No, the French aren’t gaining on us

In a January 14th New York Times op-ed, Nicholas Kristof ridiculed the GOP presidential candidates for accusing President Obama of trying to turn America into a European-style welfare state. He berated them not because he thinks they’re wrong about President Obama’s intentions, but rather because he thinks that a European-style welfare state would not be an altogether bad idea.

According to Kristof, Europe has been gaining on, and in some respects even overtaking, the United States in many key areas. He doesn’t go so far as to deny that Europe is mired in a financial crisis, but using France as his example, he cites health care costs, vacation time, longevity, and GPD growth as areas in which Europe is outperforming the U.S.

“It’s absurd to dismiss Europe,” he insists. “[A]ccording to figures from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, per-capita G.N.P. in France was 64 percent of the American figure in 1960. That rose to 73 percent by 2010. Zut alors! The socialists gained on us!”

Kristof’s analysis may sound convincing, but it’s flawed. In fact, as the graph below illustrates, the French have not been gaining on us at all in recent years. France’s per-capita GDP as a percentage of U.S. per-capita GDP has been steadily falling since 1983, when it topped out at a mere 81% of ours. By picking two specific points on the graph (1960 & 2010), Kristof gives readers a distorted picture of events.

Kristof’s analysis is absurd and perhaps even deliberately deceitful. It’s akin to taking Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter’s adjusted on-base percentage plus slugging percentage (OPS) for 1996 and 2009 (see graph below) and then concluding that he’s gradually becoming a better player and should be able to start for the Yankees for at least another 15 years.

France did gain on the U.S. economically between 1960 and 1983, as it rebounded from the devastation of World War II, though for much of that period it was governed by relatively conservative governments (the French Socialist Party didn’t come to power until 1981). For the past three decades, the French economy has consistently lagged our own.

France has paid a heavy price for its embrace of statist policies. I suspect the typical French worker, if asked whether he would like to remain in his cosseted workplace or have an economy with more jobs and a salary 30 percent higher, would leap at the chance to jettison the 35-hour week and byzantine labor regulations that ostensibly protect him.

The policies that Kristof praises as the fruits of France’s economic growth are in fact unsustainable, precisely because of the slower economic growth they have engendered. While it may be unrealistic to hope for Kristof to acknowledge this reality, for him to pretend that economic growth has not been impacted by the high-tax, interventionist state amounts to reportorial malpractice.

Joseph Chrisman is a researcher at the American Action Forum.