Friday, September 18, 2009

Economics 18/09/2009: Idiot's guide to the Galaxy

One of my favorite books in the Universe, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has been surpassed, if only momentarily, by a publisher in Ireland producing this superb Idiots' Guide to Science and Economics. Behold, the front page of today's Indo:
Of course, Mary Coughlan's theory of Relativised Evolution or Evolutionised Relativity and the absolutely unfortunate nature of the venue at which she managed to live up to her well-deserved name 'Calamity Coughlan' are straight out of the chapter 'National Embarrassment Exemplified'. It is a serious public blemish on an otherwise worthy event of IDA launching a serious campaign to attract more FDI into Ireland that I wrote about before (here). No need to detail much here, Indo's article speaks volumes, one can wonder now as to what evolutionary process can lead to the emergence of the species so ignorant of basic knowledge as Mrs Coughlan. One note worth making - the fiasco perfectly exemplifies Kevin Meyers' excellent argument in the same paper today (I might not agree with it myself, but Mrs Coughlan has made his case iron-clad).

But Brian Lenihan's lack of grasp of simple realities of public finances and economics is as breathtaking as Mrs Coughlan's lack of basic erudition. After weeks of being fed drivel of FF backbenchers' and hacks' version of economic ("Nama bonds are not debt", "We will get cheap money from ECB", "ECB supports us" etc), it seems our own Finance Minister got convinced that there is such a thing as a Free Lunch. Per Indo's article here, Lenihan "gave his firmest pledge yet that there would be no tax hikes in the December Budget. And Mr Lenihan challenged anyone who doubted him to "watch my lips"... Mr Lenihan said he was committed to introducing a carbon tax... But he gave his clearest indication yet that the Government would not bring in a property or water tax this year. "I am not aware of any other (new tax hikes)," he said.

Ok, three Indo reporters (including senior ones) failed to actually query the details of this statement the Minister made. But the very fact that Lenihan actually said what he did is a testament to the fact that this Government has no real financial brains in the Cabinet at the time of fiscal and financial crises. None at all.

Per statement itself, Minister Lenihan obviously does not consider introduction of the Carbon tax to be a new tax. Presumably, he lived so long outside the real world, in the world of chauffeur driven Mercs and vast taxpayer-paid perks that he might be under the impression that Carbon tax already exists, so 'introducing' it will not constitute an imposition of a new charge on taxpayers.

The Minister also indicated that he has seen no other tax proposals (other than the Carbon Tax and Property Tax). Has he read his own Commission for Taxation voluminous report? Or has it escaped his field of view as the Lisbon Treaty volume had escaped Brian Cowen's view earlier?

Finally, the Minister has to be living in the surreal world where a €20bn-plus shortfall between tax receipts and liabilities can be covered by something other than taxes. Indo's journos refer to the possibility of €4bn savings on the expenditure side as the means for avoiding new taxes. Have they done a simple sum ever before? Has Minister Lenihan done a simple sum ever before?

Even if the Government does deliver on €4bn in savings, and even if part-year measures announced in April 2009 budget continue through the full year 2010, the entire savings will not be able to cover a quarter of the fiscal spending gap. If the Government commits to fully ending all capital expenditure in 2010 and if the economy grows by 5% in 2010, the expected fiscal gap will still be in excess of €8bn in 2010.

This money will have to be borrowed in the international markets. The roll-over of a vast sea of short-term debt issued in 2008-2009 will have to happen. Is Minister Lenihan really buying the idea that these state liabilities - some €30bn worth already accumulated, plus Nama's €54bn expected plus the ones awaiting NTMA's printing press on the back of long term unemployment increases into foreseeable future can be 'deflated' away at the current rates of spending and taxation without raising new taxes?

Well, only in the world where Einstein authored On the Origin of Species, perhaps?
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