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Europe's Tale of Austerity: Don't Try This at Home

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There's an old Italian saying: Quando dio, ole castigarci ci manda, quello che desideriamo. Or, to somebody who's neither Venetian nor da Vinci: "When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers." At least, that's what I'm told. I know more words in Elvish than in Italian.

The Republican Party and His Royal Mittness are praying for the sweet nectar of a November victory and, thus far, they've staked 2012 on a vision of austere, limited government that takes a pair of scissors to the American social safety net. (For details, see Paul Ryan's House budget, moving out of committee this week and coming to a theater near you).

Let us imagine, for a moment, that the powers that be answered Mr. Romney's prayers. Such a dream remains as rosy as ever, unclouded by the harbingers of popular discontent... so long as Mitt didn't see a newspaper this week.

Perhaps you missed it too. In a stinging rebuke to the politics of austerity, Europe's incumbent governments have, once again, been taken to the electoral woodshed by voters. We've seen this movie before. This week it was French and Greek leaders who were dismissed from office, an honor they now share with officials recently fired from Spain, Portugal and Italy. (It's gotten to a point where, if you remember sleeping in a disgusting youth hostel in some foreign land, chances are, its government has been thrown out on its ass in the last year).

How did we get here? Almost every nation across the pond has watched its balance sheet bleed red over the course of the Recession-turned Eurozone crisis-turned Bailout Fiesta, and the battle to restore credit has been an ugly affair. Led by German Chancellor and Continental Mistress of Thrift Angela Merkel, nations like France, Greece, Italy and Spain have been forced to cut their services across the board, often in return for EU bailout funds. The British have gotten out their hatchets too, with Prime Minister Cameron slashing at tuition, welfare benefits and public sector employment like the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

The result has been an unmitigated bloodbath for European coalitions seeking to chop their way out of debt. France's Nicolas Sarkozy will have more time at the beach after losing by a margin of 52%-48% to Socialist challenger François Hollande; and the Greeks are even madder, channeling the rage of Achilles into a full-scale beat-down of their governing bloc for taking on the public sector. The country's formerly mainstream New Democracy and Pasok parties dropped to a 33% national voter share from 77%, replaced mostly by the surging Coalition of the Radical Left (or Syriza), as well as the disturbing gains of lunatic fringe groups like the extreme-right Golden Dawn Party. Besides being a collection of Neo-Nazis who march under a swastika-like symbol and argue for a platform "ridding the land of [immigrant] filth," these fellows seem to be a real pleasure.

And what of our English brethren in the UK? It appears that Prime Minister Cameron has ignored the sage advice of Mary Poppins at his own peril: just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down! Sugar must have been among the benefits cut, because there was nothing sweet about the bitter austerity Britain's been asked to swallow. If last Thursday is any indication, the British have had quite enough medicine, thanks, Dave. Cameron's ruling coalition got hammered in local elections, as the Conservatives-Liberal Democrats alliance lost 823 seats to the opposition Labor Party, in what analysts viewed as rejection of Cameron's tough budget reductions.

Maybe if the PM had gotten Julie Andrews to sing the budget cuts, or softened the blow with a chimney sweeping musical number... but alas.

It's all Cameron had to do to make austerity go down easy.

So, what relevance does all this have for U.S. fiscal direction? Conservative publications are spinning the kind of nothing-to-see-here storyline you get when you're rolling past a spectacular car wreck and there's everything to see. Sure, there are significant distinctions between the U.S. and Europe, which make comparisons problematic: we have a centralized, independent monetary policy under our control, thus avoiding the eurozone nightmare; we have historically tolerated a leaner welfare state; and government-formation stateside isn't an exercise that takes place more frequently than the crowning of American Idol winners.

But to dismiss the backlash against budgetary cuts in Europe is a mistake. Please don't misunderstand me: federal spending must be cut here too, and it must be cut substantially. You can't close our fiscal hole just by raising taxes on the wealthy. (I say this both to enthusiastic proponents of the Buffett Rule here at home, as well as the victorious Monsieur Hollande, who campaigned on his own plan to tax French millionaires at a 75% rate, with what I'll call "le Buffett Rule." Copyright.)

The conclusion that the U.S. is going to need both revenue increases and spending decreases in balanced proportions is hardly groundbreaking, but it also happens to be true. That's why last week's shellackings across the Atlantic were bad news for both Democrats and Republicans -- because it will make bipartisan deficit reduction that much spookier for everybody in Washington.

And so I ask Mr. Romney, Mr. Ryan, and the rest of the fiscal hawks of the right: Do you gentlemen really want a piece of this? Be careful what you wish for. You might actually get it.

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