Could Drastic Euro-Style Spending Cuts Happen Here?

Thousands of demonstrators rallied in London this fall against harsh austerity measures in Britain.

Thousands of demonstrators rallied in London this fall against harsh austerity measures unveiled Wednesday by the British government. Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

As Britain joins the string of European nations from Ireland to Italy that have resorted to austerity measures — with deep and immediate cuts in public-sector jobs, entitlement programs and defense spending — what are the chances it could happen in the U.S.?

Unlikely, says David Wessel, economics editor of The Wall Street Journal.

The U.K. government has ordered spending cuts totaling $130 billion through 2015, which amounts to about 1 percent of gross domestic product per year. That would be the equivalent of slashing the U.S. budget by $250 billion in a single year — a level of pain that isn't "even in the talks stage" on this side of the Atlantic, Wessel tells NPR's Renee Montagne on Morning Edition.

Instead, $250 billion is "about what President [Obama] has asked the deficit reduction commission that he's appointed to do over four years," Wessel says.

Britain's finance minister, George Osborne, said the cuts — which will wipe out an estimated 500,000 government jobs — along with tax increases are needed to close spending deficits.

"Basically, Britain is proposing to wipe out its deficit in five years, and President Obama's plea is that we come up with some policies that will leave us with a deficit of 3 percent of GDP by 2015," he says.

"I think the most interesting thing is that the new British government is willing to tackle entitlement spending, the benefits that upper- and middle-class and, in some cases, poor people get in Britain."

He adds that "it's something that people talk about doing here, but something that people are afraid to actually do."

Such cuts are feasible in Britain because the climate is much different from in the U.S., where politicians of all stripes talk vaguely about reducing spending but rarely have the backbone to be specific, he says.

"They have a parliamentary system where what the prime minister wants, he gets," Wessel says. "They elected a government that was promising austerity and they're getting it."

He acknowledges that trying to compare the two economies as "apples and apples" is difficult, because the public sector in Britain is so much larger than in the U.S.

Britain has about 6 million public-sector jobs and a population of 62 million people, while the U.S. has just over 2 million public-sector jobs and a population of 307 million.

Britain also remains much more vulnerable to global financial markets than the U.S., he says.

"They can't count on borrowing trillions of dollars a year from the Chinese at very low interest rates. They are a small economy," Wessel says. "The prime minister's case is 'if we don't do this, no one will lend to us and things will be even worse.' "

But economists remain split over whether Britain's move makes sense while the global economic picture remains so weak.

"Some see what the British government is doing as a model of courage and leadership — the sort of things that Republicans might do if they took over but seem to be afraid to do in order to get our fiscal house in order," Wessel says.

"But others think this is lunacy, this is strangling a weak economy," he says. "Some of those economists think … if the [British] economy gets so weak, they will just have to pull back because tightening fiscal policy in the face of a fragile world economy is just stupid."

So what could the U.S. do if it wanted to get serious about cutting its own deficit?

Raise the retirement age on Social Security and "change the way we inflation-adjust all sorts of federal benefits," Wessel says.

"We'd have to make deep cuts in departments across the government — defense to education — and we'd have to revisit health care" in order to slow its growth "for real this time."

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