The good news about the bad news here, with everybody saying that George W. Bush is running out of gas with nearly three years left before he goes back to Texas to cut and clear brush full time at Prairie Chapel Ranch, is that the news is worse in other places.
There’s a reason why immigrants, not only from Mexico but from Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia, are breaking down the door — literally, along the Rio Grande — just to get in for a chance to wash dishes, cut the grass or change the diapers of a rich gringo’s baby.
Imagine how the people still with a pulse in Europe feel about their prospects in the hands of Jacques Chirac, the old guy in France, and even Angela Merkel, the fresh face in Germany, and Romano Prodi, the new man (by a whisker) in Italy.
Europe is running on empty, too. Bound by tradition, custom, habit, goof-offs, layabouts and greedy and corrupt unions, the leaders of the big European powers are unable to break out of those restraints to make their economies grow. The only thing growing in Europe, in fact, is the size of Muslim families and the bill for the welfare state.
“Everybody in Europe agrees that things can’t go on the way they are going,” says Wolfgang Nowak, the German economist at Deutsche Bank, in the New York Times. “Everybody wants change. At the same time, everybody does everything so that things don’t change.”
Anyone who screws up the courage to try to do anything quickly loses his nerve as soon as someone, even an overgrown child, says “boo.” Jacques Chirac and his men were taught a lesson when they tried to make it easier for employers to expand their shrunken job markets, by easily dismissing lazy and inefficient young workers within the first few months of employment. M. Chirac, who has never been mistaken for a profile in courage, quickly retreated when hundreds of barely employable youths staged the requisite riot. (Rioting has become the national sport of la belle France.)
“The political leaders of all these countries know what needs to be done, and it’s not rocket science,” Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform in London, tells Richard Bernstein of the New York Times. “The Lisbon Agenda lays out the objectives. But as Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg, has said, ‘everybody knows what reforms we need to implement but nobody knows how to implement them and win an election afterward.’”
The Lisbon Agenda is an ambitious list of goals, adopted by the European Union six years ago. The Europeans agreed to create 20 million jobs and maintain an annual growth rate of 3 percent, through innovation and experimentation and investment in schools and new technology. This was nice work if you could get it, but nobody could. Nobody gets innovation through starchy insistence on stifling initiative and protecting the dead hand of bureaucracy. The only thing that gets invented in such an atmosphere are ways to prevent anyone from doing anything new and potentially profitable.
The Germans, who are addicted to one of the most luxurious welfare states in Europe, actually adopted new rules to allow employers to sack workers who can’t cut it over their first two years on the job. This was precisely what the French tried and failed to do. Now Angela Merkel, eager to do what men can’t, is eager to do more, but this will require moderating the power of the German unions as Maggie Thatcher did in Britain three decades ago. But Frau Merkel must govern within a coalition with the Social Democrats, and there’s the rub.
The free market is anathema to the Europeans, even to the Europeans who understand how bleak their future may be, and why. Silvio Berlusconi, a free-market democrat, failed with reforms in Italy, and there’s no reason to expect his left-of-center successor, who will preside over a coalition including the Communists, to do better. There’s only the silver lining that the situation may be hopeless, but in Italy it’s never serious.
“The trap has snapped,” the Italian daily La Repubblica observed glumly in the wake of the election that seemed to decide very little. “It is as if Italy … cannot build a new government, but it also can’t keep the old one. It is a perfect metaphor for Italy.” Not a bad one for the neighbors, either.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.