Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Back Home

As my readers have probably noted, I have been away for a month, traveling to Great Britain and The Netherlands to observe how those two countries are reacting to their recent national elections. I also spent much time going each way by ship so that I could discuss international politics with a lot more persons that I could on land.

Both plans worked out well. Although the short time I was able to spend abroad could not give me the same in-depth understanding I could have by spending more time there, I think I now have a reasonable and first-hand appreciation of political feelings in at least those two nations. Some of my conclusions and stereotypes made before the trip were changed. Because this was my fifth trip to that continent, one of which included study at the University and Madrid and extended visits to Great Britain, Italy and France, I did not have to be much of a tourist, and could spend most of my time at work.

Just as perhaps we American have much misinformation about Europe today, it became very clear to me that Europeans have some distorted views of the United States. If I thought that the U.S. media had a strongly liberal bias, I learned that the media bias in Europe, particularly in Great Britain and The Netherlands, is even more extreme. President Obama, for example, is almost universally admired, and I found Europeans were shocked to learn that his popularity is well under 50% in the U.S. today, and that he and his party are headed for major losses in the mid-term elections this coming November. Europeans are also “shocked” to learn that most Americans oppose the recently-passed Obamacare legislation. They have had “free” healthcare all of their lives, and take it for granted that government should provide it. They are also taxed at much higher rates. A lot of Americans passionately opposed President George W. Bush after September 11 led to our activity in Iraq. I thought it often became an obsession among many liberals. But in England and Holland today, the anger at George W Bush is even more widespread and obsessive. I suspect this is also true throughout Western Europe (but not necessarily so in Central and Easter Europe).

Europeans, most of whom had not yet been born when World War II ended, also have a certain amnesia about the nature of totalitarian states and their insatiable aggressive appetites. Only in Germany does any collective memory (and guilt) exist about the world wars of the 20th century.

I thought it was revealing that when, on the Queen Mary 2, I found outspoken conservatives (Tories) speaking of their admiration for President Obama until mid-voyage when Mr. Obama denounced British Petroleum for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Overnight, several of these Tories told me that they had changed their mind about him. (British Petroleum is the largest publicly-held British corporation, and most Britons, through their pension funds and stock holdings, have taken a big loss as the company’s shares have declined.) As they say, most or all politics is local…..

Europe is now undergoing, country by country, a decidedly conservative trend as conservative leaders and more conservative parliaments are winning elections. This is clearly what happened in Great Britain and The Netherlands. But to say the word “conservative” about Europe does not mean the same thing as it does in the U.S. Nevertheless, the Europeans now seem ahead of the U.S. as they take stronger and stronger measures to deal with their enormous public deficits. Swollen public employee bureaucracies are being reduced sharply, and taxes are rising. Austerity is the notion of the day. Of course, conservative economists know that the reduction of public spending is a good thing, but raising taxes at the same time is counterproductive (as was the reverse, practiced by President Bush). Lower taxes is apparently not in the European public sector DNA.

President Obama, on the other hand, is not cutting the bureaucracy and is raising public debt as well as raising taxes (as the Obamacare legislation will clearly do). So Americans have no reason to feel smug. At least the Europeans seem to realize they have to do something about their economic problems. To their credit, it is not only European officials who have become economic realists, I found most British and Dutch “persons in the street” aware of the problem, and resigned to change. Again, our Western European friends overall seem a bit ahead of us in this regard.

I suspect, however, that the European left will not allow sensible measures and public austerity to occur without demonstrations, strikes and other public expressions of their outrage and disapproval. It could be a volatile summer this year across the Pond.

But now it’s time to turn back to our own “volatile” election environment, and the mid-term elections ahead. It’s always good to be back home.

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