District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago.These cases hold that an individual person has a right to possess a firearm. Columbia v. Heller only addressed the issue on Federal enclaves, while McDonald v. Chicago addressed the issue as relating to the individual states.

No debate or control, indeed.

The prevailing opinion appears to be that everyone and anyone is able to carry any kind of weapon freely, and hence they have all these shootings in the USA.  They think that these shootings are less common in other countries because they have tighter gun control, hence the solution is to implement a nationwide ban.  What advocates of a ban rarely acknowledge is that even European countries have not banned handguns: ownership, although subject to obtaining a permit and other heavy restrictions, is not illegal in the UK, France, Germany, Norway, and Italy (at which point I stopped looking).  Regarding France:

France has no limit on magazine capacity and no assault weapon ban, other than that you need a permit for category one semi-automatics.

And Italy:

All private firearms must be registered at the local police department within “72 hours”, as specified by law, after purchase or transfer, although this limit goes from the time the firearm is actually taken to the place where it is to be registered (for example, the firearm may be bought at a time and withdrawn after a week from the retailer; only then the weapon will require the registration).

Citizens are allowed to own:

  • up to three common firearms (usually handguns, but all firearms not using hunting calibers fall into this category, such as 10-gauge shotguns, or some .22 rimfire pistols and rifles);
  • up to six weapons that have been classified as manufactured for shooting sports by the National Proof House;
  • an unlimited number of hunting weapons (both rifles and shotguns);

A concealed carry license allows a citizen to carry a handgun for personal defense; this license is usually much harder to obtain than the other two firearm licenses, must be renewed yearly (while the hunting and shooting sports licences are valid for 6 years), and the applicant has to provide a valid reason to carry a concealed gun (e.g. a salesperson of valuable goods such as jewelry).

The fact that gun ownership is permitted across Europe is something rarely acknowledged by those Europeans who want to see American guns banned.  How many commentators do you hear saying “there is absolutely no reason for anyone to own an assault rifle” in the context of American gun ownership, but never once mention France?

In short, the gap between America and Europe when it comes to gun control laws is wide, but not half as wide as gun control advocates make out.  When it comes to actual gun ownership, the gap is indeed very wide, which may be because of the restrictions in Europe but is more likely to be because, for reasons related to culture, history, and geography, Americans simply want to own more guns that Europeans.  It does not follow that by introducing European-style gun laws that Americans will turn their backs on guns, and their number decline amongst the law-abiding.  So what a lot of the criticism comes down to is that Americans are stupid for wanting to own a gun, because Europeans don’t see a need for them.

Nevertheless, the complete ban solution, so the narrative goes, is so obvious that only morons cannot see it.  Hence we get Facebook posts along the lines of:

3,000 people killed in 9/11 = war

32,000 people killed per year by guns = NOTHING

Which gets reposted by what appear to be adults.

Gun deaths in the US, or anywhere else, can be broken down into separate categories:

  • General criminality
  • Killing sprees
  • Self-defence
  • Accidents
  • Suicides

According to Wikipedia, there were 8,855 firearm related homicides in the USA.  I’ve not been able to find a breakdown of this figure which would show us how many of these are attributed to general criminality, but despite the regularity of noodle-armed omega males going on killing sprees in the past decade or so, the numbers killed in these events do not run into the hundreds, let alone thousands.  Ditto for self-defence.  Therefore, most firearms homicides in the US are a result of general criminality.

Now the homocide rate is very high, probably for two broad reasons:

  1. America is awash with guns.
  2. A combination of stupid drug laws, gang cultures, and inner-city deprivation.

The above two set America apart from most other civilised nations, who either have one but not the other, or both but on a far smaller scale.  If you’re looking for a reason why there are more homicides by firearms in the US than UK, for example, then look no further.

So how are harsher gun controls supposed to help with this?  As TNA pointed out in the comments of my previous post:

1. I don’t believe those with malicious intent will pay any attention to gun laws.
2. There are loads of guns already out there and they are non-biodegradable.

A lot of foreigners, particularly Australians, point to the Australian gun buy-back scheme which was set up as part of the new legislation after the 1996 massacre in Port Arthur.  This netted 631,000 firearms, turned in by law-abiding owners.  However, as the same linked Wiki article tells us:

Low levels of violent crime through much of the 20th century kept levels of public concern about firearms low. In the last two decades of the century, following several high profile multiple murders and a media campaign, the Australian government co-ordinated more restrictive firearms legislation with all state governments.

So the Australian government managed to gather and destroy a lot of legal firearms from a population that had, by and large, not been using them to kill each other very much.  Leaving aside whether this was necessary (although Australians point to their lack of recent massacres to vindicate this policy), it is hard to see this working in the US: criminals are criminals, and are not likely to hand over their guns.  In short, Australia and the US are at very different starting points with the main difference being the armed, criminal element in Australia was pretty low.  As it was in the UK around the time of Dunblane.

Even assuming law-abiding Americans hand over their weapons instead of going through the embuggerance of complying with European-style gun laws (which I very much doubt), this still leaves the vast swathes of gun-toting criminals who would in all certainty hang onto them, and in all probability be delighted that they are now the only civilians who will be armed.  The Australian scheme simply isn’t going to work in the US and remove any more than a handful of guns from circulation.

And that’s by far the biggest problem facing America when it tries to grapple with its sky-high homicide-by-firearm rate: there are a lot of violent criminals, and they all have guns.  If you want to tackle this problem, the starting point would be a severe examination of their disastrous war on drugs, but nobody will touch that with a barge-pole.

However, nobody really cares about the vast majority of homicides which are dark folk shooting other dark folk.  Certainly the Europeans couldn’t care less about inner-city gang violence in the US.  But they are quite happy to use these statistics whenever there is a shooting spree.  Shooting sprees are terrible events and create harrowing storylines, but statistically they are insignificant, hence the overall gun death rate must be held aloft when the bodies are still warm in order to advance the agenda.

There is an argument that increased gun control might prevent some shooting sprees (although not all of them), which was put to me by a Texan friend.  The type of loser who goes on a shooting spree would probably lack the balls and the social connections to get hold of illegal weaponry, and so picks up a legal one from the nearest shop.  Without this option, he might not be able to arm himself.  I’ll not dismiss this argument because it does make sense in theory, but increasing gun controls is unlikely to eradicate all shooting sprees as anyone determined will arm himself one way or another.  But more importantly, I don’t think shooting sprees have much to do with gun controls anyway: it is more an issue of mental health diagnosis and treatment, and the quirk of American culture which for whatever reason throws up delusional, attention-seeking assholes who would do anything for a few minutes of notoriety – be it on a reality TV show or by committing mass murder.  Addressing these two issues would probably go a lot further to reducing the number of shooting sprees than making people obtain gun permits.

Finally, what annoys me a lot about Europeans and Australians when they comment on America’s gun laws is they are completely dismissive of 1) the constitutional structure of the USA and 2) the opinion of millions upon millions of American citizens.  We saw this when the Kyoto Protocol was roundly rejected by the US senate by whopping 95-0 because, rightly, they saw it as a massive stitch-up for the American way of life.  Europeans reacted with disbelief and insults, seemingly astonished that an American government is unable to just enact whatever laws it likes in order to fall into line with what the rest of the world wants.  The way Europeans sneer at the American constitutional right of its citizens to keep and bear arms betrays a deep-rooted ignorance and snobbery which Americans have detested since the Boston Tea Party.  Secondly, Americans have been time and again asked whether increased gun control laws are a price they are willing to pay to reduce the number of gun deaths in the USA, and each time they have come back with a resounding “No!” based on:

1) The fact that they have a constitutional right to own guns, and the government does not have the power to infringe this; and

2) The quite understandable idea that restricting their right to own a firearm would not make a blind bit of difference anyway.

America has serious issues with guns and gun deaths, but these will not be solved by their listening to foreigners who are breathtakingly ignorant or utterly dismissive of every historical, cultural, societal, political, and constitutional aspect of this highly complex and divisive topic.

(With thanks to the commentators on my previous post.)

Posted in Politics, USA | 1 Comment

The Gay Marriage Decision: Right Outcome, Wrong Reasons

I’ll start this post by saying I am satisfied at the outcome of the US Supreme Court’s decision that gay marriages shall be recognised across the whole nation.  I’m a believer in equality and liberty and see no reason why homosexuals should have been treated any differently from heterosexuals.

However, I am not particularly happy about the route taken to reach this decision and the basis on which this recognition was granted.  I would have been a lot happier had the US Supreme Court said:

“The issue of marriage, or any other aspect of personal relations between individuals, is of no interest to the government aside from those few benefits related to tax, inheritance, and immigration which are available to any two individuals who register a partnership for this purpose.”

Then we could really celebrate equality, liberty, and progress.

But instead, we have a situation whereby the state generously recognised a partnership between a man and a woman (which raises the question, who the hell asked for their “recognition” in the first place?), and now – after years of intense lobbying – the government has decided it will graciously recognise homosexual partnerships as well.

I’m sorry, but which part of begging for government recognition of the way in which two people arrange their personal lives represents a victory for liberty here, even if said begging was ultimately successful?  The whole process implies that government recognition was the ultimate aim for homosexual couples, whereas I would have much preferred to see them declare that they ought to be able to do what the hell they liked without the state poking its nose in.  Getting official permission for something they should have been allowed to do by right anyway is hardly worth celebrating.

I understand that the gay marriage lobby wanted to end the discrimination homosexual couples faced compared with heterosexuals when it comes to things like taxes and inheritance, which was a genuine grievance.  This whole mess came about by the state deciding that a family headed by a man and a woman in a marriage was something worth promoting.  Given almost every society on earth for the past three thousand years has adopted this model, or close variations of it, they probably had some justification for thinking perhaps this is something they ought to encourage.  But in doing so, they inadvertently blundered into having to decide what does and does not constitute a marriage, something which would have seemed simple and straightforward at the time and never in legislators’ wildest dreams would they have thought the Supreme Court was one day going to get roped into arguments over how to define a marriage.  The lesson here is that governments should consider very carefully what aspects of life it is going to barge in on and trample over with its big hob-nailed boots before doing so, because the future is hard to predict.  This lesson has not been learned at all.

As soon as the issue of homosexual marriage came on the radar, the government should have ceased all use of the word “marriage” and refused to deal with any complaint where that word appears.  They should have substituted the term “marriage” with “recognised partnership” and thrown the definition of marriage back into the realm of private social affairs where it belongs.  The state doesn’t define what constitutes a date.  It should not try to define what constitutes a marriage.

The tax and inheritance discrimination issue could have, and should have, been dealt with by a cold, leaden, impersonal clause in the tax code that states any two adults may register a partnership for this purpose instead of the government deciding what does and doesn’t constitute a marriage and dishing out favours accordingly.  If a man and a woman can get tax breaks, and two men can get tax breaks, why not two siblings?  Or two friends?  Are sexual relations now the defining criteria of whether two people can enjoy the same financial benefits other couples enjoy?  It appears so.

By the government hanging onto the word marriage, and framing the debate around that term, the gay rights lobby has insisted that only state recognition of “gay marriage” is acceptable – perhaps with some reason, given the importance the state affixes to the term.  But at the same time the illiberal, intolerant wing of the gay rights movement – which is substantial – have used the term marriage as a stick to bash those who might prefer to define a marriage as only possible between a man and a woman.  What started as a movement to end bureaucratic discrimination has evolved into a nationwide campaign to force everyone to accept – even in their private dealings – the state-approved definition of marriage.  Quite why this is something we should be celebrating escapes me.

I found the issue over the gay wedding cake scandal to be deeply disturbing.  It was strikingly obvious that some intolerant, illiberal troublemakers had hunted around for somebody against whom they could level the charge of discrimination in order that they increase their own powers and privilege at the expense of somebody else’s liberty.  Let’s make one thing clear here: contrary to what many people implied, gays in the USA in 2015 are not facing discrimination and denial of services either in the form or degree of Southern blacks in the pre-civil rights era and nor will they ever, no matter how many bakers, bible-bashers, and motel owners gather to condemn them.  For a start, it was not anti-discrimination laws which granted Southern blacks equality, it was an end to the racist, state-imposed laws which actively discriminated against them.  Secondly, the situation faced by Southern blacks was a unique and terrible product of the country’s history, and therefore needed special laws to rectify.  At least, that’s what the United States lawmakers feel: the unique situation of African Americans is precisely what is used to justify the retention of positive discrimination policies which offer benefits denied to other minority groups.

So where it might be argued – although not necessarily endorsed by me personally – that otherwise illiberal anti-discrimination laws were and are necessary to ensure African Americans achieved equality in the USA, it is a massive stretch to claim that gays are also in need of such laws.  But that’s what has effectively been done: being privately against homosexual marriage – not partnerships, marriage – is now the equivalent of being a paid-up member of the Ku Klux Klan, and anyone expressing such opinions is to be hounded out of society by a baying mob.  Whatever happened to “we don’t need a piece of paper to prove our love”?  Now not only is that piece of paper required, but everyone else is required to put their stamp of endorsement on it.  This is progress?

The gay lobby has got what it wanted, but I fear the means in which it has achieved it may come back to haunt them.  A large part of the gay rights campaign was not about gay rights at all, but this was simply an issue on which juvenile, middle-class social justice warriors hooked their bandwagon in order to bash what they perceive to be the Establishment (but more often than not, turned out to be ordinary people trying to get on quietly with their lives).  With this new ruling by the Supreme Court, homosexuals have taken a giant stride towards being part of the establishment and an equally large stride away from being a persecuted minority worthy of the backing of a baying mob of self-appointed professional outrage-mongers.  As the last hold-outs against gay marriage recognition slowly die or get legislated away, new battlefronts will be drawn and the mob will move onto something else: in fact we’re already seeing that transsexuals have become the homosexuals de nos jours, and it remains to be seen whether gay men living otherwise normal, professional lives will enjoy immunity from the increasingly hate-driven and vitriolic modern feminist movement.

In the great game of victimhood poker, gays might have just won a big pot of chips but the game goes on, and their hand is now much weaker.  One day they might wish they’d achieved their goals via a route of basic libertarian principles and turned their backs on state coercion.

Posted in Politics, USA | 8 Comments

Obama: wrong as usual

The BBC reports on Barack Obama’s reaction to the appalling church shooting in Charleston with the following title:

Charleston church shooting: Obama’s ‘hopeless’ push for gun control

Why might it be hopeless?  Well, let’s look at what Obama said:

“At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,”

Which is flat-out wrong, and unless Obama is spectacularly tin-eared, is a whopping great lie.  In July 2011, Norwegian Anders Breivik killed 77 people in an attack inspired, in part at least, by racial hatred 67 of which were shot.  More recently, we had the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in which gunmen murdered 12 people and wounded 11 others.

Regardless of whether you think increased gun controls in the US are desirable, it is hardly surprising that a “push” which starts off with a ludicrously false claim is “hopeless”.  But the way the BBC presents it, it is only the unreasonable stubbornness of conservative gun-nuts which are preventing Obama from ending such shootings permanently.

Posted in Politics, USA | 13 Comments

The Bali Nine Seven

This post is an expansion of a comment I left over at TNA’s gaff, and is on the subject of the recent execution of Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the ringleaders of the Bali Nine group who were arrested for smuggling a shitload of heroin out of Bali in 2005.

Firstly, Australia as a nation was entitled to, and would have been correct IMO, to oppose the execution of these two men on grounds of principle.  Such a principle could have been that the death penalty should never apply in any case for a variety of reasons, for example:

1) the fallibility of any justice system;

2) the irreversibility of the sentence in the event the conviction was wrong;

3) the propensity of individuals working within justice systems worldwide to fuck over defendants in order to further their own careers (examples here).

I would have agreed with Australia formally making Indonesia aware of their opposition to the death penalty in principle, for the above reasons, before the Bali Nine were even arrested.  I would have considered it perfectly reasonable for Australia to reiterate its opposition in this manner before, during, and after the sentencing.  And I would have been quite okay with Australia repeating this point right up the execution and to continue to do so afterwards.  Raising such objections would have been entirely possible while still recognising Indonesia’s right to manage their own affairs.  Had they done so, there is a chance the Indonesians might have listened.

Instead, we got an attempt by the Australian and international media – seemingly supported by Australia’s politicians and intellectual elite – to downplay the fact that the two condemned men were unrepentant criminals who had been tried and convicted of a serious crime which would result in the harshest of sentences in any jurisdiction you care to mention.  Rarely, if ever, was it noted by those supporting Chan and Sukumaran that:

Four of the seven mules were arrested at Denpasar airport with heroin strapped to their bodies, while Sukumaran and three others were detained at a Kuta hotel in possession of heroin. Chan, arrested at the airport, was not carrying drugs.

Convicting them in February 2006, the court said the pair were guilty of “illegally exporting first-class narcotics in an organised way”.

It said Chan and Sukumaran had provided money, airline tickets and hotels to the seven mules.

“There are no mitigating factors. His statements throughout the trial were convoluted and he did not own up to his actions,” Judge Arief Supratman said of Chan. Another judge, Gusti Lanang Dauh, said Sukumaran “showed no remorse”.

These two were not duped into carrying drugs, or desperate men who turned to desperate measures.  The Indonesian court recognised that the other 7 were not as culpable and handed down hefty prison sentences instead of the death penalty.  The court, quite rightly, recognised that these two were the head of an organised criminal enterprise without whom the smuggling would never have taken place.  This distinction was barely mentioned by all those campaigning for clemency, mainly because the main message being peddled by Australian politicians and the media was that actually the two are pretty good eggs after all:

Multiple advocates for the pair said they became very different in jail to the young men sentenced to death by the court.

Chan, 31, ran Bible study classes in Bali’s Kerobokan jail, while Sukumaran, 33, became a keen artist.

The son of restaurant owners, and a former part-time cook, Chan also ran a cooking school in Kerobokan prison.

Sukumaran’s mother told News Limited that her son was also “rehabilitating” and had set up several courses in prison, including those in philosophy and art.

This rubbish is insulting to read, yet it was wheeled out again and again.  Bible classes, learning to paint, and cooking – the three things which were mentioned most often – does not constitute a single shred of evidence that the two were reformed.  I suspect a cursory glance at death row and lifer inmates worldwide would show most are engaged in some sort of artistic or instructional endeavour, mainly to stave off boredom.  And any regret they may have is an utter irrelevance: few criminals do not have regrets when receiving a harsh sentence, particularly those on death row for drug smuggling.  What might have convinced the Indonesians that the two had reformed was an admission of their guilt, a full and detailed description as to the extent of their operation and methods employed, and a request that their supporters in Australia desist from insulting the Indonesians any further by refusing to respect the court which convicted them.

Because if I was an Indonesian, hell I’d have been spitting feathers.  By all means, make the principled stand I described earlier but whipping up a media frenzy which overlooks the pair’s incontrovertible guilt and their leadership role, complete with accusations of corruption, threats of boycotts, withdrawal of ambassadors, and the casual dismissal of the sovereign right of Indonesia to try and sentence criminals apprehended on their own turf in accordance with their own laws.  There were times when the Australians might as well have said “Listen brown folk, we know you’re all corrupt and we are your superior neighbours, so let our citizens go free and we’ll allow you to sit with us at the next regional summit.”  Would Australia have dared to behave like this had the two ended up on death row in California?  Would they hell.  Would Australia have been happy about the Indonesian government protesting an Australian court ruling in such a manner?  No they would not.

Whatever chance the condemned men had of being spared before they were shot on 29th April, this was surely extinguished by the frankly disgraceful behaviour of Australia’s politicians and media.  No doubt the Indonesians will be blamed for years for the death of a “young, shy Australian man” and his mate who is “funny, articulate… charismatic and has a very caring personality”.  But Australia ought to shoulder the blame for ensuring their sentence would be carried out by insulting the Indonesians to such an extent that they had little choice but to do otherwise.

They were a nasty pair of criminals who chose to break the laws of another country and persuade others to do the same.  The Indonesians should not have sentenced them to death or carried out the executions, but even after doing so they come away from this sordid affair looking better than the Australians.  For the latter, having not actually shot anybody, that’s quite some achievement.

Posted in Australia, Media, Politics | 12 Comments

Incentives matter, so best not ignore them.

A story was doing the rounds last week that was drawing praise and admiration from various quarters:

The idea began percolating, said Dan Price, the founder of Gravity Payments, after he read an article on happiness. It showed that, for people who earn less than about $70,000, extra money makes a big difference in their lives.

The idea began percolating, said Dan Price, the founder of Gravity Payments, after he read an article on happiness. It showed that, for people who earn less than about $70,000, extra money makes a big difference in their lives.His idea bubbled into reality on Monday afternoon, when Mr. Price surprised his 120-person staff by announcing that he planned over the next three years to raise the salary of even the lowest-paid clerk, customer service representative and salesman to a minimum of $70,000.

If it’s a publicity stunt, it’s a costly one. Mr. Price, who started the Seattle-based credit-card payment processing firm in 2004 at the age of 19, said he would pay for the wage increases by cutting his own salary from nearly $1 million to $70,000 and using 75 to 80 percent of the company’s anticipated $2.2 million in profit this year.

Those doing the praising were generally of a left-wing bent, and some went so far as to say this was a vision of the future and an example for other firms to follow.  Me, I’m not so sure, and I think Mr Price’s company is going to run into trouble over this at some point.

Now I’ll start by saying that Mr Price is perfectly within his rights to distribute his own salary among the workforce in such a manner.  And as I understand he is the owner, hell he can pay them $1m per year to watch TV for all I care.  I just don’t think he’s thought through the implications.  There are several problems which I think will arise, all of them to do with incentives.

The paychecks of about 70 employees will grow, with 30 ultimately doubling their salaries, according to Ryan Pirkle, a company spokesman. The average salary at Gravity is $48,000 a year.

His idea bubbled into reality on Monday afternoon, when Mr. Price surprised his 120-person staff by announcing that he planned over the next three years to raise the salary of even the lowest-paid clerk, customer service representative and salesman to a minimum of $70,000.

Firstly, if the lowest paid clerk is now on $70,000 per year there is almost no incentive for anyone to grow professionally by taking on more responsibility, tackling harder tasks, volunteering for the shit jobs, and putting in additional hours to increase their own value within the company.  If the clerk is on $70k, why would somebody from the middle-ranks with marketable skills and a higher education apply themselves if they were on similar wedge, or work extra hard just to earn $80k when by loafing he can earn $70k?  Better to take it easy and spend more time with the family.  And this will be made worse by the plan being phased in over 3 years.  Who is going to be interested in the new night manager role now the main incentive to take the crap hours is gone?  This will be felt even more keenly in sales: how much effort is the junior salesman going to put in now he’s on $70k per year?

Secondly:

Hayley Vogt, a 24-year-old communications coordinator at Gravity who earns $45,000, said, “I’m completely blown away right now.” She said she has worried about covering rent increases and a recent emergency room bill.

“Everyone is talking about this $15 minimum wage in Seattle and it’s nice to work someplace where someone is actually doing something about it and not just talking about it,” she said.

From the above quotation I think it is safe to assume that Hayley Vogt will never leave Gravity of her own free will because she is now paid 55% above market rate for being a communications coordinator.  Nobody above her is going to leave either, so it is an equally fair assumption that as long as Gravity exists, Ms Vogt – currently 24 – will be a communications coordinator.  So by the time she’s 40, Ms Vogt will still be a communications coordinator.  Do you see the problem here?  She’s undergone no professional growth.  She can’t be promoted internally because her superiors – also being paid well over market rate – will hang onto their jobs for all they’re worth.  So if Gravity goes tits-up in the future, Ms Vogt will find herself on the job market not only facing a severe cut in her income but also competing against people much younger from whom she cannot differentiate herself in any meaningful way.  For those on the lower rungs doing jobs which don’t require much skill or training, and thus youth, energy, and flexibility are major selling points, this could be a problem.

Of course, many people doing those kind of jobs aren’t looking for a career anyway, they just want to pay the bills.  Which brings me onto the third problem: with nobody leaving, how do you get rid of the underperformers?  Normally these people would leave because, having been passed over for promotion and higher pay for a few years running, want to try their luck somewhere else.  Now Mr Price is stuck with them.

Finally, how does Mr Price intend to bring new talent into the company?  Nobody is leaving, so that means only newly created positions will bring outsiders in.  Aside from not being a very healthy environment for any company, this creates an additional problem.  If a new position is created and advertised, every store clerk within 200 miles is going to apply for the job if it pays $70k per year.  Having an avalanche of CVs hit your desk is not helpful. When I worked in Dubai we advertised for an assistant accountant position and put an advert up somewhere.  Even though we were a small, unknown company we were receiving CVs by the thousand, mostly from Indians.  The problem was almost all the CVs were from labourers, forklift drivers, and other unskilled workers chancing their arm having seen a “big” salary (and indoor work) on offer.  Sifting through them all, trying to identify who was genuinely interested in the position and had the matching skills was a hopeless task.  Gravity Payments is going to find themselves with a similar problem: how many of the tens of thousands of CVs they will receive are from people who aren’t motivated solely by the incredible pay and couldn’t care less about the actual job?  And even those who are qualified, are they confident they will secure a suitable candidate from a shortlist all of whom are overwhelmingly motivated by the pay above everything else (and know they can likely loaf once they get in)?  HR departments in major oil companies will recognise this problem.

Despite his obvious success in business thus far, having set up Gravity Payments at he impressively young age of 19, I can’t help think Mr Price is still a bit wet behind the ears:

“Is anyone else freaking out right now?” Mr. Price asked after the clapping and whooping died down into a few moments of stunned silence. “I’m kind of freaking out.”

Whilst I might be persuaded that executive pay is too high in the US and the disparity between the lowest and highest paid is too wide in some companies, progressive pay scales are used and market rates adhered to for good reasons which might not be immediately obvious.  As Tim Worstall is fond of telling us, incentives matter.  Mr Price might end up learning this the hard way.

Posted in Business, Economics, USA | 3 Comments

Visiting Russia just got Harder

I missed this, but late last year Russia introduced compulsory fingerprinting for all foreign visitors:

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has ordered fingerprinting of foreigners as part of the processing of visas to enter the country.

The decree, signed by Putin, explained that the move hopes to help the application of law enforcement, tackle illegal immigration and prevent terror attacks.

Decree…hopes…terror attacks.  Hmmm.  How many terror attacks within Russia have been carried out by foreigners?  And when I hear the word “decree”, why is it that I immediately think of this store?

“It is expected that biometric data will be collected mainly at the visa centers, which would make it possible to avoid long queues at the Russian diplomatic missions where, as you know, people come not only to get a visa but to resolve many other issues as well,” Yevgeny Ivanov, head of the consular department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, said.

Introducing new bureaucratic hoops will make it possible to avoid long queues?   More on that later.

The move comes after the Foreign Ministry proposed to introduce biometric data for foreigners entering Russia, in response to the EU’s proposed plan to take fingerprints of all Russians wishing to enter the Schengen area in Europe from 2015.

This is half the problem with Russian immigration laws: most of them are retaliatory.  Now I’m the last person to defend western immigration requirements, and the UK’s are as dumbassed as anywhere’s, but deciding to introduce additional hurdles for visitors to Russia in response to EU proposals is simply stupid.  Putin may not have noticed but his currency collapsed recently and the Russian economy – so dependent on imports – is in the shit.  One of the best ways to bring in hard currency is to get tourists to come and swap their Euros, Dollars, and Pounds for Rubles, and this will be much easier to do with a weak domestic currency.  Erecting barriers to make the entry of those tourists harder makes no sense whatsoever, but then Russians appear content with being poorer and less well-fed in return for being able to engage in ineffectual political posturing.

I heard about this new requirement because a British friend of mine is currently going through the visa application process, and had to go to the Russian embassy in person to get fingerprinted.  The agent advised that delays of up to an hour could be expected (so much for avoiding long queues), only when he got near the front of the queue the whole system packed up and he was told “to come back tomorrow”.  So far, so Russian.  Fortunately he lives in London and so this was easy enough, but anyone coming from say Manchester and visiting one of the two centres – located in Edinburgh and London – would have had to buy another train ticket or book a hotel, and take another day off work.

And this is where Russia is going badly wrong.  There are a handful of people who want to visit Russia, and they will go through this pantomime one way or the other.  But Russia loses out on the speculative tourists who plan to go “somewhere” and then look at their options.  A few years back another friend thought about going to St. Petersburg for a weekend and asked me what was involved.  By the time I had gotten halfway through the letter of invitation, the agent, the $100-$200 fee, the form-filling, the requirement to have a hotel booking, the registration on arrival, and the rest of it, he’d already said “Nah, forget it, I’ll go somewhere else” (and the fee has gone up since the fingerprint requirement came in).  So much of European travel is people looking for quick, easy breaks.  When people have a choice of Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Krakow and a dozens of smaller cities in Eastern Europe that they can visit without a visa, why would anyone who wasn’t specifically interested in Russia go there?  The Ukrainians figured this out back in 2005, and allowed EU citizens to enter the country visa free, thus adding Kiev to the list of cities above.  Perhaps more importantly, it meant Europeans could visit Ukraine’s prime holiday area in Crimea much more easily, and that played a large part in my decision to go there in the summer of that year.  Only now Europeans wishing to visit Crimea need a Russian visa, which can’t have done much for the visitor numbers.

So of all those people considering a trip to Russia, how many will decide it’s simply not worth the bother, especially if the price ends up including a return train fare, a hotel in London, and two days off work?  My guess is a lot.  Putin’s decree has made it as costly and as much effort just to obtain a Russian visa as it is to take an actual holiday to a neighbouring country which offers better service at cheaper rates to begin with.

Somebody, somewhere, obviously thinks this is smart.

Posted in Economics, Politics, Russia, Travel | 5 Comments

There Was Once a Road Through the Woods

Perry de Havilland at Samizdata has linked to a piece in the Christian Post written by somebody apologising for being an ardent defender of Islam in recent times, somebody who now feels the critics of Islam were right all along.  This paragraph in particular nudged me into writing a post I’ve been meaning to for a while:

Though we claim the mantle of human rights, free speech and equality, we lack the courage of our convictions when it offends someone. We make the cowardly lion look like Churchill.

Principles are strange things in the sense that they do not necessarily have to be pleasant to be attractive, and that even appalling principles can be more attractive (to some) than none at all.  I recall a section in David Hackworth’s book About Face where during the Vietnam War he interviewed an NVA prisoner to try to understand what made them fight.  Once the prisoner realised Hackworth wasn’t going to torture him, and in fact wasn’t after military information at all, he opened up.  It transpired that the prisoner was four-square behind the idea of Communism and the principles that the leadership in Hanoi was preaching and practising.  Hackworth remarked that although he didn’t agree with the cause the man was fighting for, he could not help but admire the fact that his prisoner was willing to endure extreme hardship in order to do so, and noted that he had a fist-sized hole somewhere on his person (I forget where) that was a result of some battlefield injury incurred earlier in the war.  Hackworth contrasted his prisoner’s dedication with those of the feckless ARVN who generally lacked the motivation to fight, were happy to dodge the action and let the Americans do the (literal) grunt work, and represented a regime that was morally bankrupt, corrupt, brutal and stood for nothing whatsoever other than not being Communist.  He concluded that unless the South Vietnamese get off their arses and start fighting in the way his prisoner was, they would ultimately lose the war.  And he was right.

I am about as far from a Communist as it is possible to get, yet there is no denying the ideas and principles attracted – and continue to attract – millions of people.  I have read enough Cold War history to know that the Chinese fought with fanatical, suicidal dedication to the Communist cause in North Korea, that millions of Russian soldiers died with Stalin’s name on their lips, and that a huge percentage of the Soviet people worked willingly in support of the Socialist cause for decades.  These people might be brainwashed, and they might be complete idiots, but the fact is that having been presented with a set of principles – however warped both in theory and practice – millions of them followed with unflappable dedication.

So how come the Commies lost the Cold War?  Theories vary, but one crucial element in the Western victory was the upholding of certain principles which the Communist Bloc didn’t recognise: free speech, liberty, property rights, the right to a fair trial, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, freedom of artistic expression, etc.  Granted most, if not all, Western countries upheld these principles imperfectly at various times but this does not equate to an absence of principles any more than the largesse of the Politburo meant an absence of collectivist principles in the Soviet Union.

By upholding these principles that were alien to the Communists, the West was able to achieve two things:

1. Demonstrate how they were fundamentally different from the Communists in a positive way, i.e. better than them.

2. Provide an alternative set of principles for those in the enemy camp who wished to reject the Communist principles.

Convinced of its own superior system of government, the West thought nothing of blasting the populations trapped behind the Iron Curtain with propaganda, urging them to convert to its own way of thinking.  An American president – the leader of the free world – called the Soviet Union an evil empire not only because it was, but also because he knew those living under its rule against their will would take great heart from his words and continue to struggle.  The conviction of the West in shamelessly and incessantly promoting its own principles over the Communists’ likely did as much to inspire internal resentment over the Soviet leadership as their own degeneracy: without the former, against what standard could the Soviet leaders and their own circumstances be measured?

This brings me onto what I want to talk about, which is a thought that first started churning in my head in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  That is, the question as to why moderate Muslims don’t speak out and condemn the atrocities carried out in the name of Islam.  It is tempting to say that many probably agree with the atrocities, leading one to question just how many moderates there actually are.  But shortly afterwards I read a comment in a blog by somebody who suggested putting yourself in the shoes of a moderate Muslim and asking whether you yourself would speak out.

And in doing so it became a lot clearer why they don’t.  What we are asking moderate Muslims to do is speak out against those whose actions are incompatible with our way of life.  But what we really want is confirmation that moderate Muslims have themselves accepted our way of life and the principles that underpin it, and will therefore reject the extremists in their ranks.  In theory, this isn’t much different than hoping citizens of Communist countries would accept our way of life and make things difficult for their overlords by seeking change.  But whereas during the Cold War we had clearly defined principles that we genuinely believed were superior and were not afraid to advertise them, what principles are we supposed to be waving in front of Muslims?

And that’s a question I can’t answer.  Whatever free speech we currently enjoy is fast being eroded: when citizens can be jailed for offensive Tweets or nasty Facebook comments, and homophobic remarks are grounds for arrest as a matter of course, then we can probably say that this isn’t solid ground on which we can fight a battle of ideas.  Individual freedom is rapidly disappearing as a concept now that refusing to bake a wedding cake is a matter in which the full force of the law is brought to ensure conformity: I’d not fancy my chances arguing that individual freedoms in the West are nowadays sancrosanct in a way that they are not in the Muslim world.  The state is becoming ever more intrusive, particularly into family matters: with Scotland now setting up a truly Stalinist system of shadow parenting by state officials (H/T Samizdata) it would take a brave soul to try to win over a Muslim by pointing to our superior methods of running a family.

That’s not to say the West has nothing to offer Muslims, because it clearly does.  But the differentiator which enabled them to offer all people – not just Muslims – something better was the society that resulted from first fighting for, and then upholding, the principles on which it was based.  The West appears to have forgotten that it was these principles that made its society attractive in the first place, and it doesn’t seem to realise that if it abandons those principles then it won’t be the same society; and if it’s not the same society, who is to say it will be an improvement on any other, particularly one that’s been aroud awhile?

To repeat what I quoted from the Christian Post:

Though we claim the mantle of human rights, free speech and equality, we lack the courage of our convictions when it offends someone.

If our leadership – and I use that term loosely – lacks the conviction to uphold the principles which supposedly define the West, why the hell should we expect Muslims to come out in support of them?  I suspect for many, faced with a choice between leaning towards Islamic principles and Western principles, many moderate Muslims are choosing the former because they are unconvinced that the latter even exist.  Hell, I’m not convinced they exist in any meaningful sense any more, so why should somebody who comes from a culture where they have been historically absent?

As the aforementioned blog commenter asked, if you were a young Muslim living in Britain over the last few years, which way would you lean?  Which way is the wind blowing?  When you have elected officials condemning the publication of blasphemous cartoons, and newspaper columnists suggesting Charlie Hebdo was probably at fault, would you stick your head above the parapet and argue that insulting the Prophet is a fundamental right?  When any atrocity is immediately followed by politicians mumbling vague approximations of supposed bedrock principles which they contradict in the very same sentence through use of the word “but”, and fall over themselves to assure you – a Muslim – that this is nothing to do with your own principles and faith, and then an utter headcase is invited for an interview on the state-owned TV channel where he defends the bloodshed and nobody says a peep: which way are you going to jump?

As the Christian Post article goes on to say:

In reality, those who criticize Islam, especially reform minded Muslims, are the bravest of the brave. They are literally putting their lives at risk by the simple act of criticizing the Quran, Muhammad, and Sharia.

It’s hard enough as it is to get Muslims to question aspects of their faith they might find distasteful and risk the opprobrium of their family, friends, and community.  But it was equally hard to get Russian citizens to criticise their own people and system as well.  Back then, we realised the importance in upholding our own convictions and demonstrating our principles in the struggle to convert people away from Communism and to adopt our way of life.

But today we have abandoned our principles, yet at the same time we expect Muslims to start questioning theirs.  Somebody with principles will not abandon them – even if they are appalling – unless there are alternatives on offer.  And although I see much merit in the principles on which Western society was based, the past decade or two has seen them eroded to such an extent that their function as an alternative which others can adopt has diminished to the point that few appear to be taking them up any more.  What’s more worrying, as David Hackworth’s prisoner demonstrated, those with principles – regardless of what they are – tend to prevail over those who are operating with none.

If the West wants its way of life to continue its citizenry had better rediscover the principles on which it developed and not only start upholding them, but demanding their leaders do the same.  They’d be wise to consider that the Muslims they are hoping to convert already have principles, they’ve been following them faithfully for hundreds of years, and there is very little they would have seen in recent years which would make them do otherwise.

Posted in General Observations, Islam, Politics, Terrorism, USSR, Vietnam War | 13 Comments

This will have Ronald quaking in his boots!

Michael Jennings alerts me to a new business idea in Russia:

Russia has a grand plan to launch its own, patriotic fast-food chain to rival Western burger joints like McDonald’s and rescue its struggling farmers.

The $18-million initiative stems from brothers Nikita Mikhalkov and Andrei Konchalovsky, two of the country’s most famous film directors.

Both have poured scorn on Western influence in the past and are known for their close ties to the Kremlin.

The brothers have already picked a name for their brainchild: “Let’s Eat At Home!” (Edim Doma!)

Andrei Vorobyov, the governor of the Moscow region, has welcomed the project.

“It’s a good idea,” he said. “Small businesses and chains create jobs, and the food produced on our territory is perfectly suitable for these cafes.”

The deputy chairman of the regional government, Denis Butsayev, has already hailed the proposed chain as a “McDonald’s killer.”

“The goal of this project is to promote import substitution and create alternatives to Western fast-food chains,” the brothers wrote in their proposal, quoted by the Kommersant daily.

The brothers want to open 41 cafes in the Moscow and Kaluga regions, all supplied by local kitchens and factories. Up to 40 percent of the menu will be made from regional produce.

This is dumbassed on so many levels.  Firstly, as I mentioned here:

The primary beneficiary of McDonald’s in Russia are those Russians wishing to purchase its products, who number in the millions.

The secondary beneficiary of McDonald’s in Russia are the Russian owners (it is a franchise), managers, employees, and suppliers whose income derives from its operations.

Pinching customers from McDonald’s is unlikely to result in a boost for Russia at the expense of the west.

Secondly, Russians eat at McDonald’s because they like McDonald’s.  They don’t eat at McDonald’s because they cannot find cafes selling pel’meni and borsch to sate their hunger.  As has been proven in any country you care to mention – but let’s take France as a good example – you can easily find an alternative burger which is almost always better.  But something about the whole McDonald’s setup, i.e. not just the food, attracts people.  I suspect eating in McDonald’s for young Russians is, like in France, seen as a cool thing to be doing.  Good luck getting the kidz to buy into the idea that ordering buckweat washed down with kompot is now cool.  As the article points out:

McDonald’s remains hugely popular among Russians, despite a number of recent setbacks amid deepening tensions between Russia and the United States.

Thirdly, given the low probability of being able to compete with McDonald’s, if this scheme gets lanched it will likely take business away from the dozens and dozens of small, independent stolovayas and cafes that already sell Russian food using locally-sourced produce.  The knock-on effect will therefore be felt by their existing suppliers and probably result in some of the current alternatives to McDonald’s going out of business.

Fourthly, if prominent Russians wants to “rescue its struggling farmers”, “create alternatives to Western fast-food chains”, and “create jobs” then they might want to start by getting rid of the brazen gangsterism, thuggery, and corruption that infest the entire country and prevent these things happening of their own accord.  But no, this is Russia so:

The $18-million initiative stems from brothers Nikita Mikhalkov and Andrei Konchalovsky, two of the country’s most famous film directors.

Mikhalkov and Konchalovsky had reportedly called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to help secure government backing for the project in light of its “sociopolitical character.”

According to Kommersant, Putin had personally ordered Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich to “examine and support” the proposal.

Under the program, 70 percent of the sum is provided by banks under a state-guaranteed loan, with the remaining 30 percent coming from private investors.

State-controlled Sberbank has been touted as a potential lender.

[The government] rejected the brothers’ request for direct funding at a government meeting late on April 9, suggesting that the would-be entrepreneurs should instead seek funding through Russia’s existing scheme to support small businesses.

Instead we have two politically-connected multi-millionnaires looking for state-financing of their pet project whose major selling point is that it represents the type of crude patriotism that is currently in vogue with the President.  And although they appear to have had their appeal for direct funding rejected our multi-millionnaires, who were able to meet with Putin in person, have been advised to raid the state fund set up to assist small businesses.

I’m wondering how this project represents anything different in Russia, let alone an improvement.

Posted in Business, Russia | 8 Comments

The Failure of Russian Projects

The Streetwise Professor writes about another ambitious Russian state project which has gone badly off the rails, this time the Vostochny Cosmodrome project.  As usual, the project is way behind schedule, way over budget, and workers haven’t been paid for months.

All of this would seem drearily familiar to anyone who has worked on Russian projects, but outsiders might not know the mechanism behind the failures.  Russian certainly would, but only those who have gotten their hands dirty on a project, i.e. the mal’chiki-mazhory who are the most enthusiastic of grand Russian projects won’t have a clue.

The problem is not in the experience, competence, or attitude of the technical workforce.  Russia has a ready supply of clever, motivated, experienced, and competent engineers and technicians.  These men and women are more than capable of designing and constructing pretty much anything in Russia.  Granted, it might not look too pretty and the design might be a bit dated, but it will work as intended.  The problem is in the management of these skilled resources.

The root cause is that owning a successful company in Russia is a result of your being allowed to do so by virtue of your personal connections or the muscle you can deploy (preferably both).  Without one of these, you are never going to be able to run a company large enough to execute a sizeable project, as you will be shut down or forced out by the local powerbrokers – either government authorities or gangsters – before your business is anywhere near mature enough to bid for large contracts.  Competence, a sound business plan, or good management practices count for nothing if you don’t have connections or the muscle to defend yourself.

As such, all players bidding for a large engineering and construction contract will have achieved and maintained their position by something other than technical competence and delivery.  The problem is further compounded by the fact that those very same connections which allow them to operate are used to determine which company gets the juicy contracts.  The award of contracts in Russia is therefore an exercise in nepotism; the selection of contractors is done not on the expectation of competent execution, but by which company offers the most beneficial kickbacks, favours, counterfavours, and financial rewards to those who have the final say.

This would not be a problem in itself if the winning contractor has within its organisation the skills required to execute a project competently.  Surprisingly, quite a few of these contractors do: they have on their staff the experienced technical resources that I mentioned earlier in the post.  Or even if they don’t, at the beginning a contractor will hire in the competent people and the project will start well.

The problem comes when the cashflow situation goes belly-up.  This always happens for the simple reason that cashflow is very difficult to manage on any project and especially so in Russia.  Whereas normally any contractor will have demonstrated their skill in managing cashflow by virtue of a proven track record and still being in business, in Russia this isn’t a requirement at all: personal connections are what matter.  So on Russian projects there is a strong likelihood that the management of the entity in charge doesn’t know much about cashflow, or indeed any other aspect of running a normal business.

Whereas some aspects of business can be ignored in favour of lies, threats, and pig-headedness, e.g. HR, HSE, quality, accounting, etc. cashflow isn’t so easily ignored.  If your bank account is empty, then you can’t pay suppliers; if suppliers aren’t paid, you don’t get the materials and equipment; if you can’t get the materials and equipment, you can’t make progress; and if you can’t make progress, you can’t invoice for the next stage payment.  Managing cashflow on a project is a very specific skill, and even major oil companies get it wrong and have to rely on the parent company and partners having large cash reserves to keep the project solvent.  Most Russian companies simply don’t possess this skill and probably few CEOs appreciate what it is, not having attained their positions through business acumen.

If a project experiences a problem with cashflow, one of the early signs is the workforce not being paid on time.  This is particularly true in Russia.  In countries like Russia and Nigeria, shafting the workforce by not paying them on time (or at all) appears to be perfectly acceptable behaviour in the eyes of many Managing Directors.  Indeed, some almost seem to think it a very clever way of saving money and engage in this practice even when they are flush with cash.  I knew several engineers and technicians in both Russia and Nigeria who had quit previous jobs having been owed months and months of wages, and given up hope of ever seeing it.  So if the company in question had experienced and competent technical staff on their books at the beginning, the best of these will leave once the pay problems start, with the rest following in a steady trickle depending on how bad the situation gets.  They will be replaced by inferior people, who will also get fed up and leave, to be replaced by even less-qualified people, and so on in a vicious circle until – like I saw in Russia – the site is filled with undocumented, uneducated rural folk from Tajikistan and North Korea working for meagre cash-in-hand wages.  When this manpower drain is coupled with the other side of the cashflow problem – the suppliers not being paid, hence materials not being delivered to site – the situation is almost impossible to reverse without massive cash injections from somewhere.  And this being Russia, the project owners are not the sort to be handing out extra cash even assuming it is available.

So in short it is a management problem, particularly their inability to manage cashflow.  This is compounded by the fact that the sort of people who manage large contracting companies in Russia are the sort of people who would treat the project account as their own personal fund for the purchase of dachas and Porsche Cayennes in the days after the initial advance payment, and also the sort of people who would think nothing of shafting the workforce and suppliers by not paying them for months or years.  Few, even in 2015, seem to understand the concept of a market for skilled labour which enables a skilled Russian welder to walk off the job if he hasn’t been paid and pick up another one elsewhere.  For those managers skilled only in Soviet-style thuggishness and corruption, they have yet to understand the Soviet labour system of being shackled to your workbench doesn’t, for the large part, exist any more.

This is why, despite Russia having easily enough technical resources to complete such a project, the Vostochny Cosmodrome project has been unable to even pay its bill for lighting.  The failure was never about Russian engineers being useless, or lazy, or too few in number, or Russian contractors not knowing how to do complex works.  It was always about that one thing Russia never had in the Soviet times or now, the one thing which they increasingly insist the West cannot help them with: managerial competence.

If somebody in Russia could harness Western management practices with local technical resources, we’d see a vast improvement.  One chap did this once, went by the name of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and had a company called Yukos.  Whatever happened to him?

Posted in Business, Engineering, Russia | 11 Comments

Meetings in France

Over at Tim Worstall’s gaff, reader Andrew M alerts me to this piece in the New York Times on the subject of French, English, and American conversations.  This bit had me nodding along vigorously:

But many modern-day conversations [in France] make more sense once you realize that everyone around you is in a competition not to look ridiculous. When my daughter complained that a boy had insulted her during recess, I counseled her to forget about it. She said that just wouldn’t do: To save face, she had to humiliate him.

This is probably worse in Paris, and among the professional classes. But a lot of French TV involves round-table discussions in which well-dressed people attempt to land zingers on one another. Practically every time I speak up at a school conference, a political event or my apartment building association’s annual meeting, I’m met with a display of someone else’s superior intelligence.  Jean-Benoît Nadeau, a Canadian who co-wrote a forthcoming book on French conversation, told me that the penchant for saying “no” or “it’s not possible” is often a cover for the potential humiliation of seeming not to know something. Only once you trust someone can you turn down the wit and reveal your weaknesses, he said.

Meetings in France are perhaps the greatest single source of puzzlement in the working lives of expats.  Anyone from the Anglo-Saxon world will sit through a meeting with no agenda that started late and concludes (also late) with no substantial decisions being made and wonder what the purpose of it was other than to offer workers an opportunity to demonstrate how wonderfully clever they are in front of their peers.  The way in which meetings are conducted in France was a major subject covered in my intercultural awareness training when I first arrived, and remains a frequent topic of conversation among the expats.  Apparently, according to the article, this sort of behaviour has a long history:

Life at Versailles was apparently a protracted battle of wits. You gained status if you showed “esprit” — clever, erudite and often caustic wit, aimed at making rivals look ridiculous. The king himself kept abreast of the sharpest remarks, and granted audiences to those who made them. “Wit opens every door,” one courtier explained.

Indeed it does.  An inability to answer a random, irrelevant, and often daft question in a French meeting will demonstrate that a speaker is “unprepared”, and thus possibly unsuitable for promotion.  Hence he or she must “prepare” by stuffing their presentation with dozens of slides containing table after table of raw data in Font 8 or smaller, which are preceded by five or more slides of “context” containing sentences such as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” and “When viewed in an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.”  Given French presentations normally consist of the speaker reading the contents of a slide line by line, one after another, it’s no surprise to learn that meetings can run on for hours.

Whether these practices are fit for a modern business operating in an increasingly competitive and globalised world is a matter for debate.  A glance at the French economy and unemployment rate would suggest not.  Us Anglos could learn a lot from the French in many fields, but conducting meetings and delivering presentations are not among them.

Posted in Business, France | 12 Comments