The United States and Europe offer a fascinating political contrast just now. In Europe, notably in Germany, France and Great Britain, political leaders facing yawning deficits are trying to cut back on social spending. They're not really reconsidering whether they should continue to have the welfare states most European countries committed to after World War II, but they're trying to make welfare spending somewhat affordable and responsible – and at least in France face massive demonstrations that threaten to tie the country in knots. In the United States our current political leaders are working assiduously to beef up the welfare state to the kinds of levels that threaten to bankrupt European governments – and the demonstrations we hear about are Tea Party aficionados seeking to get the government to exercise a modicum of fiscal discipline.
In France the government has proposed to raise the retirement age from 60 to – quelle horreur! – 62. This has sparked protests, mostly organized by unions, which have included blockades of gas stations and fuel depots, strikes at refineries, rock-throwing and looting. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered police to quell the demonstrations and seems determined to push his proposed reform through the parliament. But the uproar demonstrates how difficult it can be to take back a special privilege or a promise of "free" money once it has been proffered.