Autor: Paul Krugman
What we need now is another Jonathan Swift.
Most people know Swift as the author of “Gulliver’s Travels.” But recent events have me thinking of his 1729 essay “A Modest Proposal,” in which he observed the dire poverty of the Irish, and offered a solution: sell the children as food. “I grant this food will be somewhat dear,” he admitted, but this would make it “very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.”
O.K., these days it’s not the landlords, it’s the bankers — and they’re just impoverishing the populace, not eating it. But only a satirist — and one with a very savage pen — could do justice to what’s happening to Ireland now.
The Irish story began with a genuine economic miracle. But eventually this gave way to a speculative frenzy driven by runaway banks and real estate developers, all in a cozy relationship with leading politicians. The frenzy was financed with huge borrowing on the part of Irish banks, largely from banks in other European nations.
Then the bubble burst, and those banks faced huge losses. You might have expected those who lent money to the banks to share in the losses. After all, they were consenting adults, and if they failed to understand the risks they were taking that was nobody’s fault but their own. But, no, the Irish government stepped in to guarantee the banks’ debt, turning private losses into public obligations.
Before the bank bust, Ireland had little public debt. But with taxpayers suddenly on the hook for gigantic bank losses, even as revenues plunged, the nation’s creditworthiness was put in doubt. So Ireland tried to reassure the markets with a harsh program of spending cuts.
Step back for a minute and think about that. These debts were incurred, not to pay for public programs, but by private wheeler-dealers seeking nothing but their own profit. Yet ordinary Irish citizens are now bearing the burden of those debts.
Or to be more accurate, they’re bearing a burden much larger than the debt — because those spending cuts have caused a severe recession so that in addition to taking on the banks’ debts, the Irish are suffering from plunging incomes and high unemployment.
But there is no alternative, say the serious people: all of this is necessary to restore confidence.
Strange to say, however, confidence is not improving. On the contrary: investors have noticed that all those austerity measures are depressing the Irish economy — and are fleeing Irish debt because of that economic weakness.
Now what? Last weekend Ireland and its neighbors put together what has been widely described as a “bailout.” But what really happened was that the Irish government promised to impose even more pain, in return for a credit line — a credit line that would presumably give Ireland more time to, um, restore confidence. Markets, understandably, were not impressed: interest rates on Irish bonds have risen even further.
Does it really have to be this way?
In early 2009, a joke was making the rounds: “What’s the difference between Iceland and Ireland? Answer: One letter and about six months.” This was supposed to be gallows humor. No matter how bad the Irish situation, it couldn’t be compared with the utter disaster that was Iceland.
But at this point Iceland seems, if anything, to be doing better than its near-namesake. Its economic slump was no deeper than Ireland’s, its job losses were less severe and it seems better positioned for recovery. In fact, investors now appear to consider Iceland’s debt safer than Ireland’s. How is that possible?
Part of the answer is that Iceland let foreign lenders to its runaway banks pay the price of their poor judgment, rather than putting its own taxpayers on the line to guarantee bad private debts. As the International Monetary Fund notes — approvingly! — “private sector bankruptcies have led to a marked decline in external debt.” Meanwhile, Iceland helped avoid a financial panic in part by imposing temporary capital controls — that is, by limiting the ability of residents to pull funds out of the country.
And Iceland has also benefited from the fact that, unlike Ireland, it still has its own currency; devaluation of the krona, which has made Iceland’s exports more competitive, has been an important factor in limiting the depth of Iceland’s slump.
None of these heterodox options are available to Ireland, say the wise heads. Ireland, they say, must continue to inflict pain on its citizens — because to do anything else would fatally undermine confidence.
But Ireland is now in its third year of austerity, and confidence just keeps draining away. And you have to wonder what it will take for serious people to realize that punishing the populace for the bankers’ sins is worse than a crime; it’s a mistake.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on November 26, 2010, on page A37 of the New York edition.
The best thing about the Irish right now is that there are so few of them. By itself, Ireland can’t do all that much damage to Europe’s prospects. The same can be said of Greece and of Portugal, which is widely regarded as the next potential domino.
But then there’s Spain. The others are tapas; Spain is the main course.
What’s striking about Spain, from an American perspective, is how much its economic story resembles our own. Like America, Spain experienced a huge property bubble, accompanied by a huge rise in private-sector debt. Like America, Spain fell into recession when that bubble burst, and has experienced a surge in unemployment. And like America, Spain has seen its budget deficit balloon thanks to plunging revenues and recession-related costs.
But unlike America, Spain is on the edge of a debt crisis. The U.S. government is having no trouble financing its deficit, with interest rates on long-term federal debt under 3 percent. Spain, by contrast, has seen its borrowing cost shoot up in recent weeks, reflecting growing fears of a possible future default.
Why is Spain in so much trouble? In a word, it’s the euro.
Spain was among the most enthusiastic adopters of the euro back in 1999, when the currency was introduced. And for a while things seemed to go swimmingly: European funds poured into Spain, powering private-sector spending, and the Spanish economy experienced rapid growth.
Through the good years, by the way, the Spanish government appeared to be a model of both fiscal and financial responsibility: unlike Greece, it ran budget surpluses, and unlike Ireland, it tried hard (though with only partial success) to regulate its banks. At the end of 2007 Spain’s public debt, as a share of the economy, was only about half as high as Germany’s, and even now its banks are in nowhere near as bad shape as Ireland’s.
But problems were developing under the surface. During the boom, prices and wages rose more rapidly in Spain than in the rest of Europe, helping to feed a large trade deficit. And when the bubble burst, Spanish industry was left with costs that made it uncompetitive with other nations.
Now what? If Spain still had its own currency, like the United States — or like Britain, which shares some of the same characteristics — it could have let that currency fall, making its industry competitive again. But with Spain on the euro, that option isn’t available. Instead, Spain must achieve “internal devaluation”: it must cut wages and prices until its costs are back in line with its neighbors.
And internal devaluation is an ugly affair. For one thing, it’s slow: it normally take years of high unemployment to push wages down. Beyond that, falling wages mean falling incomes, while debt stays the same. So internal devaluation worsens the private sector’s debt problems.
What all this means for Spain is very poor economic prospects over the next few years. America’s recovery has been disappointing, especially in terms of jobs — but at least we’ve seen some growth, with real G.D.P. more or less back to its pre-crisis peak, and we can reasonably expect future growth to help bring our deficit under control. Spain, on the other hand, hasn’t recovered at all. And the lack of recovery translates into fears about Spain’s fiscal future.
Should Spain try to break out of this trap by leaving the euro, and re-establishing its own currency? Will it? The answer to both questions is, probably not. Spain would be better off now if it had never adopted the euro — but trying to leave would create a huge banking crisis, as depositors raced to move their money elsewhere. Unless there’s a catastrophic bank crisis anyway — which seems plausible for Greece and increasingly possible in Ireland, but unlikely though not impossible for Spain — it’s hard to see any Spanish government taking the risk of “de-euroizing.”
So Spain is in effect a prisoner of the euro, leaving it with no good options.
The good news about America is that we aren’t in that kind of trap: we still have our own currency, with all the flexibility that implies. By the way, so does Britain, whose deficits and debt are comparable to Spain’s, but which investors don’t see as a default risk.
The bad news about America is that a powerful political faction is trying to shackle the Federal Reserve, in effect removing the one big advantage we have over the suffering Spaniards. Republican attacks on the Fed — demands that it stop trying to promote economic recovery and focus instead on keeping the dollar strong and fighting the imaginary risks of inflation — amount to a demand that we voluntarily put ourselves in the Spanish prison.
Let’s hope that the Fed doesn’t listen. Things in America are bad, but they could be much worse. And if the hard-money faction gets its way, they will be.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on November 29, 2010, on page A25 of the New York edition.
The New York Times, 29.11.2010.
Uredništvo sajta ekonomija.org 03.12.2010.