On Americans Becoming French

Here’s the button, and sometimes you see the bumper sticker out here in left-wing Hollywood – “The only thing worse than the French is when the French are right.”  

 

Well, at the UN a few years ago, the irritatingly suave Dominique de Villepin (Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin) did – with his sly, somewhat condescending half smile – suggest that our proposed war to remove the government in Iraq might not be the best approach to the problem we had outlined, and suggested some alternatives. We would have none of that. What did a man who wrote poetry, a book about poetry, and several historical and political essays, along with a study of Napoleon, know anyway? We blustered, but as Chirac’s Foreign Minister, he gave that speech to the United Nations to block a second resolution allowing the use of force against Saddam Hussein’s regime, and that got all sorts of applause. Drat!

 

Fox News, at the time, was reporting that Colin Powel felt he had been stabbed in the back by an ally – but our somewhat thoughtful Secretary of State was too polite to say that himself. Perhaps Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch felt that way, and soon all of America felt that way. French wine was dumped in the streets, we got those Freedom Fries, Bill O’Reilly ranted – and so on and so forth. Suddenly France looked like the leader in a coalition of countries – Germany, Belgium, Russia and China – that opposed the invasion. And we had saved their butts in two World Wars! So they became those cheese-eating surrender-monkeys. Everyone remembers that.

 

All that died down – Chirac was followed by Sarkozy, who may or may not want to turn the French into Americans, and Dominique de Villepin was reduced to sniping from the sidelines (see this).

 

But it didn’t all die down. As late as two years ago there was the popular book, 50 Reasons to Hate the French (official website here and a brief review here). The French may have been right, but they shouldn’t have been right, considering the sort of people they obviously are. Ah well, defensiveness and logic are always at odds.

 

This site of course carries a great deal from Paris, as does the photography site – Ric Ericson, the editor of MetropoleParis, is a friend. And Heather Stimmler-Hall is a reader – she of Secrets of Paris and those two books. Back in the middle of all this she had a few things to say:

 

Rabidly unfair potshots at the French people (instead of at their government, which makes the decisions) make it hard for me to convince the French that some Americans are intelligent people. For example: Freedom Fries. The joke’s on the US, because fries come from Belgium, not France (French dressing, French toast and French Vanilla Coffee are three other things you will never find in France). On a sadder note, one French student I met had just returned from studying in the US, and told me how at the school she attended there was a student play that made fun of the French surrendering during WWII. She said it felt like a slap in the face. There are still many people alive in France who lost their entire families – brothers, fathers, sons, husbands. As many of the survivors of the World Trade Center disaster have said, it’s hard to get enthusiastic about any war, no matter how just, after witnessing so much death.

 

It was all mean-spirited, and kind of stupid, as she noted on her visit here:

 

A strange phenomenon I noticed is the plethora of things that are advertised as French, but aren’t really French at all: flavored coffees (the only acceptable additions to French coffee are milk, cream, sugar or chocolate), soaps in scents that the French would never use (they hate the smell of cloves, for example), and over-cutesy home décor objects described as French Country. I have to admit, the French do the same thing (giving French products an American “look” to sell them). If Americans are willing to pay through the nose for authentic French imports, and even pretend things are French in order to sell them, then they can’t possibly hate the French as much as many are led to believe, right?

 

No, it all nonsense – and we were wrong.

 

On the other hand, things are different in Europe. It looks different. Air France has a non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Paris – actually they seem to have three each day – that departs in the early evening here and lands the next day at Charles de Gaulle in the middle of the morning. Yes, you can sleep through most of that long, dull flight over nothing – a good thing. As you descend over the UK – you won’t see any of it as it always seem to be raining – you sit up and sip some coffee and see the French coast, then the countryside as you slide lower. It seems empty. Where are the sprawling suburbs and tract homes? Doesn’t anyone live here? There are roads and wonderful looking villages, but everything is in clumps – these people don’t stretch out. The place seems prosperous enough, but not… expansive. It’s not like America. Any decent into anywhere in Europe will show they same thing. Where are the homes?

 

Actually, the question is where are the miles of houses? And there is a difference that changes everything, or at least changes the landscape. Here, home ownership is a big deal – somehow you’re a not a real adult until you own your own home, with a good-sized yard, and pool if you can afford it. And as what you cannot afford is seldom where you work, you end up out in what used to be the countryside, proudly maintaining the thing, and reaping the benefits of a tax system carefully arranged to encourage everyone to get some sort of mortgage – and driving many, many miles each to get to your job. You may feel a bit harried and overextended, but this is what you’re supposed to be doing, even if you hate spending Saturday morning at Home Depot buying parts to fix this and that, and you don’t really much like the home improvement shows on television. All this drive our economy – it’s the key to our economy. Only the eccentric and the poor rent, and college kids.

 

Hanging with friends in Paris, or London, you are surprised by the number of people who rent – and feel no shame. Many are even real adults with real jobs, and families. It’s just a place to live, after all – no big deal. And there is no massive tax advantage in buying a place that you have to keep functioning – you pay others to do that for you. Home ownership in the United States runs just under seventy percent – in France it tops out at about fifty-five percent, much like the rest of Europe, and that changes the landscape. People actually live in the cities, or in those clumps of villages. They must think we’re crazy – all these people over here in deep debt, maintaining large homes and driving long distances, taking up a whole lot of space in so many different ways and eating up resources of all sorts at an alarming rate. It doesn’t seem like much fun, or good for the earth – but it is so very American.

 

But things could be changing here. We could be getting all European, given stuff like this:

 

Driven largely by the surge in foreclosures and an unsettled housing market, Americans are renting apartments and houses at the highest level since President Bush started a campaign to expand homeownership in 2002.

 

The percentage of households headed by homeowners, which soared to a record 69.1 percent in 2005, fell to 67.8 percent this year, the sharpest decline in 20 years, according to census data through the end of March. By extension, the percentage of households headed by renters increased to 32.2 percent, from 30.9 percent.

 

You didn’t know about the Bush campaign? See his 2005 State of the Union:

 

America’s economy is the fastest growing of any major industrialized nation. In the past four years, we have provided tax relief to every person who pays income taxes, overcome a recession, opened up new markets abroad, prosecuted corporate criminals, raised home ownership to the highest level in history, and in the last year alone, the United States has added 2.3 million new jobs. When action was needed, the Congress delivered – and the nation is grateful.

 

Officially there was The President’s Agenda to Expand Opportunities to Homeownership, and this is, after all, National Homeownership Month, 2008:

 

For many Americans, owning a home represents freedom, independence, and the American dream. During National Homeownership Month, we highlight the benefits of owning a home and encourage our fellow citizens to be responsible homeowners.

 

That is curious, at least as seen from this apartment house just of the Sunset Strip in Hollywood – with three units rented by French nationals working out here. According to statistics provided by Wells Fargo Bank, less than two percent of Los Angeles residents can afford purchase a home. You could look it up. Most everyone who owns a home here is massively overextended and worried sick, and that’s no way to live – ask Ed McMahon:

 

Citibank is suing Ed McMahon, seeking to recoup nearly $200,000 lent to the financially strapped Hollywood icon, court records show. Citibank filed the lawsuit against McMahon in Los Angeles Superior Court on June 9, according to the documents. The bank’s suit seeks at least $179,687 in damages as well as attorney’s fees on debt incurred within the past four years.

 

The former “Tonight Show” sidekick and “Star Search” host has faced mounting money problems since it was revealed earlier this month that he was $644,000 behind on payments on his Beverly Hills home. The lender, Countrywide Financial Corp., filed a default notice on the home in late February.

 

It’s a mess, and economists in the UK do notice, saying that encouraging seventy to eighty percent of people to become home owners is “nuts.” They do wonder about us:

 

Government targets to increase the number of home owners in the country are “ridiculous” and have contributed to the current housing market crash, according to senior economists.

 

Ian Shepherdson, chief US economist for High Frequency Economics, told the Chartered Institute of Housing annual Harrogate conference that trying to force people in to home ownership was “nuts” and left people a lot poorer than they started out.

 

Shepherdson said: “It’s hugely damaging when those who can’t afford it are pushed in to home ownership. All that happens is they store up bigger problems for themselves. There’s a limit to home ownership and to pull people in does everyone a massive disservice.”

 

Shepherdson doesn’t want the UK to go there.

 

On this side of the pond, see Matthew Yglesias:

 

I think it’s clear enough that this rise in the number of people renting their homes has, in practice, been driven by economic hardship. And hardship, obviously, is a bad thing. But at the same time, I think the habit of using the homeownership rate as a general indicator of economic progress is a bad one. There are pros and cons to owning versus renting, plus at any given time in any given market the financial imperatives may point in one way or another.

 

His thought is that, given all that, “there’s no reason for our policy and rhetoric to include a strong bias in favor of homeownership.” And he sounds almost French:

 

Renting gives people more flexibility about where they live, which is probably a good thing in a continent-sized economy where there can be a lot of localized booms and busts. What’s more, a house you own combines two elements – a consumption good element and a savings element. Renting separates that out – you rent as much house as you feel like consuming, and then you save money by buying mutual funds or whatever. When people own they tend to wind up living inside their mutual fund, which means buying a bigger house than they might have rented, which distorts energy consumption patterns and all kinds of other things.

 

And we get endless miles of tract homes in the middle of nowhere. His solution:

 

I think that over the long term we should try to shift toward policies – especially tax policies – that are more neutral between buying and renting. This can probably be accomplished by capping the home mortgage interest tax deduction at some inoffensively high number, and then not raising the cap as inflation eats it away. Lots of people would still own homes if we did that, but it would be somewhat fewer people, and they’d probably own somewhat smaller homes, and national savings could then be more focused on potentially production investments.

 

It’s just odd to think what people would do with their time were they not consumed with acquiring, and then maintaining, and then improving, and then servicing the debt on the largest house. that is, if you stretch the truth and little and get the bank to believe you, what you can afford. Maybe people would live a little – talk to each other, read a book or two, travel a bit, and sit in a café for many long hours, arguing about the larger world.

 

No, no, no – that’s just too French. It’s off to Home Depot for parts for the damned lawnmower.

 

But you never know. According to Matthew Wald in the New York Times we’ll end up riding trains:

 

Record prices for gasoline and jet fuel should be good news for Amtrak, as travelers look for alternatives to cut the cost of driving and flying.

 

And they are good news, up to a point.

 

Amtrak set records in May, both for the number of passengers it carried and for ticket revenues – all the more remarkable because May is not usually a strong travel month.

 

The problem is that we don’t do trains that well. Ride the Eurostar from Paris to London – it’s a breeze – or take the TGV from Paris to Avignon, or try a local anywhere on the continent. It sure beat flying these days, and is a thousand times less stressful than driving. Wald continues:

 

But the railroad, and its suppliers, have shrunk so much, largely because of financial constraints, that they would have difficulty growing quickly to meet the demand.

 

Many of the long-distance trains are already sold out for some days this summer. Want to take Amtrak’s daily Crescent train from New York to New Orleans? It is sold out on July 5, 6, 7 and 8. Seattle to Vancouver, British Columbia, on July 5? The train is sold out, but Amtrak will sell you a bus ticket.

 

“We’re starting to bump up against our own capacity constraints,” said R. Clifford Black, a spokesman for Amtrak.

 

The problem is that rail has shriveled. The number of “passenger miles” traveled on intercity rail has dropped by about two-thirds since 1960, and the companies that build rail cars and locomotives have also shrunk, making it hard to expand.

 

Rail isn’t going to work for us. But we do have a presidential candidate who seems to see clumpy Europe as a model. Yep, that would be Obama:

 

To seize the possibility of this moment, we need to promote strong cities as the backbone of regional growth. And yet, Washington remains trapped in an earlier era, wedded to an outdated “urban” agenda that focuses exclusively on the problems in our cities, and ignores our growing metro areas; an agenda that confuses anti-poverty policy with a metropolitan strategy, and ends up hurting both.

 

Yeah, but the votes are in the far-flung suburbs, the land of mini-vans and SUV’s. And he says that’s the problem:

 

This is putting enormous pressure on the Highway Trust Fund, which can no longer keep up with all the repairs that have to be made. Yet Senator McCain is actually proposing a gas tax gimmick that would take $3 billion a month out of the Highway Trust Fund and hand it over to the oil companies. Well, at a time when the Highway Trust Fund is beginning to run a deficit for the first time in history, I think that’s the last thing we can afford to do.

 

… But when it comes to rebuilding America’s essential but crumbling infrastructure, we need to do more, not less. Cities across the Midwest are under water right now or courting disaster not just because of the weather, but because we’ve failed to protect them. Maintaining our levees and dams isn’t pork barrel spending, it’s an urgent priority, and that’s what we’ll do when I’m President. I’ll also launch a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that will invest $60 billion over ten years, and create nearly two million new jobs. The work will be determined by what will maximize our safety, security, and shared prosperity. Instead of building bridges to nowhere, let’s build communities that meet the needs and reflect the dreams of our families. That’s what this bank will help us do.

 

… Let’s invest that money in a world-class transit system. Let’s re-commit federal dollars to strengthen mass transit and reform our tax code to give folks a reason to take the bus instead of driving to work – because investing in mass transit helps make metro areas more livable and can help our regional economies grow. And while we’re at it, we’ll partner with our mayors to invest in green energy technology and ensure that your buses and buildings are energy efficient. And we’ll also invest in our ports, roads, and high-speed rails – because I don’t want to see the fastest train in the world built halfway around the world in Shanghai, I want to see it built right here in the United States of America.

 

That’s interesting, and somehow European, with a touch of FDR. See Yglesias again:

 

I’ll be interested to see how much of a difference a somewhat different set of federal transportation policy priorities makes in practice. The Bush administration has been extremely hostile to rail transportation and not very interested in anything that’s not cars. Nevertheless, the country’s actually seen quite a lot in terms of light rail projects undertaken and cities trying to make themselves more bike friendly. It’s at least conceivable that a relatively small change in federal policy could have a pretty big impact on decision-making at the state and local level – as with education policy, the feds aren’t really the key drivers, but they sometimes have the ability to leverage big changes with relatively small sums of money.

 

And if that happens… we’ll all be French. You really should get one of those buttons.

 

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Amtrak, Economic Issues, European Values, Home Ownership, Obama, Owning versus Renting, Paris, Passenger Rail Service, Sub-Prime Crisis, The French. Bookmark the permalink.

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