Ninety-nine days in, with 1,362 days to go, and we can see with some clarity the trajectory on which Barack Obama wants to take the United States. To put it in geographical terms, he wants to move us some considerable distance toward Europe.
This is apparent in the budget he has presented for the next fiscal year and its projections for the years to come. Government spending is scheduled to rise as a percentage of the economy. This will be accomplished by raising taxes and, even more, by borrowing that will double the national debt in five years and nearly triple it in 10 years. This trajectory can be altered in the future, but much of it is set in stone by the $3 trillion-plus deficit that will, give or take a few hundred billion, be produced by the budget voted this year.
Other Obama goals are less certain of achievement. He wants government to take over much of the one-seventh of the economy that is devoted to health care, but how much and by what means are still unclear. One result, common in Europe, is likely: rationing of care. Obama also wants to reshape the energy sector by imposing a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions. This will raise energy costs, particularly on the 60 percent of Americans whose electricity is produced by coal, and will provide opportunities for corporations to make profits by gaming the system. But it's not clear that it will encourage development of the one plentiful non-carbon-emitting energy source that France, for one, relies on -- nuclear power.
The European model sacrifices growth in the hope of reducing economic inequality. American experience suggests that this can work, but not perhaps at an acceptable cost.
There are two decades in which economic inequality was sharply reduced. One was the 1930s. High earners made less and low earners fell down toward zero, so incomes were more equal. But the cost in lost economic growth and human misery were very high.
The other decade was the 1940s when, in the phrase of the day, there was a war on. Government controlled wages and prices, required workers to join unions, ordered industries to produce arms and mobilized 16 million Americans into the military.
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