Podcast • December 1, 2010

Mark Blyth on Ireland: The Circle will not be Squared

Mark Blyth, of Austerity fame and the Watson Institute, has a Scot’s vernacular gift for clarifying economics. Is the situation explosive? “You’ve got 300 million Americans and 500 million handguns. And 72 percent of Americans ...

Mark Blyth, of Austerity fame and the Watson Institute, has a Scot’s vernacular gift for clarifying economics. Is the situation explosive? “You’ve got 300 million Americans and 500 million handguns. And 72 percent of Americans that live paycheck to paycheck. Do the math!”

We’re talking in particular about the Euro crisis spreading out of Ireland. Short form: tiny country, continental meltdown in the offing.

It was never a “Celtic Tiger,” in the first place, in the Blyth telling. “It was a small ocelot with a roar.” A population the size of Brooklyn, NY, producing about 2 percent of the European GDP. And now, in deep pain of cuts in education and health services, it’s having an utterly illusory shouting match, not so unlike ours in the US of A.

“People want to say: look at those profligate governments, spending all that money. We’ve got to restore fiscal sanity. But it wasn’t fiscal insanity that got us here. It was private-sector leverage and the insanity of banking that brought us to this point. So the bankers put it on the state, and the state turned around it put it on the taxpayer. It’s the biggest bait-and-switch in human history.”

As the Euro bankers try to transfer risk and responsibility for their crisis back and forth from private to “sovereign” public debt, I’m asking Mark Blyth — using Ireland as a manageably small example — to find the point where justice could be said to meet necessity. It turns out, he says, that there’s no such point. Not in sight yet, anyway.

The just thing is that the banks should pay. No question. You made the mess. Clean it up. It’s a pretty simple rule. But the basic line is this: if you let the banks fail, there’s nothing coming back. So if you’re Ireland, the Celtic Tiger, and over 10 percent of your GDP is in the financial sector, that’s where you make a lot of money, bankers’ salaries and all that. So let’s say you decide to blow up 10 percent of the economy. What’s your next trick? We can try to reflate it. We can hope that it comes back. We can hope to raise the patient from the dead basically. In order to do that you need to have a growing economy. So obviously hacking away at austerity politics is not going to bring back the bankers’ balance sheets. But on the other hand, it’s not clear what else you do with them. They don’t have any money to pay back, unless you bring the corpse back to life.

Now the only way you can do that is by having growth-enhancing policies, and that’s why austerity is not one of them. But there’s another short-run way you can do this. If you had to take all the debt off the banks and put it on the public balance sheet, thereby making the bondholders of sovereign bonds concerned about the value of their holdings, those sovereign bondholders are going to go to the EU and Germany, and remind the bankers in those countries about all the different bonds they’re holding in all these peripheral and non-peripheral countries, and say: do you want a bank run on this?

Because here’s the deal: if the Irish decide that they’re going to put it on the banks, and the banks can’t pay it — if they say: Screw it, we’re not going to take austerity politics anymore. Hell with it, we’re not going to do this! — okay, what’s your next trick, Ireland? Well, we’re going to default, we’re going to back out of the Euro! Oh, really? The minute I know that, I’m going to dump every Irish bond I can, and the minute I do that I’m going to look at my holdings in bonds and I’m going to say: there’s other guys out there. They can default, too, and probably the Spanish are going to go as well. So then I start dumping the Spanish and then the Portugese. And then everybody’s dumping all these bonds together. You’ve got a massive run that wipes out not just 2 percent of Europe’s GDP, Ireland. It basically takes out the European banking system.

So from the point of view of Europe and the Germans in particular, they’re saying to the Irish: You’re not going anywhere, Ireland. And you’re taking this austerity, and you’re going to like it! The only problem is: they’re not going to. There’s a democracy in Ireland. They’re going to vote the rascals out. And when they vote them out they’re going to get a government that says: maybe the banks should pay for this. And then you’re back to your problem: the banks don’t have any money left. So how are you going to do it? You can’t square a circle!

Mark Blyth with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, Brown University, November 30, 2010