Posts tagged ‘Ireland’

Laissez Faire and the Potato Famine

Via Cafe Hayek

As explained by historian Stephen Davies, after defeating James II in 1690, protestants subjected Irish Catholics to harsh restrictions on land ownership and leasing.  Most of Ireland’s people were thus forced to farm plots of land that were inefficiently small and on which they had no incentives to make long-term improvements.  As a consequence, Irish agricultural productivity stagnated, and, in turn, the high-yield, highly nutritious, and labor-intensive potato became the dominant crop.  In combination with interventions that obstructed Catholics from engaging in modern commercial activities – interventions that kept large numbers of Irish practicing subsistence agriculture well into the 19th century – this over-dependence on the potato spelled doom when in 1845 that crop became infected with the fungus Phytophthora infestans.

To make matters worse, Britain’s high-tariff “corn laws” discouraged the importation of grains that would have lessened the starvation.  Indeed, one of Britain’s most famous moves toward laissez faire – the 1846 repeal of the corn laws – was partly a response to the famine in Ireland.

Had laissez faire in fact reigned in Ireland in the mid-19th century, the potato famine almost certainly would never had happened.

European Auster-Yeti

There are people who will swear to this day that, despite all evidence to the contrary, Bigfoot exists and they have seen it.  Paul Krugman similarly is just sure he has seen European austerity.  The rest of us are left scratching our heads for the evidence -- he doesn't even have a blurry photo or footprint.  Just tales from a friend of a friend, who is not only sure there has been austerity, but that it caused an old lady to dry her cat in a microwave and that if you swim 20 minutes after eating you will get cramps.

The official Keynesian story is that the PIIGS of Europe (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) have been devastated by cutbacks in public spending. Austerity has made things worse rather than better – clear proof that Keynesian stimulus is the answer. Keynesians claim the lack of stimulus (of course paid for by someone else) has spawned costly recessions which threaten to spread.  In other words, watch out Germany and Scandinavia: If you don’t pony up, you’ll be next.

Erber finds fault with this Keynesian narrative. The official figures show that PIIGS governments embarked on massive spending sprees between 2000 and 2008. During this period, their combined general government expenditures rose from 775 billion Euros to 1.3 trillion – a 75 percent increase. Ireland had the largest percentage increase (130 percent), and Italy the smallest (40 percent). These spending binges gave public sector workers generous salaries and benefits, paid for bridges to nowhere, and financed a gold-plated transfer state. What the state gave has proven hard to take away as the riots in Southern Europe show.

Then in 2008, the financial crisis hit. No one wanted to lend to the insolvent PIIGS, and, according to the Keynesian narrative, the PIIGS were forced into extreme austerity by their miserly neighbors to the north. Instead of the stimulus they desperately needed, the PIIGS economies were wrecked by austerity.

Not so according to the official European statistics. Between the onset of the crisis in 2008 and 2011, PIIGS government spending increased by six percent from an already high plateau.  Eurostat’sprojections (which make the unlikely assumption that the PIIGS will honor the fiscal discipline promised their creditors) still show the PIIGS spending more in 2014 than at the end of their spending binge in 2008.

As  Erber wryly notes: “Austerity is everywhere but in the statistics.”

Thoughts on the Greek Bailout / Debt Writedown

I am not at all a financial or Wall Street guy, but I had a few thoughts

  • I am amazed at the equity rally over this.   Writing down one country's debt, without fixing its underlying financial problem or dealing with all the other countries who have problems, seems a small win.  Particularly when this one country stretched European resources to the breaking point, and there are a lot of other lined up just behind Greece.
  • Its interesting to see how much everyone bent over backwards not to trigger payouts from credit default swaps (CDS).  If this is the wave of the future, I would be shorting sovereign debt at the same time I was writing CDS contracts on sovereign debt.    Maybe this is exactly why I am not a trader, but it strikes me that if you had an arsonist around burning down houses, while at the same time the government worked hard to let fire insurance companies avoid paying off on the fire damage, wouldn't you be shorting houses and long on fire insurance companies?
  • How smart does the UK feel right now for staying out of the common currency?  The anti-EU folks in the UK should be calling for that referendum on EU participation right now.   It would likely fail by a landslide.
  • The question that keeps nagging at me -- is it really worth as much as a trillion euros to keep Greece in the Euro?  Why?
Update:  Oh, and I left out the obvious take:  moral hazard
When sharing our kneejerk reaction to yesterday's latest European resolution, we pointed out the obvious: "Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy will promptly commence sabotaging their economies (just like Greece) simply to get the same debt Blue Light special as Greece." Sure enough, 6 hours later Bloomberg is out with the appropriately titled: "Irish Spy Reward Opportunity in Greece’s Debt Hole." Bloomberg notes that Ireland has not even waited for the ink to be dry before sending out feelers on just what the possible "rewards" may be: "Greece’s failure to cut spending and boost revenue by enough to meet targets set by the European Union and International Monetary Fund prompted bondholders to accept a 50 percent loss on its debt. While Ireland won’t seek debt discounts, the government might pursue other relief given to Greece, including cheaper interest payments on aid and longer to repay it, according to a person familiar with the matter who declined to be identified as no final decision has been taken."

Not Just Leadership, But Anti-Leadership

My column this week in Forbes is a response to yesterday's Presidential budget speech.  An excerpt:

President Obama is working from the assumption that the political leader who suggests painful but necessary budget cuts first, loses.   He had every opportunity to propose and pass a budget when he had Democratic majorities in Congress.   But Democrats feared that showing leadership on the hard budget choices they faced would hurt them in the November election, so they punted.

Even when Obama did produce a budget, it was the closest thing to a non-entity as could be imagined.   A budget that doubles government debt over 10 years and raises interest costs (under optimistic assumptions) to a trillion dollars a year would likely be controversial in any year, but is a non-starter given fresh memories of debt crises in Greece, Ireland and a number of other countries.

Of course there is an 800-lb gorilla in the room that no one wants to acknowledge:  Three programs —  Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — grow in the next 10 years under current rules to at least $2.7 trillion dollars a year.  Recognize that this figure excludes all the other so-called non-discretionary payments (unemployment, food stamps, etc.) as well as everything else the government does including the military and Obamacare. The 2021 spending on just those three programs is 25% higher than the total revenue of the federal government from all sources in 2011.

Later in the article, I suggest ten principles that should be the foundation of a budget deal.

My New Favorites

I went to see Santana with my son last Saturday night, and I can tell you that 67-year-old Carlos Santana is still the man on the guitar.  2-3/4 hours of straight guitar and percussion goodness.

But my new guitar fav's are probably Rodrigo y Gabriela, Mexican guitarists who went from street musicians to stars in Ireland.  Here is Diablo Rojo

And while we are on guitarists, I can't help but give a shout out to fellow Princetonian Stanley Jordan, still the most amazing thing, technically, I have ever seen on guitar.  If it looks like he is playing piano rather than the guitar, that's because his original training was on the piano.  When playing piano, all one is doing is causing strings to get hit.  He wondered why he couldn't just do it directly.  Skip to about a minute in if you are impatient:

Or watch him playing two guitars at the same time in Stairway to Heaven around the 4:00 mark (Jimmy Page had his two-neck guitar but never played them at the same time!)

The Aid Conundrum

I think there are a lot of us who scratch our heads over foreign aid.  While open to helping starving kids, its not always clear how to do so without simultaneously reinforcing and strengthening despotic regimes and dysfunctional cultures that caused the problems in the first place.  At least not without sending in the US military along with a trillion dollars or so for a decade or more.

This question could lead to a fairly interesting discourse, but in reality it does not.  Expressing the above quandary merely gets one labeled as unfeeling and insensitive.  One of the problems with having a reasonable debate is that the people and groups in the West who most support aid also are philosophical supporters of many of the failed leftish regimes that caused the aid to be needed in the first place, or else they are strong advocates for cultural relativism that feel that it is wrong to criticize any non-western culture for any reason.

While he does not offer any answers to this question, it is nice to see Kevin Myers at least try to raise these complexities, especially at a time when Barack Obama is trying to make all these questions seem easy:

I am not innocent in all this. The people of Ireland remained in
ignorance of the reality of Africa because of cowardly journalists like
me. When I went to Ethiopia just over 20 years ago, I saw many things I
never reported -- such as the menacing effect of gangs of young men
with Kalashnikovs everywhere, while women did all the work. In the very
middle of starvation and death, men spent their time drinking the local
hooch in the boonabate shebeens. Alongside the boonabates were
shanty-brothels, to which drinkers would casually repair, to briefly
relieve themselves in the scarred orifice of some wretched prostitute
(whom God preserve and protect). I saw all this and did not report it,
nor the anger of the Irish aid workers at the sexual incontinence and
fecklessness of Ethiopian men. Why? Because I wanted to write
much-acclaimed, tear-jerkingly purple prose about wide-eyed,
fly-infested children -- not cold, unpopular and even "racist"
accusations about African male culpability.

Am I able to rebut good and honourable people like John O'Shea,
who are now warning us that once again, we must feed the starving
Ethiopian children? No, of course I'm not. But I am lost in awe at the
dreadful options open to us. This is the greatest moral quandary facing
the world. We cannot allow the starving children of Ethiopia to die.

Yet
the wide-eyed children of 1984-86, who were saved by western medicines
and foodstuffs, helped begin the greatest population explosion in human
history, which will bring Ethiopia's population to 170 million by 2050.
By that time, Nigeria's population will be 340 million, (up from just 19 million in 1930). The same is true over much of Africa.

Thus
we are heading towards a demographic holocaust, with a potential
premature loss of life far exceeding that of all the wars of the 20th
Century. This terrible truth cannot be ignored.

But back in
Ireland, there are sanctimonious ginger-groups, which yearn to prevent
discussion, and even to imprison those of us who try, however
imperfectly, to expose the truth about Africa. And of that saccharine,
sickly shower, more tomorrow.

via Maggies Farm.

By the way, does it seem odd to anyone else that we in America get accused of having "unsustainable" lifestyles and we are urged to return to simpler, less technological, less energy-intensive lives like those in Africa?  I would have argued that "sustainable" means to be able to support your own people with their own effort.  By this definition, the US is the most sustainable country in the world.  Our prospective efforts not only sustain us so well that even our poorest 20% live better than the upper middle class in African nations, but we also help sustain the rest of the world.  We create so much wealth that we are able to consistently import more than we export, creating jobs around the world.  And we send more aid to other countries than most of the rest of the world combined.

Immigration and Statism

Dale Franks at QandO, quoting some from John Derbyshire, raise a key question that certainly has always concerned me as a pro-immigration libertarian:

As to why I think libertarians are nuts to favor mass uncontrolled
immigration from the third world: I think they are nuts because their
enthusiasm on this matter is suicidal to their cause. Their ideological
passion is blinding them to a rather obvious fact: that libertarianism
is a peculiarly American doctrine, with very little appeal to the
huddled masses of the third world. If libertarianism implies mass
third-world immigration, then it is self-destroying. Libertarianism is
simply not attractive either to illiterate peasants from mercantilist
Latin American states, or to East Asians with traditions of
imperial-bureaucratic paternalism, or to the products of Middle Eastern
Muslim theocracies.

In other words, by open immigration, are we letting in waves of people from statist traditions that will drive the US further away from an open, liberal society.  This worries me from time to time, enough that I don't have a fully crafted response that I consider definitive.  However, I want to offer some initial thoughts.  Before I do, here are two background points:

  1. I think the freedom to move to another country, take a job there, buy property, live there, etc. is a basic individual right that should not be limited to the accident of not having been born originally in that country.  Freedom of association is a right of all human beings, not merely a result of citizenship.  I go into these arguments in much more detail here.
  2. Note that immigrant status and citizen status are two different things.  Immigrant means that you are present in a country but not a citizen.  As an immigrant, I believe you should be able to own property, accept employment, and most of the other things you and I do every day.  However, immigrants don't vote.  Only the narrow class of people called citizens may vote, and there is some process where over time immigrants can meet some hurdles and become citizens.  The key problem for a libertarian, which I think Dale Franks would agree with, is "which status must you be to get government handouts?"  My view is that only citizens should get most handouts, like welfare and food stamps and such, though immigrants should have access to things like infrastructure (highways) and emergency services.  It is when one argues that any immigrant should have access to all this stuff that the whole immigration picture becomes a total mess.

With those couple of things in mind, here are my thoughts on the issue Franks raises:

  • The US is not made up primarily of Scots and Dutch, two areas that can legitimately claim to have strong liberal traditions.  Most of our past immigration has come from Ireland and Germany and Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.  None of these areas particularly have a liberal tradition, and many were nationalistic-militaristic-paternalistic governments.  Also, we may forget it today, but when countries like Ireland where a large source of our immigration in the 19th century, they were a third world country at the time.  Just look at Vietnam -- it has one of the worst traditions I can think of, but as a class Vietnamese immigrants tend to be capitalist tigers.
  • Depending on how one counts it, US citizens are already 65%-85% statist anyway, so I am not sure immigration is going to change the mix negatively.  In other words, the statist train has already sailed.  In fact, statism has flourished in this country from 1930-1980 during exactly the same period of time we were most restrictionist in immigration.  Sure, correlation is not causation, but certainly you can't prove to me that restrictionist immigration slows statism in any way. 
  • Much of the statist economic policies in this country were launched by Wilson and Roosevelt, from two of the more blue-blooded families in America.  Now this may not mean much.  What I don't know, because I don't know enough history of the period, is this:  Did support for New Deal (and more extreme socialist NRA-type policies) come disproportionately from new immigrants?  My sense is exactly the opposite, that in fact some New Deal policies like the minimum wage were aimed by nativists at circumscribing the opportunities of immigrants.
  • In effect, the author is advocating that we limit the freedom of movement and property ownership of people not born in the US because we are afraid that these new entrants into our country will bring political pressure to undermine individual rights.  I think that is a legitimate fear, but if I accept that argument, I don't know why I would not also have to accept the argument that we should take away the freedom of speech from people who argue for limitations of individual rights.  In both cases, we are giving political access to people who want to undermine our basic liberties.  My conclusion:  I can't go there in either case.  I refuse to put a political test on the exercise of individual rights, even for people with really bad politics.
  • A well-crafted welfare regime would make the problem a lot better.  I am not so unrealistic to expect the welfare state to go away tomorrow, but I do think that the political will can be mustered to deny substantial benefits to new non-citizen immigrants.  Which way we go on this will decide whether we can open up immigration.  If welfare handouts to immigrants are limited, then new immigrants will tend to self-select towards those looking to work hard and take risks to make it on their own.  This will mitigate the author's concern, and is in fact how we have maintained our culture of liberality through a history that was dominated mostly by open rather than closed immigration.  If welfare handouts are generous to new immigrants, then immigrants will self-select to people looking to live off the state.  If we insist on the latter, then I guess I will agree that immigration needs to be limited (though there is an even better reason for doing so in that we will, in that case, surely bankrupt ourselves.)