Houses Most Overvalued in Australia and Hong Kong, Most Undervalued in Japan

Mar 15, 2011Edward Harrison

house-in-hands-150Perhaps a tiny bit of good news for Japan as it heads down the road of rebuilding after a massive tragedy: the next housing bubble is building elsewhere.

house-in-hands-150Perhaps a tiny bit of good news for Japan as it heads down the road of rebuilding after a massive tragedy: the next housing bubble is building elsewhere.

A few weeks ago, The Economist put out its quarterly gauge of house price values. Australia just beat out Hong Kong as the most overpriced market in the developed world, with an overvaluation of 56%. Japan was by far the most undervalued market, with an undervaluation of 35%. The only other housing markets that were undervalued, according to The Economist, were Germany (12%) and the U.S. (7%). (This was well before the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, so it is hard to say what impact those events will have on house prices.)

This same report was a good one to look at regarding the housing bubble as it was popping. In June of 2005, The Economist published an article called "In come the waves" that was quite prescient:

Never before have real house prices risen so fast, for so long, in so many countries. Property markets have been frothing from America, Britain and Australia to France, Spain and China. Rising property prices helped to prop up the world economy after the stock market bubble burst in 2000. What if the housing boom now turns to bust?

According to estimates by The Economist, the total value of residential property in developed economies rose by more than $30 trillion over the past five years, to over $70 trillion, an increase equivalent to 100% of those countries' combined GDPs. Not only does this dwarf any previous house-price boom, it is larger than the global stock market bubble in the late 1990s (an increase over five years of 80% of GDP) or America's stock market bubble in the late 1920s (55% of GDP). In other words, it looks like the biggest bubble in history.

-as quoted at Credit Writedowns, June 2008 in Naysayers, the housing bubble was obvious (with Economist 2005 chart for comparison)

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What is The Economist saying now? It's pointing to Hong Kong first and foremost:

[W]hatever those 31,000 agents say, Hong Kong homes are not a good deal, according to our latest global house-price index (see chart). In theory, the price of a home should reflect the value of the services it provides. People who choose to rent their homes buy those services on a monthly basis. Home prices should therefore reflect the rents that tenants pay. Our index calculates the ratio of prices to rents in 20 economies. In Hong Kong, that ratio is now almost 54% above its long-run average -- and it is still rising.

People in Hong Kong often blame buyers from mainland China for pushing up prices. Ironically, mainlanders often blame buyers from Hong Kong for their own property frenzy. At a recent conference at Tsinghua University in Beijing, students complained that their parents had scrimped and saved to send them to university in the city, but now upon graduation they could barely afford to live there.

Prices in China are not that high relative to rents: our index suggests that homes are overvalued by less than 13%. But this is based on the government's 70-cities index, which showed prices rising by only 6.4% in the year to December. That figure seemed implausibly low to many of China's stretched homebuyers, and the Chinese government appears to share their scepticism.

Of the bubble markets where the bubble has popped, the U.S. seems to have corrected the most. Notice that Spain still has massively overvalued house prices according to this measure. Ireland and Britain is also well above the median. Here's the chart:


Edward Harrison blogs at Credit Writedowns, where this piece originally appeared.

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What Does the Earthquake Mean to Japan's Fiscal Future?

Mar 14, 2011Marshall Auerback

Let's not add insult to catastrophic injury. Japan must reconstruct its country and has the funds to do so.

There is no doubt that this terrible earthquake is worse than the Kobe tragedy of 1995. Kobe was a 7.4 on the Richter scale, but the quake that hit Sendai was 8.9 -- many hundreds of times more powerful. And then there was the tsunami. The devastation is so great that no one knows how catastrophic it is likely to be in the end. But the worst of it lies ahead.

Let's not add insult to catastrophic injury. Japan must reconstruct its country and has the funds to do so.

There is no doubt that this terrible earthquake is worse than the Kobe tragedy of 1995. Kobe was a 7.4 on the Richter scale, but the quake that hit Sendai was 8.9 -- many hundreds of times more powerful. And then there was the tsunami. The devastation is so great that no one knows how catastrophic it is likely to be in the end. But the worst of it lies ahead.

Consider: In the case of an 8.9 quake, the odds are there will be one aftershock of more than eight on the scale and 10 of more than seven. So far we have only had one that has been more than a seven. Meanwhile, aftershocks are moving toward Tokyo. The quakes so far have weakened buildings far, far from Sendai, including in Tokyo, making them vulnerable to more shocks. In effect, there may be several Kobes ahead that will be hitting installations that are already now prone to collapse or malfunction.

Japan's Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, called this the greatest tragedy since World War II. People are slowly beginning to imagine how the country will cope going forward, but it didn't take the blink of an eye for the fiscal deficit hawks to descend in force. They suggest that Japan can ill-afford another big round of government expenditures, given what they call its looming "national insolvency." How must it feel to people in shock to hear the news bulletins telling them that their government is broke and unable to help the population? Particularly when it isn't true.

Media folks like to cite Japan as Exhibit A for the failure of aggressive fiscal policy. But this was not always the case. Prior to the end of the bubble era, Japan "chose" a low employment path -- essentially holding the employment ratio constant -- with high aggregate demand, which generated rapid growth in productivity. Policy makers maintained demand at a high level through a combination of very large government deficits, high investment demand, and generally a high flow of net exports after 1980. However, toward the end of the 1980s, the government deficit rapidly fell and the budget moved to balance in 1990. When the U.S. "double-dipped" in the early 1990s recession, and as other Asian countries began to effectively compete with Japan for world markets, foreign markets demanded fewer Japanese products. Then came the Asian financial crisis, followed shortly afterward by the bursting of the high tech bubble in the US. Together, these negative influences lowered aggregate demand and contributed to a deep and prolonged recession. The country's "stop-start" fiscal policy, undertaken from the mid-1990s until around 2003, didn't help. Japan suffered from repeated and misguided attempts to elevate budget reduction above employment and growth policies. As recently as last year, this fiscal stance remained firmly entrenched in Tokyo. During the Upper House elections, Japan's Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, publicly mooted doubling the country's consumption tax from 5% to 10% in order to "fund" the public deficits.

You have to credit the deficit hawks with consistency. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." This kind of consistency is now embraced by small-minded politicians who continue to peddle a falsehood when over 10,000 people are now presumed dead.

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Let's be clear: Japan does not face a fiscal crisis in the sense of going broke. Japan has a sovereign currency, and therefore its government has always had the capacity to purchase anything and everything for sale in yen. But the country's fiscal situation has been weakened by the inconsistent "stop/start" policies that have been adopted over decades, which in turn have led to sluggish economic growth, creating the huge budget deficits that the fiscal hawks now regularly decry. When you have a collapse in private spending, then public spending has to increase both in absolute terms and as a proportion of GDP to make up for that if you want output growth and incomes to be stable.

Even allowing for Tokyo's inconsistent application of fiscal policy over the past two decades, it is worth noting that had the Japanese government continued its planned deficit reduction in 1997 and not provided further budgetary stimulus by 2003 (when the Ministry of Finance finally abandoned its futile "fiscal consolidation"), the situation would have been significantly worse than what it already is. To acknowledge that persistent budget deficits do not cause interest rates to rise and do not cause hyperinflation does not imply that the policy options embraced by the government have all been good. But simply stated, things would have been much worse in their absence (with much higher corresponding budget deficits).

Globally, today's deficit reduction fetishists suffer from collective amnesia: they have already forgotten that fiscal policy has saved the world from a Great Depression. The policy response adopted in 2009, although insufficient (to judge from the presence of still high levels of unemployment), put a floor on global aggregate spending power and virtually demolished everything you'll read in modern mainstream macroeconomic textbooks about the efficacy of fiscal versus monetary policy. Yet some three years after the great financial crisis of 2008, and now within hours of the worst human tragedy to befall the Japanese people in decades, we have completely lost track of what's happened. And so we are basically setting ourselves up again for the next crash.

In the specific case of Japan, the social situation in the wake of this catastrophe will become untenable unless the government provides further fiscal support. Naturally, people will debate about how they might do that given that you can only build so many highways or bridges. But today the case for rebuilding basic infrastructure after one of the biggest earthquakes of the last century is a policy no-brainer. And even after the obvious reconstruction tasks facing Japan, an aging society brings greater demand for personal care services, and that is one labor-intensive growth area that should still be targeted by the government.

Perhaps the deficit hawks hate government spending so much that they are prepared to tolerate the mass unemployment and massive wealth losses that would accompany a zero discretionary fiscal response. Are they also suggesting that we should risk a nuclear meltdown as well in pursuit of this principle, given the damage to the country's nuclear reactors? That would be truly cheating future generations, because the costs of not intervening with fiscal policy in this kind of circumstance would bequeath a disastrous environmental legacy to Japan that would last for decades, possibly centuries, as any resident of Hiroshima or Nagasaki could easily attest. Beyond that apocalyptic point, when you lose your home because you can no longer pay the mortgage after losing your job, the wealth impact is huge and long-lasting.

An earthquake of this magnitude is something one would never wish on any country. Given the reservoir of social capital that has sustained Japan through two very difficult decades, the country is probably better equipped than most to deal with this terrible situation. And if it finally moves Tokyo's policymakers beyond their misguided deficit reduction obsession, then the resultant policy response will represent the most honorable way of respecting the memory of those 10,000 or more who lost their lives, to say nothing of the millions who are now suffering from the tragedy. To retreat into stale arguments about how the government can't "afford" to help at a time like this not only reveals economic illiteracy, but also the moral bankruptcy at the heart of the neo-liberal agenda now driving today's policy makers globally.

Marshall Auerback is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and a market analyst and commentator.

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What Eric Cantor Doesn’t Get About Social Security

Mar 2, 2011Caitlin Howarth

social-security-200Young people across the globe are worried about how their parents will retire and how they'll find jobs -- not reining in government.

social-security-200Young people across the globe are worried about how their parents will retire and how they'll find jobs -- not reining in government.

Last Thursday night I had the dubious privilege of seeing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor address students at the Harvard Kennedy School for a forum hosted by the Institute of Politics. In a fifteen minute speech focusing on the budget cuts and austerity measures working their way through Congress, Representative Cantor managed to demonstrate how thoroughly he didn't understand his young audience:

"Not long ago, in streets of both Greece and France, we saw young people protesting against the government's decision to rein in retirement benefits -- even though they were years away from receiving them. Translation: very early in their lives, these individuals were conditioned to rely and depend on the government for their livelihood, for their future."

Simply put, the gentleman from Virginia just doesn't get it. What the world saw in Greece and France -- and what we continue to see in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria -- is not the socialist zombie apocalypse, but rather a well-organized, well-informed protest against gross economic injustice and systematic undermining of the middle class.

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Young people the world over, including those in the US, know exactly why their parents and grandparents need the security of the pensions they spent lifetimes working for. Not so long ago, growing old meant growing poor -- and even today, Census data show that Social Security benefits are still insufficient to prevent 1 in 6 elderly persons from falling into poverty, particularly elderly women who disproportionately rely on Social Security and supplemental programs like Meals on Wheels to help them meet basic needs. (For comparison, Social Security used to reduce elderly poverty from 1 in 2 to 1 in 8, according to 1999 figures.) And in today's economy, with baby boomers pushing up against weakened 401(k)s and faltering home prices, these gloomy statistics are more personal than ever.

What does this mean for young people in Greece, besides not wanting to see their parents' last years be their worst ones? What does it mean for 20-somethings in France who move back home to help parents pay the bills? What does it mean for college graduates in America who, after incurring their loans and earning their degrees, scramble for the chance at a mere unpaid internship?

What Eric Cantor doesn't get is that we are all in this together. What Congress doesn't get is that when the older generation cannot retire, the younger generation gets shut out of the labor market. What austerity fans toasting to government hiring freezes don't get is that those jobs were supposed to receive the biggest wave of civically engaged, community-committed young workers since the end of World War II.

Maybe it was easy to mistake his audience that night -- after all, this is the campus that spawned Facebook and its 20-something billionaires. But the students packed into the Kennedy School that night weren't the ones who will build the next great social network. They were the students who will boldly experiment with education and science, fixing health care and strengthening our national security. They view their task not as a game, but as a duty owed to one another.

They are a generation that depends not on government, but asks government to depend on them. Rep. Cantor should follow their example.

Caitlin Howarth is a former national policy director at the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network. She is currently pursuing a masters in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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The Original Tea Party Battled Global Mega-corporations

Feb 28, 2011Joe Costello

tea-party-150A truly populist movement would take on the abusive power of corporations, as our forebears challenged the East India Company. Today's Tea Party falls short.

tea-party-150A truly populist movement would take on the abusive power of corporations, as our forebears challenged the East India Company. Today's Tea Party falls short. **Check out New Deal 2.0 series "Founding Finance", which highlights early Americans who stood up to financial elites.

Don't believe illusion
Too much is for real
Stop your cheap comment
We know what we feel
-- Pretty Vacant

I'll start by saying I have little idea of what the Tea Party is. I certainly know the New York Times doesn't know what it is, or for that matter most of the political class. I know components of it, such as the Koch brothers or the various elements of the Republican and conservative political class who quickly glommed onto it, helping elect a Republican majority to Congress. But I would suggest at one point, and maybe only briefly, a legitimate vocalizing and activating of Americans occurred. Citizens were concerned about the direction of our country.

So I watched with interest the other day when CSPAN televised a Tea Party "Town Hall" from DC, which one can already see is problematic. I scratched my head when I saw the participants. Some may legitimately be considered "of" the movement, such as Rand Paul, Mike Lee who took out the Republican incumbent in Utah, and Alan West of Florida. But there was also five-term incumbent Steve King from Iowa, three-term incumbent Michele Bachmann from Minnesota, and adding a sublime degree of the incredulous to the whole affair, three-decade Utah incumbent Orrin Hatch.

However you want to define the Tea Party, if you do it with Orrin Hatch you're saying it has no meaning. No doubt after watching his fellow Utah senator go down in a blaze of defeat, Orrin's got one thing on his mind. You have to give it to anyone who has the audacity after serving three and half decades in the US Senate to start his speech stating, "We live in perilous times" and "We've run this country into the ground." And you want to be reelected senator? Phew!

The rest of the Tea Partiers were fairly short on specifics and long on rhetoric. There was a lot of references to America's founding and its "founding documents," all said with an overall sense that the federal government has extended the boundaries set for it. It's a point that is difficult to argue with, but what exactly it means needs extensive discussion.

Mike Lee of Utah tied the movement of today to its historical antecedent stating:

The Tea Party movement started not February 2009, it started in 1773 when a group of Americans decided they were overtaxed and over regulated, by a distant government not based in Washington DC, but London, and that government was oppressive to the people, slow to their concerns and people decided to take action.

A simple enough historical description and an accurate expression of how many, if not at times most, Americans feel about Washington DC today. But Mr. Lee's tying the present into the past Tea Party made something click. This present Tea Party voiced important and legitimate concerns about the bank bailouts and the power of corporations in America. As Dick Armey, another Republican political class member glomming onto the movement, told John Stewart, "TARP! TARP! TARP!" was a rallying crying across the country for the nascent movement. Yet both in the corporate media's coverage and the rhetoric of the movement's self-proclaimed representatives, I hear little about this concern.

That wasn't the case for our revolutionary forebears. The past's Tea Party understood implicitly the tea they were throwing into the Boston Harbor that night belonged to the East India Company, not the crown. In Nick Robins' excellent history of the East India Company, "The Corporation That Changed the World", he writes how the American colonial press was filled with vitriol against the East India Company, which the English crown had given monopoly control of the tea trade.

Robins writes:

From October onwards, newspapers and handbills provided the citizens of the 13 colonies with a barrage of analysis and polemic. The Boston Evening Post of 18 October 1773, for example, contained a powerful article from 'Reclusus' exposing the folly of Lord North's plan. "Though the first Teas may be sold at a low rate to make a popular entry" he acknowledged, "yet when this mode of receiving tea is well established, they, as all other Monopolists do, will mediate a greater profit on their goods, and set them at what price they please."

Lord North's plan was an attempt by the crown to lesson the unpopular taxes, but was meant with more opposition than the original Stamp Act of eight years before. Robins adds another railing and accurate colonist's critique against the "Company":

Writing in The Alarm newsletter, 'Rusitcus' underlined how 'their conduct in Asia for some years past, has given simple proof, how little they regard the laws of nations, the rights, liberties, or lives of men'. 'They have levied War, for the sake of gain,' adding: 'fifteen hundred thousands, it is said, perished by famine in one year, not because the earth denied its fruits, but this company and their servants engulfed all the necessities of life, and set them at so high a rate that the poor could not purchase them.'

As Robins points out, the colonials actions against the Company preceding the Tea Party had been so highly effective that "Legal imports of the Company's tea plummeted from a record 869,000 lb in 1768 to just 108,000 lb in 1770."

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It's an interesting fact that the American colonists' important and vivid critiques and opposition to the power of the East India Company have mostly been lost to history, as in fact has the history of the Company itself. Both are relevant to our age and to anyone concerned with the questions of freedom, liberty, and democracy. The East India Company set the precedent and became the model for the global mega-corporation of our age in both its productivity and in corruption, and its completely anti-democratic structures and behaviors. The East India Company existed for over two and half centuries. In that time, with and without the help of the English government, the Company gained monopoly control over Asian trade, conquered and impoverished vast chunks of India, causing the largest famine of India's history, and fought two wars with China to keep the illegal and despicable opium trade open, enslaving millions of Chinese people.

The East India Company was so notorious in its day that it gained the opposition of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Karl Marx -- not exactly an historical coalition that would spring quickly to anyone's mind. Edmund Burke, one of the patron saints of American conservatism, would lead the charge in the English parliament for six years in a case to prosecute the head of the Company. Burke and his partner Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Compared Hastings [the Company's chairman] to the 'writhing obliquity of the serpent' and damned him for a character that was all 'shuffling, ambiguous, dark, insidious, and little'. And as for the Company, it combined 'the meanness of a pedlar and the profligacy of pirates... wielding a truncheon with one hand, and picking a pocket with the other.'

Meanwhile Adam Smith, the tremendously misinterpreted and wrongly deified advocate of "free markets," wrote of the Company (my bold):

The result of this anti-competitive behavior was to raise profits above the natural level, amounting to [Smith writes] 'an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow citizens.' Cartels are thus an ever present danger in a market economy and in Smith's immortal words, 'people of the same trade seldom meet together, but the conversation ends in conspiracy against the public or in some contrivance to raise prices.'

An absurd tax on the rest of us! What can better describe the control of the American economy by the descendants of the East India Company, our own era's global mega-corporations? As Robins states about our present economy, "Over 60 percent of international commerce now takes place within corporations rather than in the open marketplace, making it idle to talk of free markets."

Sounding as relevant today as two centuries ago, Robins adds of the company's operations:

It was the speculative behavior of corporate insiders and short-term investors that emerged as the most powerful factor in the Company's spectacular fall from grace in the middle of the 18th century. Financial engineering, flimsy managerial controls and inadequate regulation all played their part... the same passion for aggressive acquisitions, the same obsession with executive perks for corporate insiders, and the same focus on executive self-preservation as ordinary shareholders started to suffer the consequences of excess.

And what did this financial engineering, inadequate regulation, and corporate insiderism lead to? Repeated bailouts by the government, the largest at the end of the 18th century. Robins writes:

To avoid a run on the stock, [Prime Minister] Pitt pushed through legislation extending the Company's ability to raise debt, and so pay its regular dividend at 8 percent. Of course, this measure made little financial sense as the Company was paying dividends out of debt. But it helped to stabilize the situation.

Sound familiar?

The East India Company, like all corporations following it, was chartered by the English government, which was a monarchy, and thus the Company had plenty of monarchical characteristics. Our modern US mega-corporations are all also chartered by government, though with what at this point can only be called a quirk of history, they are all chartered through our state governments. With this chartering through the states, it was hoped corporations might be more functionally democratic.

The birth of the modern corporation and the American republic were roughly contemporaneous. The early republic, outside its dealings with the East India Company, had some understanding of these new entities, but a half-century later understood much more. The grandsons of John Adams, the republic's second president, wrote:

And yet already our great corporations are fast emancipating themselves from the State, or rather subjecting the State to their own control, while individual capitalists, who long ago abandoned the attempt to compete with them, will next seek to control them. In this dangerous path of centralization Vanderbilt has taken the latest step in advance. He has combined the natural power of the individual with the factitious power of the corporation. The famous "L'Etat, c'est moi" of Louis XIV represents Vanderbilt's position in regard to his railroads. Unconsciously he has introduced Caesarism into corporate life. He has, however, but pointed out the way which others will tread. The individual will hereafter be engrafted on the corporation, democracy running its course, and resulting in imperialism; and Vanderbilt is but the precursor of a class of men who will wield within the State a power created by the State, but too great for its control. He is the founder of a dynasty.

However, it wasn't Vanderbilt who introduced Caesarism into corporate life, it was there in the corporate structure from its monarchical inception with the East India Company. We live in a time with not one corporation (and while quite powerful the Company still had a relatively small grip on the overall British economy), but an economy that is completely dominated by several hundred massive corporate structures that are riddled with corruption, insiderism and speculation, to such a degree that their "absurd tax" on the rest of us dwarfs the taxes of DC.

Yet there is no American politics against "oppressive" corporate power. Both parties are completely in the pockets of the corporate oligarchy and if there were or are concerns expressed by the present Tea Party, they've been completely censored by the corporate media and the more loathsomely decadent Republican political class.

At the beginning of the 21st century, we must, like this republic's founding generation, step up to talk about and take action concerning our corrupted and dysfunctional political system. It must include all aspects of power, and that includes the enormous power of the modern global mega-corporation. We would do well to follow their example -- the America tradition -- that the first step to dealing with unaccountable power is to break it up. That is the tradition set by the colonial Tea Party; it is a necessity of self-government. Our present Tea Partiers might find it useful to go back and read more of America's "founding documents," all the newspapers, letters, and pamphlets written in the years leading to the revolution. They would find that the founders, not just those in the pantheon but the thousands scattered up and down the eastern seaboard, had as much concern about the unaccountable power of the nascent corporation as they did of their ancient King.

Joe Costello was communications director for Jerry Brown’s 1992 presidential campaign and was a senior adviser for Howard Dean’s effort in 2004.

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U.S. Middle East Policy: Another View of the Compass

Feb 25, 2011Daniel Berger

egypt-flag-wall-150A real understanding of the Administration's strategy to bring democracy and stability to the Middle East.

egypt-flag-wall-150A real understanding of the Administration's strategy to bring democracy and stability to the Middle East.

This responds to Naill Ferguson's misconceived diatribe against the Obama Administration's reaction to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Newsweek. In it, Ferguson presents three critiques of the Administration's actions: that it was misinformed and unprepared, that it acted in a contradictory manner, and -- most damming -- that it has no overall geo-strategic plan either for the Middle East or elsewhere.

Ferguson's overall critique concerning the Middle East is fundamentally misdirected and, to the extent that it has any validity, really relates to the effects of 40 years of dubious U.S. foreign policy decisions, for which Obama can hardly be held responsible. During this period (including during the entire Cold War), the U.S. actively supported a long line of Middle East autocrats, almost always to the detriment of the Arab populaces and societies over which they ruled. Many have said recently that in this approach the U.S. favored "stability" over other considerations. It, of course, did not. What it favored was the ability to make deals with existing governing elites in the Middle East region to promote U.S. interests including fighting our enemies, securing our principal energy supply, and protecting Israel.

In retrospect, the U.S. roughly achieved these aims -- but for what now appears to be only on a temporary basis. And it did so seemingly at the expense of both long-term stability and the protection of its interest in (so far) the two largest and geo-significant countries in the region: Iran and Egypt. Ferguson assumes the prospects of future cooperation with these countries will be bleak.

It should be left to historians to decide whether this was a reasonable trade-off. Suffice to say, at least for the Cold War period, the U.S. had a real geo-strategic adversary, the Soviet Union, whose existence could arguably justify our unconditional support of the various Middle East dictators on our payroll. Since the fall of communism, however, no comparable excuse has existed.

That the U.S., in retrospect, should at some point have pursued other policies rather than helping to entrench the Middle East governing status quo long before Obama appeared on the scene is, of course, not Obama's fault. Indeed, the U.S. had many years -- decades -- and many, many opportunities to solve the basic policy challenges in the region in the post-World War II era. The fact that it was able to accomplish lasting success in only one of its core missions represents a profound judgment against U.S. policy making and execution in this region -- particularly over the last 20 years.

Nor is the Obama Administration's decision to support democratization in Egypt and hope it will produce a regime that will cooperate with us indicative of faulty policy formation, indecision, or lack of planning. It is a necessity. Indeed, in light of the history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, what realistic alternative do we have? What grand design does Ferguson have in mind?

Furthermore, Ferguson's suggestion either that different rhetoric or more resolve from Obama could have saved Mubarak represents a fundamental misunderstanding -- bordering on delusion -- of the reality of power in Egypt and the Middle East. The issue is not about U.S. resolve, but rather about the lack of legitimacy of Mubarak and other corrupt, stagnant regimes in the region.

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Instead of trying to shift responsibility from others with whom it really resides, we might want to reflect on policies that would enhance, rather than detract from, the possibilities for successful democratization -- and which should have been followed earlier. First and foremost is to reject Ferguson's conclusion that the principal danger now in Egypt is an Islamic fundamentalist takeover. This outcome would represent the end result of what is referred to as the "Iranian" model of Middle East political change and is the outcome forecast to occur by Ferguson's recent host, the Israeli government. To the contrary, the biggest danger both to and of democratization in the region and Egypt in particular is a continuation of economic conditions that consign 40% of Egypt's population to unemployment and permanent poverty. Without some meaningful improvement in economic conditions for the Arab masses, democratization is doomed and will lead to what Ferguson fears -- or worse.

So in addition to supporting a transition to democratic process in Egypt (and since when is an interim government to be followed by elections sound policy in Iraq but not in Egypt?), the U.S. needs to support policies that permit renewed rapid economic growth in Egypt and the region, improved work place conditions, and (God forbid) a fairer distribution of wealth. Supporting some type of social justice agenda like this would be the single most important step that the U.S. could take to ensure the successful emergence of secular, representative democracy in Egypt and in the region and to blunt religious autocracy and extremism. It goes without saying that strong secular democracies would also represent desirable geo-political counter-weights to Iran. (That, and finally presiding over a fair and just settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict by persuading Israel to trade land for peace, would be the most needed steps the U.S. could now take to achieve its objectives and protect its interests.) In his Cairo speech (indeed, in the very language cited by Ferguson), Obama explicitly recognized these social justice concerns as a bulwark against extremism. Thus, contrary to Ferguson's contention, Obama arguably has accurately analyzed a number of the fundamental dilemmas in the region.

Markets, the world economic system, shared economic growth: Duh, sounds like a no-brainer. It is mystifying why a commentator of Ferguson's stature and one of the most public proselytizers of globalization would not give Obama some credit -- instead of dismissing his remarks as hopelessly naive.

Finally, Ferguson completely omits another fundamental U.S. policy blunder in the Middle East and one which it also had decades to solve: energy dependence on an unstable area. Thirty-five years ago, Jimmy Carter (for whom Ferguson exhibits contempt) proposed and got enacted by the Congress a comprehensive energy policy, including the development of alternative fuels and increased energy efficiency and conservation. If we had followed through on even a portion of it, it would have made the U.S. completely independent of foreign oil production today. Leaving aside the economic benefits that would have accrued in terms of innovation and first-mover advantage in the energy industry (which would have positioned us to dominate long before the emergence of China as an economic competitor) and the advantages which we would have realized from energy independence in dealing with the problem of global climate change, ending Middle East oil dependency would have dramatically altered for the better the geo-political equation there. Now that would have been a real grand stratagem of the type Ferguson called for (and still could be). Again, Obama was not to blame for dismantling Carter's credible and sound plan to end dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Rather, Reagan and the Republican "revolution" of the last 30 years were responsible for that disaster. Nor is he standing in the way of alternative energy development, even if belated but still necessary, to end dependence on foreign oil.

Ferguson would have done a greater service to readers of Newsweek by discussing these and other fundamental flaws in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, rather than assailing Obama with the usual litany of neo-conservative fixations: radical Islam, Iran, revanchist Russia and the Chinese "threat." Only if we come to terms with the history of our Middle East policymaking and its effects can we understand Obama's reaction to Mubarak's fall, what needs to be done now, and the sufficiency of his response -- all matters on which Ferguson was silent.

Daniel Berger is an attorney in the field of complex litigation, including securities and anti-trust litigation, and has a broad-based knowledge concerning the structure and functioning of the US economy and US financial markets. He practices in Philadelphia.

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Germany's Economic Fortress Could Come Toppling Down

Feb 24, 2011Marshall Auerback

If the fiscal austerity fad continues across Europe, Germany's economy -- already feeling the impact -- may tank.

If the fiscal austerity fad continues across Europe, Germany's economy -- already feeling the impact -- may tank.

It's very courageous to write something contrary to the prevailing mainstream "conventional wisdom" (which is actually hysteria), but thankfully some people are beginning to recognize basic facts. One such voice is David Leonhardt of the NY Times, who has dared to challenge the prevailing narrative that "reckless government spending" is now endangering growth. Quite the contrary, as Leonhart points out in the context of "fiscally responsible" Germany:

Well, it turns out the German boom didn't last long. With its modest stimulus winding down, Germany's growth slowed sharply late last year, and its economic output still has not recovered to its prerecession peak. Output in the United States -- where the stimulus program has been bigger and longer lasting -- has recovered. This country would now need to suffer through a double-dip recession for its gross domestic product to be in the same condition as Germany's.

Of course, let's not crack open too many bottles of champagne for the US, where unemployment is still a big deal and the current focus of economic policy is to eviscerate what is left of our social safety net. There is still a crying need for direct job creation schemes in the US to address our growth without jobs, and we're moving in the opposite direction.

And, as Leonhardt's article illustrates, it now appears that Germany's comparative ability to insulate its unemployment from the output collapse (a product of the recent strong export sector and modest fiscal stimulus) is starting to erode. In fact, European economic data has begun to sour all across the continent, and not just in the periphery countries, such as Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Greece.

European fourth quarter GDP growth came in up 0.3%, non-annualized, a little less than expected. German growth, up .4%, and French growth up, .3%, were also a little less than expected. In Germany, all things building-related were very weak, suggesting the adverse weather contributed to the weakness. However, some signs of strength in Northern Europe, such as surprisingly positive Dutch and Finnish economic growth and strong French household spending, all despite unusually bad weather, make one wonder if something else was contributing to the weakness. Specifically, Germany's industrial production fell by a very large 1.5% in December after a .6% decline in November. Maybe that is more than is warranted by adverse weather. December factory orders fell 3.4% in December.

Now, perhaps part of this is just a "give back" from the huge 5.2% rise in November. But how, then, does one explain the appalling retail data, which has failed to rise in response to last year's very considerable surge in production? The signs of flagging consumer spending are quite widespread -- in the core countries of Germany and France, no less. Although fourth quarter French household spending was apparently strong, the French consumer confidence index in January fell to 85 from 86 in December and 89 in November. In Germany, where the consumer confidence index had been soaring, it has now fallen in both December and January. More striking has been the German retail sales data, which has been very weak despite considerable strength in the indices for German consumer confidence and German retail business sentiment in the second half of last year.

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My guess is that fiscal restriction to varying degrees across Europe is probably slowing the pace of European economic growth, which may be surfacing in some of the recent data. Fiscal austerity is the price the ECB is demanding in exchange for continuing to backstop the bond markets of the periphery countries, which are suffering from ongoing solvency crises. It will almost certainly continue, as the recent German election results (where the ruling party did very poorly) suggest that Chancellor Angela Merkel feels she will be forced to adopt a harsher stance on fiscal austerity to placate the voters at home, which may well make things worse.

I don't think Germany will leave the euro zone (as many Germans are now demanding). But the weakness of its prevailing position is that they continue to see the structural problems inherent in the euro zone as symptomatic of lax fiscal policy or poor economic management on the part of the periphery countries. That's NOT the problem. The EMU structures themselves are.

The current weakness in Europe suggests that even Germany is subject to these economic pressures, as fiscal austerity is beginning to destabilize the financial systems of the GIIPS countries and weaken overall European aggregate demand. Germany's vulnerability has hitherto been masked somewhat by the comparatively strong position of its national finances to this point (although its banking system is still very vulnerable to additional shocks in other parts of the euro zone, due to the high holdings of euro-denominated national debt). The perception of Germany as an impregnable economic fortress could well change if the conditions of fiscal austerity intensify and the pressures move from the periphery to the core, as it appears they now are. Sharply rising oil prices are another new depressant, which could well affect consumer discretionary spending power as well.

For understandable historic reasons, Germany today has an irrationally high fear of Weimar-style inflation. This has precluded them from accepting more of a quasi-supra national fiscal entity of the sort that is required to fix this problem via more stimulatory fiscal policies.

At present, private spending in the euro zone and the UK is being cut back and pressures are building to do the same in the US as we approach D-Day with the debt ceiling. Politicians who fail to understand basic accounting 101 realities fail to understand that there is a huge private debt overhang to eliminate as a result of the out of control credit binge. (This was urged along by the very same people and ideas that are now posturing for austerity, as Bill Mitchell has repeatedly pointed out.)

There is a long way to go before the private sector will have adequately restructured their balance sheets so that they will be prepared to spend freely again. Unless some other sector is willing to reduce its net saving (such as the external sector via trade) or increase its deficit spending (as with the federal budget balance of late), then the mere attempt by the domestic private sector to net save out of income flows, given the existing private debt overhang, can prove very disruptive.

Would that our officials recognized this. Instead, we have the spectacle of governments across the world engaged in significant fiscal retrenchment at a time when the private sector is demonstrating a strong predisposition to save. That's understandable. Given prevailing high levels of unemployment, low capacity utilization ratios, and relatively sluggish aggregate demand, a greater predisposition by the private sector to save makes greater sense.

Who, then, can fill that gap? If it doesn't come from exports (and it's impossible for all nations to run current surpluses), then only the government can fill that gap. A lack of jobs is the result of a lack of spending. The government has the capacity to provide that extra aggregate demand, and could do so easily by directly creating the necessary work. Instead, we appear more focused on union-busting and rewarding the figures most responsible for creating this crisis in the first place.

Marshall Auerback is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and a market analyst and commentator.

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The Liquidation of Society versus the Global Labor Revival

Feb 24, 2011Matt Stoller

raised-fist-150We face two paths: reviving labor and with it the American middle class or the decimation of our economy. **This post originally appeared on Naked Capitalism.

Yesterday, the city of Providence, Rhode Island sent out layoff notices to every single teacher in the city. Every single one of them. If you want to understand why this is happening, why wages in the US keep getting cut, this chart tells the story.

raised-fist-150We face two paths: reviving labor and with it the American middle class or the decimation of our economy. **This post originally appeared on Naked Capitalism.

Yesterday, the city of Providence, Rhode Island sent out layoff notices to every single teacher in the city. Every single one of them. If you want to understand why this is happening, why wages in the US keep getting cut, this chart tells the story.

That’s the number of strikes since 1947. What you’ll notice is that people in America just don’t strike anymore. Why? Well, their jobs have been shipped off to factory countries, their unions have been broken, and their salaries until recently have been supplemented by credit. It’s part of a giant labor arbitrage game that the Federal Reserve and elites in both parties are happy to play. Strike, and you’re fired. Don’t strike, and your pay is probably going to be cut. Don’t like it? Sorry, we can open a plant abroad. And we have institutions, like the IMF, to make sure that we get goods from those factory countries, and get them cheap.

But it’s not cheaper, or better, or more efficient. Firing your teachers isn’t exactly “winning the future”. And outsourcing manufacturing, as Boeing found out, is often a good way to increase coordination costs, create more operational risk, and destroy value. However, the system is good at maintaining the power of oligarch-style control of cultural institutions. If no one but the kids of rich people can read, only the kids of rich people will be able to organize society’s resources. Outsourcing work to China means that workers are scared and have no leverage, so they do what management wants. Again, this isn’t efficient; the UAW sought to make small cars in the 1940s, but was rebuffed by management. Workers are closest to production; treating them terribly is a good way to degrade product quality. Silicon Valley companies give their engineers free snacks and frisbees because happy employees that take ownership over their work create good quality products. Treating people terribly scares them and makes them more pliable. Again, it’s about control.

The problem for the elites is that the system of control is breaking down. I noted a week and a half ago that the Egyptian revolution was a labor uprising against Rubinites. So to the extent that global labor arbitrage relies on sweatshops and environmental degradation in poor countries for cheap goods, successful strikes in poor countries undercuts the whole system. The reason to outsource work in the first place is to prevent workers in rich countries from gaining pricing and political power. Now workers in poor countries are getting pricing and political power? It’s actually a fragile system of control, and can be broken through either crackdowns on tax havens and oligarchs in wealthy countries or protests/strikes where the goods are made.

The Egyptian revolution was really a series of protests and highly politicized strikes, which is why people in Madison are taking inspiration from Cairo. In fact, the actions in Egypt may be creating a wave of labor actions worldwide, rippling to Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio. All of these strikes are aimed at a collusive set of tight relationships. Here’s new Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott in a back and forth with public employees explaining how this system works. One worker asked him about proposed benefit cuts in the face of a multi-year freeze in salaries and layoffs.

“Do you fully realize the gross unfairness of that proposal?” one worker asked Scott.

Scott said a change was needed and that, “You never know exactly what’s fair.”

“Right now your plan in underfunded, whether anyone wants to acknowledge it or not,” Scott said. “So whoever the youngest is, everyone else should thank them because there might not be a pension plan, just like we’re worried about Social Security.”

Scott didn’t mention the pension fund is about 88 percent funded – among the best in the country – while Social Security is scheduled to start paying out more than it takes in as soon as 2014.

Instead, Scott said both government and the private sector have less money to spend “and you guys all cause it.”

“As an example, you all shop at WalMart, right?” Scott said. “You don’t say, ‘Golly, I’m going to buy the product because they have a better pension plan or better health care plan or pay more taxes. You say, ‘I’m going to buy based on price.’

“That’s what taxpayers are doing now,” he said. “They’re moving around the country to pick states where they can keep more and more of their dollars. So what we’ve got to do … we’ve got to figure out how to get more efficient every day.”

A female worker was cheered when she asked this follow-up: “How do you expect employees to pay for these increases when we ourselves have not had an increase?”

“I would never defend that any compensation is ever fair for anybody, especially the hardest working people,” Scott said. “It’s never fair and it never will be fair.”

There’s a reason Scott is incoherent. Florida’s pension fund has lots of money in it, and Scott wants to make sure that workers don’t get very much of it. “You never know exactly what’s fair” and “It’s never fair and never will be fair” are cynical Rumsfeldian post-modern excuses for wealth transfers upward.

In this 5 minute long answer to another question of why workers are taking cuts while the wealthy do not have to share in the sacrifice, Scott spends time talking about luring companies to Florida, to compete with countries like China.

“There’s a reason [the jobs are overseas]. The labor’s less expensive, the regulation’s less expensive. Everything we do to make it harder on businesspeople means fewer jobs in Florida and less money to do the things we want to do."

This is absurd in one sense, because Florida’s problems have nothing to do with regulation. The whole state is underwater from a housing crash, and there’s just not enough aggregate demand to bring down unemployment. But these economic theories aren’t about efficiency, they are about a value system. Scott is arguing for a low trust low cost world, with no education, no regulatory standards, and low quality output. This is the dominant strain of thinking among American elites. It’s not just Rhode Island, where the teachers are literally all under threat of being fired (and where in 2010 Obama apparently sought to win the future by applauding this firing of teachers). In New York, Democratic Governor and prospective 2016 presidential candidate Andrew Cuomo is gleefully slashing huge chunks of education and health care rather than retain a mild tax on the wealthy. This is a great way to increase crime, disease rates, and social disorder resulting from inequality.

Cuomo is just acting like a standard neoliberal Democrat. Obama has put forward a proposed pay freeze on non-security state Federal government workers, and Senate Democrats want to extent that for at least five years. That’s their starting position negotiating against the GOP. You can’t have a good regulatory state when you don’t pay regulators good wages. Instead, what you have when government is expansive and poorly run is big government corruption.

The GOP likes to foster corruption through privatization of public services, a shadow large government in the form of security contractors, corporations, and banks that are supported with taxpayer money but consider themselves part of the “private sector”. The elite Democratic model of governance is more subtle; it is embodied in high expertise-driven regulatory programs like the health care bill, cap and trade, GSE reform and Dodd-Frank. Low pay for regulators means corruption in the form of the revolving door. Whether it’s Scott Walker demanding the right to give state power plants and Medicaid money to oligarchs, or revolving door corruption through low pay to regulators, the real agenda of the elites seems to be: cuts for you, corruption for me. Whether the state Senate Democrats in Wisconsin represent an anomaly or a trend is an open question. Efficient this is not, but again, it’s not about efficiency, it’s about control.

Egyptians are trying to throw off the IMF-imposed austerity measures that created such a system for their country. The new government there is proposing raising taxes on oligarchs, increasing food subsidies, and reducing inequality. Their new cabinet is letting more people apply for “monthly portions of sugar, cooking oil, and rice.” The previous cabinet, “which was comprised of businessmen and former corporate executives”, had refused this.

And look at how Egypt is treating public employees: “Temporary workers who have spent at least three years working for the government will now be given permanent contracts that carry higher salaries, and benefits such as pension plans, and health and social insurance.”

Pension plans, health, and social insurance, oh my! How are they planning to pay for this? One member of a left-of-center party made it quite clear:

Confiscating wealth looted by cronies of the former regime, more egalitarian distribution of wealth, gradual taxation, better government oversight, and placing “a reasonable ceiling” on profitability of goods and services sold to the public are among the measures that should restore an economic balance to society, he said.

It is too early to pretend like this is a done deal, but it is certainly the case that the mass exercise of people-power in Egypt made this far more possible than it had been before. Even after Mubarak resigned, and even when the army tried to ban labor gatherings, the Egyptian labor movement continued to strike, gather, and make demands.

As Daniel Ellsberg once said, “Courage is contagious.” And what happened in Wisconsin came from the inspiration of seeing millions of powerless people join together and overthrow a regime in Egypt. It didn’t come from union leaders, who have been perpetually unprepared for the onslaught against them. Just look at the webpage of the AFL-CIO of Wisconsin. It looks like it was designed by Geocities in 1997. Yet, #wiunion has been trending on and off for a week on Twitter and has inspired actions all over the country (check out the Cheesehead protest in NYC).

This upsurge certainly didn’t come from the Democratic Party leadership. I mean, Rhode Island is a pretty reliable blue state and the last Mayor of Providence was just elected to Congress as a Democrat. Meanwhile, Former Democratic Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm is saying the Wisconsin state Senators need to get back to work. And what is striking about Obama’s posture on the greatest uprising in American labor history of this century is how he is really nowhere, meekly tut-tutting about union busting while gravely acknowledging fiscal realities and tough choices. But the Wisconsin protests happen every day without formal authority structures. This quote from the Huffington Post Hill newsletter shows that there is something new going on.

Tom O’Grady, a union sheet metal worker from Sun Prairie, Wis., said the sight of youngsters protesting against Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to gut collective bargaining rights is bittersweet. “It’s humbling,” said O’Grady, 60. “We see all these kids, they may never have a union job, and they’re here every night for us? It’s very humbling.”

Striking just isn’t in the collective memory of the American public anymore. This kind of highly politicized hybrid political protest/strike walks like an Egyptian these days, which is why Egyptians were sending Wisconsinites pizza and Madison protesters were holding signs lauding teachers, workers, and the new Egyptian flag. In fact, Madison may represent a new kind of American labor model, the melding of old school unions, Howard Dean-style internet-based organizing, Anonymous-style serious pranking, and social media reporting on protests and policy. There’s an anti-bailout class-based fervor here as well, with a simmering anger at Wall Street as subtext. It’s headless and global, though there is leadership. The most powerful moment so far in the Wisconsin conflict didn’t come from the actions of a labor leader, but from a prank call by alt-weekly “Buffalo Beast” editor Ian Murphy, who pretended to be billionaire American oligarch David Koch and had a frank 20 minute conversation with Governor Scott Walker. Murphy originally wanted to pose as Hosni Mubarak, but couldn’t pull off the accent.

Perversely, people may be so beaten down that they only want to side with institutions that are visibly and aggressively advocating for them. This might lead them to recognize that middle class interests are aligned with those of labor, which was the widespread view in the first generation after World War II. However, that also means that the de facto business unionism of the 1970s onward isn’t appealing. People might only like unions when they see strikes, otherwise all they hear about is backroom negotiations. Perhaps effectively striking is actually the way to force people to ask questions about what kind of country they want to live in. I haven’t seen this much labor coverage since, well, ever in my lifetime. There seems to be multiple feedback loops at work: political, global, and economic.

As commodity prices shoot up, and become more volatile, the pressure to liquidate America will only increase. These increases take the form of gifting public assets to oligarchs, taxing the middle class and poor, slashing social service budgets, and cutting wages through inflation and outright demotions (like the NYC sanitation workers that were demoted right before a giant blizzard). But civil unrest is intensifying it its most basic forms, protests and strikes, and in advanced forms, like the blowback at the national security state embodied in the HB Gary and Wikileaks fiasco.

What we are seeing is two political and economic systems, increasingly at odds – high trust and cooperative, or dominance-based and lowest common denominator. This is not, fundamentally, a debate about economics. It is true that neoclassical economics doesn’t work, leads to corruption, and is intellectually dishonest. But that’s why this isn’t a question of economics, because the dishonesty is part of a system of corrupted values.

It is Andrew Mellon morality, the kind that led to the Great Depression (and will lead again to catastrophe):

“Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate. It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.”

Or it is the morality of Martin Luther King:

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Sometimes it really is that simple.

Matt Stoller is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and the former Senior Policy Advisor to Congressman Alan Grayson.

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Even With a New Boss, Ireland's Prospects are as Bleak as the Potato Famine

Feb 16, 2011Marshall Auerback

Marshall Auerback sees little hope for Ireland as it remains confined by its devil's pact with the eurozone.

Anybody who had hopes that an election in Ireland would provide at least the beginning of change from the current ruinous set of policies has to be disappointed with the Opposition Party Fine Gael's proposals for "reform." The objectives sound absolutely marvelous, but one wonders how the new government will achieve them (as reported by the Irish Times):

Marshall Auerback sees little hope for Ireland as it remains confined by its devil's pact with the eurozone.

Anybody who had hopes that an election in Ireland would provide at least the beginning of change from the current ruinous set of policies has to be disappointed with the Opposition Party Fine Gael's proposals for "reform." The objectives sound absolutely marvelous, but one wonders how the new government will achieve them (as reported by the Irish Times):

Fine Gael today published its election manifesto, which party leader Enda Kenny claimed would help transform Ireland.

Among the proposals contained in the document is a promise to create thousands of new jobs, an overhaul of the health service, a reduction in the number of national politicians, protection of State pensions and payments to the most vulnerable members of society and public sector reform.

"Every section of the manifesto has been prepared with a view to maximising job creation, growth, and the transformation and modernisation of our public services," said Mr. Kenny this morning.

Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? So how does Fine Gael hope to achieve this economic nirvana? According to the Guardian:

A government led by Fine Gael would be committed to driving down Ireland's budget deficit to 3% of gross domestic product by 2014, its leader, Enda Kenny, has pledged.

Referring to slashing the budget deficit, he said: "Irish people don't like to think there is an interminable night in front of them in terms of this economic burden."

Kenny said he believed the public wanted the national debt dealt with sooner rather than later.

"The next government must pick up the pieces," he said. "It must steer the country away from bankruptcy by solving the debt crisis in a way that protects the most vulnerable and distributes the burden fairly."

In other words, more of the same neo-liberal nonsense that has driven the country to the precipice.

With unemployment now standing at 15% of GDP, one of the largest cumulative contractions ever recorded in Irish history, the EU/IMF "rescue package" has surely hammered the final nail into the coffin of the Republic of Ireland. The country is being saddled with a punitive 5.8% interest rate on a multi-billion euro loan, which will largely be used to repay German, French, and British bondholders. Irish taxpayers, by contrast, receive nothing.

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As Argentina demonstrated in 2001, sovereign governments are not necessarily hostage to global financial markets. They can steer a strong recovery path based on domestically orientated policies -- such as the introduction of a Job Guarantee program -- which directly benefit the population by insulating the most disadvantaged workers from the devastation that recession brings.

But a necessary precondition for Argentina's salvation was the abandonment of its currency peg regime, which effectively had limited the country's room to maneuver fiscally.

Ireland must do the same. Let's be clear: there is no public debt crisis without the euro. As Bill Mitchell has highlighted, Greece has a public debt ratio of about 144 percent of GDP with Italy at about 118 percent, Belgium at 102 percent, Ireland at 98 percent, France at 83 percent, etc. Japan is now over 204 percent, the UK is at about 75 percent, the US is at about 59 percent, etc.

But in the latter three countries, in spite of ridiculous statements to the contrary, there is no public debt crisis. Why not? Answer: because, as Mitchell notes, "those nations have all retained currency sovereignty and have little or zero foreign debt exposure. This means they can always find the wherewithal to honor all outstanding public debt commitments."

By contrast, none of the EMU nations have the capacity to honor their public debt commitments under all circumstances because their debt is effectively in a "foreign currency" -- they ceded their individual currency issuing monopolies when they entered the eurozone. First, they have given up their monetary sovereignty by giving up their national currencies and adopting a supranational one. By divorcing fiscal and monetary authorities, they have relinquished their public sector's capacity to provide high levels of employment and output. Non-sovereign countries are limited in their ability to spend by taxation and bond revenues, and this applies perfectly well to Ireland, Portugal and even countries like Germany and France.

Additionally, by entering the eurozone, these countries have also agreed to abide by the Maastricht treaty, which restricts their budget deficit to only 3% and debt to 60% of GDP. Therefore, even if they are able to borrow and finance their deficit spending like Germany and France, they are not supposed to use fiscal policy above those limits. Of course many did, including Germany and France. But if we are correct that domestic income deflation will be the end result of fiscal retrenchment colliding with private sector attempts to net save, then surely more desperate citizens will turn to even more desperate acts.

The bottom line is that growth is needed for the deficit to fall. Growth comes with spending. If the private sector doesn't want to spend in sufficient volumes to promote growth, then the public sector has to. Otherwise you get stagnation and large deficits. But to engage in spending, a government needs full fiscal sovereignty. Only then can the state push-start a very recessed economy and restore private confidence.

But having given up its fiscal sovereignty, there is little hope for Ireland. The only way out of the current mess is not through more of the same tired neo-liberal nostrums being offered up by Fine Gael, but the imposition of a loss on bondholders. These are the same who engaged in speculative financial activity yet continue to demand unlimited compensation off the backs of the Irish people for their gambling losses. Until this step is taken, Ireland hasn't a hope of stabilizing its finances, and its prospects are as bleak as they were during the potato famine.

Marshall Auerback is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and a market analyst and commentator.

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Deficit Hawks Down: The Misconstrued "Facts" Behind Their Hype

Feb 11, 2011James K. Galbraith

deficit-150Economist James K. Galbraith attends a Pete Peterson-funded road show.

deficit-150Economist James K. Galbraith attends a Pete Peterson-funded road show.

The Fiscal Solutions Tour is the latest Peter G. Peterson Foundation effort to rouse the public against deficits and the national debt -- and in particular (though they manage to avoid saying so) to win support for measures that would impose drastic cuts on Social Security and Medicare. It features Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition, former Comptroller General David Walker and the veteran economist Alice Rivlin, whose recent distinctions include serving on the Bowles-Simpson commission. They came to Austin on February 9 and (partly because Rivlin is an old friend) I went.

Mr. Bixby began by describing the public debt as "the defining issue of our time." It is, he said, a question of "how big a debt we can have and what can we afford?" He did not explain why this is so. He did not, for instance, attempt to compare the debt to the financial crisis, to joblessness or foreclosures, nor to energy or climate change. Oddly none of those issues were actually mentioned by anyone, all evening long.

A notable feature of Bixby's presentation were his charts. One of them showed clearly how the public deficit soared at the precise moment that the financial crisis struck in late 2008. The chart also shows how the Clinton surpluses had started to disappear in the recession of 2000. But Mr. Bixby seemed not to have noticed either event. Flashing this chart, he merely commented that "Congress took care" of the budget surplus. Still, the charts did show the facts -- and in this respect they were the intellectual highpoint of the occasion.

A David Walker speech is always worth listening to with care, for Mr. Walker is a reliable and thorough enumerator of popular deficit-scare themes. Three of these in particular caught my attention on Wednesday.

To my surprise, Walker began on a disarming note: he acknowledged that the level of our national debt is not actually high. In relation to GDP, it is only a bit over half of what it was in 1946. And to give more credit, the number Walker used, 63 percent, refers to debt held by the public, which is the correct construct -- not the 90+ percent figure for gross debt, commonly seen in press reports and in comparisons with other countries. The relevant number is today below where it was in the mid-1950s, and comparable to the early 1990s.

But Mr. Walker countered that fact with another, which I'd never heard mentioned before: in real terms he said -- that is, after adjusting for inflation -- per capita national debt is now twice what it was back then.

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The problem is that real per capita national debt is a concept with no economic meaning or importance. (No government agency reports it, either.) Even in the private sector, debt levels matter only in relation to income and wealth: richer people can (and do) take on more debt. Real per capita national income is well over three times higher today than it was in 1946 -- so how could it possibly matter that the "real per capita national debt" is twice as high?

Next, Mr. Walker made a comparison between the United States and Greece, with the implication being that this country might, some day soon, face that country's interest costs. But of course this is nonsense. Greece is a small nation that has to borrow in a currency it cannot control. The United States is a large nation that pays up in a money it can print. There is no chance the markets will mistake the US for Greece, and of course they have not done so.

Finally, Mr. Walker warned that "foreign lenders... can't dump their debt but can curb their appetite" for new US Treasury bonds. This was an oblique reference to the yellow peril. The idea, when you think about it, is that the Chinese central bank will acquire dollars -- which it does when China runs an export surplus -- and then fail to convert them into Treasury bonds, thereby choosing, voluntarily, to hold dollars in cash, which earns no interest, instead of as Treasury bills, which do. Mr. Walker did not try to explain why this would appeal to the Chinese.

Walker closed by calling for action tied to an increase in the debt ceiling; specifically for a hard cap on the debt-to-GDP ratio with "enforcement mechanisms," which could include pro rata cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits and tax surcharges. He did not specify whether the cap should apply to gross federal debt or only to that part of the debt held by the public (a number which the Federal Reserve can change, any time it wants, by buying or selling public debt). When pressed, in the question period, he would not even say what he thought the cap should be.

I waited for Ms. Rivlin to add something sensible. But she did not. Apart from some platitudes -- she favors "serious tax reform" and "restructuring Medicare" -- her interesting contribution was to restate Mr. Walker's comment about "foreign lenders," who might say "we're not going to lend you any more money." That this would amount to saying "we're not going to sell you any more goods" seems -- from a question-and-answer and brief exchange afterward -- genuinely not to have crossed her mind.

The Fiscal Solutions Tour comes with a nice brochure, and even (in my case) with a flash drive containing Mr. Bixby's powerpoints. But does Mr. Peterson think he's getting his money's worth? The President, in his State of the Union, mostly ignored him. The Bowles-Simpson effort (which he paid for in part) and the closely allied Rivlin-Domenici plan are fading from view. And as the House Republicans forge their own course, demanding radical spending cuts right now -- for political rather than economic reasons, which they don't even bother to explain -- the tired and shabby arguments of these old deficit-worriers hardly seem connected, any more, to the battles at hand.

James K. Galbraith is a Vice President of Americans for Democratic Action. He is General Editor of “Galbraith: The Affluent Society and Other Writings, 1952-1967,” just published by Library of America. He teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.

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