Priorities

Budget of the French Government - 2007
Source: Journal Officiel de la République Française

Budget of the United States Government - 2007
Source: US Office of Management and Budget

I have never been short of criticisms on the way certain things worked (or didn’t) in France. So I figured I would take a different slant for once.

Reading about the new French budget for next year being voted in this month, inspired me to go fetch 2007 figures for both countries…

Update: A couple comments on those graphs:

  • I purposely left out numeric figures, as they wouldn’t make much sense when comparing the budgets of two countries on a 5-to-1 population ratio (though it does makes sense to compare budget distribution).
  • However, maybe the scariest part is that, even on an absolute scale, French figures for education are higher than those of the US government: $88.3 million for France (59.5 million euros) vs. 56.5 for the United States. If one includes higher learning and research in those figures (and graciously throws in all US aeronautics), you get 119.7 for France (80.7 million euros) vs. 78.4 for the United States. That’s right, the government of a country with a population one fifth the size of the United States’ spends one and a half more on education and research.
  • This funny bit aside, it is important to reiterate that comparison of absolute figures is absolutely meaningless, particularly for one reason: due to its federal nature, the United States has a highly decentralized budget structure, while France doesn’t.
  • This is twice as true for matters of education, where the US government delegates a great share of responsibility to the state level or the private sector. Depending on your political and philosophical leanings, this is either a good thing, or a ridiculously bad one.
  • Still, it bears repeating that the US government spends on “Defense” and Homeland Security 8 times what it spends on Education.
  • Meanwhile France (and most other civilized countries in the world, for that matter) spends about twice more on raising its youth, ensuring it has a basic grasp of the local idiom and can place Iraq on a map, than designing shiny new missile guiding systems.

Priorities much?

20 comments

  1. T: well yea, “defense” has always been quite a misnomer when it came to government’s budget… And don’t get me started on “Homeland Security”… I just used original US departments names, as they appeared on the federal budget report…

  2. Yeah, does the US graph look like the budget of a democracy? It’s a very deliberate distribution since the major “defense” industries own the government. From an activism standpoint the most effective thing we do is actually basic education. Our schools are so so so depressing – the best of them are still horrible.

    My partner is leaving her social services position in a public school (she makes $10,000 a year USD) because it’s so bad. We have done workshops teaching teen activists history, geography, world politics and media orientation (so they know what to ignore) but it’s like emptying the Atlantic with a broken drinking straw.

    “Higher” education these days is just turning into cubicle trade school. There is talk of standardized testing of college students to make sure they have reading comprehension skills. It is very difficult to generate effective political opposition in a nation that isn’t uneducated – But miseducated.

    Add in to that the economic/health care situation along with the security environment and you have a failed state scenario unfolding. Any place where infants in hospital ICU’s can be taken off life support if their parents can’t pay…

    Security wise, the Staatssicherheit – oh, I mean, Homeland Security is very very efficient: At watching political activists. And if you get “detained” at a demonstration you can spend around three to five days in a for-profit jail before the government drops the sham charges against you in court. For-Profit jails and prisons are not nice places. They make profits off of jailing people and have lobbyists who influence our lawmaking… Leading to more people in jail. Very crowded. It’d be like paying your fire fighters by the fire. Not a good idea. The whole surveillance system is not really suited to catching terrorists, unless they fly in on their real passports using their real names via an online booking site, being sure to check “Muslim” as a food service preference. Then they’d probably get nabbed.

    Plus if you are “detained” at a “national security event” (political rally/convention/local shopping mall) you will NOT be able to travel freely outside the US. Even if the charges are dropped and you are technically innocent, even if you are granted exit permission – Canada and a few other nations have deals that will deny you entry…. Sending you back to Homeland Security officers who will happily detain you for being bounced by foreign customs (in one of our many for-profit holding centers). And THEY can hold you for months without charges (Our Constitution does not apply at borders…).

    In other words, I wouldn’t expect any miracles from the US next election season. The problems are far deeper than even our radically unpractical budget. *Something* will happen at some point that will tip the masses against the wealthy/ruling class/government… But it won’t be in ’08.

    Oh yeah, in the meantime I’d avoid traveling here with dyed hair, and no checked luggage. Actually, maybe just avoid here entirely.

  3. There is a sort of mitigating factor in favor of the US here, the fact that most of the education spending is done at the state level, so the education disparity is not that big.

    Defense spending though is pretty staggering, the US military spending is out of control.

  4. I’m shure things are not so easy to compare as their respectives budgets. But i think it’s more representative of the way to manage things, we are more focused on the solidarity than liberalism, it has its advantage and also it’s inconvenient.

    Even if the numbers are not exactly the right ones, the repartition is really not the same, and i find that really sad to spend more money on war than education ….

  5. I looked it up, the average US state spends about $8,000 per student in the secondary system. As I’ve said above, most of the education spending is done at the state level in the US, so the figure above is not representative of the overall public education spending in the US.

    This makes sense, because the university system in the US is much better than France’s, while the secondary school system is better in France. I would guess the overall public spending percentage of GDP is fairly similar between the two contries.

    As to the social spending in France, it inculdes very generous retirement packages and social benefits for the fonctionaires, which are a drain on the private sector and actually, an indirect but inportant source of unemployment and poverty.

    I think countries like Canada, Australia and the UK have the right balance, with good social service (free universal healthcare, cheaper university fees, decent benefits etc…) while still maintaining a liberal economy that encourages free enterprise, generating wealth and keeping unemployment low. France doens’t have that, and that is why its unemployment rate is so high relative to the rest of the industrialized world.

    The US could be so much better off if it didn’t waste so much money on useless foreign wars and invested more into its people, particularly its disadvantaged minorities.

  6. Then there is the small point, of course, that France (and Europe as a whole) is able to spend so little on defense precisely because they rely on the US to defend them. It should also be noted that many in the US consider defense to be the only legitimate constitutional function of the federal government (in terms of spending), while education and other matters should be matters for the states to handle.

    In other words, the comparison is absolutely worthless as anything more than a soapbox for sanctimonious finger-wagging. And, in the end, the US is better at pretty much everything, so a lot of good those number did for France.

  7. Sam,

    You are entirely right, and I did mention this important systemic difference (federal vs. centralized govt) in my comments above. Problem is that it is very difficult to gather representative data on spendings at the state level, since they vary wildly from one state to the next: I highly suspect Louisiana or South Dakota might not spend $8,000 per student, while California probably spends more. But in the end this is why you would want the federal government to guarantee a minimum of uniformity across states, by stepping in at some point (more than it does, at least). Of course, as I also mentioned above, this type of argument quickly devolves into a federalist vs anti-federalist debate, which was not the point of this entry.

    No matter what, we can certainly agree that, largely federally-subsidized primary/secondary school system is ludicrously under-budgeted in the US. And in a country where that’s all the education a sizable share of the population will get, it’s quite a pity.

    Also, I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “the university system in the US is much better than France’s”… For having experienced both, I would have to take exception to such bold statement. Not only France does produce a pretty large absolute number of very competent undergrad and postgrad students (keep in mind France uses a strange double-cursus involving both regular universities and “Grandes Écoles”), but it also has one of the most affordable university system in the world (for citizens)…

    As for the rest of your remarks, I think they lack a bit of economic background: while I may agree or disagree on some aspects of it, I am afraid it would take way more than this current blog to go over all the intricate details of each world’s country’s delicate balance of free-trade, social justice and tax burden.

    Really, the only point I wanted to raise, if any, was the comparison in “priorities” at the federal level and the staggering defense budget in comparison to other such things as education, social benefits etc. Basically, agreeing with your own conclusion:

    “The US could be so much better off if it didn’t waste so much money on useless foreign wars and invested more into its people, particularly its disadvantaged minorities”

    DaveS: There would be much to address in your comment, but I am afraid it just made my TrollMeter™ explode and I shall therefore leave it at that.

  8. For the people who draw attention to the state funding of education: Education funding is *mostly* funded from local property taxes. Schools get a share of the taxes levied against property within the school district. If you live in a wealthy area with big houses – your schools have all sorts of features and technology. You have computer labs, wireless networking, healthy food, lots of interesting electives and the best faculty in the US. You also tend to grow up thinking that your success in life is simply a result of working hard and being smart. If you live in a poorer area, you don’t have textbooks, you have the worst teachers, and your building is quite possibly condemned (I worked in a rural school that was partially condemned). Most of these students do not graduate, let alone go on to college. If, by some miracle, they manage to get into a college – students from poorer school districts lack college prep experience and most don’t graduate. The smart kids in poor schools cannot benefit from the social, educational and recreational advantages the wealthy students take for granted.

    School district boundaries tend to be drawn along racial and economic lines. Which means that an area with extremely wealthy and very poor people will not have a blended school district. There will be a wealthy school and a poor school. There are far more poor schools in the US than wealthy ones.

    Federal funding would go a long way to leveling the playing field so that intelligent students would have equal opportunities to succeed no matter where they grew up. Unfortunately, wealthy parents living in high value tax zones are not willing to help fund poorer districts. That would increase competition against their children as well as divert their “hard earned cash” outside of their social circles. Ballot measures trying to remedy the property tax school funding system routinely fail.

    Education just isn’t valued in the US the way it is elsewhere. The concept of “Social Solidarity” is even more remote. For all of its talk about equality for all, the US is closer to feudalism than democracy.

  9. “DaveS Says:
    Then there is the small point, of course, that France (and Europe as a whole) is able to spend so little on defense precisely because they rely on the US to defend them. ”

    I don’t think this is true anymore, DaveS. That was true during the Cold War, but not anymore.. Unless you believe that Saddam or the Taliban were an actual threat to Europe, which is a ludicrous idea. If anything, the current US foreign policy is making Europe less safe (at a huge cost to US taxpayers and indirectly, to the global economy).

    Dave, Phoinix,
    I agree that secondary school-level education in the US is quite underfunded at the federal level and that the lack of high national standards in that socially and ethnically polarized country results in glaring inequalities.

    Dave, we agree on the main premise of your original post (priorities.) As a side note though, I do believe that the US post-secondary system is far better than France’s. (I am originally from France, but attended college and grad school in California.) Here are some of the main advantages of the American system vs the French:

    -Far less elitist. The Grandes Ecoles are extremely tiny relative to the population, while the US has many very large public universities like Berkeley or Michigan that offer the highest academic standards.

    -a significantly larger proportion of the US population goes to college (and graduates) than in France. According to the link below (Chart #4), nearly three times more historically (but the gap has narrowed recently)

    -The curriculum is less narrow in the US, where students from different majors coexist on the same campus and the opportunity for cross-pollination is greater. If you go to Polytechnique, you can’t take a Sanskrit class or a seminar on Heidegger, and all the students in your dorm and your classrooms from day 1 will be engineering students. You can’t bouble major in say, English Literature and Physics in any French university, while you can in most US universities (or at least have a minor way outside of your main area of interest.)

    -Far better facilities in American universities

    -Better integration with industry, more practical curriculum.

    This being said, the US’ advantage is erroding due to the skyrocketing cost of attending US colleges, even public ones.

  10. to Dave:
    “Then there is the small point, of course, that France (and Europe as a whole) is able to spend so little on defense precisely because they rely on the US to defend them.”

    The US economic system requires a militar presence in many land and countries, not the demand of protection of the Europe.

  11. I think countries like Canada, Australia and the UK have the right balance, with good social service (free universal healthcare, cheaper university fees, decent benefits etc…) while still maintaining a liberal economy that encourages free enterprise, generating wealth and keeping unemployment low. France doens’t have that, and that is why its unemployment rate is so high relative to the rest of the industrialized world.

  12. I think countries like Canada, Australia and the UK have the right balance, with good social service (free universal healthcare, cheaper university fees, decent benefits etc…) while still maintaining a liberal economy that encourages free enterprise, generating wealth and keeping unemployment low. France doens’t have that, and that is why its unemployment rate is so high relative to the rest of the industrialized world.

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