David Brooks tells us that he is very concerned about the demands that value-less technocrats are imposing on the people of Germany to bail out the heavily indebted countries of southern Europe. He is worried that the bailout will be very costly and also that it will remove the link between effort and reward.
Both sides of this picture need a little further examination. First, let's take a look at that big cost story. What is needed first and foremost in this bailout is a guarantee of debt from a deep-pocketed entity that can make this guarantee credible. That would be the European Central Bank (ECB).
Guarantees can in principle be costless to the guarantor. Our political establishment and their followers in the media have been anxious to tell us how the government and the Fed made money on the TARP and related Fed bank bailouts. This is true. Of course we still gave enormously valuable subsidies to the beneficiaries of the bailouts.
The way this works is that the money lent to the banks had very little cost to the government. The guarantees have no cost to the government, if they are not actually drawn upon. This means that if we get even nominal interest payments, the government comes out ahead.
This is largely the case with the ECB right now. If it guarantees the debt of the troubled countries then the runs on these countries' bonds will stop and their debt burdens will be sustainable. This means that the net cost to the ECB is likely to be close to zero and it could even led to a profit. Furthermore, the ECB can print as many euros as it wants, just as the Fed can print as many dollars as it wants.
All of this means that the tax burden on those hard-working Germans should at the end of the day be a mind blowing -- hold your horses -- ZERO!
Okay, there is a small issue here. The ECB will have to abandon its worship of the number 2, as in 2 percent inflation. If the ECB is prepared to provide the support necessary to get southern Europe back on a healthy growth path then it will be necessary to have a somewhat higher inflation rate in Germany, perhaps 3-4 percent. Is that too troubling for the German people? Maybe we can have inflation adjustment therapy sessions to allow Brooks' hard-working Germans to cope with this situation. (We should send the bill to the profligate southern Europeans.)
Now that we have explained to Brooks that there will be no crushing tax burden on the Germans let's turn to the "effort-reward" story. There is a logical counterpart to every reckless borrower known as a reckless lender. Lenders are supposed to know the creditworthiness of their borrowers. That is what is supposed to distinguish a successful bank from an unsuccessful bank.
To some extent the lenders can perhaps be excused in the case of Greece, since the country did outright lie about its budget situation. (Some people more familiar with the world of high finance than me insist that the lenders knew that Greece was lying.) However, the trillions of dollars of loans that fueled housing bubbles in Spain, Ireland, and elsewhere were freely made by very well compensated bankers who were supposed to have some clue as to what they were doing.
In the world where effort is linked to reward, all of these reckless lenders should be out on the street, sent to the bottom rungs of society for their incredibly destructive greed and incompetence. That has not happened, nor is Brooks calling for it to happen.
Instead, Brooks wants to see the people of Spain, Portugal, Italy and elsewhere suffer, because their leaders were no more competent than the people at the ECB or the banks making loans in Germany, France and elsewhere. He thinks that they should endure long periods of high unemployment, see big cuts in the pensions for which they worked decades, and have education spending for their children reduced.
I'm looking really hard, but I don't see any connection between effort and reward in Brooks' vision. Maybe he can clarify the link in a future column.