Last week I took a trip to France. When I got home I proceeded to tell people about my trip. As I was telling someone about the trip she had a very bipolar response. “How wonderful to have the opportunity to visit Paris -- not that I like the French.”
France, in my opinion, is a wonderful country. On the other hand the French actually prioritize a bit differently than the good ol’ USA. It seems like from the time that I could understand money I was taught through social interactions that money was the most important thing in life. Some people actually put God first, and others might say love or health are more important, but in practice Americans tend to behave as if money is goal number one. In fact, people who say that health is more important continue to reward those with the most money by giving them the best health care available. Those who say that love is most important continue to look down on the wealthy person who chooses a poorer lover than themselves. Women continue to seek money over love in our entertainment media. A happy ending in our culture is when everyone has enough money. Money can buy lovers, comfort, health, homes and businesses to make more money. How could anything else be more important?
Go to France and look around. Now, don’t get me wrong; money is still important in France. Fancy restaurants and hotels still cost money. But, people tend to find happiness in other things as well as money. For example, the simple ease to move around the country is subsidized by the government. The government decided that for the greater good of the society money would be collected from taxpayers and spent on an organized collection of connected transportation systems. In the USA the patchwork of inefficient transportation shows how non-directed capitalism fails at the higher level. Maybe after a thousand years the US system will evolve into something more efficient, but simply thinking it through at the beginning could have resulted in something much better. In this case efficiency ranked above money on the priority list, and it was a good thing.
Now, France is not Germany and efficiency does not always take priority. Many have argued that the French transportation system is not as efficient as the German one. All I can say is that both are much better than the US system. In France one thing that stands out above everything else is the regard for aesthetics. In the US many people do not even know what this word means, because it has been given such low priority in our culture. But, in France aesthetics ranks quite high among considered priorities.
One simple example of this contrast came at lunchtime the first day I was in France. The reason for my trip was to attend a biotech conference. I have attended many conferences of this sort in the US and Canada. A free lunch is usually served to encourage the participants to eat and wander around the booths belonging to the various companies specializing in biotech supplies. A typical lunch in the US consists of a cardboard box with a sandwich, chips, fruit, brownie and a set of plastic utensils. Lunches in Canada tend to have sandwiches stacked on a table, a fruit bowl, a couple of side dishes and a fancy desert table. In France, at least at this conference, there were place settings on a large number of tables. The plates were ceramic; the glasses were glass. Water was placed in the tables and the food was excellent. The difference between these lunches has to do with the value of aesthetics in the given cultures. Each culture defines the value of putting in the little extra effort required to make things pleasing above the practical value of nourishment alone. If the goal is nourishment and money takes priority, then we end up with the cardboard boxes filled with sandwiches.
Most people that complain about French socialism have never experienced French socialism. Socialism is a contract between the people and the government to do what is best for the people. American conservatives believe that laissez faire government is the best form of government. Of course the French actually invented the term laissez faire and the meaning has drifted over the years. Conservatives tend to think that laissez faire means let businesses rob the customers at will, and if they go to far, then the customers will realize it and stop doing business. The balance has to do with the amount of robbery a customer is willing to tolerate before the business loses that customer. Government regulation on the other hand draws lines in the sand as to where profit becomes robbery and cheating. Poisoning your customers is no longer limited by how fast they die, but by a reasonable expectation that customers should not be poisoned. After all, the government holds a stake in the outcome of businesses poisoning their customers, because the government pays for the healthcare of these poisoned customers in France.
The balance in France is between efficiency, aesthetics, social contract and laissez faire capitalism. And, because there is a balance there they don’t have the nightmare shortages of Soviet era socialism. Instead, France is actually a vacation place for many of the American wealthy who are willing to enjoy the French aesthetics, while they are unwilling to pay the small price in their taxes to have the same aesthetics at home in the USA. Its funny how that works.
Money certainly motivates the animal needs in a person. If you don’t have money and you live in the United States of America, then you could certainly find yourself living on the streets. Without money, food may only be found at a religious organization that will give you food if you listen to their pitch for their religion. Without money, you may get sick and die before you are able to get a doctor to help you recover from your illness. To a conservative, the threat of living without these basic needs should be the motivation to live the conservative lifestyle -- because it is safe.
Even after one has all one needs there are people who want more power, more things and more money. These are the people who value money very highly. And, in American culture it would be strange not to value money highly.
Another value that is often prioritized higher than money in France is education. The pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge instead of for the sake of earning power after graduation is evidenced in France by the number of bookstores doing a brisk business. A large number of titles were concerned with philosophy and art rather than business and investing. Obviously this is not a scientific study of what people study in school, but it seems apparent from bookstore displays that a large number of people seem to be interested in philosophy and art -- subjects not especially high paid or even desired in America. In the 1990s America lost the will to build the Superconducting Supercollider. Europe on the other hand has just completed building the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) as they spend money simply pursuing the question: What is matter?
America was not always like this. John F. Kennedy told us that we “…do not do these things because they are easy but, because they are hard” in his speech about landing a man on the moon. This was not the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of wealth and riches. Instead America went to the moon in an adventurous trip to appeal to the human imagination. Since the 1960s America has decided that the value of money trumps the value of discovery and exploration prompted by the pursuit of knowledge. Our American culture continues to suffer on these accounts as well. Slowly money has become value number one -- above knowledge, aesthetics, efficiency and even human compassion.
When I look at France I see that there is another way to order our priorities. Money does not need to be the number one issue at the top of our agenda. After all the greed that we allowed to percolate through Wall Street and the financial industries are the result of putting money ahead of everything else. The result was a few extremely wealthy people and the rest of us paying for their success. We are blamed because we wanted to be able to afford a home for our family, and they are praised for their imagination in creating new and exciting financial instruments. It only makes sense that a situation like this was bound to happen when we put money above all else. I hope that we learned our lesson.
Financially France is suffering like the rest of the world. Sales are down and people can’t afford everything that they might desire. But, I found that they are not suffering as much as we are, because they don’t place money at the top of the list. Instead they still have the love of family and friends. They are still able to share moments and build relationships. And, these things mean more to them at a cultural level than the money that they might have lost in the stock market or in the paper value of their home. In fact I witnessed a wonderful sight on my visit that proved to me that money was not the top priority -- at least for French students. I saw hundreds of students gather on the banks of the Seine a couple of hours before sunset to sit, eat and enjoy each other’s company. No one charged them to sit there. The police were not shooing them away so that the local businesses could make money off these hungry and thirsty students. The counterparts to these students in the USA are sitting around the computer or TV watching videos or playing video games -- they are working on their anti-social skills as opposed to their social skills. But, that’s what we can expect from a culture that is driven by the almighty dollar.
Don't forget what Stephen Colbert said, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias."
Cross Posted @ Bring It On, tblog, Blogger and BlogSpirit