It proved as hard to break up the bankrupt European Union as it was to create it. For all the hundreds of stories predicting the imminent end of the union, insolvent Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain still hung in. Apparently if these debtors keep promising to end their spendthrift ways, quit calling the historically sensitive Germans bad names, and welch only on serial billion-euro loans — rather than default all at once on massive trillion-euro obligations — the Germans will keep doling out enough money for the EU to whimper on a bit longer.
Meanwhile, the world’s failed states, such as Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan, just keep on failing. Getting the bomb and acting crazy are about all these pariah nations can do. Otherwise, who would care that the adolescent-looking Kim Jong Un just took over North Korea? How else can we explain giving away billions each year to anti-American Pakistan? Without monotonous threats of acquiring nuclear weapons and closing the Strait of Hormuz, would anyone pay attention to the nutty theocracy in Iran?
If tottering states can keep convincing successful nations that they are willing to suffer a lot to make their betters suffer a little, then they win a little political clout, some small influence — and a little more time to cause others misery. What is needed for these volatile countries to survive another year is to occasionally test a nuke, shoot off a missile, or threaten to obliterate a neighbor. Kidnapping some foreigners or sending out terrorists works, too — any sort of occasional taunting just short of provoking the United States and its allies into a full-fledged war. Only with many enemies and lots of crises can these sick regimes hobble on for a bit longer.
Solyndra, Climategate II, and the massive new finds of American gas and oil have for now postponed the promised era of the government-subsidized windmill and solar panel. In 2011, there was no more talk of cap-and-trade and new public/private green companies, but instead discoveries of oil and gas in unlikely places such as the Dakotas and Ohio. None of this was supposed to happen: Energy Secretary Steven Chu had dreamed of $9-a-gallon, European-priced gas to soften our carbon footprint. Candidate Barack Obama had long ago promised that our electricity bills would skyrocket. We are still supposed to buy Chevy Volts and not incandescent bulbs. But for now, American entrepreneurial ingenuity may have cooled our new government-run green lifestyles.
The great story of 2011, however, was crushing public debt and how it was incurred — and how it is to be paid back. The imploding European Union, the contrast between blue-state California and red-state Texas, and the record $16 trillion in American debt offered lessons that even the most zealous Keynesians could not explain away. Whether in the case of European state jobs, California pensions, or out-of-control Medicare and Social Security costs, the results of voters voting themselves entitlements were all too familiar.
So were the common patterns of blaming “them” for our own self-created messes. Abroad, the insolvent European nations faulted the thrifty Germans as too greedy. Here at home, the “1 percent” — millionaires, billionaires, corporate-jet owners, and fat cats — were supposedly responsible for making too much money at the expense of others. But even if the 1 percent of top earners paid half, rather than nearly 40 percent, of all income taxes, we still could not afford to spend as before. Relief will not come from printing more money or explaining away the debts as an accounting problem, but by tightening our belts and encouraging individuals to create wealth for themselves, and in the process for others, too. Paying back each billion in debt will prove far slower and harder than was eagerly borrowing each trillion we now owe.
In 2011, President Obama expressed a desire to be reelected on the grounds that he inherited a mess from George W. Bush that he needed more than four years to clean up. That story requires believing that growing the government, putting far more regulations on businesses, and forgoing new sources of gas and oil are making things better rather than worse. But Barack Obama’s last federal budget was almost $1 trillion larger than was Bush’s in 2008. We owe over $4 trillion more than we did in 2008. And the unemployment rate for the last year of the Bush administration averaged 5.8 percent, but in 2010 averaged 9.6 percent. Never have more Americans been on food stamps. Presidents are rarely reelected on the grounds that “otherwise it could have been worse.”
The year 2011 taught us that when things logically should not go on, they usually don’t — though they end not with a bang but with a whimper.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.