Tax deal says we're deadbeats
I've actually been able to find just one example in Western history that sheds any light on the situation the United States and the world finds itself facing -- the multiple bankruptcies of Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries.
In the 16th century, the Spanish Empire stretched farther across the globe than any previous empire. Starting from an Iberian peninsula unified under Castile and Aragon only in 1492, the Spanish empire grew to encompass first the island then known as Hispaniola, then Cuba, Mexico, the bulk of South America except for Brazil, and the islands of Guam and the Philippines. In Europe, Spanish monarchs ruled the Netherlands, Belgium, much of Italy and parts of Africa.
And it was a fabulously rich empire. The great silver mines of Peru and Mexico began to deliver a river of precious metal -- supplemented by gold from conquest and mining -- as early as 1511. Spain imported 260,000 kilograms of silver and 5,000 kilograms of gold from 1511 to 1550. And that was just the beginning. From 1591 through 1610, the country imported 4.9 million kilograms of silver and 31,000 kilograms of gold. The flood of gold and silver into Europe, a region previously starved for precious metals, was so great that the supply depressed the price for both metals and set prices for goods and services climbing.
But less than half of this silver and gold remained in Spanish hands. About a third went to China to pay for Spanish imports of silk, porcelain and other luxury goods. The remainder went to pay for Spanish imports from the rest of Europe. The Spanish economy itself was an increasingly uncompetitive hulk. Spain lived beyond its means, supported on that wave of New World silver and gold.
And that included the Spanish monarchy. Silver and gold poured in, but running an empire is expensive when it includes almost constant war in Europe with a constellation of national enemies that included France and England, plus local rebellions in the Netherlands and Italy, plus more than a century of land and sea battles against an Ottoman Empire that moved relentlessly westward after its capture of Constantinople in 1453.
The kings of Spain found it much easier to borrow money -- after all, what lender could afford to say no to the most powerful kingdom in Europe? -- than to reform the Spanish economy. But the seemingly inexhaustible flow of treasure from the Western hemisphere encouraged Spanish kings to think they could borrow and repay any sum -- and what bank would have had the courage to question the creditworthiness of the most powerful kingdom in Europe? The result was bankruptcy in 1557 that left the Fugger bank in Augsburg holding the bag.
The circumstances of that 1557 bankruptcy may sound familiar. The bank made the classic mistake of mismatching assets and liabilities: The Fugger bankers took out long-term loans in Augsburg in order to make short-term loans to the Spanish king. Payments on the long-term loans were to come from payments on the short-term Spanish loans. Then, in 1557, Phillip II of Spain decided that he had more use for two payments intended for the Fuggers than they did. In effect, Spain declared bankruptcy, and the bank renegotiated its loans with reduced interest payments and a longer payment schedule.
The same thing happened again in 1575 when Spain again stopped paying on its loans, and in 1596. That last Spanish bankruptcy ended the Fugger bank and gave lucky Genoese bankers the opportunity to finance Spain.
In a desperate attempt to satisfy its creditors, Spain debased its currency, replacing silver and gold in its coins with copper in 1599. That led to runaway inflation in the first half of the 17th century. From 1625 to 1650, prices climbed by 40%.
By the second half of the century, the Spanish economy was in rapid decline as high taxes on peasant producers -- just about the only class that would pay significant taxes -- led to a decline of food and wool production, and high inflation made Spanish exports uncompetitive against imports from England, France and the Netherlands.
And by 1675 Spain, once the greatest empire in the world, was ready to be picked apart by the France of Louis XIV.
Comment: An excellent read.