WASHINGTON -- We Americans fool ourselves if we ignore the parallels between Europe's problems and our own. It's reassuring to think them separate, and the fixation on the euro -- Europe's common currency -- buttresses that mindset. But Europe's turmoil is more than a currency crisis and was inevitable, in some form, even if the euro had never been created. It's ultimately a crisis of the welfare state, which has grown too large to be easily supported economically. People can't live with it -- and can't live without it. The American predicament is little different.
Government expansion was one of the 20th century's great transformations. Wealthy nations adopted programs for education, health care, unemployment insurance, old-age assistance, public housing and income redistribution. "Public spending for these activities had been almost nonexistent at the beginning of the 20th century," writes economist Vito Tanzi in his book "Government versus Markets."
"Survival of the fittest" no longer sufficed. Europeans have never liked markets as much as Americans do. In the 1880s, German Chancellor Bismarck created health, old-age and accident insurance: landmarks regarded as originating the welfare state. The Great Depression discredited capitalism, and after World War II, communists and socialists enjoyed strong support in part because they "had formed the backbone of wartime resistance movements," writes Barry Eichengreen in "The European Economy Since 1945."The numbers -- to those who don't know them -- are astonishing. In 1870, all government spending was 7.3 percent of national income in the United States, 9.4 percent in Britain, 10 percent in Germany and 12.6 percent in France. By 2007, the figures were 36.6 percent for the United States, 44.6 percent for Britain, 43.9 percent for Germany and 52.6 percent for France. Military costs once dominated budgets; now, social spending does.
To flourish, the welfare state requires favorable economics and demographics: rapid economic growth to pay for social benefits; and young populations to support the old. Both economics and demographics have moved adversely.
The great expansion of Europe's welfare states started in the 1950s and 1960s, when annual economic growth for its rich nations averaged 4.5 percent compared with a historical rate since 1820 of 2.1 percent, notes Eichengreen. This sort of growth, it was assumed, would continue indefinitely. Not so. From 1973 to 2000, growth settled back to 2.1 percent. More recently, it's been lower.
Demographics shifted, too. In 2000, Italy's 65-and-over population was already 18 percent of the total; in 2010, it was 21 percent, and the projection for 2050 is 34 percent. Figures for the European Union's 27 countries are 16 percent, 18 percent and 29 percent.
Until the financial crisis, the welfare state existed in a shaky equilibrium with sluggish economic growth. The crisis destroyed that equilibrium. Economic growth slowed. Debt -- already high -- rose. Government bonds once considered ultra-safe became risky.
Switch to the United States. Broadly speaking, the story is similar. The great expansion of America's welfare state (though we avoid that term) occurred in the 1960s and 1970s with the creation of Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps. In 1960, 26 percent of federal spending represented payments for individuals; in 2010, the figure was 66 percent. Economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s averaged about 4 percent; from 2000 to 2007, the average was 2.4 percent. Our elderly population was 13 percent in 2010; the 2050 estimate is 20 percent.
What separates the United States and Europe is that (so far) we haven't suffered a backlash from bond markets. Despite high and rising U.S. government debt, Treasury securities still fetch low interest rates, about 2 percent on 10-year bonds. Will that last? It's true that cutting spending too quickly might threaten a fragile economic recovery. But President Obama and Congress can't be accused of making this mistake. They do little and excel at blaming each other.
The modern welfare state has reached a historic reckoning. As a political institution, it hasn't adapted to change. Politics and economics are at loggerheads. Vast populations in Europe and America expect promised benefits and, understandably, resent any hint that they will be cut. Elected politicians respond accordingly. But the resulting inertia poses an economic threat, one already realized in Europe. As deficits or taxes rise, the risk is that economic instability will increase, growth will decline, or both. Paying promised benefits becomes harder. Or austerity becomes unavoidable.
The paradox is that the welfare state, designed to improve security and dampen social conflict, now looms as an engine for insecurity, conflict and disappointment. Facing the hard questions of finding a sustainable balance between individual protections and better economic growth, the Europeans have spent years dawdling. The parallel with our situation is all too obvious.