David Rothkopf

Strikes: Just the latest Paris fashion we may someday want to embrace

As I was leaving Paris on Tuesday morning, the city was hunkering down preparing for another national strike. Transport workers were going to be expressing their dissatisfaction with adjustments in their pension schemes through making commutes to the city and travel across France very difficult. But it was only the latest in a series of ...

RICHARD BOUHET/AFP/Getty Images
RICHARD BOUHET/AFP/Getty Images

As I was leaving Paris on Tuesday morning, the city was hunkering down preparing for another national strike. Transport workers were going to be expressing their dissatisfaction with adjustments in their pension schemes through making commutes to the city and travel across France very difficult. But it was only the latest in a series of such protests. The country that gave the world the word aplomb responded with plenty of it, some workers staying home, others finding others means of transportation, and one seasoned Parisian explaining to me that "we have to get used to this, there will be many more to come before all this is over."

What is "all this?" He was speaking of French political battles, but he could just as easily be addressing the current wave of coming to grip with fiscal realities that is buffeting Europe, causing protests from Greece to Britain. Indeed, as Europe seeks to address the underlying causes of the crisis that nearly sent world markets into an even deeper tailspin months ago, it is clear that so much belt-tightening needs to be done and so many programs that have been taken for granted will need to be cut, that for all Europe there will indeed be many more strikes and protests to come.

In Britain, which I visited before my stop in Paris, the news was dominated by headlines from the Conservative Party Conference and the backlash to the announcement by Chancellor George Osborne that child benefits for wealthier families would have to be cut back. Notably, and with considerable courage, equanimity, and grace, Prime Minister Cameron did not sidestep the issue and indeed pushed in his keynote address for more resolve to undertake even the painful reforms that would be necessary to restore British fiscal health. "I'm not saying this is going to be easy, as we've seen with child benefit this week. But it's fair that those with broadest shoulders should bear a greater load."

As I was leaving Paris on Tuesday morning, the city was hunkering down preparing for another national strike. Transport workers were going to be expressing their dissatisfaction with adjustments in their pension schemes through making commutes to the city and travel across France very difficult. But it was only the latest in a series of such protests. The country that gave the world the word aplomb responded with plenty of it, some workers staying home, others finding others means of transportation, and one seasoned Parisian explaining to me that "we have to get used to this, there will be many more to come before all this is over."

What is "all this?" He was speaking of French political battles, but he could just as easily be addressing the current wave of coming to grip with fiscal realities that is buffeting Europe, causing protests from Greece to Britain. Indeed, as Europe seeks to address the underlying causes of the crisis that nearly sent world markets into an even deeper tailspin months ago, it is clear that so much belt-tightening needs to be done and so many programs that have been taken for granted will need to be cut, that for all Europe there will indeed be many more strikes and protests to come.

In Britain, which I visited before my stop in Paris, the news was dominated by headlines from the Conservative Party Conference and the backlash to the announcement by Chancellor George Osborne that child benefits for wealthier families would have to be cut back. Notably, and with considerable courage, equanimity, and grace, Prime Minister Cameron did not sidestep the issue and indeed pushed in his keynote address for more resolve to undertake even the painful reforms that would be necessary to restore British fiscal health. "I’m not saying this is going to be easy, as we’ve seen with child benefit this week. But it’s fair that those with broadest shoulders should bear a greater load."

At the core of his deservedly well-received speech was the message that in order to cut a deficit of 155 billion pounds, sacrifices were required, regardless of their political costs. Furthermore, and importantly, he suggested this was a national challenge, not just one for the government, "The point I want to make is this, the state of the nation is not just determined by government and those who run it. It is determined by millions of individual actions, by what each of us do, and what we choose not to do."

In today’s Washington Post, Ruth Marcus, has an excellent piece entitled "The True Conservatives: Britain’s Realists vs. America’s Wishful Thinkers" in which she wishes that she could summon up Christine O’Donnell-like witchcraft to transform American conservatives into British Tories. She makes a powerful point. But she does not go far enough. Because if we are conjuring here, let’s transform the Democrats too, please.  

While David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy are finding that austerity is a very tough sell, they are at least making a serious effort at grappling with it. Here in the United States we are pushing the food around on our plates. We are making non-proposals wrapped in partisan rhetoric sold via Madison Avenue television commercials that essentially make the case that we have problems and beyond telling you that it’s the other guy’s fault, we’re not going to do anything about it. Listen closely, those aren’t just the usual political ads you are tuning out, that buzzing noise is the death rattle of U.S. leadership.

It’s the death rattle if we do not embrace the seriousness of purpose with which Cameron and his colleagues have tackled their deficit problems. Yes, we need growth but we need growth built on a solid economic foundation. That will require both major spending cuts and significant revenue increases. Cuts to defense and to entitlements. Extending the retirement age. Closing tax loopholes for the rich and for industries that have been receiving backdoor subsidies for decades. And introducing both a value added tax and, in all likelihood, something like a tax on carbon emissions. Part of this formula is anathema to Democrats. Part is odious to Republicans. And serious discussions about any of it are being avoided by almost everyone.

I am not entirely pessimistic, however. Because lost in the discussion about the outcome of the election in three weeks is the fact that in most plausible scenarios, neither side will have a very large majority — and both will have gotten the message that voters are intolerant of incumbents associated with a dysfunctional system. It is possible that this could produce some productive compromise. Not a guarantee by any means, but possible if the president actually seeks to identify, lead, and hammer out such compromises. If the White House chooses to hunker down and play small ball from now through 2012, then no, the denizens of this swamp here on the banks of the Potomac will continue to reshape the U.S. economy to resemble the fetid, squishy, gradually submerging local landscape.

Of course courageous policies — that is, appropriate and prudent policies — are likely to produce discomfort. And it is possible that discomfort here could produce something like the strikes and unrest Europe has seen. In fact, it is not merely possible — it is likely. The unrest in Europe is the sign that political leaders there are doing what must be done. The absence of such demonstrations here is a sign we are not.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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