ROME -- If Americans think fuel and food prices are high, they should try Europe, where both can nearly double those in the United States -- while salaries here are often lower.
Italians, like most now-broke Southern European countries, are desperate to privatize bloated public-owned utilities. Politicians are trying to curb pensions, and to encourage the private sector to hire workers and buy equipment, as a way of attracting wary foreigner parents to lend such perpetual adolescents more bailout money.
In theory, Italians accept that they are going to have to be a lot more like the Germans, and less like the Irish, Portuguese and Spaniards. In fact, they may end up like the Greeks, who are still striking and occasionally rioting because too few foreigners wish to continue subsidizing their socialist paradise. Red graffiti on Italian streets still echoes socialist solidarity, while Italian politicians talk capitalism to foreign lenders.
The European Union, like the 19th-century Congress of Vienna, can point to one achievement -- a general absence of war in Western Europe for more than 60 years. Otherwise, almost all its socialist promises of an equality of result are imploding before their eyes.
The higher taxes go, the more people cheat on them, the less revenue comes in. There are sometimes two prices in Italy (and often elsewhere in Europe) -- the official price that includes a high value-added tax that the unwary pay, and the negotiated, under-the-table, tax-free discount that the haggling shopper obtains.
Europe is essentially defenseless, as governments further trim defense budgets to keep shrinking spread-the-wealth entitlements alive. The French and British -- the continent's two premier military powers -- have been trying for nearly three months to defeat Muammar Gadhafi's ragtag nation of less than 7 million, itself rent by civil war. The ancestors of Wellington and Napoleon so far seem no match for Gadhafi or the Taliban. Both nations will soon be leaving Afghanistan in frustration.
Subsidized wind and solar power have not led to much of an increase in European electricity supplies, but they helped to make power bills soar. Highly taxed gas runs about $10 a gallon, ensuring tiny cars and dependence on mass transit. Central planners love the resulting state-subsidized, high-density European apartment living without garages, back yards or third bedrooms. Yet the recent Japanese tsunami and accompanying nuclear contamination have reminded European governments that their similarly fragile models of highly urbanized, highly concentrated living make them equally vulnerable to such disasters.
Popular culture may praise the use of the subway and train. But about every minute or two, some government grandee in a motorized entourage rushes through traffic as an escort of horn-blaring police forces traffic off to the side. A European technocratic class in limousines that runs government bureaus and international organizations -- for example, disgraced former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn -- lives like 18th-century aristocrats at Versailles as they mouth socialist platitudes.
Throughout Western Europe, a subordinate class of unassimilated North African, sub-Saharan African and Pakistani immigrants hawk wares and do menial labor -- and are increasingly despised by Europeans as times get rougher. A growing number of the working classes here are getting fed up that the welfare state means sky-high fuel and food costs for the masses, small and expensive apartments, limited disposable income -- and lots of aristocratic perks for the technocrats who oversee the redistributive mess. The notion of a large and esteemed class of self-made, independent-thinking business people and empowered upper-middle-class entrepreneurs is a concept that seems foreign, if not subversive.
An acknowledged despair now seems to permeate Western Europe. A glorious past is equated with tourist dollars, not appreciation of the European Renaissance or the Enlightenment. Majestic churches are more moneymaking museums or tourist stops than honored hallmarks of past culture and current faith. European Christendom often helped to preserve humanity through horrific crises, but you would never learn that from the average cynical European, who appears either indifferent to or apologetic about both his religion and the hallowed European origins of Western Civilization, responsible for much of what is good in the world today.
All this European turmoil raises a paradox. If dispirited Europeans are conceding that something is terribly wrong with their half-century-long experiment with socialism, unassimilated immigrants, cultural apologies, defense cuts and post-nationalism, why in the world is the Obama administration intent on adopting what Europeans are rejecting?