As European Leftists are starting to slide to the right, the American ones are moving further left. From the Wall Street Opinion Journal:
In Europe, reforms are in vogue. Though many special interests are fiercely resisting change, it is striking to see just how many European Social Democrats have come to recognize the need for structural reforms to welfare states.
Witness Gerhard Schröder, the center-left former chancellor of Germany: in 2003, he called for a “change of mentality” in his own party, the SPD, as well as in German society as a whole. “Much will have to be changed to keep our welfare and social security at least at its current level,” he added, as he argued in favor of reforms that would trim entitlements, and cut taxes. The chairman of the SPD, Franz Müntefering, supported Mr. Schroeder by saying that “we believe that things must be rearranged and restarted in Germany in this decade.” Not long thereafter, Mr., Schroeder took the lead in making German labor laws more flexible.
In France, Socialist former prime minister Lionel Jospin shocked the left several years ago: When asked on TV what he was going to do to help laid-off factory workers beyond the public assistance already on the books, he said that “the state cannot do everything.” It was not so much the truth of the statement that came as a shock; it was that a leader of the French left would say it so candidly. Throughout his tenure, Mr. Jospin privatized numerous state-owned companies, including Air France, even as he criticized capitalism.
Labour former British prime minister Tony Blair became famous for his “Third Way” philosophy, which he said moved “beyond an old left preoccupied by state control, high taxation and producer interests.”
And in Italy, on July 20, center-left prime minister Romano Prodi announced a deal raising the retirement age to 61 from 57. Though the deal was a somewhat watered-down version of the pension reform plan originally passed by his center-right predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi, it shows that the Italian left is aware that structural reforms are urgently needed.
In many countries the left has been willing to discard or, at the very least, publicly reconsider old big-government approaches in order to reinvigorate economic growth and general prosperity.
In the United States, by contrast, those most committed to the welfare state tend to talk about trimming entitlements the least. This is particularly true of politicians aspiring to the highest office of the land.
Yet the statistics–affirmed by center-left and center-right experts alike–are unequivocal. The United States is facing a tremendous fiscal shortfall in the decades ahead. In addition to Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid will have to be dealt with. The total entitlement shortfall is expected to surpass $50 trillion, and there are no politically easy solutions.
Under reasonable calculations of higher spending, according to the Congressional Budget Office, Federal spending as a percentage of gross domestic product will rise to 35% in 2050 from about 20% today to pay for the additional entitlement spending. But that is excluding state and local spending, which takes up about 11% of GDP.
Thus, under a reasonable scenario, by 2050, the federal, state and local governments in the U.S. will spend 46% of GDP, not that far from what France spends today (54%).
To avoid getting there, benefits for entitlement recipients may have to be trimmed, contributions of wealthy retirees to certain programs may have to rise, private Social Security accounts could be permitted, and benefits may have to be dependent on one’s income or total assets. There are many possible pieces of a comprehensive solution, yet they are not being discussed in political circles.
Europeans are starting to realize that the upwards spiraling cost of entitlements is threatening to eventually make everyone dependent. Not only will this stifle the economy, it will hurt even those most in need of these government entitlements. But are leftard American politicians looking ahead and seeing the danger? No! In seeking popularity with easy sounding solutions they propose that which will bring them votes while destroying the very economy that is expected to pay for those entitlements.
Far from tackling the looming fiscal crisis, presidential candidates are busy marketing expensive new plans to voters. The health-care plan of John Edwards would “cost the federal government some $120 billion a year,” $1.2 trillion over a 10-year period, for the foreseeable future. And that’s not including $15 billion a year in proposed antipoverty measures. No word on how the existing entitlement shortfall will be dealt with.
Similarly, Sen. Barack Obama’s health-care proposals would cost “$65 billion a year,” roughly $650 billion over a 10-year period, “though other health experts think it would be higher.” No credible word yet on how the existing entitlement shortfall can be managed.
There is another problem: Estimates of new entitlement programs inevitably understate the actual cost, either for political reasons (to ease passage) or out of innocent miscalculations, as happened with Medicare. In 1966, its first year of existence, Medicare cost $3 billion a year: the House Ways and Means Committee predicted it would cost $12 billion in 1990, taking inflation into account. But instead of costing $12 billion in 1990, Medicare cost $107 billion. And it is set to cost $488 billion in fiscal 2008.
Or consider the new prescription drug benefit for seniors, estimated to cost about roughly $1 trillion from 2007 to 2016: the costs of that program are set to rise significantly thereafter as more baby-boomers retire. Originally, the White House estimated the plan to cost $400 billion over a 10-year period; it ended up costing substantially more.
While proposals for new entitlements may be politically easy, they are fiscally reckless. Candidates who promise expansive new entitlement spending are effectively writing checks the American economy cannot cash. They will take us to the place where Europe is today: a place where existing entitlements are unaffordable. Yet what matters is not so much the specific measures being considered, but the broader mindset from which they originate. It is in this context that comparing the European political mindset to the American political mindset is useful.
In 2005, the liberal Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby criticized the opposition of many Democrats to the possibility of investing in private Social Security accounts by saying that “a party that refuses to acknowledge the urgency of entitlement reform is a party of ostriches.” He’s right–and the label applies to many leaders in both parties.
Presidential candidates ought to learn from Europe’s lessons. Even if it is politically painful, we should not race to the place that Europe is trying to get away from.
Popular sounding plans may garner votes, but those very same voters will be the most affected when the economy is plunged into another depression like we had in the late 20s. Ideally the government would help everyone, in real life or anywhere outside the Twilight Zone there are limitations to what a government can or should do.
Government, among its many duties, has to perform a very hard juggling act. It must stimulate the economy while still managing to pay for certain things like defense, police, basic services and entitlements to the sick, poor and those temporarily unemployed. The balance is very delicate, almost any shift in either direction can cause the juggler to drop the items juggled. When one considers that excessive taxation stifles production, causes the loss of jobs and increases the dependency on those entitlements, then its time to rethink the process and realize as France’s former Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, did. When asked on TV what he was going to do to help laid-off factory workers beyond the public assistance already on the books, he said that “the state cannot do everything.” Those words shocked Europe for their candidness, they came from the mouth of a politician who throughout his tenure… privatized numerous state-owned companies, including Air France, even as he criticized capitalism.
This trend where European Leftists are starting to lean towards the right manifests itself not only in the economic policies but also on the war on terror as Yid With Lid points out, he quotes an article from the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research
A senior government official, discussing the possibility of using targeted killings, combatant detentions and aggressive computer surveillance to fight terrorism, recently said: “The old categories no longer apply. The fight against international terrorism cannot be mastered by the classic methods of the police. . . . We have to clarify whether our constitutional state is sufficient for confronting the new threats.”Bold, controversial stuff–the sort of comments that human rights groups have come to expect from Dick Cheney, the U.S. vice-president, and Alberto Gonzales, attorney-general. Except that the speaker was neither man. He was not even American. He was the German interior minister, Wolfgang Schauble, speaking recently to Der Spiegel.
Mr. Schauble’s ideas have a long way to go before being adopted. But the very fact that a European leader can float them is remarkable. For six years, Europeans have criticised America’s “military” approach to the detention and trial of terrorists as inconsistent with western rule-of-law traditions and international law, and Americans have derided Europe’s stuck-in-the-past “law enforcement” approach as inadequate to thwart Islamist terrorism. Mr. Schauble’s comments are one of a growing string of implicit acknowledgments by both sides about the possible virtues in the other’s positions.
European governments, for example, have begun to recognise that the traditional criminal process of trial and punishment will not suffice for dealing with Islamist terrorists. Mr. Schauble raised the possibility of treating them “as combatants” and interning them. Last week Gordon Brown’s government proposed doubling the time from 28 to 56 days for detaining suspected terrorists without charge, a period that had been doubled from 14 days just last year. Spain and France already permit up to four years of pre-trial detention for terror suspects.
The shift reflects the recognition that terrorist plots take more time to investigate. The evidence is often thin or uncertain, not necessarily because there is no plot, but because the plot must be thwarted early before the evidence fully develops for fear of letting it come too close to fruition. Terror investigations also typically involve evidence trails in other countries that require the co-operation of other governments. Beyond this, sometimes the government simply lacks enough evidence to convict a terrorist even though clear evidence shows that the terrorist is a danger to society. The rationale for detention–prevention of possible future harm to society–is the same as traditional non-criminal detentions for the mentally incompetent and people with infectious diseases.
Detentions are not the only area where Europeans are acknowledging possible merits in U.S. counter-terrorism positions. They also believe more and more that the Geneva conventions system designed for interstate warfare between professional state militaries is inadequate for 21st century warfare against lethal non-state military forces that structure their operations to flout the laws of war. This year the foreign affairs committee of the House of Commons urged the government to recognise that the Geneva conventions “lack clarity and are out of date,” and to “update the conventions in a way that deals more satisfactorily with asymmetric warfare, with international terrorism, with the status of irregular combatants, and with the treatment of detainees.” The special rapporteur on Guantanamo for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe made a similar recommendation last year.
The U.S. is moving in the other direction. For a while the Bush administration has acknowledged the inadequacy of its early post-September 11, 2001, position that terrorist detainees had few enforceable legal rights. While the U.S. still maintains the power to detain enemy combatants under a war powers rubric, it has ramped up the procedures for determining who is an enemy combatant and made these determinations subject to judicial review by civilian courts. And there is a growing consensus across party lines for even more elaborate procedures before an alleged terrorist can be detained without trial.
The U.S. has also established a separate process for determining when detainees are no longer dangerous and can thus be let go–a process that has resulted in the release or transfer of hundreds of detainees from Guantanamo. And after the Supreme Court invalidated the Bush administration’s initial effort at military commissions, the U.S. Congress created one that provides nearly all traditional civilian court protections, including judicial review in the Supreme Court. These detention and trial institutions provide alleged terrorists with rights far beyond anything contemplated by the Geneva conventions.
As Yid With Lid, himself, so aptly puts it:
Polls taken immediately after 9/11 showed that Americans were willing to sacrifice some personal liberties to make sure we win the war on terror. And we did just that–with programs such as the “warrentless wiretap program” and others. But little by little as there were no follow-up terror attack on our soil, we began to feel safe. Americans began to listen to the PC Police and the ACLU types in the Democratic party, “no profiling, no wiretapping, it has nothing to do with Islam” and my personal favorite “the war on terror is just a bumper sticker”
During the same period Europe has been the site of many terrorist attacks, they are moving into the position the US used to be and are making “cowboy-type” statements that they used to ridicule President Bush for making.
The question before Americans is, as Europe becomes a tougher target for the Islamofacists, do we want to continue to be an easier target?
Will America emulate that which Europe is struggling to get away from, or will it realizes the disastrous folly of its ways? As Europe, the bastion of enlightenment and socialism, is starting to wake to the stark realities of the world we live in and acknowledging that the American system does have its advantages, isn’t it ironic that the American left is trying so hard to destroy those advantages and expose this country to unnecessary danger and a downward sliding economy?
Crossposted at: Freedom's Cost