Mercosur – EU: a huge deal… if it goes through!

At a time of heightened global trade tensions and faltering multilateralism, the accord sends a powerful message that mutually beneficial economic openness is still worth striving for. The 2015 election of market-oriented Mauricio Macri as President of Argentina in 2015 gave some impetus to the discussions from 2016 onwards, while the rightward shift in Brazil, with the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro to the Presidency, further catalysed the conclusion of an agreement.

Click here for full analysis, published by Mosoj Global Services.

Reductionists have characterized the agreement as a ‘cows for cars’ deal, with European auto exporters gaining access to previously high-tariff Mercosur markets while the agriculture sectors of Brazil and Argentina, in particular, gaining limited tariff-free access to the similarly-protected and subsidized European market for farm produce.

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Book Review: ‘Not Working’ by David G. Blanchflower

“The rich world is enjoying an unprecedented jobs boom”, proffered a recent headline in The Economist. Unemployment rates in the US, UK, Germany and Japan are plumbing depths unseen in decades. Robust job growth in the early months of 2019 sent the Irish unemployment rate below 5% for the first time since 2007, leading some economists to suggest we are nearing ‘full employment’.

David G. Blanchflower’s new tome, Not Working, may then appear to cut against the grain of the data. On the contrary, record low unemployment rates are the jumping off point for this encyclopedic survey of what ails our labour markets. His central argument is that the unemployment rate is no longer the best indicator of how much slack there is in an economy because it ignores the extent to which people have given up the job search altogether (labour force participation) and part-timers want more hours (underemployment). This, he argues, is why wages are not growing as fast as would have been the case when unemployment rates were last so low.

*** A version of this book review was first published in The Irish Times on 29 June  2019 ***

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Measuring what Matters

You can’t eat Gross Domestic Product (GDP), yet it is the indicator that economists pay closest attention to.

GDP gained currency during WWII as a way of keeping track of war production, and has since remained the dominant measure of economic output. More than that, it has become a byword for living standards.

Looking across countries, economic output per person, or per capita, adjusted for price differences is still a reasonable proxy for average material living standards. At least up to a point. It is not necessarily a good indicator of individual happiness, or of societal wellbeing, however.

The main problem isn’t with measuring GDP per se, but that maximizing it has become the over-riding target for economic policymakers. They have lost sight of the fact that increasing economic output should be a means to an end, not an end in itself. The over-riding priority should be to maximize the welfare and happiness of the greatest number or people while ensuring everyone has a basic, decent standard of living. Unfortunately, there is no consensus around how these should be measured.

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Putting Community First

Together with the state and markets, community is the sometimes-overlooked ‘third pillar’ on which our society rests. Just as we need a strong state and can benefit from efficient markets, these imperatives must be balanced with the interests of the geographic communities that bind us. This is the premise of an important new book by Raghuram Rajan, former IMF Chief Economist.

In Ireland, public policy in recent decades has tended towards letting the market rip. To reduce the resulting stark income inequalities, the state has to do more heavy lifting in terms of redistribution than in any other OECD country. Even then, we only rank towards the middle of the equality league table.

Ironically, perhaps, for a country with such a strong traditional sense of community, local government is an area where we are weak. Ireland has one of the most centralized systems of governance, our local representatives lacking much in the way of real power. Whether it is rural heartlands losing pubs, post offices and people, or pockets of urban disadvantage ravaged by unemployment and drug barons’ turf wars, our communities suffer the consequences, fraying the very fabric of our society. Continue reading

Book review: ‘Open’, by Kimberly Clausing

For all the often-justified criticism it attracts, globalization has undeniably lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty over the last four decades. International trade and investment have been central to the rise of China and many more emerging economies.  Immigration, meanwhile, has allowed tens of millions more to escape oppression or abject poverty. Among advanced economies, Ireland has been unarguably one of the big winners.

At the same time, globalization has been blamed for premature de-industrialization, rising inequality, stagnant wages, financial crises and, at least in part, the emergence of populist politics at both ends of the political spectrum. A cottage industry of worthy tomes has emerged to explain this phenomenon, epitomized by Brexit and the election of President Donald J. Trump. Such a political backlash has yet to land on Irish shores, but as one of the most open economies in the world, we stand in the cross-hairs for the actions of others.

Aimed squarely at self-declared ‘progressives’ in the U.S., Kimberly Clausing’s new book is an apparent attempt to influence debate within that country’s Democratic Party as it selects its standard bearer to take on President Trump in the 2020 Presidential election. While acknowledging the need to improve trade, investment and immigration policies, and to introduce a range of other policies to mitigate any negative impact of globalization, she warns against the temptations of rejecting economic openness.

*** A version of this book review was first published in The Irish Times on 20 April  2019 ***

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Soaking the rich

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, French Finance Minister under Louis XIV, colorfully explained “that the act of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to procure the largest quantity of feathers with the least possible amount of squealing.”

Those on the left have long advocated squeezing the rich until the pips squeak. What almost everyone can agree on, however, is that a tax system should be progressive so that those with the broadest shoulders bear the greatest burden.

There are those that would wish to tax the rich simply as a blunt instrument to reduce income and wealth inequalities. A better approach is to establish what public goods and services, and what sort of welfare state, government should provide and then set about financing it in the most efficient and equitable way possible. Before deciding how many feathers to pluck, you should see how many pillows need to be filled. Continue reading

Is your glass half full or half empty on the Irish economy?

How you see Ireland’s economic prospects may depend on whether your glass is half full or half empty in the post-Paddy’s day haze. There’s plenty to be bullish about, but warning signs have begun to flash in recent months as we brace for Brexit and a global slowdown.

First, the good news:

In many ways, the Irish economy looks to be in ‘goldilocks’ territory: not too cold, but still not too hot. Moreover, the number of people outside the labour force that could look for work again in the right conditions is still over 100,000, suggesting it still has room to run if factors beyond our control don’t get in the way.

*** This article was first published on thejournal.ie on 24 March 2019 *** Continue reading