ACCORDING to astronomers, Kepler 22-b is only 600 light years away and exactly (give or take) like our own dear planet.
I wonder if they have a banking system. I wonder if, even now – or 600 years ago, if you want to split hairs – some Keplerian master of the universe is/was announcing that, fiscally speaking, they're all doomed.
The Nasa artist's impression of Kepler makes it hard to pick out impoverished continents, far less offshore islands such as Ireland 22-b and UK Triple A. All we know for sure is that our distant sister sphere has a temperature of 22C, a year of 290 days, and the potential to sustain viable bond markets.
It sounds like science fiction. But what's the betting that, even now, a Keplerian finance minister is announcing, what with Christmas on the way, still another austerity budget? Thanks to cosmic forces beyond his control, VAT on Ireland 22-b will have to go up to 23%, the welfare budget will have to be cut again, and the health service will have to take care of itself.
In deep space, they have space cadets. Here we have the likes of Michael Noonan, Minister for Finance in Ireland's coalition, and George Osborne, our very own Spock without the logic. Like Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, these heroes have been blasting away at the deficit monster with their austerity ray guns only to see it rise again. Perhaps, as happens so often in fantasy fiction, the plot has been lost.
There are close parallels between Ireland and Britain in our present cliff-hanger, with two small differences. First, the Irish are a bit ahead of us on the road to deficit eradication and have found the way far rockier than anticipated: the fact has been under-reported over here.
Secondly, thanks to the insane decision by a previous administration to "stand behind" the entire Irish banking system, Dublin has a lot less room for manoeuvre than London. George Osborne doesn't talk about that much, either.
Instead, he and Mr Noonan read from the same script. Recovery was on the way until the eurozone collapsed into a black hole of unsustainable bond yields. Everything they attempted was working, until it wasn't. Having contemplated this problem – which happens not to be rocket science – they have decided to carry on exactly as before.
You can sympathise with Mr Noonan, and share his private dread. Mr Osborne deserves no sympathy, but his dread will be mounting too. If the Irish deviate from their austerity plans those bond markets will destroy what remains of the economy: with yields (the effective interest rate) still above 8%, Dublin cannot afford a slip.
But nor can the Irish coalition afford for the euro to fall apart: that's one, obvious reason for dread. So can the government afford to contemplate the Merkel-Sarkozy plan for what amounts to real fiscal union in the eurozone? That would probably require a referendum. The chances are that Irish voters would reject any scheme that would allow "Europe" (meaning Germany) to impose still more pain in the name of discipline.
Austerity budgets have become an annual affair in Ireland since the banking collapse of 2008. Each one is supposed to do the trick, finally. Addressing the electorate on TV the other night, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, even spoke of the "four-year path to recovery". Ireland's people are painfully aware that the first four-year plan was supposed to have commenced at the end of 2008. It ought to be approaching its end by now. Why believe the government this time?
Mr Osborne made a similar adjustment to the calendars in his autumn statement. Suddenly an extension was being added to his "road to recovery". Everything would take longer than promised. For now, things would go on getting worse. And there was nothing much he could, on his telling, do about it.
The Chancellor also blames the euro crisis. Yet he also has reason to fear the Merkel-Sarkozy scheme. If it fails – and it scarcely resembles a quick cure – Britain's banks and Britain's economy will be sucked into the hideous aftermath. That might make 2008 seem like a picnic. But if the Franco-German alliance succeeds in imposing fiscal union for those willing to submit, Britain will have a problem. The Coalition of which Mr Osborne is a leading member will have a huge problem. Tory eurosceptics are already sensing an opportunity.
In this parallel universe Britain, by a fit of inadvertence, faces much the same problem as everyone else: can't live with the euro, can't live without it. Our Coalition has the additional difficulty of possibly being excluded from decisions unlikely to be in Britain's interests. Tory sceptics will therefore demand withdrawal or "renegotiation" amounting to withdrawal.
None of this, you may have noticed, amounts to a scheme for job creation, or a plan to prevent a ratings agency such as Standard & Poor's from putting a hex on entire countries and the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Serious banking reform is a long-forgotten dream. The international bodies that were once hot for austerity, such as the IMF, are suddenly hot for "growth", as though they've seen the hat and now demand the rabbit.
Ireland can't declare independence from the bond markets short of repudiating its debts and taking its chances. Co-ordinated international action against the mechanisms of debt remains a pipedream, sadly. Yet within the narrow world he embraces, Mr Osborne has a couple of options denied to Mr Noonan. He also has the warning of failed Irish austerity budgets before him.
Yields for Britain's bonds stand at 2.66%, at the time of writing. That's not because we are safe as houses: it's because our economy, like the economies of the US and Japan, is in a coma. Nevertheless, Mr Osborne has what people from this planet would call leeway. He could invest in jobs and recovery – imagine that – rather than pressing on towards a dead end.
I hold out no hope. In fact, I expect to hear the Chancellor blaming economic uncertainty on Kepler 22-b before this is done.
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.