Yesterday I argued that Irish austerity doesn't really tell us much about what the US should do. Today it's worth talking about why, exactly, the Irish experience is such a poor model for the problems of the US. Luckily, fledgling think tank e21 has done the hardest part of the job for me: explaining the depth of the problems that Ireland faces.
For the U.S., there was never any question about whether the federal government had the capacity to arrest the panic. At its peak, the liabilities of the U.S. financial system were $17.1 trillion (D.3), or about 118% of GDP. Even if one assumed that assets were worth 20% less than liabilities - a highly aggressive and unlikely assumption - the cost of guaranteeing all of the financial system's liabilities would only be 23% of GDP, or equal to a one-time 50% increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio. Therefore, the implied guarantee of all financial system liabilities after TARP was highly credible.
For other countries with larger (relative) financial sectors, the arithmetic was much different. The most obvious example was Iceland, whose banking system's liabilities reached nearly 1,100% of GDP in 2007. When its banks could not access wholesale funding markets, the government lacked the fiscal capacity to intervene credibly. The result was economic collapse. For other nations, it was less cut and dry whether the government could backstop its banking system's liabilities without incident (see chart above). The United Kingdom and Switzerland's banking system liabilities exceeded 400% of GDP. Both nations took actions to recapitalize banks and provide implicit guarantees of their liabilities - TARP-like programs to stand behind banks and assuage concerns of creditors without legally obligating the government to ensure no bank creditor suffered any loss. Conversely, Ireland, whose banking system's liabilities were also near 400% of GDP, decided to formally guarantee its banking system's liabilities.
While the Swiss and UK guarantees seem to have succeeded thanks to their banking system's international activity and broad diversification, the Irish guarantee has not been as successful, largely because of its banks concentrated exposure to a bursting domestic real estate bubble. The result has been a deeply insolvent banking system that some believe will ultimately push the Irish government itself bankruptcy. Barclays was the latest to warn that the government will likely have to renege on its guarantee and seek concessions from bank creditors if it is to avoid sovereign bankruptcy. As of August, the Irish banking system owed €95 billion to the European Central Bank (ECB), which means about 12% of all Irish bank assets are now financed through official liquidity facilities. This is only slightly below the 17% of Greek assets funded through official channels and a sign that the private sector is no longer willing to fund Irish banks.
The problem for Ireland is that the tax revenue that could otherwise be pledged to cover its banks' debts has plunged for the same reason its banks are in such trouble: the collapse of the real estate bubble. Irish house prices have fallen by 34% from the peak and have yet to stabilize. Irish wealth fell by about €150 billion in 2009, which would be roughly equivalent to an $8 trillion decline for U.S. households. Unemployment has spiked in the very sectors most responsible for growth in the recent past - real estate construction and finance. The same factors driving the banks' insolvency are simultaneously depressing employment, household spending, and tax revenue. The deficit stands at 14% of GDP, due largely to an economic contraction that sliced 10% off of the size of the Irish economy since 2008. The government's gross debt has nearly tripled as a share of GDP, rising from 25.8% in 2006 to 64% at the end of last year and could exceed 75% by the end of the fiscal year.
There are no signs that any of this is temporary or that adjustments made to date are sufficient to maintain access to credit. The initial austerity measures taken by the Irish government - tax increases and large cuts to public employee wages - seemed ambitious, but they turned out to be a drop in the bucket relative to the cost of the bank rescue. The Irish government created the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) to acquire property development and commercial real estate assets from banks at a sizeable discount to par. As with similar schemes, this government-sponsored fund faces a catch-22: overpay for assets and transfer losses directly to taxpayers or drive a tough bargain and further expose the banks' insolvency. To date, NAMA has recorded €30 billion of losses, or more than 10% of GDP. S&P estimates that ultimate losses will be between 29% and 32% of GDP. To put this figure in perspective, this would be equivalent to U.S. taxpayer losses on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac of $4.2 trillion, or about 11-times the CBO estimate of $380 billion.
While some think Ireland could be saved through export growth given the number of international corporations that moved to Ireland to take advantage of the low corporate tax rate, the potential for export growth is limited by what the IMF suggests was a bubble in wages similar to the one in property prices. At the end of 2007, Ireland was proudly boasting that it had more Mercedes Benz per capita than Germany. The rise in wages brought about by a booming economy reduced competitiveness. Deflation has set in with prices falling by nearly 2% last year. Export growth will likely first require a period of prolonged deflation, which would result in a dramatic increase in the real cost of the large amounts of newly incurred debt. In short, the Irish economy is still reeling from a financial collapse that is several times worse than that of the U.S. Even the Spanish problems are mild by comparison, as only 4% of Spanish banking system assets are funded by the ECB and Spanish banks are more diversified and better capitalized.
Using Irish austerity as a dire warning to us relies on what I think are oversimplified comparisons. Folks point out that despite austerity, Ireland's tax revenues have collapsed, and their debt is trading at a huge premium to Germany's--much bigger than the premium paid by Spain, which hasn't tried such draconian measures. But Ireland's problems are really rather special. For various reasons, including favorable corporate tax rates and an educated, English-speaking population, capital poured into the country for more than a decade, leading to a banking sector that was grossly inflated compared to the underlying economy. The US banking sector is rather tame by comparison to most European nations--bank leverage at the beginning of the crisis was about equal to GDP, rather than the three to five times GDP found in many European nations. But Ireland is almost in a class by itself.
That meant that when the financial crisis hit, Ireland's contraction was much worse--and much less amenable to government interventions that worked in other countries. It's not surprising that their fiscal crisis is dire, their credit spreads rising.
In order to say that Irish austerity offers a grim lesson for us, you need to know the counterfactual: how bad would growth, tax revenues, credit spreads have been without the austerity? And because of the magnitude of their problems, it is far from clear that austerity has made things worse.
Now, even if austerity had made things better, that wouldn't necessarily be a guide for US policy--again, because their crisis is so much deeper. Attempting to borrow and spend their way out of the crisis might have led to total collapse, but that wouldn't mean that it would have the same effect here, where our fiscal issues are more manageable.
That's why I think it's just not useful to bring it up in the context of the American debate.
We're all going to die and we all know it. This can be both a burden and a blessing.
In the heart of every parent lives the tightly coiled nightmare that his child will die. It might spring at logical times—when a toddler runs into the street, say—or it might sneak up in quieter moments. The fear is a helpful evolutionary motivation for parents to protect their children, but it's haunting nonetheless.
The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised parents to indulge that fear. “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?”he wrote in his Discourses.
Some might say Epictetus was an asshole. William Irvine thinks he was on to something.
“The Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be,” he says. “You’re supposed to allow yourself to have a flickering thought that someday you’re going to die, and someday the people you love are going to die. I’ve tried it, and it’s incredibly powerful. Well, I am a 21st-century practicing Stoic.”
People look to Amy Schumer and her fellow jokers not just to make fun of the world, but to make sense of it. And maybe even to help fix it.
This week, in a much-anticipated sketch on her Comedy Central show, Amy Schumer staged a trial of Bill Cosby in “the court of public opinion.” Schumer—her character, at any rate—played the role of the defense. “Let’s remind ourselves what’s at stake here,” she argued to the jury. “If convicted, the next time you put on a rerun of The Cosby Show you may wince a little. Might feel a little pang. And none of us deserve that. We don’t deserve to feel that pang.”
Her conclusion? “We deserve to dance like no one’s watching, and watch like no one’s raping.”
Ooof. This is the kind of thing that gets Inside Amy Schumer referred to as “the most feminist show on television,” and her act in general called, in a phrase that reveals as much about her craft as about Schumer herself, “comedy with a message.” But while Schumer’s work is operating at the vanguard of popular comedy, it’s also in line with the work being done by her fellow performers: jokes that tend to treat humor not just as an end in itself, but as a vehicle for making a point. Watch like no one’s raping.
Some spoiler-y speculation on the final three episodes
With only three episodes left to go, Game of Thrones looks as though it once again has a lot of ground to cover before wrapping up a season. And so, for the curious and impatient among you, I’ll do my best to offer some quasi-informed speculation about what we might reasonably expect in these final weeks.
Note: I haven’t seen any of the remaining episodes, but I have read the books. The first five items below are spoiler-y, but the predictions in them do not derive from the George R. R. Martin novels. Rather, they’re guesswork based on what’s already happened on the show and on tidbits scattered across the web: a behind-the-scenes photo here, a close-read of a trailer there. (They could all, of course, turn out to be completely wrong.) The last four items, however, are based at least in part on events that take place in A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, so non-book-readers may want to skip them. And obviously anyone, book-reader or not, who’d prefer to go into these final episodes without preconceptions—who doesn’t want to know at least some of what will (probably) happen—should stop reading now.
The former speaker of the House is charged with lying to federal agents and evading financial reporting requirements, reportedly while attempting to conceal past sexual misconduct.
Updated on May 29, 2015, at 4:05 p.m.
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert has been indicted on charges of lying to FBI agents and evading federal financial-reporting requirements, reportedly while paying a man to cover up past sexual misconduct.
Hastert, an Illinois Republican, was speaker from 1999 to 2007. BuzzFeed’s John Stanton notes that there were several high-profile congressional scandals in those years. Illinois is also a notorious hotbed for political corruption, as Roland Burris, Rod Blagojevich, George Ryan, and Jesse Jackson Jr. can attest.
But Hastert’s indictment seems to involve a darker story than political corruption. In or about 2010, according to the indictment, Hastert—a former high-school teacher and coach—met with an unnamed individual from Yorkville, Hastert’s hometown. They “discussed past misconduct by defendant against Individual A that had occurred years earlier.” In effect, Hastert fell victim to blackmail, the indictment alleges: He “agreed to provide Individual A $3.5 million in order to compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct against Individual A.” (Since leaving the House, Hastert has become a highly paid lobbyist.)
Can a political system be democratically legitimate without being democratic?
The flaws in China’s political system are obvious. The government doesn’t even make a pretense of holding national elections and punishes those who openly call for multiparty rule. The press is heavily censored and the Internet is blocked. Top leaders are unconstrained by the rule of law. Even more worrisome, repression has been ramped up since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, suggesting that the regime is increasingly worried about its legitimacy.
Some China experts—most recently David Shambaugh of George Washington University—interpret these ominous signs as evidence that the Chinese political system is on the verge of collapse. But such an outcome is highly unlikely in the near future. The Communist Party is firmly in power, its top leader is popular, and no political alternative currently claims widespread support. And what would happen if the Party’s power did indeed crumble? The most likely result, in my view, would be rule by a populist strongman backed by elements of the country’s security and military forces. The new ruler might seek to buttress his legitimacy by launching military adventures abroad. President Xi would look tame by comparison.
A challenge based on four words of the law amounts to little more than politics dressed up as a legal argument.
The Supreme Court is about to decide another blockbuster case arising under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The specific issue is whether federal-tax subsidies are available to people who purchase health insurance from exchanges operated by the federal government or instead whether such subsidies are available only from exchanges established by the states. A decision in favor of the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell would most likely cripple the ACA in over thirty states and deprive millions of people of health insurance.
That the Supreme Court even agreed to hear the case is the result of an improbable conjunction of events. Two committed opponents of the ACA seized upon four words of the law out of almost 1000 pages, and through their persistent and energetic work, created a powerful soundbite that appealed to die-hard opponents of the ACA. They then took that sound bite and dressed it up in highly technical arguments about statutory interpretation that might well change how healthcare is paid for in the United States. But the soundbite is inaccurate, and the technical window dressing shouldn’t obscure the fact that the argument is based on a faulty reading of the text of the entire law as well as a misleading account of how and why the law was passed. At bottom, King v. Burwell is a political challenge to the ACA dressed up in legal garb.
An activist has made it so in France. Could he take his campaign global?
In 2010, U.S. supermarkets and grocery stores threw out 43 billion pounds, or $46.7 billion worth, of food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But if Arash Derambarsh had his way, that number would be zero. His goals are ambitious, but then again the municipal councilor from Courbevoie, France did manage to get a law passed in France last week that would accomplish just that.
The law bans supermarkets in France from discarding or destroying unsold food. According to Salon’s Lindsay Abrams, the law mandates that all unsold but edible food should be donated to charities for immediate distribution to the poor. Food that is unsafe to eat is to be donated to farms for agricultural purposes. Supermarkets that exceed a certain square footage are required to sign contacts with charities by July 2016; penalties for failing to do so include fines of up to roughly $81,600 or two years in prison. The legislation is one of the world’s first attempts to address the twin problems of food waste and hunger in this manner.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The danger of uploading one’s consciousness to a computer without a suicide switch
Imagine a supercomputer so advanced that it could hold the contents of a human brain. The Google engineer Ray Kurzweil famously believes that this will be possible by 2045. Organized technologists are seeking to transfer human personalities to non-biological carriers, “extending life, including to the point of immortality.” My gut says that they’ll never get there. But say I’m wrong. Were it possible, would you upload the contents of your brain to a computer before death, extending your conscious moments on this earth indefinitely? Or would you die as your ancestors did, passing into nothingness or an unknown beyond human comprehension?
The promise of a radically extended lifespan, or even immortality, would tempt many. But it seems to me that they’d be risking something very much like hell on earth.
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life.
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life. We've grown more adept at shaping these underground shelters and passages over the millennia, and today we dig for hundreds of reasons. We excavate to find both literal and cultural treasures, digging mines and unearthing archaeological discoveries. We use caverns for stable storage, for entertainment, and for an effective shelter from natural and man-made disasters. And as the planet's surface becomes ever more crowded, and national borders are closed, tunnels provide pathways for our vehicles and for smugglers of every kind. Collected below are more recent subterranean scenes from around the world.