For those of us who have been frightened by the shaky conditions of European economies, worried that the contagion will spread to our own 401 K accounts, there is a must-read oped in today’s Wall Street Journal.
The article, by Matthew Kaminski, a member of the Wall Street Journal’s economic board, offers hope for staving off disaster here in the U.S.—but only if our leaders come to their senses and stop spending more than we have before it is too late.
Europe, according to Kaminski, already has made adjustments that portend a new “social-political bargain” that is sustainable. In the midst of the crisis, however, most observers haven’t yet realized that Europe is trying to change her ways.
Naturally, as much as I love cathedrals and Brie, I am more interested in what this new social bargain will mean for the U.S. than what it means for Europe. One of the things it should mean is that our leaders will see the folly of ever-growing government supported by higher taxes. Some Europeans have come to their senses and realized that these evil twins strangle economic growth:
Taxes and regulations needed to cover generous unemployment benefits and pensions have sapped [the] growth [of European economies] and scared capital away, in turn impairing their ability to meet these costs without huge debts. …
Europe’s social safety nets, which are even cushier than ours, were created during the postwar boom years. There were more young people to work and keep the system going then. But that is no longer the case.
As Europe’s population aged and people came from elsewhere eager to avail themselves of government largesse, the financial consequences were dire. President Obama may insist that the U.S. is not on the path to a similar disaster. But the numbers tell a different story.
German finance minister Ludger Schuknecht presented a paper recently at the Witherspoon Institute that noted that U.S. increased the size of government over the last decade at a level that is par with government growth in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Ireland and the U.K.
We should be able to learn from the European response, as described by Mr. Kaminski:
Along with wage restraint, the so-called Hartz reforms improved productivity and brought a German export boom. Denmark's flexicurity restored dynamism to its labor market.
Over the past four years, Sweden, Hungary and Britain have set up independent fiscal councils to monitor spending. In 2007, France elected a president in Nicolas Sarkozy who promised "rupture" with dirigiste stagnation. He had less success than the Germans.
That's why France has now ceded the leadership of Europe to Berlin, which wants to put the southerners on the German reform regimen. "We'll find out if Europe is bad enough to fix yet," says Jerry Jordan, former head of the Cleveland Federal Reserve, paraphrasing a line once used about Argentina.
Schuknecht said at the Witherspoon Institute that the U.S. "stands out as the country that seems to be quite oblivious to the need for adjustment over the near future."
I disagree with that last point. Whether to keep spending or reform will be at the heart of the 2012 presidential campaign, and we’ve already seen how strongly both sides–the spenders and reformers–feel. The debt ceiling crisis and the super committee’s failure to reach an agreement are harbingers of the coming debate.
On the issue of taxes, many of us realize that President Obama sees higher taxes as having a moral value (so do I–but on the other side). If he just wanted revenue, he could do this instead of raising taxes.