Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My Guy Bill English Explains the Crisis of Liberalism, In a Nutshell

Gamebill gets a quote in the WSJ. And he's right, of course.

A Silver Lining in Europe; And the political lesson for America. Kaminski, Matthew. Wall Street Journal (Online) [New York, N.Y] 09 Dec 2011

European Union leaders are gathered in Brussels for yet another emergency summit, this time to consider a Franco-German plan for fiscal union. After each previous try to stop the bleeding in the past 18 months, markets saw through the palliative and drove up debt costs.

Yet the fog of crisis obscures what's already changed in Europe. A new social-political bargain has started to form. Though not advertised loudly, the solutions on offer, from Ireland to Italy, all scale back the reach and size of the state. This mental and political shift predates the Greek meltdown. The three Ds-- spiraling debt, unsustainable demographics and looming depression--just hastened the reckoning....

Step back to see a bigger picture. The European model isn't pinched by Greece but rather by two related phenomena. In a world of global competition and free trade, EU countries have failed to keep up. Taxes and regulations needed to cover generous unemployment benefits and pensions have sapped their growth and scared capital away, in turn impairing their ability to meet these costs without huge debts. As Princeton historian Harold James notes, "The redistribution game becomes a lot harder to play in an open economy."

Globalization's other byproduct, immigration, changed the look of Europe. Social safety nets were built in postwar boom years when countries were younger and more homogenous. Relatively few people drew on unemployment benefits or other help, and those who did were the familiar neighbors of those who picked up the tab and considered it their obligation. Political scientists call this "social trust." New arrivals from North Africa and Turkey changed that and put economic strains on the welfare system...

There's a lesson here for America. President Obama insists that the U.S. isn't in similar straits, and he has a point for now. Yet our public debt surpassed the euro zone's in 2008, and now touches 100% of GDP.

In a paper presented at a Witherspoon Institute conference this week, German finance ministry official Ludger Schuknecht, who previously headed fiscal policy surveillance at the ECB, notes that the U.S. increase in its size of government over the past decade was on par with those of Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Ireland and the U.K. All the others have tried to rein it in, he writes, but the U.S. "stands out as the country that seems to be quite oblivious to the need for adjustment over the near future." Americans can't say the Germans didn't warn them...

But the terms of debate have to shift here, as they did in Europe's success stories. American reformers, in the words of Harvard political scientist Bill English, need "to make the moral argument that you should spend federal monies to pay for poor children's meals and not fluff union pension schemes."

Insolvency may be a symptom of many Western democracies, but democracy isn't the problem. Voters, who aren't stupid, are as likely to reward as to punish leaders who take the necessary hard steps.

I had not thought of Angela Merkel as a "fluffer" before, but of course that's right.

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