Riots in France a Symptom of Declining Western Wealth

The French nation was hobbled by strikes, rolling strikes, street violence and other protests. It sprung from the proposal of French Pres. Sarkozy to raise the minimum retirement age to 62, by 2018 — or so the newspapers tell us. Let’s think about it, though.

As a long-time follower of the world oil industry, I was immediately struck by how one key target of the rioters and protesters was France’s petroleum distribution system. Clearly, the protesters understand the ideas of the 19th Century military theorist Karl von Clausewitz, who advanced the concept of finding the opponent’s “center of gravity,” and then bringing force to bear on that point.

The protesters were going for the jugular of modern societies, which is the energy supply. In France this week, over 3,000 — out of 13,000 — gas stations ran out of fuel after panic-buying by motorists. Also, eleven out of France’s 12 oil refineries remain on strike. Add to this that “flying pickets” are moving around, blocking fuel distribution depots. Thus has lack of fuel shut down major sectors of the French economy.

Indeed, the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris — a key transportation hub for the world, and not just France — suffered from a severe shortage of fuel for arriving aircraft. French authorities advised air carriers to land with enough fuel to take off, and fly somewhere else to gas up.

Pres. Sarkozy sent riot police to confront the blockades of refineries and fuel terminals. He knows that his response to the energy-based tactics of the opposition will make or break his political power. The jury is still out, but my hunch is not to bet against the power of the French state on this one.

What’s the Real Issue?

On the surface, the French rioting seemed like a political squabble over a high-visibility social entitlement. Considering the passion of the protesters, it’s like the current retirement age in France — 60 years — is some sort of sacred number. The protesters make it sound like Pres. Sarkozy wants to destroy a deep-rooted individual right that dates back to time immemorial of which, to use an old phrase, “the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.”

But the age-60 retirement number is not exactly some icon of bloody struggle, hewn out of the rock of revolution and war. No, the age-60 retirement eligibility dates only back to 1983 when the Socialist Party, under then-president François Mitterrand, reduced the former age of retirement from 65.

That is, the age-reduction for retirement was just a vote-buying political move during a time of relative peace and prosperity in France. Which gets us closer to identifying the real core issue behind the social unrest in France. It’s a lesson for all of us, in fact.

Times Have Changed — An Earthquake Across History

Neither France, nor the Western world generally, is living in a time of relative prosperity. Not anymore. Maybe not ever again.

Things have changed in this world, probably forever. The economic rise of China has caused an earthquake across history. That, coupled with the self-inflicted collapse of much of the Western way of running capital markets and managing economic growth over the long haul.

In just the past 15 years or so, China has evolved into a nation of immense demand. China has become the key player in a world of fierce resource competition. Look around. Things like energy, minerals, water and food are scarce, and getting scarcer. China is driving a long-term bull market in resources of every sort, from oil to iron, copper to cotton, cement to soybeans.

No “Value” in Value-Creation

On the other side of the coin, China is a land of mind-boggling, low-cost productivity. In almost every industrial arena and sector, the overall competition from Chinese firms has driven costs for many things. How low? Well, often down to right around the intrinsic value of the inputs — the plastic, the copper, the steel. As for the labor input? It’s not too much to say that Chinese competition has removed much of the “value” from value-creation.

Indeed, one of the major global economic issues today is that when Western businesses go head-to-head against Chinese competition, in almost any industry, nobody makes much money anymore.

So if this is the world in which we live, how can France remain a wealthy country? How can the West retain its status and historical standards of living? Tough questions, eh? But well worth asking.

What Can Nations Afford?

It takes us back to those French retirement riots. In France — and in the U.S. as well — government has promised far more than it’ll ever be able to deliver.

Retire at age 60? Who can afford that? Who’ll pick up that bill? Where’s the money? The government will collect taxes from who, exactly?

Really, when it comes to the French riots, it’s NOT just that the age-60 retirement idea lacks any sort of serious historical pedigree. Not at all. The problem is that the days of an entire nation retiring early are over.

Age-60 retirement is an idea that’s ridiculous and unsustainable in a world of Peak Oil — and Peak “Everything Else,” for that matter. We in the U.S. — and Canada, U.K, Australia, and so many other places across the world — need to take heed.

Until we meet again,
Byron King
Whiskey & Gunpowder

November 15, 2010

The Daily Reckoning