Bryan Caplan  

New Reflections on the Evolution in France

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All That Glitters Is Not Gold:... Can regulations stop terrorism...
I just returned from a month in France.  I stand by everything I said during my last visit in 2008, but have plenty to add:

1. The biggest change is the ubiquitous police and military presence.  Teams of militarized police and policified military patrol every tourist site and every public function, plus numerous random locations.  It wasn't just Paris; even small cities like Bayeaux were on guard.  I've never seen anything like this in the United States, even on September 12, 2001.

2. France's massive effort still looks like security theater to me.  None of the major terrorist attacks of recent years targeted high-profile locations, and endless unguarded targets remain.  Any fanatic who can drive could kill dozens of people with ease.  So why isn't it happening every day?  Because suicidal fundamentalists are thankfully very very rare. 

3. The behavioral economics of crime inspires some lingering doubt.  If ordinary people can be fooled by security theater, could would-be terrorists be fooled as well?  But given recent high-profile vehicular attacks, I can't take my lingering doubt seriously.  Terrorists may be dumb, but they're not that dumb.

4. This visit, I noticed many more biracial French families - about 90% of them black-white pairings.  This wasn't just Paris; I saw the same pattern even in small towns in Normandy and Brittany.  Overall, French blacks seem markedly more assimilated than American blacks.  If they had a distinctive accent, I couldn't detect it.

5. On my earlier visits to France, their grocery stores seemed to have markedly higher-quality food than in the U.S.  At least in the D.C. area, however, I'd say that France has actually fallen behind the U.S.  During an entire month in France, we never found bread better than what my neighborhood Wegmans sells every day.  Quality pastries and cheese are definitely cheaper in France (though even that partly reflected the strong U.S. dollar), but the best U.S. grocery chains have leapfrogged over their French counterparts.

6. What I'd call France's "convenience gap" doesn't seem to have narrowed at all.  You don't have to look any further than a French hotel bathroom.  Most showers lack soapdishes.  Half of the toilets have seats so flimsy they wobble or fall off.  The median amount of counter space is under one square foot.  So many minor annoyances could be fixed for a few Euros, but they haven't been fixed. 

7. I spent fifteen days teaching high school students at the John Locke Institute's Summer School.  The students - most from British boarding schools - were brilliant and enthusiastic.  Many of the students from British boarding schools were not actually British, but even the Nigerians, Spaniards, and Romanians seemed fully Anglified.  The biggest surprise: The students accepted one-on-one face-to-face essay feedback with good humor.  If they were American, I think many would have been on the verge of tears.  In strange contrast, the British students were visibly nervous during their mock interviews.  Weird. 

8. I taught at two separate sessions of the summer school on a wide range of topics, including open borders.  The first group of students seemed to take cultural objections very seriously.  The second group barely mentioned culture; their most common objections revolved around brain drain.  Random variation?  Group dynamics?

9. I also lectured on my case against education.  As usual with lay audiences, almost no one questioned the descriptive accuracy of the signaling model of education.  Instead, students' modal objection was distributional: Whatever the efficiency gains of budget cuts and vocationalism, the poor would lose out.

10. I met an American student whose family probably survived World War II thanks to heroic Japanese non-conformist Chuine Sugihara.  If you don't know Sugihara's story, you should.


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COMMENTS (17 to date)
GlennC writes:

What is meant by "the signaling model of education"? I believe you homeschool/unschool, right? I've read about other American families who have spent extended periods in France while continuing to homeschool their children. After the initial curiosity (read: "That's weird. How do your kids learn?") from the locals, like most people, the families' French neighbors just cared about whether they were friendly and they had a great time. Did you have any deeper conversations with French people about education? If so, did you change any minds (as far as you could tell)?

Greg writes:

TL;DR on Chuine Sugihara: http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=144

drobviousso writes:

>If ordinary people can be fooled by security theater, could would-be terrorists be fooled as well?

No, I don't think so. I think that (successful) terrorists operate with input from planners with "the security mindset" as laid out in the following link.

https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2008/03/the_security_mi_1.html

If 1% of the population thinks this way, 99% of the good guys will be fooled and 0% of the bad guys with access to 1 security mindset planner will be.

Matthew Moore writes:

"The biggest surprise: The students accepted one-on-one face-to-face essay feedback with good humor. If they were American, I think many would have been on the verge of tears. In strange contrast, the British students were visibly nervous during their mock interviews. Weird."

Three hypotheses here (I conducted first year undergrad micro tutorials in Oxford, and I had a few American students in that time)

1. Accepting essay criticism requires humility, whereas succeeding in interviews requires confidence / arrogance / self-aggrandizement. So we would expect performance in these areas to have a negative correlation, controlling for ability.

2. Relatedly, the British model of essay writing is very much "on the one hand, on the other hand, make up your own mind". Many boarding schools insist students support in debate the perspective they personally disagree with. So they aren't psychologically committed to the argument they are making. In contrast, the American high school model, in my experience is more like "objections exist, but they are wrong, and I will persuade you". Depending on the nature of the feedback you were giving, this may not apply.

3. Philosophical pursuits (like debate) remain better regarded among the upper-middle and upper classes in the UK. Commercial skills (like interviewing) are undervalued, due to the legacy of wealth-signalling via non-practical studies.

JayT writes:

While I agree with the point you are making in #2 (in fact I thought pretty much the same thing when I spent a week in Southern France this last June), I do think you have your facts a bit wrong when you say "None of the major terrorist attacks of recent years targeted high-profile locations". The Bastille Day Nice attack last year was absolutely a high-profile location, and the November 2015 Paris attack started at a stadium that had something like 70,000 people in it.

JSD writes:

As a Frenchman who just completed a trip in the US, I disagree with #5 (out of more than chauvinism). Although I dont know DC, the food was unsurprisingly of much lower quality in the Dakotas Wyoming and Montana than in France (except for some. In California (LA and a fortiori SF) the food was much better, and on par with French food for a similar price (maybe a bit more expensive due the american tipping policy) in restaurants, better but very, very expensive at wholefoods, and not as good in most other places holding price constant (though of course, being foreigners, we may not have picked optimal restaurants/groceries).

I think the difference in food quality is most apparent in low key, normal restaurants: you can get a cheap, more than ok standard brasserie dish in any cafe de la gare, which I dont think has an equivalent kind of place.

By the way, I have been spending my holidays between Dinan and Saint Malo ever since I was born. I saw on twitter you went over there: hope you enjoyed !

G writes:

I assume you meant to say Bayeux (a small but highly touristic town). The military forces are only in highly visible place where tourists are likely to see them, if you aren't close to one of the main attraction you won't see any extra police presence.

A number of attacks have also been directed at police forces directly (the last one on the 9th against a military patrols): semi-high profile targets.

Food quality: grocery chains are not the place where you go for high quality bread in France. There is a lot of development in alternative shorter circuits for food distribution. A number of farmer cooperatives and collectives have started distributing their products directly to consumer, a few have started to open small stores across the country.

Kurt Schuler writes:

You saw so many police and military because partly open borders have allowed in a number of people who want to kill Frenchmen. Imagine what would happen with the fully open borders that you advocate.

Mark writes:

On 1 - 3:

I'm fairly certain you're being overly dismissive of the effect of broader policing. Morbid as the topic is, if you think about it for a minute, you'd realize that killing a lot of people with a vehicle is actually not as easy as it may seem. Just mounting the sidewalk is a recipe for failure, because you'd likely just hit a pole or a building before a person; and, unlike in movies, in real life most people don't subscribe to the 'Prometheus school of running away from things' and will jump out of the way fairly easily to avoid getting hit.

For a good chance of success and a significant body count, they probably need to target a town square or plaza. Even most major cities in Europe only have a few of these; it also has to be one that isn't surrounded by those big waist-high barriers; and it needs to be accessible from the street very close to where the people crowd. If you have to mount the curb 100 meters away and creep along the sidewalk to get to the targeted crowd, people will notice what you're up to and run away, spoiling the attack. So in fact, a "successful" terrorist attack would likely depend on picking a rather specific, optimal location and time; and there may only be a few "good" locations in the city, few enough that they could all be well-policed.

Lastly, even if the police presence doesn't prevent the attack, that doesn't mean they were ineffective. Just forcing a terrorist to target the second or third biggest square/plaza instead of the biggest might save dozens of lives; forcing them to do a sidewalk attack instead of a plaza attack could mean the difference between a Nice attack (86 dead) and an Ohio State attack (0 dead, excluding the attacker).

jseliger writes:

I want to see more and longer Caplanian travel observations.

BC writes:

"Instead, students' modal objection was distributional: Whatever the efficiency gains of budget cuts and vocationalism, the poor would lose out."

One cheaper way to allow bright talented poor students to signal would be to allow school choice and charter schools without concerns about "cherry picking". When we award college financial aid, we are already "cherry picking" bright poor students over not-so-bright poor students. Why wait until college? Allow bright poor students to test into selective K-12 schools to signal their intelligence, propensity to work, conformity, etc. Then, they would be attractive to employers, who might even pay for their college education in exchange for a work commitment if there were any human capital to gain.

Todd Kreider writes:

Bryan has demonstrated over the years that he is definitely not a tech guy, but I'm surprised that the French going from no smartphones and ipads to about 85% of the population having them didn't make the top 10.

toby writes:
During an entire month in France, we never found bread better than what my neighborhood Wegmans sells every day. Quality pastries and cheese are definitely cheaper in France (though even that partly reflected the strong U.S. dollar), but the best U.S. grocery chains have leapfrogged over their French counterparts.

I think that this is more of a difference in taste than a difference in quality. I've visited the US recently and I didn't find the bread I like which I can easily find in practically any French bakery. And I doubt, given what I can see on the website, I'd be able to find it there.

JayT writes:

Toby, I don't think that is quite a fair comparison. You're talking about a specific type of bread, I believe Bryan is talking about comparable breads. When I was in France recently I was very impressed with the Lyonnaise style bread because it was very tasty and it was something I hadn't had before. The baguettes though, I thought were fairly standard and no better than what I get in local San Francisco bakeries. I suspect that is more what Bryan was getting at.

toby writes:

JayT,

there are different kind of baguettes and breads. The typical French baguettes are, as far as I am aware, better in France than that they are in the US. I haven't encountered them in the US. Although, I'll immediately admit that I've never been to SF and that I can be rather picky about bread.

Now I don't want to come off as a snobby European, but could it be that there appears to be no difference between the breads you get in SF and the breads in Fr be due to that you're not used to eating Fr bread and therefore can't tell the difference?

I remember a time when I first started drinking wine that I couldn't tell the difference between a good and a bad wine. Alcohol was new to me. Only later did I notice the difference and wines that were drinkable before tasted awful afterwards. Same with beers. This, I think, is a common experience. Perhaps it also applies to bread? I know it does to coffee.

JayT writes:

Toby,
I am a gourmand. I travel primarily to taste the food and drink in other countries. I've had different kinds of breads all across the world. The baguettes I had in Lyon, Nice, and Cannes were all good, but none of them stood out as something special.

I was only there for a week, so perhaps I just managed to go to mediocre bakeries, but I doubt that is the case, as even the baguettes I had at high quality restaurants, like Paul Bocuse, were not particularly impressive to me.

toby writes:

JayT, I stand corrected then! My experience is different from yours. But I am happy to discover whether there is better bread in the US.

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