Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Vive la France!!!

Those of you who have read my blog in the past, or know me, know that I have no special fondness for the French and their cultural elitism. I like French wine and French cheese but French attitudes just aren't my bag. On occasion, however, they do something that is just so totally "right on" that I have to give credit where credit is due!

There is a heated debate going on in many nations around the world regarding the balance between work and home life and what level of growth is necessary to maintain the health of a country's economy. As globalization continues to make people in various countries susceptible to the impacts of their global neighbors there is a move to place all nations on an equal playing field economically. Obviously that is good news for people in the developing world. For so long they have simply the producers of our cheap goods. Look at the example of Malaysia. For decades the southeast Asian nation has built an economy based on low cost labor. Malaysia is now working on an economic development plan, which seeks to build a high tech economy which is based on more than just cheap labor. That is huge for a nation classified as part of the "developing world." To be sure, economic strength has not been shared equally by the Malaysian people. Ethnic Chinese fare much better then ethnic Malays, but it is a step in a positive direction.

In France, students and organized labor are striking in protest of changes to labor laws, which would, among other things, make it easier to fire young workers within the first two years of employment. The CPE, as it is called by the conservative government, is an attempt at reform in the wake of poor economic performance and rioting by disenfranchised immigrant youth. These youth suffer from unemployment rates twice the national average (approximately 20%). The changes were meant to make it more attractive for employers to hire young workers. Taken on their own the changes are really rather innocuous, but considered within the greater context of the global economic climate these changes should absolutely be seen as a serious threat to the French people and their culture.

This debate in other countries is looking at the balance between work and home life. Important in this debate is how much workers should be willing to commit to their employers in order to ensure sustained and robust growth. In the United States the debate is playing out over the role of illegal immigrant labor in our strong economy. In some states, like North Dakota, the impact is likely negligible, but in California the impact of illegal labor from Latin America is not clearly quantified but believed to be great. (as seen in the satirical movie, A Day Without A Mexican)

If I am giving my opinion, which I am never shy about, I would say that the employers role in peoples lives in the United States is disgustingly over inflated. People in the United States work a ridiculous number of hours for comparatively paltry compensation. I believe they do so because, on average, American workers are slower then in other countries. The impact of this "job dedication" on our society has not been adequately studied. What effect does this have on marriage and divorce patterns? While parents are selling their souls to employers for more and more money, who is watching our children? What role does it play in youth drug use, violence, and teenage pregnancy?

Clearly the profit motive drives corporate practices. This is the sole focus of corporations from a legal perspective. A corporation could be sued by its shareholders for violating its fiduciary duty if it considers the employees or community at the expense of investors. The Majority Leader of the Hawaii House of Representatives, in an Op-Ed in the Honolulu Advertiser this week, discussed the subject of corporate social responsibility and striking a balance between fiduciary responsibility to shareholders and the responsibility that corporations have to their employees and the larger community.

I believe that there is a parallel of sorts between the struggle for more corporate social responsibility in this country and what is going on in France with loosening of labor protection statutes. The question we need to be asking through all of this is: is it better for societies to change to be more competitive and profit driven like America, or should we all change to be a bit more "liberal" like France.

The French government fears that in the new global marketplace they will not be able to compete with emerging economies in the developing world and within the European Union as Eastern European countries continue to expand economically. To a certain extent, this is a rational fear. Certainly, reform is needed. But does the needed change include rolling back the European welfare state model, which has served them all so well in the post World War II era? Obviously it is too simple to lump all European welfare states into one pile, but I will do so for the sack of simplicity. To me it is a frightening idea to contemplate that the new economic climate is one that requires more competition and less worker freedom.

That is totally unacceptable. Obviously, eventually emerging economies will rise to the level of the developed nations and benefits can be put in place to the betterment of all people. But that leaves people in developed countries with one or two generations of retrograde motion. I reject the belief that in order to make life better for people in the developing world we need to endorse economic growth that embraces industrial revolution, pre-organized labor benefit standards. That will undercut labor in developed countries. Certainly we can find a way to raise the fortunes of those in poor nations without destroying the economies and culturally ingrained social systems of the developed world.

I reject the American model of "live to work," and, to a certain extent, I concede that the European model of "work to live" needs adjustment. Some hybrid between the French and American model is favorable. Both systems are sufficiently flawed, though, to my mind, the French way is favorable. Sure, the French make less then we do. At the same time, the French work less. We are told that worker productivity is weak in France, but the economy does grow, and if they put in the hours that American workers do then I believe they would be on par with us.

In the final analysis, the French see their families and friends more then most American workers. With fatherhood impending, I think about that a lot!

So I say, today, to the people on the streets of France, on the front line of the battle for corporate social responsibility: "Vive la France!!!"