Ireland is the success story of austerity, the figures prove it. According to the IMF, the domestic economy grew 2.38% over 2010-2012. The bitter medicine is working. Soon we’ll be able to borrow on the markets again.
But even the IMF admits it got it wrong in Greece. Severe austerity there has only deepened recession and dashed any hope of quick recovery. Yet somehow the very same policy seems to have worked in Ireland. Mysterious.
Hold on. Is this not the same Ireland that was recently called a tax haven in the US Congress? A country that – there is no secret to this – encourages transnational corporations to declare their profits here instead of in
other, higher-taxing jurisdictions. How much of our apparent growth, touted by our EU partners as the fruit of prudent austerity, is actually owed to what we might call the Tourism For Your Taxes sector?
Every damn bit of it.
Discounting the money-shuffling activities of transnationals, the domestic economy in Ireland declined by 5.2% between 2010 and 2012 (Source: Dr. Constantin Gurdgiev). The real economy – the one in which people who actually live here have to work and buy things and pay their (much higher) taxes – is one of closing businesses, joblessness, emigration, debt. Austerity as it actually works.
This presents an interesting conundrum for our EU partners. They wish both to use us as proof that austerity works, and to condemn taxation practices that are patently ripping them off, all the while maintaining the cognitive dissonance necessary to avoid acknowledging a causal connection.
Sadly though the jail term is not for social larceny, but merely contempt of court. Which reminds me… Now cases are ongoing I probably need to scatter the word “allegedly” liberally through the following. But it seems that the Quinn family, having invested well but not wisely in the failed Anglo-Irish Bank, attempted to hide their assets from their creditors. Which, since the state has taken ownership of this mess, is us the taxpayers.
There was a stupid debate on the radio today, where a loyal follower of the Quinn camp came on to argue that the family was being persecuted. It’s too late to act like innocent dupes of the big bad bank though, when you’ve been caught trying to hide your money down the back of Russia.
It was a big bad bank however (allegedly, allegedly…), and the other recent good news from the fiduciary front is that Anglo’s erstwhile financial director has been charged with sixteen fraud offences. Sixteen. Imagine, a banker could actually go to jail.
But for how long? A friend of mine did an interesting calculation. A few months ago, someone received a six-year sentence for not paying VAT on the garlic he imported. Don’t say that’s harsh until you see some of the garlic we get in the shops; you’ll agree that hanging is too good for them. The penalty was so severe because the tax he evaded came to €1.6 million. Which establishes that sentences are proportional to how much you rip off the State. Interesting…
Six years for 1.6 million – that’s 3.75 years for each million off-ripped. Anglo’s greedy machinations cost the exchequer €47 billion (€30.6 billion + interest). So if his punishment is to be kept in line, he’ll have to go away for… 175,250 years.
Not to despair though. What with prison overcrowding he’ll probably be out in just a few thousand.
The IMF has some helpful suggestions about how we might meet our loan repayments. To sum up: Make the poor poorer. Social welfare rates that are “too high” are a disincentive to work, apparently.
Ask yourself though, what level of unemployment assistance would be low enough for the IMF? Just one euro a day would be sufficient inducement to stay at home, if the job market was also only offering one euro.
And right now the job market is offering most people precisely no euro at all, because there are no jobs for them. To those, even a zero level of dole payment would still act as a disincentive.
To follow the IMF’s logic to its conclusion therefore, we need to fine people for not working.
It is orthodox nonsense of course. All lowering welfare can do is make more people desperate for work, so increasing the labour supply. It doesn’t magically create jobs. If viable employment just appeared because people wanted it badly enough we wouldn’t have a lot of famines in the world, would we? The only thing lower welfare can magically create is poverty, and poverty in turn increases despair, dissent, conflict and crime.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, IMF, but we have already lowered the social welfare rates. Several times. Did it lead to an increase in jobs? No. Funnily enough, the number of unemployed actually rose.
Oddly, the proposal which seemed to get all the media attention is the idea that means-testing might be introduced for child benefit. I think I see why. We have come to expect that the poor will routinely be taken outside and kicked bloody at every budget. Means-testing child benefit though, that could hit middle class people. Controversial!
(Though I noticed that Radio 1 immediately hosted an argument about whether we need child benefit at all. “Why should I pay to bring up someone else’s children?” etc. RTÉ once again failing to distinguish between socially useful public debate and the entertainment value of terrible people shouting at each other. There is really not that big a step between Liveline and the Jeremy Kyle Show.)
Well, should families who don’t actually need child benefit still get it? It seems illogical on the face of it, but there are some good, idealistic reasons behind the payment. One is that a mother, especially of young children, usually doesn’t have much income she has real control over – and that can be true in rich homes as well as poor. This makes her hugely vulnerable, her children effectively hostage to whoever holds the purse strings. The children’s allowance makes here less dependent on her husband or other family members, less vulnerable to bullying and manipulation. It seems like a good thing to me.
Now we may ask is it any business of society to intervene in that way. And in these days of ascendant right-wing selfishness, I am sure there will be plenty willing to debate it. But you know what? That’s our debate. I don’t let the bank tell me what Christmas presents to buy or what food to eat, even if I’m buying them with money they lent me. They can dictate the interest rate and the repayment schedule, but not my values.
IMF, if you want a role in formulating social policy then stand for bloody election. Otherwise, butt out.
If you’re wondering what the Irish debt crisis – and indeed the Euro crisis as a whole – is all about, you could do worse than read this opinion piece, a passionate but clear denunciation of how we are being exploited from independent TDStephen Donnelly. I wouldn’t have put as much emphasis on the public pay deal, but that aside he puts it so well that it’s hardly worth my while writing about it.
I’ll quote him extensively instead… (Emphasis mine)
The bonds¹ were bought from Anglo and INBS in 2007, at the height of the property bubble. They offered higher profits than buying Government bonds, as they didn’t come with a Government guarantee. If the people buying these bonds did their homework, they would have noticed that Anglo and INBS were massively exposed to the Irish property market. They will have read the IMF‘s warning of the “possibility of an abrupt unwinding of the housing boom”. They would have known that the higher potential profits offered by Anglo and INBS came with the clear possibility of losses. Indeed, some of the bonds will have been sold on by the original purchasers at a loss. When this happened, the European financial system did not collapse, the ATMs did not stop working. This week their gamble pays off. Yet again the Ferrari showrooms in London, New York and Tokyo will toast the Irish.
In a massive irony, the ATMs did stop working this week – though at Ulster Bank, the largest operator here the government didn’t have to buy. It turned out to be due to a software update cock-up and not a bank run, but you know what? People dealt with it. Screaming crowds didn’t surge down the streets, horses didn’t start eating each other. Yet that was the scenario the banks used to frighten ministers into nationalising the liabilities of their profit-drunk industry. They bluffed us.
This comes at an enormous human cost. Recently, the HSE told the parents of disabled young adults in Wicklow that there was no longer any money to fund rehabilitative training for their children. […] But we’ll find the €1.1bn [to pay these investors], and we’ll pay the €40m every year in interest. As of last Monday, there were 19 young adults in this situation in the Dublin/Mid-Leinster region. The €40m would pay for their training for the next 150 years.
The Government has reduced welfare payments to single parents, cut support to the disabled, removed staff from Deis² schools and introduced regressive charges. At the same time it incurs enormous interest payments to cover the losses of private sector investors who knew they were betting on a risky venture.
And who knew, what is more, that their reckless lending was fuelling a destructive property bubble. In 2007, they were clearly out to grab a quick profit off a boom. To use a term from the housing market that you don’t hear so much anymore, they were out to “flip” our economy.
They flipped it all right. Those flippers flipped it good.
And this week we reward them for it, with a further €1.1 billion. Money that decent non-gambling taxpayers will work for years if not generations to repay, while the vulnerable in our country have their lives stolen. Whose exactly is the moral hazard here?
Bonds which our government is paying this week, even though they were owed by private financial institutions that went bankrupt.
True, but having a chance to claw back what we pay in is hardly a good reason to vote Yes. Really, this is a much better argument for not ratifying the ESM treaty at all.
Which is still an option (even leaving aside the Pringle case, which may yet decide that they can’t ratify it without another referendum), and I think this amendment failing would provide the government with the perfect pretext not to.
They may well do it anyway though – to bolster Ireland’s boy-scout europhile reputation (what good did that do us again?) and to not rock an already waterlogged boat. €1.27 billion over the next three years seems almost like small change compared to our deficit. Though of course that does rather overlook the fact that we’re liable for anything up to €11 billion – in the unlikely event of anyone, you know, actually needing a bailout.
They tell us we have to vote Yes to access ESM (European Stability Mechanism) funding, in case we ever find ourselves unable to meet current expenditure. But will it really be our only option? It had better not be – the ESM may never come into being after all. Would it be the best? Only in the sense that it might be cheapest. As I argued yesterday, in every other way it is probably the worst option conceivable, less a loan mechanism than a sort of national receivership. I do not believe we can meet its terms.
So what are the other, officially-denied options? You could categorise them in different ways, but I basically see five. I put them here in not my preferred order, but in what I think is roughly the order of likelihood that they’ll be resorted to (though likeliest of all I think is two or more in combination):
1) The EFSF (European Financial Stability Facility). This is the fund we’re currently availing of for the EU/IMF bailout, and though the ESM with its stricter and (it is hoped) more sustainable rules is meant to replace it, the EFSF will continue to exist for more than another year. Hopefully in that time it will become clear whether we need to borrow more.
2) The IMF (International Monetary Fund). The IMF may have a reputation for setting tough conditions on loans, but unlike the ESM it has no entrenched ideological opposition to countries investing in growth. Some argue that they would refuse to loan to countries that the EU had refused, but the organisation itself has not pronounced either way. And as a partner in our current bailout, the IMF has invested in us already. It is not known for letting its investments go bankrupt.
3) Leaving the Euro. Get out in some semi-ordered way, before we’re forced out precipitously like Greece could be any day now. Devaluing our currency rapidly would solve a lot of our problems, but it would not be painless; imports would leap up in price, effectively making us all poorer immediately. But it would be a huge boost for industry and jobs, sparking immediate actual growth. Indeed, much as I am in favour of the single currency in (broad) principle, it is virtually undeniable that we’d be better off now if we’d never joined. Its inertia has only served to exacerbate both boom and bust.
4) Debt Repudiation/Restructuring. The nuclear option to some, the obvious first step to others. In part this is because we have two main sources of debt, so morally different that they need to be taken separately:
(a)Bailout Debt. However pressured we may have been when we agreed to this, there is a strong moral imperative to, you know, do what we said we’d do. But that is not the highest of all values. Debt repayment does not trump such imperatives as, say, not letting people starve. You can always repay a debt later, but people die for good. No one claims it wouldn’t be a drastic step. It is bound to have negative consequences on other countries, and after we did it we’d be pretty much on our own. But remember the adage – if you owe the bank a million, they have a problem. We shouldn’t be afraid to contemplate default if it can win us better terms.
Most likely of course 3 and 4 would need to be done together, as debts denominated in Euros would be so much more painful if we’re paying in Irish Fairy Gold or whatever. (If we’re getting a new currency we may as well have some fun with it). And by the same token, if we aren’t repaying our debts I think the Eurozone would prefer if we got the hell out.
(b)Bank Bondholder Debt. This though we should have repudiated long ago. The taxpayer has no conceivable moral duty to repay this private debt. And if the European banking industry will collapse if they don’t, then quite frankly the European banking industry deserves to collapse. Let’s call their bluff on this one.
5) Taxing the rich. This is last on a list in order of likelihood because of course the rich have considerable influence over these decisions, though in a sensible democracy it would be first. It has been pointed out that with only a moderate tax on capital and/or a new upper tax bracket we could pay off our debts without making cuts at all. That may be unrealistic, but could very significant new revenue be raised without causing capital flight or discouraging investment? I think it could. There is money to be made here, all we’d be doing is raising the price of making it. I think the market can bear that.
And let’s not forget that the richest have been consistently increasing their share of the wealth, while simultaneously reducing their tax contribution, since the 1980s. If they don’t start paying their share again now when will they start?
~ & ~
Well OK, the obvious next question is if all these alternatives exist, why does the government prefer the one that will wreak such havoc?
The answer has to be that they don’t really believe what they are asking us to sign. The draconian terms of the agreement are there to convince the money markets that they won’t profit by breaking up the Euro. In the real world exceptions will be made, just as they were made for Germany when they were in trouble. Right? Perhaps we can fudge what is and isn’t structural deficit; no one seems to know quite what that means so it’s a useful bit of ambiguity. Surely, when it comes down to it, we cannot be held to borrowing limits and repayment rates that would wreck our economy?
Perhaps they sincerely believe that, perhaps it’s even true. But to sign your name to a contract on the basis that you hope it will never be enforced is, to put it mildly, unwise.
Well that didn’t take long. Really there is no positive argument beyond the stability of the Euro. As good a thing as that might be, it seems a trifling technicality when compared with the very real and immediate suffering the treaty would impose. So it is perhaps not surprising that the government has focused instead on reasons not to vote no. Effectively they’re reduced to the null argument: Well what would you do? If we need more money, how would you raise it?
By asking this they hope to split opposition. Different opponents of the treaty have different ways they’d prefer to raise income, and if they can move the debate on to that then people may forget it’s not the urgent question. It’s like someone driving straight at an oncoming truck and saying “Well which way would you swerve?” The government’s case rests almost solely on the argument that we may require aid from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), and that this would be preferable to other loan options. But that’s actually composed of two questionable assumptions:
Firstly, we are obviously going to avoid another “bailout” if we at all can. The necessity will depend very much on global markets, how fast we can regrow our economy and so on. The really mad thing here is that if we sign up for the Fiscal Compact, the restrictions it will place on our opportunities for growth make it so much more likely that we will need a further emergency loan.
If we do, will the new ESM be the best lender? Well it will almost certainly offer the lowest interest rates going – for sure lower than any we’ll be able to get on the open market for a long time. The problem is the conditions. Obviously the ESM won’t lend us money to invest in growth, because that’s what the whole Fiscal Compact is ideologically opposed to. We can borrow to pay for emergency things, like public wage bills or – irony warning – loan repayments we can’t meet, but not to invest.
And the mad part of this is that if we do sign the treaty, we are committing ourselves to these conditions even if we borrow from somewhere else. Even if we raise funds on the open market, even if we go to the IMF, even if the European Social Fund never comes into existence – which is a very real possibility – we still have a commitment not to borrow to invest, on pain of having our budgets dictated to us. Joining the Fiscal Compact is agreeing to abide by the conditions of a loan we may never get. Who does that?
Quite opposed to there being no other option for funding except the ESM, there is almost an embarrassment of of them. None of them is a picnic of course, but I would argue that any one of them is preferable to the Fiscal Compact. This post is already too long, but tomorrow let’s play the government’s game and see what other options we have apart from destroying our own economy just to be obliging.
The €50 charge for the medical card is surely a decoy, on the list purely to make increased prescription costs and bed closures seem more acceptable. Don’t let them away with it. There are ways to save money – or save the euro – that don’t involve ritual human sacrifice. We have a two-tier health system more wasteful than you’d see in any nightmare, even if you regularly dream about inefficient public resource allocation.
Consider a moment: We have to maintain a huge national infrastructure, staffed by public employees with all that entails, and then not let the majority of people use it because they’re not poor enough. Those who don’t qualify are forced into the hands of the profit-making health industry – which we then subsidize by allowing them to use the huge public infrastructure. We’ve basically taken on their capital costs.
This government was elected on the promise of introducing a single-tier health system. OK, they could have got elected on the promise of doing a little dance, but this is the one they made and it’s a highly desirable – in fact a necessary – thing. Problem is, it looks as though they’re employing the simple expedient of killing the lower one off.
Sixty percent – the haircut that lenders to Greece may have to take if Europe is to avoid bailing their economy out to the tune of half a trillion. Maybe the powers that be – the ‘troika’ of the IMF, the commission, and the ECB – are finally coming to terms with the idea that crushing all life out of a country with punitive austerity makes about as much sense as treating traumatic blood loss with leeches. If the eurozone economies are to be saved then the continent’s major banks are going to have to take some of the pain too.
For Greece only, you understand. The same logic doesn’t apply to us for some reason.
A patient at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, Louth, just spent five days on a trolley in the Accident and Emergency department. In better days that would have constituted a horror story in itself, but today it barely raises an eyebrow. Wait till you find out what he had. TB. Tuberculosis. There in public, with a constant flow of sick and injured people around him.
The devastation that TB wrought on this country, that’s still a living memory. It was one of the primary forces that led to the creation of what social health provision we had. Which is now in danger of being sacrificed to expediency – and banks. Banks that lent recklessly into our economy because they were out to make a profit, yet somehow must not be allowed to take a loss.
Many have asked recently whether ratings agencies like Moody’s, Fitch, or Standard & Poor’s really are the neutral commentators they claim to be. Do they provide advice to investors without fear or favour, merely giving their assessment in a disinterested way? Or are they out to get us?
To think the latter would seem just downright paranoid. And yet… This post on well-respected politics blog Crooked Timber suggests that there is something rather difficult to explain going on with the agencies’ assessments of the Irish economy. Every time Ireland complies with the conditions of the EU-IMF deal by cutting spending, the agencies downgrade it further. This downgrade means that the goal of raising money on the markets moves still further away.
Let’s just repeat that – the more we cut our budget spending, the less likely it is we’ll be able to borrow the money we need to pay for our budget.
It really does seem they’re out to get us.
Why would they be? They’re not there to frustrate our economic recovery or undermine the EU’s plan. They’re there to give the best advice to investors. That’s how they make their living.
But wait – Can’t it be both? The thing is, the ratings agencies do not – cannot – issue predictions while pretending the prediction itself is not going to influence the market. If they did, the predictions would be wrong. They must have long accepted that they help shape the market they pronounce on. Yes, they are there to give good advice to their clients. But that can mean giving advice that is good for their clients.
They also know that when a currency collapses, there’s a killing to be made. The Euro’s fall could be the biggest free money explosion in history, and what easier way to cause that fall than to bring down one of its more vulnerable economies?