Austerity Measures Spark Riots in Europe

by Mark T. Mitchell on September 29, 2010 · 28 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Politics & Power

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Kearneysville, WV. The New York Times reports that plans in various European countries to slash spending and reduce deficits have been met with widespread protests and strikes. Apparently the EU has realized that nations simply cannot sustain the kinds of social programs that Europeans have enjoyed for some time now. These new measures are being implemented with the hope that a deeper and even more painful collapse can be avoided.

One might almost imagine that the Europeans are implementing what the Tea Party here in the U.S. is agitating for: reduced government, reduced deficits, reduced debt. Yet, when a population becomes accustomed to looking to the government for handouts, the weaning process is not going to be gentle, pleasant, or altogether peaceful. One wonders if the Tea Party would lose a significant portion of its support if it came out in favor of 1) means testing for Social Security, 2) drastically reducing Medicare, and 3)  increasing the retirement age to 70. The answer is, of course, that no candidate could be elected if he or she supported such positions.It is one thing to champion the reduction of government in the abstract, for abstract sacrifices are quite easy to bear. Concrete reductions hurt, for they force us to alter the way we live. They force us to accept limits. To acknowledge that we simply cannot have it all. Such talk is down right un-American. Or at the very least it is foreign to the recent orgy of profligacy that has come to characterize American life.

Tocqueville observed that in democratic ages, individuals would generally love the power of government even if they despised the particular policies enacted, for they will be invariably attracted by the possibility that the power of the state could be wielded in behalf of their own interests. Even those who descry the expansion of the state will be sorely tempted to employ the state’s power “just this once.” As Tocqueville put it,

such men will freely admit the general principle that the power of the state should not interfere in private affairs, but as an exception, each one of them wants the state to help in the special matter with which he is preoccupied, and he wants to lead the government on to take action in his domain, though he would like to restrict it in every other direction. As a multitude of people, all at the same moment, take this particular view about a great variety of different purposes, the sphere of the central government insensibly spreads in every direction, although every individual wants to restrict it.

Thus, although centralization is not embraced as a general principle, individuals favor it when their special interests are at issue. In light of this dynamic, Tocqueville argues that it is merely a matter of time before a democratic people find themselves ruled by a centralized state, one tasked by its constituents with graciously bestowing gifts on all who live under its omni-benevolent shadow.

Of course, such a condition is not sustainable and the era of endless gifts from the state must end with a severe contraction. The entitlement crunch is coming to America just as surely as it is now shaking Europe. The longer we wait to deal with the issue, the more the “austerity measures” are going to hurt.

Question: would you vote for a candidate who told you in no uncertain terms that what our society needs is public and private discipline and that the next few years (and perhaps the next few decades) are going to be painful times as we learn to live within our means?

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Adam Nicholson September 29, 2010 at 10:58 pm

Ross Douthat points to some evidence in support of your concern that Tea Partiers and the general U.S. populace is none too ready for real limits on government. See his article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/27/opinion/27douthat.html?_r=3&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

I’m inclined to think that you are both on to something, while remaining hopeful that perhaps the Tea Partiers really do mean what they say and represent a more virtuous side of American political engagement. There are, after all, a lot of people expressing themselves through the tea party that don’t fit the mold of the naive libertarian. For instance, while many of them are seniors who have a vested interest in social security and medicare, they are also depression-era survivors (like my grandparents) who have a life-long practice of saving. They know austerity and understand the importance of taking responsibility for their future. Further, many are small business owners, who know that financial security is far from easy and only comes at the cost of hard work. And finally, while the Christian “right” has often (and embarrassingly) been co-opted, I don’t think it is meaningless that we do have a tradition of strong Christian practice in America – a practice largely absent in those European nations experiencing the worst violence.

This isn’t to say that our fellow citizens would welcome cuts to their benefits with open arms, but that the tea party might just indicate the presence of sufficiently high degree of maturity and virtue to allow for the cuts that will be mandatory in the near-future.

Again, I’m inclined to think your right, and so am prepared to be disappointed. :-)

avatar Cecelia September 29, 2010 at 11:31 pm

there are two things which concern me re: austerity measures. First, that such measures will increase the disparate distribution of wealth which is already appalling – it is not a good sign when the top ten percent of the population control a disproportionate share of a nation’s wealth.

Second re: social security – raising the age at which full benefits are available ( right now full benefits are available at 67) can have significant consequences – consider that maintaining people in the work force for longer periods of time means that there is less job turnover for the young to step into – especially in management and higher paying positions – delayed promotion opportunity and even less job openings for those in the child bearing/rearing age are likely to result in delayed family formation and people having fewer children (employing means to keep the number of children low which are abhorent to some of us). We need to consider in our enthusiasm for sticking it to the boomers what the other costs are for the society are and that it might be less expensive to maintain full retirement benefits at the age of 67.

I’d welcome a candidate who spoke sensibly regarding what we must do – but only if there was a senstivity to these issues – talk about eliminating depletion allowances and other favorable perks for energy companies and some of the loony farm subsidies before programs like education and health care etc – you’d get my vote. But to speak as if the only way to balance the budget is by attacking benefits especially as wages decline and unemployment increases – that tells me you do not really care about the average person and do not understand the economy.

avatar David September 30, 2010 at 12:02 am

My mother is a sympathizer (and occasional monetary contributor) to Tea Party folks. She knows that much of the internal logic will require austerity (what a silly word to use, until we cannot afford A/C, heating oil and color tvs… no not silly, ‘distorted’ would be a better description). She knows it will cost her, and all she asks is that it costs each whom it costs fairly according to principles. That is, if the same rule applies to everyone, but it means some misfortune for her, she doesn’t mind a bit.

I think it is irrelevant what the richest people in society have, what matters is whether the mass at the bottom has what they think is fair or at least enough to temporarily satiate their various addictions. Cut of the opiates of the masses (entertainment, not religion) and you’ll have a revolution.

avatar Rob G September 30, 2010 at 4:49 am

Over the last week or so I’ve heard three different “conservative” radio personalities say what amounts to “Austerity? We don’t need no steenking austerity!” This is a bad sign, especially given the fact that a lot of folks are going to have smaller paychecks come January.

avatar Robert September 30, 2010 at 2:03 pm

I hate to play this card, but I’m going to anyhow. Unlike most of the commenters, I actually live in Europe. My wife and I have been living in Switzerland for about two years now, but we travel frequently throughout the continental countries, along with the UK and Ireland.

The thing I’ve learned from talking with people here, some of whom I imagine our taking part in the aforementioned protests, is that they are upset about the fact their retirement and healthcare benefits are being cut because their governments had to put up large sums of money to keep the casinos (calling them banks is nonsensical) solvent.

The first post references two ideas, or rather stereotypes, that I wish to address. First, this idea that all Europeans have given up all semblemances of religous life is just patently false. While it is true that many people here don’t attend religous services on a regular basis, religous teachings and practices still play a significant role in peoples’ daily lives. Honestly, I swear on a stack of bibles, people don’t kill each other on a regular basis; they don’t seem to covet each other’s wifes and husbands too much either; the kids are no more promiscous (I actually think they are less sexualized than their US counterparts)than those in the US.

Secondly, the idea that Europeans are violent is also just not true. There is a small band of anarchists in most European countries who will, given any chance, break stuff. For some reason the American media only shows pictures and video of these people, the non-violent everyday people never make the news.

And exactly where is Medaille (I apologize for not accenting the e) when you need him?

avatar Cecelia September 30, 2010 at 3:08 pm

And exactly where is Medaille (I apologize for not accenting the e) when you need him?

Robert I had the same thought!

I’d note today we have a “austerity” type candidate saying that the way to get the economy up and running again is to reduce the minimum wage. This is exactly the sort of nonsense which I find objectionable. The idea is cut the cost of doing business and business will then flourish. But why cut the cost of the lowest paid – how about we talk about cutting CEO and management salaries – which here in the US are much higher than in Europe and Asia and which most alleged experts claim must be reduced as part of a sensible financial reform effort? And of course reducing minimum wage increases the disparity in the distribution of wealth. Finally – these sorts of so called austerity measures fail consistently to recognize that this is a consumer based economy – reduce the ability of the majority of people to “consume” and busineses won’t sell more – they will sell less. Dumbness abounds.

avatar David September 30, 2010 at 4:01 pm

Can I vote for us to consume less?

avatar Adam Nicholson September 30, 2010 at 8:29 pm

Robert,

I’m sorry that you misinterpreted my post. Nowhere did I say that all Europeans have lost their religion. I only noted what is generally accepted – that in western european nations experiencing the worst violence (and by that I meant Greece and France), public secularization has become the norm. I don’t know anything about the conditions in Switzerland.

Nor did I say that all European nations are violent. Some are, and that’s where I’ve directed my post.

Cheers,

Adam

avatar D.W. Sabin October 1, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Whenever Kunstler action paints some dark mural of coming privation, I always ask him “So…where’s the bad news?”. Austerity , as pejorative can only occur when a culture has so damned much waste it could fund ten schizoid parallels on the side. Sure…sure enough, be careful what you wish for but the idiots parade of this current throw-away, disconnected, idly entertained, crotch grabbing, Gun-sight Improving, youth-adoring, nekid-obsessed, gluttonous, clueless, sore-winning conclave of the biggest wankers in the history of God’s Green Earth, short perhaps of the more florid habitues of the French Revolution or maybe Mao and his Pol Pot confreres… well, this points to one thing and one thing only: Austerity has an upside. Discipline yerself or be disciplined by some leering apparatchik…which will it be?

When everything is considered a given, gratitude vanishes and when gratitude vanishes, you can kiss both bureaucracy and her many earnest projects goodbye because the dole will have come to be considered the only thing there is. Free aint free. Such is the very pinnacle of the march of Agriculture whereupon we humans become the livestock we once actually cared for. Take your steak for granted, know deep down that somebody will soon be along to take it from you.

Case in point: These ridiculous yet appreciated rainstorms after an epic drought are seeing a latent Meadow Mushroom ring sprout under my pines and while I am going to veritably wallow tomorrow in a bunch of olive-oiled grilled shrooms, spiced liberally but never too much, I will also steep a little brew of spores and pour them out where I found the originals, thankful that these white delicacies aint delivered in a truck. The only professional gluttony is that which plans ahead.

It would seem to me that at long last, the most glaring omission in that little double-hitting paean to life’s better mysteries known as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution is that there was no proper celebration of the charms of professionalism. The pursuit of Happiness has come to be seen as some kind of love song to amateurism. It upsets my finer sensibilities dammit, would that I had some.

avatar Grace Potts October 1, 2010 at 7:01 pm

“Question: would you vote for a candidate who told you in no uncertain terms that what our society needs is public and private discipline and that the next few years (and perhaps the next few decades) are going to be painful times as we learn to live within our means?”

Yes. But I’m kinda weird.

avatar John Gorentz October 1, 2010 at 10:26 pm

“To acknowledge that we simply cannot have it all. Such talk is down right un-American. Or at the very least it is foreign to the recent orgy of profligacy that has come to characterize American life.”

I found it mildly amusing that these lines came just a few sentences after you described similar attitudes that are held in Europe, thus showing that it is not a problem more characteristic of American life than of life in almost any European country.

But here’s a question: Why all this emphasis on being honest with ourselves about the problem? Is it possible that the best way forward is to deceive ourselves? You point out that nobody can get elected by addressing the issue honestly.

avatar D.W. Sabin October 2, 2010 at 9:37 am

One of the sordid little problems of this discussion of “austerity” is that it is always viewed as some kind of affront to our push-button American Suprematists. Austerity is a gift, a simultaneous challenge and reward. So long bedecking ourselves with this notion that America is a land of opportunity with limitless horizons…we now bump up against those horizons and find the view a little worse for wear. America’s first juggernaut was geographic with an intellectual assist, her next one will be intellectual, tempered by the limits of geography…..if indeed she is still capable of a juggernaut. I believe she is but then, I have a bad attitude.

We have come to think waste is easy, it aint. This is the Benediction staring us in the face with a grin.

avatar Hans Noeldner October 2, 2010 at 11:43 am

For more on austerity, check out The Automatic Earth and the streaming video “A Century of Challenges”. I helped to organize a presentation of “A Century” in Madison, Wisconsin last week and it was excellent. Ms. Foss (Stoneleigh) spent about 4 hours afterwards conversing with attendees and answering questions.

Now here is the wierd thing – most of the people who came were “progressive” types. Yet it is among progressives that I see commitment to material frugality and strengthened community ties taking root.

Note that there is a charge for the streaming video. I don’t profit from it in any way, but I would say it is well worth it. It connects the dots in a way I have not seen anywhere else.

avatar John Gorentz October 2, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Yet it is among progressives that I see commitment to material frugality and strengthened community ties taking root.

That’s interesting. They must have imported a new batch of progressives to Madison while I wasn’t looking. Most progressives I know (and know of) are very destructive of community. They tend to built up the state at the expense of community relationships.

avatar Thomas McCullough October 2, 2010 at 3:36 pm

The problem with austerity being enforced by economic circumstances is that we are left in unretrieved squanderous circumstances. If the public transportation system was like, say, 1955, I could do without a car. But the way things are, I cannot do without one. To get rid of 75% of personal motor vehicles and reinstate public transportation would be an austerity that would greatly enhance he quality of life.

Any number of expensive aspects of our society are destructive and spawn more expensive cure-and-maintenance industries, psychological and pharmacological for instance.

Intelligently managed, austerity could be very much more pleasant than this we have.

avatar Lex October 2, 2010 at 6:07 pm

These aren’t the austerity that we need. This is simply a neoliberal mechanism to batter labor further, because labor is just part of the equations…not people trying to feed their families.

America could use a lot self-reflection, doing without, adjustment of priorities, etc., but the austerity measures being proposed are none of them. This way lies third world conditions. This way lies oligarchy.

At least it appears that a great many Europeans understand that it is, in fact, a class war and appear ready to man the barricades. While in the US, we get a great deal of “please, sir, may I have some more,” with none of the sarcasm found in Mr. Dickens’ original.

avatar John Gorentz October 2, 2010 at 9:20 pm

We don’t have to choose between austerity being enforced by economic circumstances and intelligently managed austerity. If politicians are intelligent in managing austerity, they will look out for their political interests and spend trillions of dollars on public transportation infrastructure, spending the money so as to pay off supporters and marginalize opponents, as was done with TARP and the auto buyouts. Taxpayers will be impoverished to pay for this waste. Voila! Intelligently managed austerity resulting in austerity enforced by economic circumstances.

Who says we can’t have it all!?

avatar Schofield October 3, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Matt Taibbi has a good take on Tea Party followers and austerity:-

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/17390/210904?RS_show_page=0

It takes a certain grim humor to smile at the thought of obese Tea Party supporters riding to the polls on their government funded scooters to vote for the oligarchs austerity programs!

avatar Paul October 3, 2010 at 2:40 pm

I would vote for someone who wanted to eliminate Socialist Security, Medicare and all the rest of the welfare-warfare state (even though I am 60) – except I have become an anarchist and no longer support the system with my vote.

I understand no one could win office with this platform. It doesn’t matter. We don’t have to vote or organize or convince. We just have to stand aside and watch the train crash.

avatar Schofield October 5, 2010 at 7:31 am

The problems in America seem to stem from too much anarchy not too little. When a minority can have so much dominance they cause financial crashes necessitating tax payer bail-outs, stagnating wages creating demand collapse, huge public debt, wholesale outsourcing of manufacturing, connive with mercantile policies of other countries to cause large trade imbalances, manipulate media and election processes, etc. then it is fairly obvious that the majority have little ability to influence society through the exercise of counter-dominance. This is a far cry from the days of the America Revolution when America’s citizens rose up to counter the cruel and corrupt policies of a minority the British King, Parliament and mercantilist owners of companies like the East India Company.

avatar John Gorentz October 5, 2010 at 7:42 am

Lawmakers and regulators = anarchists???

avatar David October 5, 2010 at 9:59 am

Sounds like we have too much anarchy in our hearts and too much statism in our state, when we ought to have more liberty in our state and more management of our own person.

avatar Schofield October 6, 2010 at 2:23 pm

It’s true one source of the anarchy is the belief that one set of citizens (the market state) will not pick and choose regulations to exploit another set of citizens.

avatar Robert Vigil October 29, 2010 at 2:39 pm

“A government afraid of its citizens is a Democracy. Citizens afraid of government is tyranny!’
–Thomas Jefferson

avatar Johnpdunn1946 November 9, 2010 at 8:08 pm

I was amused to read that part of the reason for the rioting in France was that they government proposed to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. A reason for disappointment? Yes. Rioting? I think not.

avatar Kmmcdowell December 3, 2010 at 7:47 am

Atlas continues to shrug in Europe.

avatar [email protected] December 16, 2010 at 5:12 am

Dying how he says democracies eventually leads to a centralized state. It also seems apparent that he believes people should be bought with gifts instead of paying their creditors.

avatar Suan May 7, 2012 at 8:14 am

Some of us can’t afford to suffer a little more pain to make the “needed cuts.” THAT is the trouble. You say Americans are going to have to learn to make some painful concessions and take repsonsability for our future. The trouble is I’ve been making painful concessions all my life. In New York State, I have been taxed so badly, in every possible way, I have always just barely scraped by. Now I am caring for my elderly parents in my home. No one helps us. I am the sole bread winner and their social security checks net them not enough to be a real help and too much to qualify for federal assistance. Not that we would take it, but without Medicare, my parents would be dead. I am NOT willing to sacrifice for a country spun out control on crony capitalism in every major sector of society.
The other day our local conservative radio host whined to a caller that he didn’t know what crony capitalism was and then gave a 5 minute speech on why he’s a good ole fashioned lover of just plain ole capitalism and the American flag. Unless we begin to admit that the Republic has run it’s ship aground with the best of intentions hijacked by greed, we will get nowhere.

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