Sunday, May 29, 2011

Living it up at the Ritz in Paris -- Why socialism doesn’t work

I was invited by President of France and current President of the G-8, Nicolas Sarkozy to come to Paris to advise him on the Internet before he went on to lead the G-8 session in Deauville. It turned out that he had invited 1500 other people to this “eG8,” but I felt very special at the time. When my wife heard the word “Paris,” I soon realized that this was going to be a romantic splurge and we blocked out a week at the Ritz before I put the letter down.

We flew AirFrance Business Class (incidentally, there is no First Class on AirFrance), and our bags marked “Priority” in the USA came out on to the carousel in France after about 45 minutes, which was after most of the bags with no “Priority” marking. The driver said that was typical.

When we arrived at the Ritz, jet-lagged and ready for showers, two porters aggressively took our bags, saying, “Ah, monsieur and mademoiselle, we will take care of these for you.” “Thank you,” we answered leaving them to check in. We were handed a sort of an odd shaped electronic key (which worked some of the time), and a very nice woman showed us to our room. The room was beautiful, although a little worse for wear. Before she left, I asked where our bags were, and she replied, “They will be up here soon, monsieur.” After about a half hour, we started getting concerned. We didn’t want to take showers, because we had nothing to change into. So I called down to the lobby, and asked politely about our bags. “Of course, they will be right up monsieur,” was the response I got. A fter another 15 minutes, I called down again with a little more edge to my voice. The same person responded, “Yes, they are on their way up now, monsieur.” Another 5 minutes, and I called again, now enraged. “I will check on them, monsieur.” Two minutes later a young bag carrier, different from the two men that took our bags originally, came up winded with big apologies and with our bags. Apparently, the bag receivers were different from the bag deliverers and the two had had a communications issue. But each had a specific job, which they had done according to the job description.

With great relief, we took our showers, and got ready for a delightful walk to a nearby brasserie. At the brasserie, we ordered a couple of delicious looking macaroons and some hot chocolate from the nice girl at the counter. She asked, “Would you like to sit down?” I said, “That would be great.” So she said, “Well, in that case, you will have to order from the waiter off the menu.” She then handed us a piece of paper with some writing on it. We went in, sat down, and had some delicious cut vegetables and bread, and also, once we figured out that we needed to give the waiter the paper, got some hot chocolate and some macaroons. Apparently, the girl at the counter could not sell hot chocolate and macaroons to us if we were going to be sitting down. That was the waiter’s job.

At the “eG-8,” I entered a large tent (a structure made specifically for this event). There were 1500 people gathered under the tent, and it was very hot and very stuffy in there even though outside the day was cool and comfortable. But we all suffered through it since we were all so honored, and now more curious as to why we were invited to this event. President Sarkozy, with sweat dripping from his very red face gave us a long speech that started out telling us that he understood that we all wanted the Internet to be free and that a free internet was good for the global economy, but then he went a little sour with me saying that he needed to know from us how he best could regulate the internet for privacy, cyber terrorism, intellectual property protection and the like. (I notice that under the cover of words like “national security” and “protection from terrorism” a lot of government entities find ways to control and regulate us.) Then it got worse. He said that after he figured out how we would recommend that he control the internet in France, he would bring his plans to the G-8 and discuss how they would all work together to control the internet. And after that, rising to a crescendo, he said, “We hope to take this to the G-20 and ultimately to the UN General Assembly!” I hope the other leaders are smart enough to dodge this bullet.

Well, maybe it was the heat, but I was starting to chafe. I was stuck in the third row, middle (a place of honor with “priority” written on the seat), and I couldn’t get out. And it was getting really hot and stuffy in there. It felt like the tent was short on oxygen. I thought of the prisoners that were put in those heat boxes in World War I. I took off my jacket to reveal my drenched and darkened shirt, and the very nice person to the left of me who ran marketing for Chanel (and would never take off his jacket in this setting) looked at me with great tolerance, knowing that his own heat experience just got a little smellier. Eventually, I found an opportunity to get to the aisle, where I reached a woman who worked for the conference, and asked her if there was anything she could do about the heat. “I don’t know,” she responded looking around as if there was nothing she could do. “Can you let someone know?” I asked. She shrugged as if to say, “I am only here to guide you to your chairs. Someone else is in charge of temperature control, and I don’t want to tread on their turf.” So, I went over and opened a few doors to the outside, and the room, at least the micro climate near the door, cooled off a little.

Then there was a break, and the group escaped to the outside where the day was gorgeous and pleasant, and I was thrilled to get a chance to meet some of the rest of the group. If this was not going to be a one-on-one with President Sarkozy, it would be a great networking event (and by the way, it was! But that is a different story.)I went to get a glass of water from a bartender standing behind a spectacular spread of delicious French food. He was busy pouring coffee, so I reached for the water to do it myself. “Ah NO Monsieur, that is MY job,” he shouted and gave me a look as though I had put a greasy hand on the Mona Lisa. So I dutifully waited until he finished pouring the coffee and then he poured me a half glass of water.

After the event, my wife and I were outside the Ritz asking about a taxi to take us to the restaurant that we loved so much when we were in Paris 15 years ago, Taillevent. The valet explained that it would be another 15 minutes because the taxi would need to be called, even though we could see that there were taxis with no passengers flying by all the time. The taxi caller would of course be upset if the taxi would be hailed by anyone but him. I actually tried to flag down a taxi, to no avail, as drivers seemed to accelerate by me as I tried.
Our dinner at this very expensive restaurant was again delicious. But there was something different about the waiters. 15 years ago, we sat at a table in the middle of the room, and the waiters seemed to come out of nowhere. When I had spilled my soup, I remembered that within 90 seconds, we had an entirely new meal in front of us on a new white tablecloth. It was like magic. This time, the waiters wandered around in the middle of the room while all the tables faced in toward them. It was clearly an easier job for them, but a little distracting for us as we tried to make goo goo eyes at each other. There was the wine waiter, and the dinner waiter and the dessert waiter and one waiter who didn’t seem to do anything but shuffle back and forth. We had a delicious dinner and dessert that went down like butter, and then we asked for the bill. Well it turned out that one waiter delivered us the bill, and I offered him my credit card. He walked away embarrassedly, and eventually the waiter whose job it was to accept the credit card came out to take back my credit card. Then the waiter that called taxis came out and asked us if we needed a taxi.
Don’t get me wrong. We loved Paris. We met some wonderful people. We ate like kings. We saw Versailles. I even came to a conclusion on why France would rather have preservation than progress. It actually makes sense that France is a Socialist country. France is a work of art, not to be disturbed by progress.

Here is my theory. City planner, Baron Georges-Eugene, in the mid 1850s built a masterpiece. An “entrepreneur” (a French word, by the way) would look at Paris and decide that all he could do is screw it up. It must be disheartening for some. But if you are French, you might look at it this way:
Your great grandfathers built the most beautiful city in the world. Enjoy it. It cannot be made more beautiful, so enjoy it. Yes, it could be more convenient, it could be more efficient, it could be more of a lot of things, but it could not be made more beautiful. And it is done. The artists’ signatures are on it. You could not build it or anything like it today. Adding to it would destroy it. So live well, revel in the past when your great grandfather was the king of the world. C’est la vie.

The French say a lot about “culture.” What they really mean is, “We live in this work of art. Don’t touch it.” The unionism is strong and it makes them feel better about living in a work of art, where no one makes any significant change, where people just do their job as a part of that work of art, and no one is allowed to be treated any differently from anyone else.
So now, I am heading back home on AirFrance, and there is a fairly large shard of glass in my shrimp cocktail. The nice stewardess says, “I am so sorry Monsieur. So awful.” She seemed really confounded. I think she wondered why no one had the job of watching-out-for-glass-in-the-shrimp-cocktail.

I have had the most delicious meals of my life (maybe all the entrepreneurial spirit has been channeled into that awesome crepe Suzette), and taken in the most gorgeous sites that all seem to be staged as part of a living painting, but I know I have to wake up soon.

It is with mixed feelings that I head back to the rest of the world, where no city is so beautiful that it can’t be improved upon.

Viva la entrepreneur!
And for those of you who still don’t get why socialism doesn’t work, it is because under socialism (or unionism), everyone does their job and no more, they have no incentive to do more (in fact there is a disincentive in most unions), and even if everyone does their job well, not all jobs will cover every eventuality, and you might eat some glass with your shrimp cocktail.

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