op-ed

This is a bad time to become more like Europe

David Cohen Former Deputy Assistant Sec. of the Interior
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It has become a cliché to say that Europe, which is locked in a futile battle with the reality that its social welfare states are unsustainable, is a “cautionary tale” for the United States. Unlike most clichés, this is one that should be repeated as often as possible.

At a time when Europe’s voters desperately need to come to grips with hard realities, they seem to be retreating into a state of denial instead. France this week will swear in Socialist President François Hollande, whose solution to France’s fiscal and economic crisis is to tax the rich at 75 percent. This will undoubtedly chase job creators out of France, just as threatened U.S. tax hikes have chased job creators (including Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin) out of this country. Hollande’s policies will thus likely reduce jobs in an economy that desperately needs to create them, and reduce revenues for a government that desperately needs to raise them. Like President Obama with his “Buffett Rule,” Hollande offers a twisted and misguided notion of “fairness” that would hurt the struggling and vulnerable more than anyone else.

Meanwhile, in Spain, tens of thousands have taken to the streets to express their “indignation” — presumably at the laws of economics. And in Greece, radical leftists are now favored to win national elections that may occur next month.

We’re not yet at the point where Europe is — that’s the point of a cautionary tale. But we seem to be doing everything in our power to sink to that point. President Obama has now run up more debt in three years than his predecessor, the previous record-holder, ran up in eight. Annual budget deficits well in excess of a trillion dollars, unheard of until recently, are the new normal. Outlays for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are already approaching half of our budget; those outlays are exploding on autopilot, and will swallow up a rapidly growing share of our budget unless we institute serious entitlement reform. And at a time when we desperately need to get control of existing entitlements, we have added a new entitlement — Obamacare — that may prove to be the costliest one of all.

The following is an excerpt from my new book, Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals. I wrote it a few months ago, but I could have written it a few minutes ago:

We’re on a completely unsustainable path where our children and grandchildren will have to borrow large sums of money just to pay the interest on the large sums of money that we’re borrowing today to spend on ourselves. We’re setting up a huge intergenerational transfer of wealth in the wrong direction. Rather than passing our wealth on to our children and grandchildren so that their lives can be better than ours, we’re passing our debts onto them to a degree that will cripple their opportunities. We are requiring them to foot the bill for our own lack of discipline and responsibility. Those who advocate budget cuts are often accused of lacking compassion. However, our failure to cut the budget betrays an astonishing lack of compassion for our children and grandchildren.

If we have any doubt where all of this is heading, we need only look across the Atlantic to the failing welfare states of Europe. Greece, for example, which has been living beyond its means for years, has been forced to adopt painful austerity measures as a condition to being bailed out by the rest of Europe. The announcement of these measures was greeted with widespread rioting. Clearly, the rioters believe that they are entitled to a welfare state that they can’t afford, even if the taxpayers of other countries have to pay for it. This is a cautionary tale of how people, once they get used to welfare state benefits, develop a sense of entitlement that overwhelms their sense of reality, responsibility and fair play.

Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos addressed the rioting in a speech before Parliament: “We have to explain to all these indignant people who see their lives changing that what the country is experiencing is not the worst stage of the crisis,” he said. “It is an anguished and necessary effort to avoid the ultimate, deepest and harshest level of the crisis. The difference between a difficult situation and a catastrophe is immense.”

America faces the same choice — the choice between a difficult situation and a catastrophe. Greece is a cautionary tale of what can happen to our government if we fail to make difficult choices before it’s too late. But it’s also a cautionary tale of what can happen to our spirit. Do we want to end up like the Greeks, raging against a reality of our own making, refusing to be held accountable for our own choices? Greece demonstrates how a welfare state results in the infantilization of a society, both in how it breeds dependence and how it breeds a sense of entitlement — with a child’s lack of concern for how much things cost and who picks up the tab. These attitudes are inimical to the qualities of self-reliance and personal responsibility that have made America a great nation. My intention is not to attack the Greeks — they are a great and proud people who, like many of their fellow Europeans, have had their strength sapped by the seductive enslavement of the welfare state.

As hard as it may be for people on the left to admit, the tea party has been proven right. You can mock the funny hats, the misspelled (and sometimes offensive) signs and the yelling at town hall meetings, but the tea party has been absolutely right about its central issue: the federal debt is reaching crisis levels that will ruin us if we don’t get it under control. … Thanks largely to the efforts of the tea party, it has become almost impossible for Democrats or Republicans to ignore the debt crisis.

This creates a new reality that liberals have no choice but to adapt to. The proud legacies of liberalism’s most celebrated eras — the New Deal’s Social Security program and the Great Society’s Medicare program — are heading for crisis and cannot survive in their current forms. The great new entitlement, Obamacare, faces an uncertain future — and it is hard to imagine how we can afford it. And in the fiscal climate that we’re likely to face for the foreseeable future, further expansions of the welfare state are virtually out of the question …

We have entered an era where profligacy in the name of compassion is heartlessly uncompassionate to the young and those yet to be born. Liberals must find new ways to channel the compassion in their hearts — ways that can improve society today, without placing impossible burdens on those who would fight to improve it in the future.

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I go on to explain how by greatly expanding the government’s role in health care, we have chosen to become more like Europe at a time when not even Europe can afford to be like Europe. The Supreme Court may rescue us from Obamacare, but our other entitlement programs will plunge us into bankruptcy if we don’t face up to reality. The Democrats’ insistence on being “The Party of No” on entitlement reform is imperiling our future. It is up to American voters to reject their obstructionism by proving that we, unlike the Europeans, have the maturity and political will to save ourselves before it is too late. Yes, we can!

David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He hosted the debate show “Beer Summit” for PBS Guam.