This article was originally published by Forbes.com on December 6, 2010
The sovereign debt crisis now threatening Europe, as well as major American states and cities, discloses the sheer incompetence of a political class that has over-promised, under-delivered and squandered vast amounts of their citizens' wealth.
Greece, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, California, Illinois, Los Angeles and Chicago are simply the poster children for what happens when elected officials engage in reckless and irresponsible management of their economies, their banking system or their respective government's public finances.
Greece's debt stands at 144% of its gross domestic product, the highest in Europe. Ireland's deficit is 98% of GDP, due in large measure to the liabilities it assumed when it bailed out the Irish banking system. The just-announced European loan of 50 billion euros to Ireland is equal to nearly 50% of its GDP. Within the next year, Italy will have to borrow 20% of its GDP just to refinance its maturing debt.
California's budget deficit has soared to $25 billion, or more than 25% of total spending. And, according to a recent study, the City of Chicago's unfunded pension liabilities total $45 billion, or more than $40,000 per household.
Politicians may not be solely responsible for this fiscal mess. But they are responsible for using borrowed money to pay for current expenses until they had borrowed more than they now seem able to pay back. Furthermore, they agreed to generous pension plans without properly funding those future obligations. As a result, massive tax increases--or a renegotiation of those commitments--now seem unavoidable. Neither alternative is going to be very pleasant economically or politically.
Prior to the euro, the political class in Europe could cover up its incompetence through a devaluation of the country currency in question. The ensuing inflation reduced the real value of the debt, providing elected officials and their economic advisors a face-saving way to force lenders to take a "haircut" on the value of their government bonds.
But with the euro devaluation is off the table, and capital markets are beginning to bring the political class--and the supporters of big government--to account. In fact, capital markets were further empowered to check government excess by an agreement among European leaders that after 2013, bondholders will face a loss of principal in the event of a financial rescue of a European state. Lenders, as well as taxpayers, will be at risk from wasteful government spending.
In the meantime, however, the European strategy of enabling more borrowing while imposing austerity plans, including higher tax rates, on overly leveraged countries may prove counterproductive. Increasing tax rates slows growth, reducing GDP, employment and the tax base necessary to service the debt.
A shrinking economy and rising unemployment also increase the demand for higher government spending to support failing businesses and the unemployed. Moreover, lenders are already demanding higher interest rates, increasing the cost of refinancing past debts, which are now coming due.
At some point, there is a risk that one or more European countries may be unable to avoid a de facto, if not de jure default on their debt, requiring a complete restructuring. And that creates the risk that the European Central Bank will be forced to bail out the political class by buying that country's sovereign debt and devaluing the euro--hence the current weakness of the European currency.
In the U.S. at least, the looming debt crisis among states and municipalities also reflects a lack of diligence on the part of the citizenry. This can be attributed in part to a naïve assumption by the electorate that those in government, freed from the profit motive, could be trusted to do what was "right" for the community as a whole.
Instead, what we now can see is that elected officials, following a power motive, can be as greedy and irresponsible as anyone in the private sector. In many cases, officials from both parties have been captured by powerful interests, including public sector unions and recipients of transfer payments. As a consequence, they have willfully committed current and future taxpayer money to benefit those with political power at the expense of the community as a whole.
One lesson is that to live in liberty requires an elevated level of diligence, oversight and skepticism of our elected officials. Taxpayers and financial market regulators need to insist on more honest accounting and disclosure of the true costs of the government programs in general, and government employee pensions and benefits in particular.
The sovereign debt crisis now encircling Europe may well prove to be a preview of what lies ahead for the political class in the U.S. Like their European counterparts, they may be participants in an end-game in which capital markets force a reassessment of debt-financed government spending, especially on transfer payments, government pensions and wealth-destroying investments in bridges to nowhere, green energy and other government boondoggles with negative rates of return.