Ireland's crash course in finance and economics

A man leaves the Bank of Ireland in Dublin. Ireland admitted Monday it is in contact with 'international colleagues' over its debt crisis but denied seeking a bailout.

Tess Vigeland: You might say you'd need the luck o' the Irish to find a job in this economy. But the Irish would tell you their luck isn't worth what it was a scant decade ago. The Celtic Tiger roared for several years in the late '90s and early 2000s.

And then with the global economy crisis, it turned into a listless kitty cat. The Irish government stepped in to rescue banks, the European Union bailed out the government. But along the way, citizens learned a thing or two about finance.

Christopher Werth has our story from Dublin.

Christopher Werth: Ireland, like the U.S. has had a tough few years. Plummeting property prices, a national credit downgrade and deep worries over debt. And just like Americans, the Irish have had to learn a whole new vocabulary of troublesome economic terms, like "credit default swaps."

Jill Kerby: And "subordinated debt."

"Collateralized debt obligations."

Kerby: "Debt values" and "bond prices."

Jill Kerby is a personal finance columnist in Ireland for The Sunday Times newspaper. She says during the boom years of the Celtic Tiger, no one paid attention to this stuff.

Kerby: They were just having a good time spending all this debt that the banks were throwing at them.

That is, until 2008, when all of that debt plunged Ireland into one of the worst banking crises in Europe. Since then, its plowed over $100 billion into bailing out its banks, a huge sum for a country of just 4.5 million people.

Ben Tonra is a political scientist at University College Dublin, or UCD. He says one good thing that's come out of it is that, because those 4.5 million people are left paying the bill, everyone has essentially given themselves a crash course in finance and economics.

Ben Tonra: It's quite an extraordinary transformation. We know all about debt yields. We talk in terms of basis points instead of interest rates. We're probably the best-educated state in terms of knowing how banking systems now work. It's just a shame we didn't have that knowledge a little bit earlier.

But as the saying goes, better late than never. And, just maybe, that means Ireland will be less likely to make the same mistakes twice, says Liam Delaney. He's a researcher at UCD's Geary Institute, which studies the impact of public policy on peoples' daily lives.

Liam Delaney: When you get a taxi back to the airport, you know, talk to anybody about what the banking system should be like, and they'll be able to give you a view. And I think that's a positive sign.

So I decided to take Delaney's challenge to find out just how many "amateur economists" there are on this little island. And to do that, I enlisted the help of an actual economist.

Brian Lucey: Introducing myself now.

Brian Lucey is a professor of finance at Trinity College, Dublin. He joined me in a very unscientific experiment to ask the city's taxi drivers what they would do to fix Ireland's broken banking system.

Lucey: And with a bit of luck we'll find a taxi man who's not short of an opinion.

So we step out on the curb.

Werth: Taxi!

And cabbie Thomas O'Byrne stops to pick us up.

Werth: Hello, I'm a journalist with American public radio...

And our question: Should senior bond holders, or senior investors, in Ireland's failed banks be paid back in full? It sounds technical, but it's a big debate in Ireland because, as it stands, Irish taxpayers are on the hook for billions of dollars. So what would O'Byrne do differently?

Thomas O'Byrne: I don't know if anything can be done differently. I mean, apparently we can't completely burn bond holders. I think the great tragedy is that we arrived at this position.

Lucey: When you say "burn bond holders," what do you mean?

O'Byrne: What I mean by that is, they took the risk. If their investment fails, they lose their investment.

In other words, the private sector would be forced to take on at least some of the burden of dealing with Ireland's ballooning debt. It's not a sentiment shared by the European Central Bank, or our next economically savvy taxi driver, Breda Doyle.

Breda Doyle: We know we can't do that because, well forever more amen, nobody would ever give us a penny again would they?

Not to say she's happy about that. In fact, Doyle says the more she learns about Ireland's financial troubles, the angrier she becomes.

Doyle: More knowledge makes you more angry. And little did I ever think I would even be talking about finances. I didn't want to know about bailouts and the IMF or anything else. Did we ever want to know all this? We didn't, but we do.

Werth: So do you feel the better off for that?

Doyle: No.

Lucey: Ignorance was bliss.

Doyle: Wonderful. Wonderful. Yeah, I thought we were a very happy people.

Doyle laughs

And sadly, she doesn't think knowing more will necessarily keep anyone from making the same mistakes all over again.

In Dublin, I'm Christopher Werth for Marketplace Money.

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Gary, what are you up to? You're leaving out a lot of stuff here, like the cost of a taxi medallion. How can you treat the policies of disparate cities and towns with respect to cabs as though it were a matter of "when I worked as a cabby" and "in today's America"? Can you see how much of the problem of economics exists in the half-baked, one-sided arguments that people make to justify their self-interested claims about being cheated?

Well, as it turns out, it doesn’t all come down to personal responsibility or financial awareness, does it? I got quite a bit of reading done when I worked as a cabby in ‘81. Once, I happened to have Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose” on the dash. A suit fare with briefcase asked me what I thought of it. I gave it a fair review, being somewhat ignorant of finance and economics at the time, but when he tipped me five dollars, I got suspicious. Before you know it, I was reading John Kenneth Galbraith, Lester Thurow, William Greider, Kevin Phillips, and even went back to college to take economics, political science, philosophy, and a degree in electronics.
The moral of the story is this: That job is no longer available, and if it were, in this economy, I’d take it. When I worked as a cabby, it was a 60/40 employee/employer split, the company paid for the fuel and maintenance, and guaranteed minimum wage for your 10-hour shift, even if you didn’t make it in fares. In today’s America, a cabby “leases” the cab from the company, keeps it washed and cleaned, pays for the fuel himself, and pays the company a minimum amount each day for its use (and in some places, like New York, there will be a substantial charge for a training period in the bargain). If he doesn’t make enough to pay for his shift, he must make up the difference out of succeeding shifts, or be in debt for it. That’s standard throughout the industry. Take it from an ex-cabbie: This recession and its consequences have much more to do with deregulation, privatization, and securitization than with consumer ignorance, profligate spending, or a failure if individual responsibility.

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