It’s small consolation for the pain and havoc being experienced across much of Europe, and for the economic fallout that is hitting us over on this side of the Atlantic, but there is a bit of amusement to be had these days in the confusion that the European crisis is causing on the American right. American conservatives had for most of the past few years been applauding European austerity and claiming successes for it, notably in Germany (even though Germany’s strong recovery from the recession was in fact helped by some decidedly Keynesian policies for itself.) But as it becomes clear that doctrinaire austerity is seriously imperiling the continent and resulting in an unsettling political radicalization, conservatives here have been torn between continuing to defend the austerity approach and distancing themselves by arguing that what Europe has been doing is the wrong kind of austerity -- that is, lacking in the sort of tax cuts for the rich that are American conservatives’, um, unique approach to budget-balancing.
Meanwhile, conservatives here have also been torn about how to frame the interplay between Europe’s troubles and our own weak recovery. Some are downplaying Europe’s troubles to rebut President Obama’s attempt to point to Europe as a reason for our own slowing recovery. Take Bret Stephens writing on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page this week:
Bear this not-so-ancient history in mind as the Excuse-Maker-in-Chief cites another imploding region to explain 1.9% growth and 8.2% unemployment. “Right now, one concern is Europe, which faces a threat of renewed recession,” Mr. Obama said Friday, rehashing one of his preferred economic alibis. “Obviously this matters to us because Europe is our largest trading partner.”
So now you know: In the Age of Obama, the buck stops in Berlin.
Still, it’s worth taking a closer look at the Blame Europe school of economic analysis. Start with some basic facts: Europe is not our largest trading partner. Canada is. Followed by China. Followed by Mexico. Followed by Japan. “Europe” only counts as America’s largest trading partner in an aggregate sense. An honest apples-to-apples comparison would find that U.S. trade with North America or East Asia dwarfs trade across the Atlantic.
Now take the question of how much trade matters to America. In 2009, foreign trade accounted for 24.3% of the U.S. economy. By contrast, the foreign-trade-to-GDP ratio was 51.9% for China, 71.1% for Canada and 89.2% for Germany. When it comes to foreign trade, the U.S. is the world’s least dependent major economy.
Just two days later, Stephens’ colleague Dan Henninger offered a rather different picture: Europe’s crisis is in fact extremely dire, a catastrophe with global repercussions, and Obama was failing for not doing more to correct it:
Europe is in the grip of a financial plague wiping out a generation of wealth and opportunity for millions of its citizens and threatening the world’s economies. Does anyone believe that JFK’s Treasury secretary, Douglas Dillon, would, like Tim Geithner, wave toward Europe that the solution “is in their hands”? Or that former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, the architect of NATO, would have been as screamingly silent as Hillary Clinton is now? Or that Democratic President Harry Truman, who appointed George Marshall, would blame Madrid for tanking his re-election prospects in Milwaukee?
So which is it, guys? A locally-contained disturbance or a plague “threatening the world’s economies”?
But it gets even better. To stick to their guns on austerity even as it has proved such a failure for Europe, conservatives are now pointing to places where they say it is succeeding, in states led by Republican governors. I was prepared for Scott Walker to be hailed as a future national leader in the wake of his victory in last week’s recall campaign. But now he’s apparently also the solution to all of Europe’s troubles. Henninger again:
Here’s pro-growth advice no one in Europe will take: Stop listening to the IMF bleeders and the Obama spenders. If you wish to relearn real, long-term growth, consult the U.S. governors who did that themselves. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Mitch Daniels in Indiana and Chris Christie in New Jersey all took over states nearly as moribund as Italy and Spain and put before their publics hard but obvious choices about spending, taxes, pensions, unions and bureaucracies. Their publics voted against dying.
One may ask: Would a European electorate, if given an honest chance to choose self-salvation rather than the bleed-to-death choices they’ve been given the past two years, vote to save themselves? The betting here is many indeed would vote for a liberated future. Or would have.
Two minor problems with this: 1) The European electorate has in fact been given a choice in recent weeks, and has chosen the anti-austerity choice offered by left-leaning parties, in France, Greece and Germany’s largest state. Now, you may think that these voters were “voting for dying,” but it’s rather odd to ignore those choices in a column about how the European electorate "would" vote. 2.) The American electorate hasn’t exactly been rushing for those “hard but obvious choices” either. Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s reforms of collective bargaining by public employee unions, which were even more aggressive and forthright than Walker’s, were roundly defeated at the polls last fall, by a 23 point margin and by more votes than had elected Kasich a year earlier. Somehow, this inconvenient fact has been completely overlooked by those hailing the new age of Walker-style austerity. Apparently, the voters in Ohio -- a larger, more politically important and more conservative state than Wisconsin -- are in favor of “dying.” But acknowledging that would complicate our the conservative missionaries’ plan for Europe’s “self-salvation.”
*Addendum, 2 p.m.: I had not had the pleasure of reading David Brooks’ latest before posting this, but I should acknowledge his column as it falls within this same penumbra of confusion over Europe. Brooks endeavors to explain the Republican viewpoint on what Europe means for America:
But many Republicans have now come to the conclusion that the welfare-state model is in its death throes. Yuval Levin expressed the sentiment perfectly in a definitive essay for The Weekly Standard called “Our Age of Anxiety”:
“We have a sense that the economic order we knew in the second half of the 20th century may not be coming back at all — that we have entered a new era for which we have not been well prepared. ... We are, rather, on the cusp of the fiscal and institutional collapse of our welfare state, which threatens not only the future of government finances but also the future of American capitalism.”
To Republican eyes, the first phase of that collapse is playing out right now in Greece, Spain and Italy — cosseted economies, unmanageable debt, rising unemployment, falling living standards.
This, of course, represents exactly what I warned about in a piece for the magazine a few weeks ago, the misuse of the European monetary crisis to undermine support for the social democratic model. I’ll only add here one number: 5.7. That is unemployment rate in that famous bastion of the welfare state, where health coverage is universal, pensions are generous and, yes, the trains run on time: Germany. Again : 5.7. What we’d give for such “collapse.”
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