By Frank BarryMonday, October 20th, 2014
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).