America’s New Normal Is France’s Old Normal

Published September 14, 2017

National Review Online

EDITOR’S NOTE: In a series of columns, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a Paris-based conservative and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, will write on an alarming trend, which he calls the Francification of America.

France and America are countries linked at birth. Each has always seen in the other a funhouse-mirror version of itself, and they have used each other to try to understand themselves. Writers such as Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century and Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber in the 20th wanted France to be more like America; today, Gobry argues, America is turning into France, and in the wrong ways.

Welcome to the New Normal. Here in Paris, we know it as the Old Normal.

The phrase “the new normal” has become something of a cliché. It originated in financial circles in the wake of the 2008 crisis, with analysts who presciently suggested that the new, extraordinary interest-rate policies of the world’s major central banks would become ordinary. But it quickly grew to encompass a view of the entire economy: slow growth, mass unemployment, low productivity, stagnation. In America, these things are exceptional; the American economy sometimes stumbles, but always comes roaring back. Is this time different?

For France, this new normal is also the old normal. Alone among Western economies, the French economy never really recovered from the 1970s energy crisis, which tipped it away from its long post-war boom, now nostalgically referred to as the Thirty Glorious Years, into mass unemployment, deficits, and low growth.

Those things are calamities not only on their own, but because of the sociopolitical realities that go along with them: an increase in various social pathologies among those hit by long-term unemployment, social stratification, and a profound, widespread sense of malaise. The upshot is that many French people have long sought someone, anyone, to Make France Great Again.

Every politico snorted at Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. After all, to say that you want to “Make America Great Again” is to admit that you think America is not still great, a cardinal sin. But Trump proved the pundits wrong: The slogan turned out to be a piece of genius political communication, because it captured the belief of a large swath of voters.

America, it seems, has French disease. Oh, the statistics look good on their face. After all, it is true that America has recovered economically from the long slog of the Great Recession much better than other countries. Last quarter, GDP grew at a very impressive annualized rate of 3 percent. The unemployment rate is 4.3 percent, lower than that of every other major economy except Germany.

But as many observers have noted, and as countless American voters can attest, these rosy figures mask another, darker reality. The American labor-force-participation rate was 62.9 percent for August, the last month for which data are available. For the last five years, it has been stuck at levels not seen since the Carter administration. Many Americans have left the labor force not because they decided to stop looking for work, but because they couldn’t find any. These people now have to exist in a demimonde of informal work, welfare, and other handouts such as SSDI, without the dignity and security of work. And even on their face the unemployment numbers don’t tell such a rosy picture: The unemployment rate is 2.7 percent for those with a college degree, but 5.2 percent for those with only a high-school education, showing the bifurcation of the American workforce into the more-skilled and the less-skilled.

If Donald Trump’s victory showed something, it is that a general and widespread loss of confidence in America and its future has taken hold of voters. In the Carter Era, the same palpable “malaise” turned out to be just a blip for America, leading to a dramatic political realignment and significant economic reform and geopolitical success under Ronald Reagan. France, meanwhile, never recovered, and is stuck in the same rut today as it was 30 years ago. Now the new American normal is the old French normal. And that’s not good.

— Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a Paris-based writer and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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