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French Lessons



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So what have we learned from the recent elections in France and other EU countries? Not much. When folks are asked whether they’d rather have an ice cream cone or a sharp stick in the eye most folks will, after due consideration, choose the ice cream. The same could be said when it comes to austerity. 

For those who grew up knowing nothing but the welfare state, giving stuff up — especially if it’s been taken from the wealthy fair and square — is simply not in their DNA. Their wants have become needs, and their needs have become rights. Their baselines have been changed forever, and when the paradigm of the welfare state is accosted by reality, reality must be ignored. You see, fewer and fewer citizens are supposed to support more and more citizens, until nobody is supporting everybody. Working past 60 even though the economy may be going to hell in a hand basket and the rate of entitlement payouts is unsustainable? Ridiculous.  

If we only tax the rich more, hire more public employees, keep the 35-hour work week and start some infrastructure projects then this German-induced, foreign-bond-holder-caused crisis will go away.

The French elected just the fellow as president to keep reality at bay — François Hollande, though commentators excitedly speculate as to whether this pasty Socialist, produced from within the bowls of the French bureaucracy, will become more “pragmatic” now that he has to govern. A radical 36-hour-work-week proposal, perhaps?

Doubtful. 

#more#But to my mind, the most interesting thing to come out of the French election is the fact that Hollande won his victory by pulling off a clever, political heist. He stole the conservative’s “growth” message. (To be fair, I believe he could safely say that the conservatives were not using it so he merely borrowed it).

By embracing economic growth — at least in the context of what the French consider “growth”), Hollande was able to present an alternative to the unpopular “austerity” programs supported by EU leaders who realized that their welfare-state chickens had come home to roost. So the campaign became growth vs. austerity. Guess what won?

Growth, however, is not a policy. It is the result of sound policies. And Hollande’s policies are anything but sound. His growth campaign theme is merely a leftist rhetorical device based on the same old Keynesian economic nostrums. And, although sugar-high, spend-your-way-to-prosperity economic success stories are not readily available really anywhere, it’s still a heck of a campaign theme in some circles.

European countries that have actually achieved growth have gone in the opposite direction of Hollande’s “growth” policies. Germany and Sweden, for example, lowered taxes and took on the tougher task of restructuring benefit programs.

Ironically, a growth theme is exactly what presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney and other Republican candidates should be running on, except it should be based on policies that actually produce growth, such as resisting tax increases and excessive regulations. Most Republicans and many fair-minded citizens already support these policies. What Republicans must do is articulate a reason for them, and it’s not all about jobs. A growing economy helps everybody, including job-seekers.

The growth message should take precedence over even that of a balanced budget. There will be no balanced budget without sufficient growth, something even the more responsible European leaders who support austerity measures fail to recognize. In a desperate scramble to satisfy the bond markets and balance their budgets they are not only cutting spending, they’re raising taxes in a misguided effort to “even out the burden.” Little wonder that their watered-down approach isn’t working.  

So as difficult to believe as it is, there are lessons to be learned from Europe, but they aren’t economic. Rather, it’s the knowledge that even a phony growth message has potency with an electorate. This is good news for Barack Obama. But economic growth would be an even more potent theme — and a winner at the ballot box and for the American people — in the hands of a candidate who believes in sound policies to achieve it and makes a strong and persuasive case.  

Fred Thompson is a former U.S. Senator from Tennessee.  



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