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.
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.
Why the ingrained expectation that women should desire to become parents is unhealthy
In 2008, Nebraska decriminalized child abandonment. The move was part of a "safe haven" law designed to address increased rates of infanticide in the state. Like other safe-haven laws, parents in Nebraska who felt unprepared to care for their babies could drop them off in a designated location without fear of arrest and prosecution. But legislators made a major logistical error: They failed to implement an age limitation for dropped-off children.
Within just weeks of the law passing, parents started dropping off their kids. But here's the rub: None of them were infants. A couple of months in, 36 children had been left in state hospitals and police stations. Twenty-two of the children were over 13 years old. A 51-year-old grandmother dropped off a 12-year-old boy. One father dropped off his entire family -- nine children from ages one to 17. Others drove from neighboring states to drop off their children once they heard that they could abandon them without repercussion.
The Nebraska state government, realizing the tremendous mistake it had made, held a special session of the legislature to rewrite the law in order to add an age limitation. Governor Dave Heineman said the change would "put the focus back on the original intent of these laws, which is saving newborn babies and exempting a parent from prosecution for child abandonment. It should also prevent those outside the state from bringing their children to Nebraska in an attempt to secure services."
It was widely seen as a counter-argument to claims that poor people are "to blame" for bad decisions and a rebuke to policies that withhold money from the poorest families unless they behave in a certain way. After all, if being poor leads to bad decision-making (as opposed to the other way around), then giving cash should alleviate the cognitive burdens of poverty, all on its own.
Sometimes, science doesn't stick without a proper anecdote, and "Why I Make Terrible Decisions," a comment published on Gawker's Kinja platform by a person in poverty, is a devastating illustration of the Science study. I've bolded what I found the most moving, insightful portions, but it's a moving and insightful testimony all the way through.
As the public’s fear and loathing surge, the frontrunner’s durable candidacy has taken a dark turn.
MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina—All politicians, if they are any good at their craft, know the truth about human nature.
Donald Trump is very good, and he knows it better than most.
Trump stands alone on a long platform, surrounded by a rapturous throng. Below and behind him—sitting on bleachers and standing on the floor—they fill this city’s cavernous, yellow-beige convention center by the thousands. As Trump will shortly point out, there are a lot of other Republican presidential candidates, but none of them get crowds anything like this.
Trump raises an orange-pink hand like a waiter holding a tray. “They are not coming in from Syria,” he says. “We’re sending them back!” The crowd surges, whistles, cheers. “So many bad things are happening—they have sections of Paris where the police are afraid to go,” he continues. “Look at Belgium, the whole place is closed down! We can’t let it happen here, folks.”
Better-informed consumers are ditching the bowls of sugar that were once a triumph of 20th-century marketing.
Last year, General Mills launched a new product aimed at health-conscious customers: Cheerios Protein, a version of its popular cereal made with whole-grain oats and lentils. Early reviews were favorable. The cereal, Huffington Post reported, tasted mostly like regular Cheerios, although “it seemed like they were sweetened and flavored a little more aggressively.” Meanwhile, ads boasted that the cereal would offer “long-lasting energy” as opposed to a sugar crash.
But earlier this month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued General Mills, saying that there’s very little extra protein in Cheerios Protein compared to the original brand and an awful lot more sugar—17 times as much, in fact. So why would General Mills try to market a product as containing protein when it’s really a box fill of carbs and refined sugar?
Students at Princeton University are protesting the ways it honors the former president, who once threw a civil-rights leader out of the White House.
The Black Justice League, in protests on Princeton University’s campus, has drawn wider attention to an inconvenient truth about the university’s ultimate star: Woodrow Wilson. The Virginia native was racist, a trait largely overshadowed by his works as Princeton’s president, as New Jersey’s governor, and, most notably, as the 28th president of the United States.
As president, Wilson oversaw unprecedented segregation in federal offices. It’s a shameful side to his legacy that came to a head one fall afternoon in 1914 when he threw the civil-rights leader William Monroe Trotter out of the Oval Office.
Trotter led a delegation of blacks to meet with the president on November 12, 1914 to discuss the surge of segregation in the country. Trotter, today largely forgotten, was a nationally prominent civil-rights leader and newspaper editor. In the early 1900s, he was often mentioned in the same breath as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. But unlike Washington, Trotter, an 1895 graduate of Harvard, believed in direct protest actions. In fact, Trotter founded his Boston newspaper, The Guardian, as a vehicle to challenge Washington’s more conciliatory approach to civil rights.
The statesman understood something most diplomats don’t: history—and how to apply it.
In his new biography of Henry Kissinger, the historian Niall Ferguson recalls that halfway through what became an eight-year research project, he had an epiphany. Tracing the story of how a young man from Nazi Germany became America’s greatest living statesman, he discovered not only the essence of Kissinger’s statecraft, but the missing gene in modern American diplomacy: an understanding of history.
For Ferguson, it was a humbling revelation. As he confesses in the introduction to Kissinger: “In researching the life and times of Henry Kissinger, I have come to realize that my approach was unsubtle. In particular, I had missed the crucial importance in American foreign policy of the history deficit: The fact that key decision-makers know almost nothing not just of other countries’ pasts but also of their own. Worse, they often do not see what is wrong with their ignorance.”
Can we predict romantic prospects just from looking at a face?
By the time you swear you're his, / Shivering and sighing. / And he vows his passion is/ Infinite, undying. / Lady, make a note of this — /One of you is lying. ― Dorothy Parker
Edward Royzman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, asks me to list four qualities on a piece of paper: physical attractiveness, income, kindness, and fidelity. Then he gives me 200 virtual “date points” that I’m to distribute among the four traits. The more I allocate to each attribute, the more highly I supposedly value that quality in a mate.
This experiment, which Royzman sometimes runs with his college classes, is meant to inject scarcity into hypothetical dating decisions in order to force people to prioritize.
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.
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.