One of the problems of a small country like Ireland is that the intelligentsia’s level of economic literacy tends to be pretty low. This column by Stephen Collins (the Irish Times’ political correspondent, and an astute judge of electoral politics) is a good example of the problem.
TAOISEACH BRIAN Cowen insisted last night that the debt burden on Ireland under the terms of the EU/International Monetary Fund bailout would not cripple the country as his political opponents are claiming but would instead put it on the road to recovery.
He pointed out that the assumptions underlying the plan mean that, at its height, the burden of debt will be 102 per cent of gross national product, roughly where it was in 1992/1993 when Ireland was on the cusp of the Celtic Tiger period. Cowen recalled that, back in 1985, the debt burden on the shoulders of the Irish taxpayer was considerably worse than it would be under the EU-IMF programme for Ireland announced last night. Of course, his confident predictions are based on the assumption that the programme will work and that the targets set out in it will be met both in relation to the public finances and to the banks. Ultimately, it will all depend on whether the doom merchants are proved right and the European Union lurches into a crisis from which it will never recover or whether normal economic and political conditions are gradually restored.
Back in 1987, few people believed the Bruton/MacSharry budget introduced at one of the lowest points in Irish history would within a few years have led to the Celtic Tiger economy. Good luck as well as courageous political decision-making underpinned that transformation and both elements will be required if the programme is to work as planned.
… Another issue that did not get serious traction in the talks was the simplistic call to “burn the bondholders” for which German chancellor Angela Merkel has to take a lot of responsibility. The European Central Bank was adamantly opposed to the notion as any such move would threaten the financial stability of Europe. It is ironic that the zealots of the US Tea Party movement and many of those on the left in Ireland share a common belief in “burning bondholders” and damn the consequences. The lesson of the Great Depression of the 1930s was that taking that kind of approach leads to widespread bank failures and national economic collapse which, in turn, threatens the democratic foundations on which our society is built.
The problem is that this argument is based on soothing but quite nonsensical assumptions. It takes as a given that Ireland’s growth rate from the mid 1990’s through 2008 or so reflected “normal economic and political conditions.” They didn’t. Ireland was playing catch-up with the developed industrial democracies – and during catch-up, one can hope for very high growth rates thanks to under-utilized resources. Even if the world’s economic system were magically to restabilize overnight, one could not expect to see a return of the conditions under which Ireland was able to eliminate its earlier debt overhang. And anyone with a smattering of understanding of the basics of economic growth would know this.
Unfortunately, the more plausible outcome is the one presented by Kevin O’Rourke in which emigration and fiscal burden lead to a vicious cycle.
In the long run, migration sets a floor to Irish wages. It has been thus ever since the Famine of the 1840s, and I don’t believe that the Irish have become less mobile in the last 20 years. Now, a lot of Irish wages are still high by international standards, but eventually as ‘internal devaluation’ proceeds, and as peoples’ living standards are lowered as a result of tax hikes and cuts to public services, it seems inevitable that the ‘migration constraint’ will start to bind again. … If the left hand side of this equation falls too far below the right hand side, people will leave until equilibrium is re-established. … There are fixed costs to running a state, and the debts we are now being saddled with are not population-dependent. You don’t have to be Paul Krugman to see the potential for some pretty nasty feedback loops here.
Update: More on Collins from Kevin O’Rourke.