David Cameron, Britain's new prime minister, says that his country's fiscal condition is even worse than he thought it was during the campaign, when he assured voters that it was pretty awful. Addressing it will change Britain's "whole way of life," he said the other day. Not "might," or "will unless we get our act together," but "will," period. No matter what we do. The time for "if" solutions is past--i.e., we're screwed if we don't do X--is past. We're screwed no matter what we do. There was no talk of rising to the occasion and coming through stronger than ever. The only choice he offered was between terrible (if we do everything right) and catastrophic (if we don't).
To frighten people even further, members of Cameron's government have been warning of "Canadian-style 'star chambers.'" The star chambers were actually secret courts in Britain during medieval times, where people could go to betray each other. It's hard to imagine how adding the modifier "Canadian-style" could make the imagery more terrifying. "Canadian-style star chambers" sounds like an oxymoron. You imagine friendly, helpful inquisitors in beaver-skin coats meting out suspended sentences. But apparently the 1990s Canadian government led by Jean Chretien is regarded as the model of no-nonsense budget cutting, having reduced government spending by 20 percent in three years and turned the country from deficit to surplus. Of course Bill Clinton did something similar to the deficit--if not to government spending--here in the U.S., without forcing cabinet members to justify their departments' existence before secret panels of colleagues. And Canada was helped mightily by being next door to the thriving U.S. economy of that era, rather than the sickly Eurozone that Britain abuts on today.
But let's leave Canada alone to enjoy her Snidely Wiplash moment on the world stage, and compare Cameron's rhetoric about the deficit with Barack Obama's. To be sure, Cameron has an ulterior motive or three: to shift as much blame as possible onto his predecessor, to prepare people for the coming painful details, and to suppress expectations early on in order to make anything he accomplishes seem more triumphant. Nevertheless, does anyone think that Cameron is exaggerating?
By one measure, Britain's debt problem is not as serious as America's. With one fifth of America's population, its government deficit is only 15 percent of that of the US: $223 billion compared with $1.4 trillion. And this does not include America's state budgets, many of which are in deficit. America enjoys the invaluable luxury of being able to borrow money in its own currency. But the only advantage of that is the power to inflate the value of the debt (along with everything else) away. And when I raised the possibility of this a couple of months ago in the print edition of the Atlantic, I was assured by my economic betters that this was not a possibility worth worrying about. So that's a relief.
There is nothing I could find in any of the president's recent rhetoric about "fiscal discipline" to suggest, except in the vaguest and unvivid terms, that straightening out the nation's finances will require individual citizens to "change their way of life." Nor has this been a theme taken up by any candidate on the midterm campaign trail. Voters have cooperated in their own hoodwinking about this, as politicians of both parties talk about disciplining the "government," as if this was some huge "other" that the citizens were not accountable for.
The humiliation of having to accept "Canadian-style" anything will be the smallest possible price we will have to pay for our folly. Before this is over, we may well have gone through Spanish-style inquisitions, Russian-style pogroms, French-style revolutions (complete with guillotine) and even an auto-da-fe or two.