Ataturk’s Ministers visit Sarajevo

The events of the last few days in Turkey brought back to mind this powerful snippet from Anglo-Irish writer Rebecca West’s account of her travels in Yugoslavia in the 1930s. Nothing to do with economics, and little related to present realities, but a passage that some might appreciate….

“There are thirty thousand Moslems in Sarajevo, and I think most of them were there. And they were rapt, hallucinated, intoxicated with an old loyalty, and doubtless ready to know the intoxication of an old hatred.

We came to the halt at the right moment, as the train slid in and stopped. There was a little cheering, and the flags were waved, but it is not much fun cheering somebody inside the tin box of a railway carriage. The crowd waited to make sure. The Moslem Mayor of Sarajevo and his party went forward and greeted the tall and jolly Mr. Spaho, the Minister of Transport, and the Yugoslavian Minister of War, General Marits, a giant who wore his strength packed round him in solid masses like a bull. He looked as Göring would like to look. There were faint polite cheers for them; but the great cheers the crowd had had in its hearts for days were never given. For Mr. Spaho and the General were followed, so far as the expectations of the crowd were concerned, by nobody. The two little men in bowlers and trim suits, very dapper and well-shaven, might have been Frenchmen darkened in the colonial service. It took some time for the crowd to realise that they were in fact Ismet Ineunue, the Turkish Prime Minister, and Kazim Ozalip, his War Minister.

Even after the recognition had been established the cheers were not given. No great degree of disguise concealed the disfavour with which these two men in bowler hats looked on the thousands they saw before them, all wearing the fez and veil which their leader the Ataturk made it a crime to wear in Turkey. Their faces were blank yet not unexpressive. So might Englishmen look if, in some corner of the Empire, they had to meet as brothers the inhabitants of a colony that had been miraculously preserved from the action of time and had therefore kept to their road.

The Moslem Mayor read them an address of welcome, of which, naturally, they did not understand one word. This was bound in any case to be a difficult love affair to conduct, for they knew no Serbian and the Sarajevans knew no Turkish. They had to wait until General Marits had translated it into French; while they were waiting I saw one of them fix his eye on a distant building, wince, and look in the opposite direction. Some past-loving soul had delved in the attics and found the green flag with the crescent, the flag of the old Ottoman Empire, which these men and their leader regarded as the badge of a plague that had been like to destroy their people. The General’s translation over, they responded in French better than his, only a little sweeter and more birdlike than the French of France, and stood still, their eyes on the nearest roof, high enough to save them the sight of this monstrous retrograde profusion of fezes and veils, of red pates and black muzzles, while the General put back into Serbian their all too reasonable remarks. They had told the Moslems of Sarajevo, it seemed, that they felt the utmost enthusiasm for the Yugoslavian idea, and had pointed out that if the South Slavs did not form a unified state the will of the great powers could sweep over the Balkan Peninsula as it chose. They said not one word of the ancient tie that linked the Bosnian Moslems to the Turks, nor had they made any reference to Islam.

There were civil obeisances, and the two men got into an automobile and drove towards the town. The people did not cheer them. Only those within sight of the railway platform were aware that they were the Turkish Ministers, and even among those were many who could not believe their eyes, who thought that there must have been some breakdown of the arrangements…

We had seen the end of a story that had taken five hundred years to tell. We had seen the final collapse of the old Ottoman Empire. Under our eyes it had heeled over and fallen to the ground like a lay figure slipping off a chair. But that tragedy was already accomplished. The Ottoman Empire had ceased to suffer long ago. There was a more poignant grief before us. Suppose that such an unconquerable woman as may be compared to the Slav in Bosnia was at last conquered this time, and sent for help to her old lover, and that there answered the call a man bearing her lover’s name, who was, however, not her lover but his son, and looked on her with cold eyes, seeing her only as the occasion of a shameful passage in his family history: none of us would be able to withhold our pity”.

Britain and the EU

Though Ireland and the UK joined at the same time, the UK always remained semi-detached from the EU. Brussels affairs received barely a mention in the Blair-era diaries of British government ministers and advisors. That this was not even noticed by British reviewers is telling. London regarded itself as more significant on the world stage than Brussels. And, strange as this might sound to Irish ears, until German reunification it had perhaps good reason to do so.

The “supra-national” nature of the EU was designed by France to limit German post-war independence. As Ernest Bevin, Britain’s post-war Labour Foreign Secretary, commented: “when you open that Pandora’s box you’ll find it full of Trojan horses”. Britain felt neither the need nor the desire to have its independence limited in this way. For centuries it had stood secure in its island fortress, holding the balance of power between competing continental states. In the immediate post-war period it looked as much to the US and the Commonwealth as to Europe. The US was of much greater military importance. And as the world’s first industrial nation Britain had long pursued a ‘cheap food’ policy: the agricultural protectionism of the Common Market held little appeal.

Britain’s interest in Europe is as a free trade area. It viewed the creation of the single currency as a federalist step “far too far”, a position with which very many economists agreed.

Post-referendum Britain is not the only polity in existential crisis. The EU itself is clearly in the same position. The eurozone crisis side-lined the European Commission as member states looked to their own interests first. As a leading academic wrote recently, “supranational agents’ ability to take autonomous decisions can only be sustained in matters where the extent of disagreement among national governments over policy outcomes is relatively low”. The European elite thinks that the only way forward is through further integration: “more Europe”. But there is almost zero support across the European electorate for this.

The reaction to the referendum outcome has thrown a sharp light on clashing cultures. British political culture has always been suspicious of grandiose schemes and popular culture has always been irritated by layers upon layers of bureaucracy. (Ireland bears some responsibility for the latter, in that “a Commissioner from every member state” was given to us as a concession after one of our ‘no’ votes. Every commissioner views as their legacy the amount of legislation that they leave behind on the statute books.) The other side of the culture clash is reflected in the furious reaction of the European elite to the British vote, and the apparent desire to get the British out the door as quickly as possible. Twice the Irish voted no, and twice we were asked to vote again. Why did Europe react so differently to us, when there was so much less at stake?

The British vote is also clearly an inchoate reaction to globalisation, or perhaps more accurately to its “collateral damage”. In this it seems as one with the political support for the Trump campaign in the US.

Surely European leaders would be better advised to take a long hard look at how such widespread concerns might be addressed rather than rush to accept a British withdrawal? The latter may well lead to the break-up not just of the UK but to the withdrawal of other EU member states over time. It will entail years of negotiation on future relationships – at the bare minimum between the UK and Europe, and between the UK and Ireland. More worrying perhaps – given the class, age and geographic fault lines reflected in the referendum vote – is the legacy of bitterness and, quite possibly, civil strife that it will bequeath to Britain.

There is no need to rush Britain to withdraw, other than as a threat to other potential waverers. But this is hardly what the European project was supposed to be about. A year or two of uncertainty, particularly given the fragility of the global economy, is clearly undesirable. But the next general election in Britain is likely to offer the electorate an opportunity to visit the issue anew. Europe can use the hiatus to consider how the concerns of so many of its electorates can be addressed. A substantial electorate has spoken. Is Europe prepared to listen?

More on Greece

Colm McCarthy and I were up in front of the Oireachtas Finance Committee last week to talk about Greece.  I attach my speaking notes. (Colm’s were essentially as published in the Sunday Independent the other day). I think it’s fair to say that we both kicked to touch on Pat Rabbitte’s question as to what politically acceptable solution could have been pulled out of the hat. This is a question for the diplomats and politicians rather than economists.  The radicals and the establishment parties across Europe had manoeuvered each other so that they ended up painted not so much into a corner as up against an open 10th floor window.  Someone was going to be defenestrated.  And it was never going to be the strong.

Ireland in Recovery, Greece in Crisis

Adele Bergin of the ESRI and I made a presentation to a mini-symposium on Austerity: the Irish Experience at UCD last week.  Our analysis points out how wrongheaded it is to suggest, as some have done over the last few days, that if only the Greeks would take their medicine the way we did they might be able to expect an equivalent recovery.  This ignores the huge structural differences between the two economies.

Faced with evaporation of the tax base, jittery markets and a need for concessionary funding, our current government and the previous one did what was required on the fiscal side.  In the language of economics textbooks however, consolidation was necessary but not sufficient for the timing and pace of the recovery.

The first structural difference is the vastly greater openness of the Irish economy.  This cushions the domestic economy to an extent, since imports bear some of the brunt of consolidation.

Irish exports, though they took a hit in the early days of the international crisis, nevertheless propped up the economy in a way that the Greek export sector cannot do, because of the share of exports in the Irish economy, the sectoral pattern of our exports and our portfolio of export destinations.

The fact that Ireland was hugely specialised in goods and services for which international demand remained buoyant massively bolstered the economy.  Pharmaceuticals dominate Irish merchandise exports: pharma increased as a share of total US, UK and eurozone imports from 2000 to date (as shown by Stephen Byrne and Martin  O’Brien in the Central Bank of Ireland Quarterly Bulletin, 02, April 2015). Computer and information services dominate Irish services exports:  these increased as a share of  total US, UK and eurozone imports from 2000 to date.  Agriculture and food dominate indigenous exports:  these increased as a share of  total US, UK and eurozone imports from 2000 to date.

Services comprise an unusually high share of Irish exports.  Since transmission is almost costless, these are less geographically constrained and substantially less dependent on EU and North American markets than is the case for merchandise exports.  In the case of the latter, the MNCs can shift export destinations much more easily than indigenous enterprises can, as reflected in an increased US share as the US recovered earlier from the global crisis.  And Ireland of course benefitted much more than other eurozone economies from the weakening of the euro against the dollar and sterling over recent years.

Jobs in export production began to recover rapidly from 2009, driven by labour-intensive indigenous manufacturing exports and by the growth of both indigenous and foreign-affiliate services exports.  Ireland’s export-led recovery then fed into domestic demand.

It would be impossible for Greece to replicate this pattern.

And by way of footnote:  Even though it’s true that most Irish exports are produced by the foreign-owned multinational (MNC) sector, and that any €1 million of these exports creates less domestic value-added than €1 million of indigenous exports, a different perspective emerges when you look at backward linkages per job.  These are particularly impressive in the case of the rapidly growing MNC-services sector.

Arithmetic Manoeuvres in the Dark at the Irish Times

In a week when the Irish Times carried reports complaining about the dumbing down of Leaving Cert maths the paper itself provided us with some beauties.  An article yesterday by a former head of the School of Education at UCD informs us that  “nine per cent of academics at professor level were male and 2 per cent were female”.  What about the other 89 (or 77 or 61 or whatever it is)?

Last Saturday’s paper carried a report on ESRI work on overqualified workers.  The author revealed himself to hold a masters degree from UCD.  The piece (clearly not quoting directly from the ESRI) tells us that “adults whose highest educational attainment is the Leaving Cert earn 31 per cent less on average than those with a higher certificate or ordinary degree, and 100 per cent less than graduates with an honours degree”.  I’m sure we all sympathise with how tough it must be to make ends meet on the latter salary.

Even some of their commentators on economics seem to think that a 200 per cent increase means that the thing has doubled.  But it could be worse: imagine a 200 per cent decrease.

Austerity Talk at Battle of Ideas in London

The ‘Battle of Ideas’ festival held at the Barbican in London last weekend included a panel session entitled ‘Piigs can’t fly: Democracy/Technocracy/Austerity’. I was invited to make a 7-minute presentation of my views as expressed at various crisis conferences over the years:

Back in 1986, long before most people imagined that the single currency would really come into being, Paul Krugman wrote of the potential fiscal co-ordination problem: a bias towards excessive restriction because each country ignores the impact of its actions on the exports of others. “Achieving co-ordination of fiscal policies is probably even harder politically than co-ordination of monetary policies. There is not even temporarily a natural central player whose actions can solve the co-ordination problem. None the less, in surveying the problems of European integration, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is the systemic change most needed in the near future”.

Without this problem ever having been addressed, the potential for exchange-rate realignment was locked down. As many US economists warned, the euro was a federalist project lacking in federalist foundations, whether minimalist (banking union or federalist insurance schemes) or maximalist (a Washington-style federal budget).

In the face of this existing (anti-Keynesian?; pre-Keynesian?; antediluvian?) institutional structure, Ireland had no choice but to impose austerity (which would have been required even in the absence of the disastrous bank guarantee of 2008). The large primary budget deficits – which meant that government spending would still far exceed tax revenues even if interest payments ceased – precluded debt default.

The actions of the ECB in 2010 in forcing us to pay off remaining unsecured bank bonds (by threatening to cut off liquidity) appear to have been beyond its mandate and it is difficult to think of any reason not to support economist Colm McCarthy’s call for this to be brought to the ECJ. But, as he notes, the need for  retrenchment would have remained.

The Irish experience under austerity has been distinguished by remarkable industrial peace. Paddy Teahon, the chief civil servant behind social partnership, argued that the process had promoted a shared understanding among unions, employers and the government of the key mechanisms and relationships that drive the economy. I wrote back in 2009 that “the Teahon view will be seen to be of validity if some agreement can be reached to reduce public-sector pay until the current crisis is overcome”.

As to whether austerity has worked, it has achieved what it was supposed to achieve, which was to close the deficit and slow the accelerating debt ratio. It was never supposed on its own to get the economy back to work, but rather to position the economy well for when markets rebounded. The flexibility of the labour market makes it easier for Ireland to bounce back from austerity than is the case for Greece for example. So does the openness of the economy, as long as export markets recover.

[All of the other panellists having been hostile to ‘the displacement of democracy by technocracy’, I suggested that:] Many or most economists of my acquaintance in Ireland were content enough with the policies espoused by, and implemented at the behest of, the troika. Technocracy can be viewed as an advantageous buffer between government and – on the other hand – purveyors of snake oil and the representatives of powerful entrenched interests (though technocrats too are not immune, of course, from regulatory capture).