The Irish government’s €10 billion interest payments are projected to absorb 80% of the government’s 2010 income tax revenue. This is beyond the ability of any national government or economy to survive. It means that all growth must be paid as tribute to the EU for having bailed out reckless bankers in Germany and other countries that failed to realize the seemingly obvious fact that debts that can’t be paid won’t be. The problem is that during the interim it takes to realize this, economies will be destroyed, assets stripped, capital depleted and much labor obliged to emigrate. Latvia is the poster child for this, with a third of its population between 20 and 40 years old already having emigrated or reported to be planning to leave the country within the next few years.
The EU’s nightmare is that voters may wake up in the same way that Argentina finally did when it announced that the neoliberal advice it had taken from U.S. and IMF advisors had destroyed the economy so much that it could not pay. As matters turned out, it had little trouble in imposing a 70% write-down on foreign creditors. Its economy is now booming – because it became credit-worthy again, once it freed itself from its financial albatross!
Much the same occurred in Latin America and other Third World countries after Mexico announced that it could not pay its foreign debts in 1982. A wave of defaults spread – inspiring negotiated debt write-downs in the form of Brady Bonds. U.S. and other creditors calculated what debtors realistically could pay, and replaced the old irresponsible bank loans with new bonds. The United States and IMF members applauded the write-downs as a success story.
But Ireland, Greece and Iceland are now being told horror stories about what might happen if governments do not commit financial suicide. The fear is that debtors may revolt, leading the Eurozone to break up over demands that financialized economies turn over their entire surplus to creditors for as many years as the eye of forecasters can see, acquiescing to bank demands that they subject themselves to a generation of austerity, shrinkage and emigration.
That is the issue in Iceland’s election this Saturday. It is the issue now facing European voters as a whole: Are today’s economies to be run for the banks, bailing them out of unpayably high reckless loans at public expense? Or, will the financial system be reined in to serve the economy and raise wage levels instead of imposing austerity.
It seems ironic that the Socialist parties (Spain and Greece), the British Labour Party and various Social Democratic parties have moved to the pro-banker right wing of the political spectrum, committed to imposing anti-labor austerity not only in Europe, but also in New Zealand (the 1990s poster child for Thatcherite privatization) and even Australia. Their policy of downsizing public social services and embrace of privatization is the opposite of their position a century ago. How did they become so decoupled from their original labor constituencies? It seems as if their function is to impose whatever right-wing agenda the Conservative parties cannot get away with – not unlike Obama neutering possible Democratic Party alternatives to Republican lobbying for more Rubinomics.
Is it simply gullibility? That may have been the case in Russia, whose leaders seemed to have little idea of how to fend off destructive advice from the Harvard Boys and Jeffrey Sachs. But something more deliberate plagues Britain’s own Labour Party in out-Thatchering the Conservatives in privatizing the railroads and other key economic infrastructure with their Public-Private Partnership. It is the attitude that led Gordon Brown to threaten to blackball Icelandic membership in the EU if its voters oppose bailing out the failure of Britain’s own neoliberal bank insurance agency to prevent banksters from emptying out Icesave.
What seems remarkable is that Icelandic voters may take seriously their prime minister’s threat that a “No” vote on the Icesave bailout would lead the UK and Holland to blackball Icelandic entry. The new Conservative Prime Minister has little love for Mr. Brown, and realizes that his own voters are not eager to support membership of a country that is willing to sacrifice the domestic economy to pay bankers for what looks like shady loans. And what of the rest of Europe? Is buckling under to unfair bank demands really the way to make friends with the indebted PIIGS countries? Do these countries want to admit another neoliberal advocate favoring banks over their domestic economies? Or would Iceland make more friends by voting “No”?
Last weekend half a million British citizens marched in London to protest the threatened cutbacks in social services, education and transportation, and tax increases to pay for Gordon Brown’s bailout of Northern Rock and the Royal Bank of Scotland. The burden is to fall on labor and industry, not Britain’s financial class. The Daily Express, a traditionally campaigning national paper, is now running a full throttle campaign for Britain to leave the EU, on much the same ground that Britain has long rejected joining the euro.
What is the rationale of Iceland and other debtor countries paying, especially at this time? The proposed agreements would give Britain and Holland more than EU directives would. Iceland has a strong legal case. Social Democratic warnings about the EU seem so overblown that one wonders whether the Althing members are simply hoping to avoid an investigation as to what actually happened to Landsbanki’s Icesave deposits. Britain’s Serous Fraud Office recently became more serious in investigating what happened to the money, and has begun to arrest former directors. So this is a strange time indeed for Iceland’s government to agree to take bad bank debts onto its own balance sheet.
The EU has given Iceland bad advice: “Pay the Icesave debts, guarantee the bad bank loans, it really won’t cost too much. It will be fairly easy for your government to take it on.” One now can see that this is the same bad advice given to Ireland, Greece and other countries. “Fairly easy” is a euphemism for decades of economic shrinkage and emigration.
The problem is that the more Iceland’s economy shrinks, the more impossible it becomes to pay foreign debts. Iceland’s government is desperately begging to join Europe without asking just what the cost will be. It would plunge the krona’s exchange rate, shrink the economy, drive young workers to emigrate to find jobs and to avoid the bankruptcy foreclosures that would result from subjecting the nation to austerity.
Nobody really knows just how deep the hole is. Iceland’s government has not made a serious attempt to make a risk analysis. What is clear is that the EU and IMF have been irresponsibly optimistic. Each new statistical report is “surprising” and “unexpected.” On the basis of the IMF’s working assumption about the króna’s exchange rate at end-2009, for example, the IMF staff projected that gross external debt would be 160% of GDP. To be sure, they added that a further depreciation of the exchange rate of 30 percent would cause a precipitous rise in the debt ratio. This indeed has occurred. Back in November 2008, the IMF warned that the foreign debt it projected by yearend 2009 might reach 240% of GDP, a level it called “clearly unsustainable.” But today’s debt level has been estimated to stand at 260% of Icelandic GDP – even without including the government-sponsored Icesave debt and some other debt categories.
Creditors lose nothing by providing junk-economic advice. They have shown themselves quite willing to encourage economies to destroy themselves in the process of trying to pay – something like applauding nuclear power plant workers for walking into radiation to help put out a fire. For Ireland, the EU pressed the government to take responsibility for bank loans that turned out to be only about 30% (not a misprint!) of estimated market price. It said that this could “easily” be done. Ireland’s government agreed, at the cost of condemning the economy to two or more decades of poverty, emigration and bankruptcy.
What makes the problem worse is that foreign-currency debt is not paid out of GDP (whose transactions are in domestic currency), but out of net export earnings – plus whatever the government can be persuaded to sell off to private buyers. For Iceland, the question would become one of how many of its products and services – and natural resources and companies – Britain and the Netherlands would buy.
It is supposed to be the creditor’s responsibility to work with debtors and negotiate payment in exports. Instead of doing this, today’s creditors simply demand that governments sell off their land, mineral resources, basic infrastructure and natural monopolies to pay foreign creditors. These assets are forfeited in what is, in effect, a pre-bankruptcy proceeding. The new buyers then turn the economy into a set of tollbooths by raising access fees to transportation, phone service and other privatized sectors.
One would think that the normal response of a government in this kind of foreign debt negotiation would be to appoint a Group of Experts to lay out the economy’s position so as to evaluate the ability to pay foreign debts – and to structure the deal around the ability to pay. But there has been no risk assessment. The Althing has simply accepted the demands of the UK and Holland without any negotiation. It has not even protested the fact that Britain and Holland are still running up the interest clock on the charges they are demanding.
Why doesn’t Iceland’s population behave like that of Ireland or Greece, not to mention Argentina or the United States, and say to Europe’s financial negotiators: “Nice try! But we’re not falling for it. Your creditor game is over! No nation can be expected to keep committing financial suicide Ireland-style, imposing economic depression and forcing a large portion of the labor force to emigrate, simply to pay bank depositors for the crimes or negligence of bankers.”
The credit rating agencies have tried to reinforce the Althing’s attempt to panic the population into a “Yes” vote. On February 23, Moody’s threatened: “If the agreement is rejected, we would likely downgrade Iceland’s ratings to Ba1 or below.” If voters approve the agreement, however, “we would likely change the outlook on the government’s current Baa3 ratings to stable from negative,” in view of a likely “cut-off in the remaining US$1.1 billion committed by the other Nordic countries and probably also to delays in Iceland’s IMF program.”
Perhaps not many Icelanders realize that credit ratings agencies are, in effect, lobbyists for their clients, the financial sector. One would think that they had utterly lost their reputation for honesty – not to mention competence – by pasting AAA ratings on junk mortgages as prime enablers of the present global financial crash. The explanation is, they did it all for money. They are no more honest than was Arthur Andersen in approving Enron’s junk accounting.
My own view of ratings agencies is based in no small part on the story that Dennis Kucinich told me about the time when he was mayor of Cleveland, Ohio. The banks and some of their leading clients had set their eyes on privatizing the city’s publicly owned electric company. The privatizers wanted buy it on credit (with the tax-deductible interest charges depriving the government of collecting income tax on their takings), and sharply raise prices to pay for exorbitant executive salaries, outrageous underwriting fees to the banks, stock options for the big raiders, heavy interest charges to the banks and a nice free lunch to the ratings agencies. The banks asked Mayor Kucinich to sell them the bank, promising to help him be governor if he would sell out his constituency.
Mr. Kucinich said “No.” So the banks brought in their bullyboys, the ratings agencies. They threatened to downgrade Cleveland’s rating, so that it could not roll over the loan balances that it ran as a normal course with the banks. “Let us take your power company or we will wreck your city’s finances,” they said in effect.
Mr. Kucinich again said no. The banks carried out their threat – but the mayor had saved the city from having its incomes squeezed by predatory privatization charges. In due course its voters sent Mr. Kucinich to Congress, where he subsequently became an important presidential candidate.
So returning to the problem of the credit rating agencies, how can anyone believe that agreeing to pay an unpayably high debt would improve Iceland’s credit rating? Investors have learned to depend on their own common sense since losing hundreds of billions of dollars on the ratings agencies’ reckless ratings. The agencies managed to avoid criminal prosecution by noting that the small print of their contracts said that they were only providing an “opinion,” not a realistic analysis for which they could be expected to take any honest professional responsibility!
Argentina’s experience should provide the model for how writing off a significant portion of foreign debt makes the economy more creditworthy, not less. And as far as possible lawsuits are concerned, it is a central assumption of international law that no sovereign country should be forced to commit economic suicide by imposing financial austerity to the point of forcing emigration and demographic shrinkage. Nations are sovereign entities.
It thus would be legally as well as morally wrong for Iceland’s citizens to spend the rest of their lives paying off debts owed for money that should rather be an issue between Britain’s Serious Fraud Office and the British bank insurance agencies.
Overarching the vote is how high a price Iceland is willing to pay to join the EU. In fact, as the Eurozone faces a crisis from the PIIGS debtors, what kind of EU is going to emerge from today’s conflict between creditors and debtors? Fears have been growing that the euro-zone may break up in any case. So Iceland’s Social Democratic government may be trying to join an illusion – one that now seems to be breaking up, at least as far as its neoliberal extremism is concerned. Just yesterday (Thursday, April 7) a Financial Times editorial commented on what it deemed to be Portugal’s premature cave-in to EU demands:
Another eurozone country has been humbled by its banks. Earlier this week, Portugal’s banks were threatening a bond-buyers’ go-slow unless the caretaker government sought financial help from other European Union countries. … Lisbon should have stuck to its position. … it should still resist doing what the banks demanded: seeking an immediate bridging loan. … By jumping the gun, the government risks having scared markets away entirely. That may prejudice the outcome of negotiations about the longer-term facility.
The caretaker government has neither the moral nor the political authority to determine Portugal’s future in this way. It should not precipitately abandon the markets. That may mean paying high yields on debt issues in coming months – higher than they might have been had the government not folded its hand too soon. … The right time to opt for an external rescue would have been at the end of a national debate.” 
This is not only an Icelandic problem. It remains a problem in Ireland, and in the United States for that matter, as well as in Britain itself.
The moral is that creditor foreclosure – or voluntary forfeiture to pay international bankers – has become today’s preferred mode of economic warfare. It is cheaper than military conquest, but its aim is similar: to gain control of foreign property and levy tribute – in a way that the tribute-payers accept voluntarily. Land is appropriated and foreclosed on – or, what turns out to be the same thing, its rental income is pledged to foreign bank branches extending mortgage credit that absorbs the net rent. The result is economic austerity and chronic depression, ending the upsweep in living standards promised a generation ago.
Iceland’s government seems to have become decoupled from what is good for voters and for the very survival of Iceland’s economy. It thus challenges the assumption that underlies all social science and economics: that nations will act in their own self-interest. This is the assumption that underlies democracy: that voters will realize their self-interest and elect representatives to apply such policies. For the political scientist this is an anomaly. How does one explain why a national parliament is acting on behalf of Britain and the Dutch as creditors, rather than in the interest of their own country? Voters in other countries have removed their governments for agreeing to pay such questionable debts.
 Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, “Greece defies Europe as EMU crisis turns deadly serious,” The Telegraph (UK), December 18, 2009.
 Kerin Hope, “Greeks adopt ‘won’t pay’ attitude,” Financial Times, March 10, 2011.
 Olivier Besancenot and Pierre-François Grond, “The Greek People are the Victims of an Extortion Racket,” Le Monde, May 14, 2010.
 Ireland’s winter of discontent,” Financial Times editorial, March 1, 2011.
 Yves Smith, “Will Ireland Threaten to Default?” Naked Capitalism, March 15, 2011
 “Banks 1, Portugal 0,” Financial Times editorial, April 7, 2011.