Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Against the empathy standard for choosing judges

Ruth Marcus’s Misguided Defense of the Obama Standard. By Ed Whelan
Bench Memos/NRO, May 07, 2009

In today’s Washington Post, columnist Ruth Marcus offers a defense of President Obama’s so-called “empathy” standard for judges. Her defense suffers from three basic flaws.

First, while claiming that conservatives present an “absurd caricature” of Obama’s views, Marcus doesn’t present a fair account of Obama’s own words. As I discussed in this essay:

In explaining his vote against [Chief Justice] Roberts, Obama opined that deciding the “truly difficult” cases requires resort to “one’s deepest values, one’s core concerns, one’s broader perspectives on how the world works, and the depth and breadth of one’s empathy.” In short, “the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart.”

Marcus quotes part of what she calls “Obama’s most controversial formulation of the empathy argument”—“we need somebody who’s got … the empathy to recognize what it’s like to be a young, teenage mom; the empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African American or gay or disabled or old”—but she conveniently omits Obama’s closer: “and that’s the criterion by which I’ll be selecting my judges.”

Second, Marcus asserts that “the cases that matter most … inevitably call on the judge to bring to the task his—or her—life experiences.” But she doesn’t support that assertion with argument. If the “right answer” on a constitutional question isn’t “available to a judge who merely thinks hard enough,” one obvious alternative to the judge’s indulging his or her own values—the alternative that judicial restraint requires—is to defer to the democratic enactment. In other words, if a judge can’t say with requisite certainty that an enactment is unconstitutional, the judge shouldn’t use his or her own values as some sort of tiebreaker.

Marcus states that “[a]ll judges are guided to some extent, consciously or unknowingly, by their life experience.” The question is whether they should exercise the discipline to be as dispassionate as possible or should instead indulge their passions.

Third, Marcus asserts that “[p]ossessing the ‘empathy to recognize’ should not determine the outcome of a case, but it should inform the judge’s approach.” But the line that she purports to draw is imaginary: if it’s permissible to indulge one’s own empathy, it’s impossible to say that doing so won’t be outcome-determinative in some cases. Indeed, if doing so doesn’t affect the outcome, then what’s Obama’s point?

It’s the role of the political branches to make law and policy. It’s the role of those who occupy positions in those branches, and not that of judges, to translate competing concepts of empathy and prudence into public policy and to consult their values and life experiences in doing so. President Obama is dead wrong on this fundamental matter.

In favor of the empathy standard for choosing judges

Behind Justice's Blindfold, By Ruth Marcus
WaPo, Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Should the judge be an umpire or an empathizer?

Chief Justice John Roberts memorably likened the judge to a baseball umpire, dispassionately applying existing rules to call balls and strikes.

President Obama is more, well, touchy-feely. As he weighs a replacement for retiring Justice David Souter, the president said, he wants "someone who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book; it is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives." That "quality of empathy," he said, is "an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes."

This is red-alert talk for conservatives. "Those are all code words for an activist judge who is going to . . . be partisan on the bench," Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch warned on ABC's "This Week."

Even before the election, Northwestern University law professor Steven Calabresi, a co-founder of the Federalist Society, was already at Defcon 4. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, he argued that Obama's "emphasis on empathy in essence requires the appointment of judges committed in advance to violating" the judicial oath to do equal justice to rich and poor. "To the traditional view of justice as a blindfolded person weighing legal claims fairly on a scale, he wants to tear the blindfold off, so the judge can rule for the party he empathizes with most."

I admit to a bit of wincing at the word "empathize," with its sensitive-new-age-guy aura. If I thought Obama was advocating a pick-your-favorite-side approach, I'd be on the barricades, too. But his position is not anything like this absurd caricature. Indeed, it reflects a more thoughtful, more nuanced understanding of the judicial role than Roberts's seductive but flawed umpire analogy.

Like its downscale cousin, the dictate that judges should "interpret the law, not legislate from the bench," the judge-as-umpire trope is fundamentally misleading. Of course judges are supposed to be neutral arbiters of the cases that come before them, ruling on the merits of the claims rather than the sympathy evoked by one party or the other. Of course judges are bound by the text of legislation, the words of the Constitution, the weight of precedent.

Yet if the right answer was always available to a judge who merely thinks hard enough, we could program powerful computers to fulfill the judicial function. That's not possible -- not, anyway, in the cases that matter most. Those inevitably call on the judge to bring to the task his -- or her -- life experiences, conception of the role of the courts and, as Obama put it, "broader vision of what America should be."

Obama's most controversial formulation of the empathy argument came in a 2007 speech to Planned Parenthood. "The issues that come before the court are not sport," he said, disputing the umpire approach. "They're life and death. And we need somebody who's got . . . the empathy to recognize what it's like to be a young, teenage mom; the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor or African American or gay or disabled or old."

Possessing the "empathy to recognize" should not determine the outcome of a case, but it should inform the judge's approach. All judges are guided to some extent, consciously or unknowingly, by their life experience. The late Justice Lewis Powell, the deciding vote in Bowers v. Hardwick, the 1986 case upholding Georgia's sodomy law, told fellow justices -- and even a gay law clerk during that very term -- that he had "never met a homosexual." Would the outcome of Bowers -- an outcome Powell regretted within a few months -- have been different if the justice had known men and women in same-sex relationships?

When Bowers was overruled in 2003, the majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy was infused with a greater understanding that anti-sodomy laws "seek to control a personal relationship." You got the sense that Kennedy actually knew people in such relationships.
And empathy runs both ways. In 2007, when the court rejected Lilly Ledbetter's pay discrimination lawsuit because she had waited too long to complain about her lower salary, the five-justice majority seemed moved by concern for employers unable to defend themselves against allegations of discrimination that allegedly occurred years earlier.

Justice's blindfold is a useful metaphor for impartiality. It's not a fixed prescription for insensitivity, or for obliviousness to the real world swirling outside the arid confines of the courthouse.

Hedge Funds Outraged At Bullying But Also Cowering In Fear

Hedge Funds Outraged At Obama Bullying But Also Cowering In Fear. By Clifford S. Asness
Business Insider, May 5, 2009, 12:29 PM

Cliff Asness, managing partner at AQR Capital Management, distributed the following letter after listening to Obama blast the Chrysler hedge-fund holdouts. We picked the letter up at ZeroHedge.

Unafraid In Greenwich
Clifford S. Asness
Managing and Founding Principal
AQR Capital Management, LLC

The President has just harshly castigated hedge fund managers for being unwilling to take his administration’s bid for their Chrysler bonds. He called them “speculators” who were “refusing to sacrifice like everyone else” and who wanted “to hold out for the prospect of an unjustified taxpayer-funded bailout.”

The responses of hedge fund managers have been, appropriately, outrage, but generally have been anonymous for fear of going on the record against a powerful President (an exception, though still in the form of a “group letter”, was the superb note from “The Committee of Chrysler Non-TARP Lenders” some of the points of which I echo here, and a relatively few firms, like Oppenheimer, that have publicly defended themselves). Furthermore, one by one the managers and banks are said to be caving to the President’s wishes out of justifiable fear.

I run an approximately twenty billion dollar money management firm that offers hedge funds as well as public mutual funds and unhedged traditional investments. My company is not involved in the Chrysler situation, but I am still aghast at the President's comments (of course these are my own views not those of my company). Furthermore, for some reason I was not born with the common sense to keep it to myself, though my title should more accurately be called "Not Afraid Enough" as I am indeed fearful writing this... It’s really a bad idea to speak out. Angering the President is a mistake and, my views will annoy half my clients. I hope my clients will understand that I’m entitled to my voice and to speak it loudly, just as they are in this great country. I hope they will also like that I do not think I have the right to intentionally “sacrifice” their money without their permission.

Here's a shock. When hedge funds, pension funds, mutual funds, and individuals, including very sweet grandmothers, lend their money they expect to get it back. However, they know, or should know, they take the risk of not being paid back. But if such a bad event happens it usually does not result in a complete loss. A firm in bankruptcy still has assets. It’s not always a pretty process. Bankruptcy court is about figuring out how to most fairly divvy up the remaining assets based on who is owed what and whose contracts come first. The process already has built-in partial protections for employees and pensions, and can set lenders' contracts aside in order to help the company survive, all of which are the rules of the game lenders know before they lend. But, without this recovery process nobody would lend to risky borrowers. Essentially, lenders accept less than shareholders (means bonds return less than stocks) in good times only because they get more than shareholders in bad times.

The above is how it works in America, or how it’s supposed to work. The President and his team sought to avoid having Chrysler go through this process, proposing their own plan for re-organizing the company and partially paying off Chrysler’s creditors. Some bond holders thought this plan unfair. Specifically, they thought it unfairly favored the United Auto Workers, and unfairly paid bondholders less than they would get in bankruptcy court. So, they said no to the plan and decided, as is their right, to take their chances in the bankruptcy process. But, as his quotes above show, the President thought they were being unpatriotic or worse.

Let’s be clear, it is the job and obligation of all investment managers, including hedge fund managers, to get their clients the most return they can. They are allowed to be charitable with their own money, and many are spectacularly so, but if they give away their clients’ money to share in the “sacrifice”, they are stealing. Clients of hedge funds include, among others, pension funds of all kinds of workers, unionized and not. The managers have a fiduciary obligation to look after their clients’ money as best they can, not to support the President, nor to oppose him, nor otherwise advance their personal political views. That’s how the system works. If you hired an investment professional and he could preserve more of your money in a financial disaster, but instead he decided to spend it on the UAW so you could “share in the sacrifice”, you would not be happy.

Let’s quickly review a few side issues.

The President's attempted diktat takes money from bondholders and gives it to a labor union that delivers money and votes for him. Why is he not calling on his party to "sacrifice" some campaign contributions, and votes, for the greater good? Shaking down lenders for the benefit of political donors is recycled corruption and abuse of power.

Let’s also mention only in passing the irony of this same President begging hedge funds to borrow more to purchase other troubled securities. That he expects them to do so when he has already shown what happens if they ask for their money to be repaid fairly would be amusing if not so dangerous. That hedge funds might not participate in these programs because of fear of getting sucked into some toxic demagoguery that ends in arbitrary punishment for trying to work with the Treasury is distressing. Some useful programs, like those designed to help finance consumer loans, won't work because of this irresponsible hectoring.

Last but not least, the President screaming that the hedge funds are looking for an unjustified taxpayer-funded bailout is the big lie writ large. Find me a hedge fund that has been bailed out. Find me a hedge fund, even a failed one, that has asked for one. In fact, it was only because hedge funds have not taken government funds that they could stand up to this bullying. The TARP recipients had no choice but to go along. The hedge funds were singled out only because they are unpopular, not because they behaved any differently from any other ethical manager of other people's money. The President’s comments here are backwards and libelous. Yet, somehow I don’t think the hedge funds will be following ACORN’s lead and trucking in a bunch of paid professional protestors soon. Hedge funds really need a community organizer.

This is America. We have a free enterprise system that has worked spectacularly for us for two hundred plus years. When it fails it fixes itself. Most importantly, it is not an owned lackey of the oval office to be scolded for disobedience by the President.

I am ready for my “personalized” tax rate now.

An Economic Analysis of the Distributional Consequences of Cap-and-Trade

An Economic Analysis of the Distributional Consequences of Cap-and-Trade. By Aparna Mathur
House American Energy Solutions Group
May 5, 2009

The adoption of a cap-and-trade system would increase carbon prices leading to an increase in the price of energy and non-energy goods. Price increases would fall more heavily on low income households, however the regional distribution of the burden will depend on the nature of electricity regulation. The cost burden would be distributed relatively evenly if permits are auctioned, however, free allocation of permits would allow a greater share of the burden to fall on consumers in states where electricity is not regulated.

Cap and trade systems increase costs of production for firms since firms will either need to undertake abatement measures to reduce carbon emissions (which may be costly) or they will need to buy permits from other firms to be able to continue emitting carbon without abatement. It can be shown that these costs will be incurred irrespective of whether the initial permits are auctioned or they are freely allocated. That result was borne out in the cap-and-trade programs for sulfur dioxide in the United States and for CO2 in Europe, where consumer prices rose even though producers were given allowances for free.

These higher costs of production will translate to higher energy and product prices. In a paper that I co-authored with my colleagues at AEI, we estimate that a cap and trade system, with a $15 permit price, will increase the cost of everything--from food, clothing, shoes and home furnishings by about 1 percent, of gasoline by 7.7%, electricity 12.5%, and natural gas 12.3%. Of course, as previous experience with cap and trade programs has shown, permit prices are likely to be extremely volatile and rising over time, and our $15 price estimate is likely to be conservative. Other studies suggest that the price could be above $50 in 2015, close to $100 in 2030 and about $200 in 2050. We can safely project that our estimates will be some multiple of these higher prices i.e. our price increases will be much higher than we project here.

The burden of these higher prices will be felt the most by the lower income households. As a fraction of income, this is about 4 percent of income for the bottom 10 percent of the population and about 1 percent of income for the top. In other words, the burden on the lower income households will be nearly 4 times the burden on the top income households. In terms of actual dollar values, the total cost of a cap and trade system on the bottom 10 percent of the population would be about $315 annually (in 2003 dollars), while on the top 10 percent it would be about $1324 annually (in 2003 dollars). For the average middle income household, it would be about $635 annually. Of course, if the permit prices are higher, then these costs could double or triple.

Read the full testimony in the link above.

The luck of the Irish runs out

Waiting for Dough, by Christopher Caldwell
The luck of the Irish runs out.
The Weekly Standard, May 11, 2009, Volume 014, Issue 32

More than any other country over the past two decades--more even than China--Ireland has given up its traditional culture for the global economy. In a quarter century, it went from being a little, poverty-stricken, priest-ridden agricultural backwater to a swingin', low-tax, wide-open, unregulated global-economy entrepôt. Last year, on paper, it was the seventh-richest country, per capita, in the world, ahead of the United States and trailing only a few oil exporters and tax havens. In the decade up to 2007, Ireland's GDP increased 350 percent. House prices quintupled.

At the same time, Ireland abandoned the "backward" parts of its culture. Partly through a string of sex scandals in the 1990s, but largely through its hostility to consumerism, the Catholic Church was discredited, and the culture built on it faded. (One small illustration: There are placards on public garbage cans all over Dublin bearing the catchy but not very Christian sentiment "Litter is disgusting--so are those responsible.") Ireland is not prudish anymore, either. A couple decades ago, 1 in 60 Irish babies were born out of wedlock; today 1 in 3 are. The country has some of the most liberal gay-rights and environmental laws in Europe. Nor is Ireland provincial. Its economy draws immigrants. There is a whole wall of books at the Waterstone's on Dawson Street in Dublin marked "Polskie Ksiazki." Dublin has numerous mosques. Tiny Waterford (pop. 45,775) has an African Women's Forum, not to mention two "adult stores" (in case you're ever in Waterford and need to buy an adult).

This is all very exciting for the Irish, but there is nothing particularly Irish about it. Irish identity has often been--explicitly and officially--a matter of protecting citizens from both the temptations of modernity and the vicissitudes of prosperity. In 1927 a Manchester Guardian journalist asked Eamon de Valera, the father of the modern Irish state, whether he understood that closing Ireland off from trade, the better to protect its culture, would mean a lower standard of living. De Valera replied,

You say "lower" when you ought to say a less costly standard of living. I think it quite possible that a less costly standard of living is desirable and that it would prove, in fact, to be a higher standard of living. I am not satisfied that the standard of living and the mode of living in Western Europe is a right or proper one.

De Valera's Irish Republic was organized around the idea that money doesn't matter that much. This may have been a noble aspiration, it may have been sanctimony and foolishness, but there was at the very least something bold and, as Yeats would say, indomitable about it. Next to De Valera's uncompromising Christian renunciation, those two something-for-nothing ideologies, modern capitalism and modern socialism, are practically indistinguishable. Over the last 20 years, Ireland found riches a good substitute for its traditional culture. But now the country has been harder hit by the financial downturn than any country in Western Europe. We may be about to discover what happens when a traditionally poor country returns to poverty without its culture.

Tiger in the tank

Until around the time the dot-com bubble burst, the Irish described their economy as the Celtic Tiger, after the high-tech and pharmaceutical companies that opened European offices there in the 1980s and 1990s. One senses De Valera wouldn't have liked these places. Much of the world's Viagra is made by Pfizer in the western village of Ringaskiddy. Botox comes from the elegant town of Westport, and one of the largest silicone-breast-implant factories in the world was until recently located in Arklow. Reductil, the slimming drug sold on the Internet, comes from Sligo. Google's European offices are in Dublin. Intel and Dell are still Ireland's two largest high-tech employers. But neither of those employs more than 5,000 people, and Dell laid off over 2,000 of them this winter.

The Celtic Tiger was partly the result of global economic conditions and partly the result of the country's policies. Ireland's decision to join the euro in the 1990s forced it to eliminate its chronic budget deficits and gave it the windfall of super-low interest rates, set for a European economy dragged down by Germany's struggles with reunification. Ireland offered a low-cost English-speaking labor force at a time when U.S. high-tech companies were looking for a springboard into European markets. Even today, Ireland is highly dependent on U.S. corporations, which account, directly or indirectly, for 300,000 jobs. Should the United States go protectionist, or should it inflate, which for Ireland's purposes would amount to the same thing, Ireland would be in trouble. On his St. Patrick's Day visit to Washington, D.C., the Irish taoiseach (prime minister), Brian Cowen, is said to have received an assurance from Barack Obama that the president didn't see Ireland as a tax haven.

This makes Ireland sound like a northern equivalent of a maquiladora economy, like Mexico in the years immediately after NAFTA. The Irish are sensitive about this imputation. "Our natural resource is brainpower," says one Dublin personnel consultant. That is true enough. It is probably not a coincidence that the biggest beneficiaries of the Celtic Tiger were the first generation of Irish born after the institution of universal public education in the 1960s. But education is not a commodity that can be monopolized. As labor costs have risen (by a third in real terms in the past decade), international companies have discovered that there are other, cheaper workforces that can also perform new-economy tasks. Jobs have left for Latin America, southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. That Arklow breast-enhancement business wound up in Costa Rica.

So how has Ireland continued to grow at staggering rates for the last decade? Mostly thanks to a housing bubble, which was like the American one on steroids. Run-of-the-mill three-bedroom houses in provincial towns were selling for 1.5 million euros. Prices in Dublin were up to seven times as high as in similar U.S. urban markets.

There seemed to be good fundamental reasons for a steep rise in house prices, starting with a rate of home-ownership that approached 80 percent. On top of that there was immigration, the return of Irish exiles, a growing demand for vacation homes, and the new phenomenon of widespread divorce (making two homes necessary where one used to suffice). There were also government incentives for real estate developers and for the building of vacation homes in depressed areas. The most glamorous part of new, swingin' Ireland was deeply implicated in this speculation. Harry Crosbie, real estate-and-rock-music mogul, conceived--and, stranger yet, got financing for--a billion-euro construction project along the River Liffey. It would have included two skyscrapers, including a "U2 Tower," in which the band had invested heavily, and an Ozymandian 15-story sculpture of a giant man overlooking the Liffey. It was a narrow escape for Dublin architecture when Crosbie abandoned the project for lack of funds.

The result of the bubble was that, by the time of the U.S. subprime collapse, Ireland already had as many as 100,000 vacant houses. It also has empty golf courses, empty hotels, and empty shopping malls. Every last developable acre in the country, it seems, has been bought up (and bid up) by speculators. The bad loans attached to this overbuilding might reach 20 billion euros, or 10 percent of GDP. Housing prices are predicted to drop 50 percent from their peak, and development land 70 percent. Alan Ahearne, a former U.S. Federal Reserve economist who is now an adviser to the Irish finance minister, predicted over the winter that, "with possibly one exception, this country will record the largest cumulative drop in national income in an advanced economy since the Second World War."

Partners in crime

The villains of Irish finance, unlike those in New York and the City of London, were not wizards deploying the Black-Scholes equation or the Gaussian copula to turn the dross of subprime real estate into the fool's gold of CDOs. Far from it. They were just go-get-'em businessmen who started to believe their own blarney, cross-collateralized their properties, and got in way over their heads. As the financial journalist Tom McGurk put it: "Were you to gather together all of the senior principals in the six banks and building societies that approved this outrageous behavior, and join them to the property speculators to whom they loaned the billions, they would hardly fill a good-sized bus."

A few of the developers were young and dashing. Most of them were dissolute and lecherous-looking geriatrics. You could see them in the Irish weekend newspapers, posing in front of their huge houses and at charity balls with their toothy wives. Each of the developers had a signature Croesian excess, whether personal or professional. There was Sean Dunne, who had proposed to dynamite two of Dublin's historic hotels in leafy Ballsbridge to build a billion-dollar skyscraper; there was Sean Mulryan with his stables full of racehorses and his whole fleet of helicopters; and there was Johnny Ronan, who reportedly flew several dozen friends to Italy to have Pavarotti sing to him personally.

There is a good side to this lack of sophistication, of course. Boosters of Ireland's economy are keen to point out that there is little toxicity in its real estate market. Even harsh critics of the ruling Fianna Fáil party's economic policy--like the economics spokeswoman of the Labour party, Joan Burton--will grant this. It doesn't take an MIT doctorate to figure out what's wrong with the Irish economy, so the markets have had little trouble pricing the economy's assets. Shares in the Bank of Ireland, which were at 18.83 euros in 2007, now trade for 12 cents.

But there is a dark side to having your small economic pond fouled by only a handful of big fish: The whole social, economic, and political system looks like a con. Why, people now wonder, was so much of the financing in this supposedly open economy done by local Irish banks? The easiest answer to hand--and probably the correct one--is that the bankers and developers bought the protection and indulgence of Fianna Fáil. (The two main Irish political parties don't really have ideologies, but Fianna Fáil is the more historically nationalist and machine-oriented of the two.)

This unease has been heightened by a shocking lack of accountability. The banks' top brass has hardly changed from the days when they were actually making money. One of the few executives to resign was Sean FitzPatrick, chairman of the spectacularly reckless Anglo-Irish Bank, or "Anglo," but he was an extraordinary case. FitzPatrick got "director's loans" worth 83.3 million euros (which the bank's accountants, Ernst and Young, failed to notice) at a time when he was running the bank into the ground. Anglo peaked at 7.50 euros a share and was nationalized this year at 22 cents. When Bear Stearns collapsed, Anglo lost 23 percent of its value. When Lehman Brothers collapsed, Anglo threatened to take the whole Irish banking system with it. The government gave a blanket guarantee to Irish banks, using as security the country's National Pension Reserve Fund.

Now, imagine what the reaction has been to the discovery that the National Pensions Reserve Fund has been used to underwrite golden parachutes. This spring, Michael Fingleton, the chairman of Irish Nationwide, became the face of Irish banking malfeasance in much the way that the AIG financial team became the face of the U.S. banking scandal--and for the same reason. Fingleton's last reported salary was only 2.3 million euros. But in 2007 Irish Nationwide reported that it had transferred a 27.6-million-euro pension fund on behalf of "members" (note the plural) of the plan. Turns out the plan had only one member--Fingleton. And that money constituted 85 percent of Irish Nationwide's reported pension-fund assets at the end of 2006. Fingleton agreed to resign at the end of April. He also agreed to pay back a million-euro bonus he had received after the government had used those taxpayer pensions to secure Irish Nationwide against collapse. Rather like Barack Obama faced with AIG, the Irish finance minister, Brian Lenihan, had seen that the Fingleton bonus was a disaster in the making. He had threatened to withdraw Irish Nationwide's guarantee if Fingleton kept his bonus. This led to a funny photograph on the cover of the satirical magazine the Phoenix:

Lenihan: Return the bonus, or get the sack.

Fingleton: How much is in the sack?

Real money and fake

Ireland once looked to many investors like a versatile economy, matching American dynamism with European security. But now certain commentators are warning that it might be the other way around. "Ireland is like a jockey riding two horses," said the economist and author David McWilliams in Dublin this March. "When the horses are moving together, everything works well. When they're not, the jockey can get a terrible pain in the groin."

Ordinarily, a small, export-dependent economy in which wages are becoming less competitive can regain its edge by devaluing its currency. But Ireland is in the euro, and it is having a hard time staying in. According to the European Stability and Growth Pact, all countries must keep their deficits below 3 percent of GDP. No country until recently has ever gone above 5 percent. Ireland is now at 11 percent, or 20 billion euros. The European Central Bank has given Ireland until 2013 to get back into conformity.

Two-thirds of companies surveyed by the accountants Price Waterhouse Coopers said they were planning on cutting jobs this year. Consumer spending is already down 20 percent. So the government is now faced with the need to raise taxes dramatically and cut spending in the face of a looming recession. On April 7, it announced its budget. Top tax rates have soared past 50 percent, and capital gains and value-added taxes will rise, too. A property tax will be added. And that will make only the merest dent in the 20-billion-euro shortfall.

A basic question remains, though: How, in the absence of leverage-creating derivatives and "toxicity," did a few real-estate yahoos' going broke cause the risk of sovereign default to loom over the previously solvent Irish state? In Ireland now, there is (as an American could predict) a lot of talk about how the past few years have been an era of greed, lacking in social solidarity. But in Ireland's case, this is not true in the slightest. There was plenty of care for the less well-off. It is just that the government got no credit for it because it delivered that care by lowering poor people's taxes.

The fiscal emergency had its roots in the generous-sounding "social partnership" model agreed on by the country's leading politicians in the late 1980s--a sort of Irish answer to Germany's social market economy. The key to the social partnership was assuring "competitiveness" in international markets. Irish workers wanted higher wages, but businesses wishing to locate in Ireland wanted lower ones. How do you square that circle? Through government. In return for workers' moderating wage demands, government would make sure they paid very little in income taxes. Half the income tax in Ireland is paid by people earning over 100,000 euros, and 750,000 people--a third of the workforce--pay no income tax at all. Where does the money come from, then? From transaction taxes ("stamp" duties, capital gains taxes, corporate profits tax) that were paid mostly by the real-estate speculators who were making money hand over fist. Everyone seemed content with this system, even the speculators. It is, after all, easier to tax people's fake money than their real money.

The government could thus stimulate consumption (and consumerism) through low income taxes without having to stint on entitlements. This explains how, for a while, the ruling Fianna Fáil party managed to become the party of both the upper-middle class and the working class--much as U.S. Republicans did by a superficially different but essentially similar shell game.

We can see now that this arrangement was a time bomb. We can also see that the politically connected developers did a good deal to wreck the economy. But there is no denying that, by golly, they paid a lot of taxes. All this meant, though, was that the state became just as dependent on the housing bubble as the private sector. When more money came in, the government just spent it. The featherbedding patronage state is about the only Irish tradition that the global economy did not kill. Government employees make 25 percent more than equivalently situated private employees, according to the Dublin-based Economic and Social Research Institute. Government employees got very powerful in the process. So over the winter, when politicians decided to cut public-sector pay, they weren't exactly forthright--they proposed lopping 7.5 percent off the top and called it a "pension levy."

The head of the Labour party, Eamon Gilmore, recently attacked the finance ministry on the grounds that its new, trimmed budget requires more austerity than the country at large can handle. Gilmore has called instead for an Obama-style stimulus package. This is far more difficult to pull off when you are dependent on foreign investors and don't control the currency in which your debts are denominated--but at least it promises a continuation of something-for-nothing! Unsurprisingly, Gilmore is now the most popular politician in the country.

Prisoners of the open economy

There is lots of unrest and anger in Ireland now, and it is finding various outlets. Government statistics envision unemployment rising to 500,000 this year (in a labor force of 2.2 million). In protest against the pension levy, 150,000 people demonstrated in Dublin in March. Police unions and parts of the armed forces have also taken to the streets, which is supposed to be illegal. A representative of the army wrote to the defense minister for reassurance that it would not be used to break strikes, although it has often been called upon to do just that. Until recently, Irish workers had little to strike about. The country's largest union body, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, negotiated a 6 percent pay raise on the very eve of the banking collapse and some businesses are even honoring it.

Today unions are united. They are irate. Workers are having their wages cut unilaterally by the government and via negotiations with private business. You would expect upheaval. But even under the circumstances, unions' power to shake the government or win themselves a better deal appears to be meager. Ambitious plans for a national strike fizzled out when Impact, the largest public-sector union, failed to get the necessary votes.

Part of the unions' problem is that the economy is configured so that striking will do them little good. Ireland is now abjectly dependent on the global economy. Paradoxical though it may sound, this makes its workers dependent on government. The social partnership model has an iron logic. Once income tax rates fall to a certain level, Irish workers' disposable income can rise only through transfer payments. If it rises through wage increases, foreign investors will be driven off and there will be no pie to divide. So Ireland must run its economy in a two-step process: First, attract the direct investment from the global market. Then, if you think the workers deserve a better shake, use government to redistribute the income at home.

People are coming to understand how appallingly little there is to redistribute. Waterford Crystal, the mainstay of a market town that has been making glass since the 16th century, recently ran into trouble. The company employed 3,500 people in the 1980s, but under the leadership of Tony O'Reilly--ex-rugby star, ex-chairman of Heinz, ex-billionaire--it screwed things up royally. It over-manufactured items for the millennium: The public turned out not to want the year 2000 commemorated in glass. It went on an acquisition binge. The death blow was Waterford's acquisition of the German porcelain-maker Rosenthal and its tardy discovery that Rosenthal had German-sized pension-and-benefits liabilities. And then came the bad luck of the falling dollar and pound. The company wound up with 400 million euros in debts and a share price of a tenth of a cent. Waterford went into receivership; the Waterford name is now owned by KPS, a private equity company in New York.

On a Friday afternoon in January, KPS announced it would shut down manufacturing at Waterford's Kilbarry plant. Two hundred workers staged an occupation of the visitors' center, which was once ("once" meaning last year) Ireland's fourth-largest tourist attraction, getting 350,000 visitors. The occupation won widespread sympathy in the town of Waterford itself. And why shouldn't it have? Much of the town's economy--hotels and mini-museums, sweater shops and espresso bars--is configured around those foreigners who want to see how Waterford glass gets made. Local women brought meals to the factory canteen to feed the strikers, and teenagers volunteered for janitorial work.

The town will wait in vain for the plant's reopening. After an eight-week sit-in, the company offered the 800 workers left at the plant a 10-million-euro payment--1,200 euros apiece--and they jumped at it, 90 percent of them voting for the settlement. A hundred some-odd workers have been allowed to stay on for another six months. Some labor movement.

Much of the plant's production will be transferred to the Czech Republic, and there is justice in that. Waterford is indeed an ancient glassmaking city, but its name became an international eponym for beautiful crystal only after 1947, when Charles Bacik, a war refugee from Czechoslovakia, revamped the place with the help of a number of fellow Czech glassblowers. One was Miroslav Havel, who developed the beloved Lismore pattern--the one you probably registered for when you got married.

On the other hand, since the factory will remain in the town, and since all these extraordinary Irish craftsmen will, too, it is hard not to share the puzzlement of trade union rep Macdara Doyle of the ICTU that a national treasure, cultural symbol, and economic behemoth like Waterford could just evaporate this way. "What's puzzling and annoying us is this," he said in March. "If you are going to re-grow your economy, surely you have to do high-end manufacturing. We're not all going to get rich pushing strange financial products. Waterford is to Ireland what BMW is to Germany. It's by no means a busted flush."

I visited the factory with John Stenson, a 56-year-old master wedge cutter who took early retirement last year, after working at the plant for 40 years. Stenson is still owed tens of thousands out of his severance payment that he expects never to see. He apprenticed at the company for five years in the time of "Mister Havel," blowing glass and cutting it on old ceramic wheels. It was quickly apparent he was a gifted glassmaker. After three years of further training, he was certified a master, and ran his own "bench" of six artisans. He toured the United States explaining and demonstrating to Americans the craft of glass-cutting as practiced by artisans of Waterford. He handmade six serving dishes for Prince Charles. He designed, sculpted, and cut the crystal grandfather clock that is (or was) the central exhibit in the Waterford visitors' center.

"He is a man of many talents!" said one of his admiring former colleagues, also unemployed after working at the plant for decades, who had managed to get a temp job as a security guard there.
"Well, I'm on the dole now," Stenson said.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West will be published in July.