It was not too long ago that Ireland was being heralded as Europe’s great success story; a country that had gone from back-breaking poverty as late as the 1950s, to an unprecedented economic wealth in the mid-90s. So great was their boom, in fact, that by the dawn of the new century, Ireland had managed to secure a per-capita standard of living even higher than that of the United Kingdom — which must have seemed rather poetic.
Today, however, Ireland finds itself suffering under the same sad status as Greece and Iceland; a country so massively in debt that they must venture cap-in-hand to wealthier EU capitals to bail them out. Ireland’s national debt is now one of the most daunting in all of Europe, representing over 100% of the nation’s GDP in a country of just four million people. A deal hammered out this week will thus see the European Union and International Monetary Fund agree to loan almost 90 billion Euros in order to prop up the emerald isle’s teetering economy, but, as usual, there are many strings attached. The government of Prime Minister Brian Cowen has agreed to institute sharp cuts to the country’s minimum wage and public sector salaries in exchange for the bailout cash, and income and property taxes will be hiked. All will be pretty bitter pills to swallow in a country that had gotten quite comfortable with its newfound reputation as the wealthy cause celebre of the industrialized west.
What went wrong? Well, some of Ireland’s troubles are rooted in the same sorts of problems that plague much of Europe — and indeed, welfare states everywhere — which is to say, way too much extravagant government spending at a rate completely at odds with the amount of revenue coming in. But a lot of their economic woes also stem from a more particular US-style banking crisis, whereby Irish banks were handing out all sorts outlandish loans they could not afford, creating all sorts of artificial consumer bubbles, particularly in real estate, in the process. Then the bubbles (of course) eventually burst, which in turn necessitated government bailouts for the irresponsible banks, which in turn bankrupted a state that was already spending beyond its means. Paul Krugman wrote a very good piece about it all the other day.
If there’s a lesson to be drawn from all of this, other than the obvious policy ones, it may be that economic success is an achievement best viewed with a considerable degree of skepticism. So many around the world were so enamored with the romantic idea of Ireland becoming the wealthiest country in the world that they failed to ask the hard questions about whether the country’s apparent achievements were actually based on anything tangible in the long-term. Questions that the Irish themselves, so happy to be basking in their long-overdue moment of global acclaim, didn’t seem to be in any particular rush to ask, either.