Book review: ‘Identity’, by Francis Fukuyama

Regarded as prescient in heralding the collapse of communism in 1989 as the ‘end of history’, Francis Fukuyama has since become something of an intellectual piñata.

His thesis then was that the triumph of liberal democracy, buttressed by a market economy, represented the ‘end of history’ in the Hegelian sense that other modes of organizing society had been tried, and failed, leaving the strongest standing. Eventually, he expected that it would become ubiquitous. The European Union was hailed as an aspirational model, having put an end to the continent’s centuries of internecine conflict.

So convinced was Fukuyama of the superiority of liberal democracy that, though a Democrat, he aligned himself with the neoconservative movement that provided the intellectual underpinning for George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.

*** A version of this book review was first published in The Irish Times on 24 October 2018 ***

His two most recent books, The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay, were an attempt to clarify and rebut criticism of his ‘end of history’ thesis. Most notably, he dropped the pretense of the finality and inevitability, if not the desirability, of universal liberal democracy. He adapted his thesis to fit the facts on the ground.

Identity, his latest offering, was written for the age of Trump. Addressing the zeitgeist at both ends of the political spectrum for ‘identity politics’, particularly in the U.S. but also across Europe, he does a deep dive into what he sees as one possible mortal threat to liberal democratic institutions – ‘political decay’.

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Cooperative Advantage

Economists are well versed in the concepts of competitive advantage and comparative advantage, but could we be missing a trick by not putting more emphasis on what has been called ‘cooperative advantage’?

What if the economy was organized around cooperation instead of competition? What if the principles of shared ownership and community solidarity replaced the pursuit of profit and maximizing shareholder value?

It’s so far from our everyday reality that, for most of us, it is little more than a thought experiment. Continue reading

Budget 2019 Housing Redux: welcome to the Republic of missed opportunity

THIS WAS SUPPOSED to be the ‘Housing Budget’.

A series of government plans, strategies and false starts have so far failed to stem the surge in rents, reverse the relentless rise in homelessness or put homeownership back within the means of low-to-middle income families.

A decade since the property bubble burst and homeless figures began their long march to 10,000, this was flagged as the moment when the Minister for Finance would do what Ministers of Finance do to tackle a social crisis when there’s an election on the horizon – throw money at the problem.

So, let’s take a deep dive into the good, the bad and the ugly of the housing measures in Budget 2019.

*** This article was first published on thejournal.ie on 10 October 2018 ***

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‘That’s insane… did they guarantee everything?’: Remembering the bank guarantee

NOBODY LIKES TO get a call from the boss when they’re still in bed.

Exactly ten years ago, in the early hours of 30th September 2008, I got such a call: one I’ll never forget.

From January 2008 to the general election of February 2011, I was, among other things, economic advisor to Joan Burton TD, then opposition Finance Spokesperson for the Labour Party.

As such, I had a front-row seat to the political theatre and economic tragedy of Ireland’s unfolding banking crisis.

*** This article was first published on thejournal.ie on 30 September 2018 ***

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Winter is coming

Sure as night follows day, and winter follows autumn, the economic cycle will ebb and flow.

Right now, the Irish economy is enjoying something of an Indian summer: strong growth, record employment, rising wages, low inflation and low interest rates. And the good times have a while to run yet.

That’s far from saying that everyone is living on the pig’s back, as anyone facing the sharp end of the health or housing crises can attest.

But, the economy is at cruising speed and unlikely to soar higher. At least not safely.

Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But winter is coming.

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Is the economy overheating, and does it matter?

Writing in the midst of our summer heatwave, I can’t help but see the parallels with Ireland’s recent economic trajectory. After a seemingly endless winter, we are finally getting to enjoy some sunny spells. Likewise, our economy has been through the wringer over the past decade, but growth and unemployment numbers suggest mercury rising.

As with the weather, there’s always someone complaining: if it’s not too cold, it’s too hot. The conservative class of economic pundits have been sounding the siren of an overheating economy, as if we were back in the Celtic Tiger’s obnoxious heyday.

Is overheating a thing? Continue reading

Time to Tame the Tech Titans?

Late last year, I wrote in these pages about technology as a double-edged sword for social progress. Yes, advances in technology continue to underpin sustained improvements in living standards. But, I also highlighted several downsides detrimental to the wellbeing of certain cohorts of the population. One question I posed was whether we need to use anti-trust competition regulation to break up the tech behemoths that have come to dominate the digital economy.

Some tech firms, like Amazon and Uber, have found a new way of doing business that undercuts traditional providers. Others, like Apple, have carved out a dominant market position through in-house product innovation and cultivating brand loyalty. Yet others, like Google and Facebook, operate in markets – internet search engines and social networks – that barely existed two decades ago.

But Big Tech increasingly faces the public wrath, and risks a regulatory backlash. By re-locating their intellectual property, they manage to pay minimal taxes. By putting bookshops and taxi drivers out of business, livelihoods are undermined. By harvesting their users’ data, and then selling it or using it to target online advertisements, they put peoples’ privacy at risk. Recent revelations that the personal data of tens of millions of Facebook users was compromised shows the risks people have been taking without even realizing it.

The question then is what, if anything, should be done about it. Continue reading