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.
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
Massive hurricanes striking Miami or Houston. Earthquakes leveling Los Angeles or Seattle. Deadly epidemics. Meet the “maximums of maximums” that keep emergency planners up at night.
For years before Hurricane Katrina, storm experts warned that a big hurricane would inundate the Big Easy. Reporters noted that the levees were unstable and could fail. Yet hardly anyone paid attention to these Cassandras until after the levees had broken, the Gulf Coast had been blown to pieces, and New Orleans sat beneath feet of water.
The wall-to-wall coverage afforded to the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina reveals the sway that a deadly act of God or man can hold on people, even 10 years later. But it also raises uncomfortable questions about how effectively the nation is prepared for the next catastrophe, whether that be a hurricane or something else. There are plenty of people warning about the dangers that lie ahead, but that doesn’t mean that the average citizen or most levels of the government are anywhere near ready for them.
According to Franklin, what mattered in business was humility, restraint, and discipline. But today’s Type-A MBAs would find him qualified for little more than a career in middle management.
When he retired from the printing business at the age of 42, Benjamin Franklin set his sights on becoming what he called a “Man of Leisure.” To modern ears, that title might suggest Franklin aimed to spend his autumn years sleeping in or stopping by the tavern, but to colonial contemporaries, it would have intimated aristocratic pretension. A “Man of Leisure” was typically a member of the landed elite, someone who spent his days fox hunting and affecting boredom. He didn’t have to work for a living, and, frankly, he wouldn’t dream of doing so.
Having worked as a successful shopkeeper with a keen eye for investments, Franklin had earned his leisure, but rather than cultivate the fine arts of indolence, retirement, he said, was “time for doing something useful.” Hence, the many activities of Franklin’s retirement: scientist, statesman, and sage, as well as one-man civic society for the city of Philadelphia. His post-employment accomplishments earned him the sobriquet of “The First American” in his own lifetime, and yet, for succeeding generations, the endeavor that was considered his most “useful” was the working life he left behind when he embarked on a life of leisure.
Climate change means the end of our world, but the beginning of another—one with a new set of species and ecosystems.
A few years ago in a lab in Panama, Klaus Winter tried to conjure the future. A plant physiologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, he planted seedlings of 10 tropical tree species in small, geodesic greenhouses. Some he allowed to grow in the kind of environment they were used to out in the forest, around 79 degrees Fahrenheit. Others, he subjected to uncomfortably high temperatures. Still others, unbearably high temperatures—up to a daily average temperature of 95 degrees and a peak of 102 degrees. That’s about as hot as Earth has ever been.
It’s also the kind of environment tropical trees have a good chance of living in by the end of this century, thanks to climate change. Winter wanted to see how they would do.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
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 tension between religious liberty and same-sex marriage may eventually come to a head in the courts, but probably not through the Kentucky clerk’s case.
As Rowan County clerk Kim Davis crawls further and further out on a limb, Supreme Court experts agree that she has little chance of prevailing. District Judge David Bunning, on August 12 ordered Davis, in her capacity as county clerk, to issue marriage licenses to all couples who meet the statutory criteria for marriage in Kentucky—a definition that, since the Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, includes same-sex couples.
Davis has refused, citing “the authority of God.” The U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, denied her emergency request for a stay. This throws the case back to the Sixth Circuit, which will hear the appeal of Judge Bunning’s order. Assuming she loses in the Sixth Circuit—a fairly good assumption—she would then have the alternative of petitioning the Supreme Court to hear her religious freedom claim. The Court will eventually hear a case about religious freedom and same-sex marriage, but I don’t think it will be this one.
The past is beautiful until you’re reminded it’s ugly.
Taylor Swift’s music video for “Wildest Dreams” isn’t about the world as it exists; it’s about the world as seen through the filter of nostalgia and the magic of entertainment. In the song, Swift sings that she wants to live on in an ex’s memory as an idealized image of glamour—“standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset.” In the video, her character, an actress, falls in love with her already-coupled costar, for whom she’ll live on as an idealized image of glamour—standing in a nice dress, staring at a giant fan that’s making the fabric swirl in the wind.
The setting for the most part is Africa, but, again, the video isn’t about Africa as it exists, but as it’s seen through the filter of nostalgia and the magic of entertainment—a very particular nostalgia and kind of entertainment. Though set in 1950, the video is in the literary and cinematic tradition of white savannah romances, the most important recent incarnation of which might be the 1985 Meryl Streep film Out of Africa, whose story begins in 1913. Its familiarity is part of its appeal, and also part of why it’s now drawing flack for being insensitive. As James Kassaga Arinaitwe and Viviane Rutabingwa write at NPR:
How the Islamic State uses economic persecution as a recruitment tactic
Before Islamic State militants overran her hometown of Mosul in June 2014, Fahima Omar ran a hairdressing salon. But ISIS gunmen made Omar close her business—and lose her only source of income. Salons like hers encouraged “debauchery,” the militants said.
Omar is one of many business owners—male and female—who say ISIS has forced them to shut up shop and lose their livelihoods in the process. The extremist group has also prevented those who refuse to join it from finding jobs, and has imposed heavy taxes on civilians.
“ISIS controls every detail of the economy,” says Abu Mujahed, who fled with his family from ISIS-controlled Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria. “Only their people or those who swear allegiance to them have a good life.” When they took over Deir al-Zor, ISIS gunmen systematically took control of the local economy, looting factories and confiscating properties, says Mujahed. Then they moved in, taking over local business networks.
Though it wasn’t pretty, Minaj was really teaching a lesson in civility.
Nicki Minaj didn’t, in the end, say much to Miley Cyrus at all. If you only read the comments that lit up the Internet at last night’s MTV Video Music Awards, you might think she was kidding, or got cut off, when she “called out” the former Disney star who was hosting: “And now, back to this bitch that had a lot to say about me the other day in the press. Miley, what’s good?”
To summarize: When Minaj’s “Anaconda” won the award for Best Hip-Hop Video, she took to the stage in a slow shuffle, shook her booty with presenter Rebel Wilson, and then gave an acceptance speech in which she switched vocal personas as amusingly as she does in her best raps—street-preacher-like when telling women “don’t you be out here depending on these little snotty-nosed boys”; sweetness and light when thanking her fans and pastor. Then a wave of nausea seemed to come over her, and she turned her gaze toward Cyrus. To me, the look on her face, not the words that she said, was the news of the night: