John Hughes

Can Obama match Britain's guts on budget cuts?

Amid widespread frustration over government spending, US politicians should heed British Prime Minister David Cameron's frank talk on debt – and his plan to spend only what his government takes in.

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When Cuba conceded that its economy had gone down the tubes, it sent delegations to far-off China, Vietnam, and Russia to learn how they ran their changing economies.

American politicians need not travel so far for some tips to ease their own struggling economy. A quick trip across the Atlantic to Britain these days would offer some intriguing hints.

There, a conservative new prime minister, speaking with almost Churchillian directness in a time of challenge, is calling on Britons to drastically curb the national debt, slashing the government budget by 19 percent, with a massive transfer of power “from the state to citizens, politicians to people, government to society.”

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David Cameron, whose Conservative Party succeeded in ousting the left-wing Labour Party and forming a coalition with the minority Liberal Democrats, promises a total transformation from the old ways of doing things: from a “high-spending, all-controlling, heavy-handed state,” to “national unity and purpose, from big government to the big society.”

He says volunteers can handle some programs currently carried out by government. He says local authorities should take over many of its functions. He says Britons “who can work but won’t work” should not get unemployment benefits. He says Britons should be defined not by “what they consume, but by what they contribute.” He says the affluent should help the less-affluent.

All this might sound refreshing to many Americans as they air their disgust for increasingly big government and bloated spending in Washington, while they try to balance their personal budgets between essential expenditure and eroded incomes amid economic downturn.

But the tough-sounding policies that Prime Minister Cameron espouses will put Britons’ mettle sorely to the test after years of entitlement under a welfare state.

The “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” kind of oratory that Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed to the British people as he demanded sacrifice in World War II may not go down so well from Cameron as he calls for sacrifice in today’s pampered environment.

The government must cut about $130 billion from its budget over the next five years to reach its declared goals. A half million government workers are expected to lose their jobs. That rate of retrenchment would not fly in America given its present level of unemployment.

Meanwhile the British government faces a cacophony of dissent from the Labour Party now in opposition, backed by labor unions. The party’s new leader, Ed Miliband, terms the proposed budget cuts “damaging” and “dangerous.”

An indication of public discomfort with the stiff, new austerity policies came when the government announced its intention to cut child-support payments to middle-class families making more than $70,000 a year. All British families have for decades qualified for a weekly payment of what is now $32 a week for the first child and $21 a week for each child thereafter. Families due to lose the subsidies are understandably angry.

Cameron has responded to such protests by declaring that he knew fiscal discipline would not be easy, but “it’s fair that those with broader shoulders should bear a greater load.”

In the United States, there is widespread feeling that government spending in some areas is excessive, even irresponsible.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates wins popular acclaim when he says his department could reduce the number of admirals, generals, and other Pentagon workers, and probably do without some pending weapons systems.

The new British government’s determination to slash budget deficits and ultimately spend no more than it takes in will resonate with many Americans who feel their government should practice the same fiscal responsibility as they do in their personal housekeeping.

The crunch comes with the decision: what to cut and what to keep.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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