tag: David McWilliams

Jan 2012

Who holds the bonds? And why isn’t it us?

CapitalismSo today’s the day. Today the Irish government hands €1.25bn of public money to the unsecured, unguaranteed bondholders of a defunct financial institution. The stated reasons for this transfer of wealth make absolutely no sense. The real reasons are purely ideological. What’s happening today is the logical conclusion of allowing capitalism to remain unregulated.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that this grand larceny flies even in the face of free market philosophy. But capitalism is not synonymous with free market philosophy. Of course, I’m no fan of unrestricted free markets either, but at least under that system – if it was being correctly applied – it would be those who invested in Anglo-Irish Bank who would lose money; not the citizens of Ireland who could have expected no share of the profits had the investments panned out. What’s happened is that capitalism has co-opted the language and appearance of the free market to permit ever greater accumulations of wealth in ever fewer unscrupulous hands. Our system is more akin to the robber barons and gangster capitalists of the late 19th century than it is to some ideal of free market economics where wealth flows efficiently to those who “generate” it. The Anglo-Irish Bank bondholders did not generate the wealth they are receiving today. And as David McWilliams points out; by allowing this insanity to continue – worse, by encouraging it – the Irish government is losing credibility in the markets, not gaining it.

The finance capitalists who are now running our nation from afar have managed to hoodwink and pressure those elected to represent our interests into acting as though our interests were in fact synonymous with those doing the hoodwinking. And they’re not. In reality, they are diagrammatically opposed. And as we hand over our money, I feel certain that the investors can’t quite believe their luck. “Is it possible”, they wonder, “that the Irish people are really as thick as the old jokes implied?” Certainly that sad excuse for a leader we’ve got, Enda Kenny, seems to think so. Today, as he signed the metaphorical cheque, he insisted that Ireland must honour its debts. “We have paid our way and will pay our way”, he told the Dáil.

Here’s the thing, Enda, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t agree that Ireland should honour its debts. The problem we have – and it’s one that you don’t seem to have the wit about you to appreciate – is with honouring the debts of others. Today’s transfer of public wealth into private hands is not paying our way. It’s paying someone else’s way. Someone who not only doesn’t have Ireland’s interests at heart, but whose actions are impoverishing the citizens of this nation; whose greed is laying waste to our society. And although you may equate those reckless fools with “Ireland”, the rest of us really don’t. Your place in history, Enda, will be an ignominious one. Our last government sold us out, and you eagerly embraced their madness.

And that’s not all

More Pie, Mr. KennyThere’s yet one further twist in this sorry tale. A twist that would appear to make our government look even more irresponsible. A twist that gives the impression Enda Kenny and his absurd collection of incompetents are actively maximising the amount being paid by the Irish people, even as they claim to be minimising it. Less than three months ago, we handed over €715m to Anglo-Irish Bank investors (you have to understand, the €1.25bn in private debt that we’re paying today is just the latest in a long line of payments that will continue for the next seven years at least and will leave this country crippled with sovereign debt). As we made that payment, Shane Ross (independent TD) made the point that the current bondholders were not the original investors in Anglo-Irish Bank. That in fact the current bondholders bought those bonds on the secondary market during a period in 2011 when the market in Anglo-Irish Bank bonds fell by 40%. They ended up paying a little less than 60% of the face value, and today will reap the rewards when Enda Kenny honours the full amount. As Ross said, quite correctly, the current bondholders “decided the Government was going to sting the taxpayer, rather than sting them, and so they bought”.

Which raises the obvious question… if Kenny, as he claims, was always determined to cover the full amount of these bonds, why in the name of everything that’s sacred did he not instruct the treasury to buy the bonds when the price dropped by 40%? I mean, I don’t think the Irish people should be paying even 1% of the private debt run up by greedy fools, but if our Inglorious Leader is determined to pay those debts, why insist on paying 100% when there was an opportunity to pay 60%. Is it me, or is that just wilful idiocy?

The original ‘more pie’ cartoon was taken from ANU News and slightly altered.

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Dec 2011

Join up your thinking, Mr. McWilliams

Today I was reading an article (There is Another Way) on David McWilliams‘ website and I found myself mentally stumbling over a particular line. It’s about halfway through the piece… “economies grow because of the human capital of the societies”, he says.

Now, I like David McWilliams. He’s probably the most famous of Ireland’s celebrity economists, but don’t let that put you off. I certainly don’t agree with everything he has to say. And if, for example, we were to reduce things to the simplistic left/right dialectic that I generally try to avoid on this blog, then it’s safe to say that I’d be a good deal to the left of McWilliams. Beyond that, although he is one of the most vocal opponents of the current austerity orthodoxy, he still retains far too much of the dogma of mainstream free-market economic theory for my liking. Nonetheless, he was one of the very few economists to publicly warn of the financial crisis quite a while before it hit… a fact that – along with his likeable media persona – has garnered him the celebrity status he currently enjoys. He also organises the Kilkenomics Fesital which, although I’ve not been to it myself, sounds like a splendid idea (high-profile economists and well known stand-up comedians are invited to take part in performances, public interviews and conferences… a most appropriate combination of participants).

Earlier this year, at a conference called European Zeitgeist 2011, McWilliams was asked about the “bail-outs” that have been received by three (so far) EU members. His response succinctly sums up the sensible position on the subject…

However, regardless of his likeability and sensible views on the current financial crisis, David McWilliams still falls into the great trap that pretty much every economist of note succumbs to… to use the language of Systems Theory, he confuses the map with the territory. That is, he tends to see economic analysis as descriptive of the real world as opposed to merely being a model of it… and a flawed one at that. The distinction may be a subtle one, but it is massively important.

A couple of months ago, McWilliams hosted an online seminar (or “webinar” to use the parlance of our times) in which he gave a short lecture on the European crisis and then responded to questions from the disembodied audience. I put my question to him. Now, regular readers of this blog could probably guess what I asked with a fair degree of accuracy, but for the rest of you, it went something like this… “David, while acknowledging that the current financial and economic crisis is a real problem, what do you say to people who suggest it is but the tip of the iceberg; that a far more serious issue is that of resource depletion – in particular, but not limited to, peak oil – and that this will result in a near-term crisis that will make the current one look positively modest in comparison?”

To his credit (and my surprise), his response essentially acknowledged that there was a lot of truth in my suggestion and that the global economy may well experience very serious shocks as a result of resource depletion in the not too distant future. The reason for my surprise was not simply the fact that most economists fail to make that map / territory distinction and therefore completely forget that economics is no more than a conceptual model of a physical world and that economic laws and theories are only accurate insofar as they tally with the laws of physics. That they are essentially descriptions of past events and cease being at all relevant when the physical conditions of the world they describe change radically. No, I was also surprised because McWilliams makes little or no reference to the notion of resource depletion in anything he writes.

This is why I get frustrated when I read statements like “economies grow because of the human capital of the societies”. McWilliams is a very smart man and appears to acknowledge the near-term possibility of a radical change in the physical conditions within which human society – and therefore economics – must exist. The depletion of oil and other petroleum products is a complete game changer. And it makes statements such as the one about human capital completely redundant. While the statement may be (indeed, is) relevant in a world where the availability of cheap energy is a given, it is nonsense in a world of diminishing energy supply. In that world, economic growth is entirely dependent upon access to that diminishing supply of energy.

This is because an economy is – in very rough terms – the amount of work occurring within a society. Some would insist that should be restated as “the amount of productive work occurring within a society”, but that’s not the case because, in practice, many people are paid for unproductive work and that money is still part of the economy. But what is “work”? Well, a definition from a Business Studies course might claim that work is “paid employment at a job or a trade, occupation, or profession”. And that’s all well and good for passing your end of term exam, but if economies are built on physical systems (which in the final analysis, they are) then it’s really the physical definition of work that’s important. And while the most mathematical of definitions is the somewhat abstract “work is the product of a force times the distance through which it acts”, we only have to wander as far as the First Law of Thermodynamics to find work equated with energy. Indeed energy is defined as “the ability to do work”. Therefore, with decreasing energy resources comes decreasing work.

This is something that cannot be avoided and something we desperately need to start facing up to. Every available piece of data seems to point towards the fact that we have already passed peak oil (2006 seems to be the agreed year for a peak in conventional crude oil). Indeed, this is playing a not insignificant role in our current economic problems, and yet we are still at the very beginning of the resource depletion crisis. Each moment we continue to wilfully ignore this issue is a moment spent making the problem worse. Which is why people like David McWilliams; intelligent people with a public platform who are apparently aware of the looming crisis; should be talking about it. They should be shouting it from the rooftops until they’re hoarse.

What they shouldn’t be doing is insisting that despite the current downturn, despite the currency problems and despite the issue of unsustainable debt, the underlying structure of the world is the same as it ever was, and that a return to growth is just around the corner if we simply make better economic and financial decisions. Because ultimately that is what “economies grow because of the human capital of the societies” translates into. It is a statement that reflects a deep economic orthodoxy and that’s something we just can’t afford right now.

Disclaimer: I’m off down to Cork to spend the Yuletide with my family tomorrow but wanted to get this piece done while David McWilliams’ article was still relatively fresh. In truth it’s a bit of a haphazard blog entry. It’s a bit hurried and could definitely have done with gestating a while longer. But what can you do?

For those who don’t immediately see the link between oil depletion and a reduction in available energy, check out my most recent article on Peak Oil which may (or may not) explain things. See: Peak oil revisited (part 1).

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