Category Archives: Articles for SIPTU’s Liberty

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

Time for Ireland to get real about climate change

A hundred years from now, catastrophic climate change may have completely changed the way our children and grandchildren live, work and farm. Possible doomsday scenarios include a shutdown of the Gulf Stream, which Ireland depends on for its relatively mild weather, leading to another ice age.

The science is incontrovertible. Global warming is man-made, and emissions of carbon and other gases are the main culprit. Sure, Ireland makes up only a small amount of total emissions. Because of its size, China alone accounts for more than a quarter of all emissions annually. The US, another 15%. But, we rank highly in emissions per person, and total emissions are going in the wrong direction, up 3.5% in 2016 when the government is targeting a 5% reduction.

While the worst environmental impacts of climate change might still be some way off, we could be facing a bill of nearly half a billion euro every year from 2020 onwards unless we get our house in order. As part of European and global efforts to reduce emissions, we have committed to a reduction of 20% (from 1990 levels) by 2020. Ireland is one of the few EU countries on course to miss its target, leaving itself open to annual fines equivalent to widening the standard income tax band by €2,500 or building 2,500 social houses.

So, what to do? Continue reading

Technology: friend or foe to working people?

First, they came for the factory workers, but I did not speak out –

Because I was not a factory worker.

Later, they came for the bank tellers, but I did not speak out –

Because I was not a bank teller.

Soon, they’ll come for the taxi drivers, but I do not speak out –

Because I am not a taxi driver.

Are they coming for me?

***

This adaption of Martin Niemöller’s famous poem about the Nazis’ creeping reign of terror is supposed to illustrate the ambivalence of ordinary people to technological change.

We like the fact that TVs, computers, mobile phones and domestic appliances are better and cheaper than in the past. Progressive automation in manufacturing has been a key driver of the productivity gains that allowed this happen.

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Leonomics: lost in fiscal space

After months, if not years, of shadow boxing, the Fine Gael leadership race was less Game of Thrones, and more Mad Max. Two men entered, one man leads. Realistically, there was only ever going to be one winner.

In some ways, the new Age of Leo bears all the hallmarks of what came before. His swift and seemingly inevitable ascent to the throne was a decade-long masterclass in media management and the projection of a political image. Ever-ready with a pithy soundbite, if light on Ministerial accomplishment, it was a true triumph of style over substance.

That is not to say that the Taoiseach is devoid of substance. Far from it. In fact, recognising Paddy’s scepticism of ‘ologies and isms’, he has become adept at using the dog-whistle, where once he would have blown the fog-horn. Where once he whipped up a frenzy of opposition to the sale of methadone in his local chemist or openly invited immigrants to self-deport, his recent leadership campaign was aimed at ‘people who get up early in the morning’. He has learned over the years to cloak his hard-right instincts in language that is populist and palatable. This is Leonomics: Reaganomics with Irish characteristics.

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Globalisation for Slow Learners

The IMF recently published its updated outlook for the global economy. The good news is that recovery from the crisis seems to be finally picking up some momentum after a decade of sub-par growth. The bad news, as they see it, is that this momentum could be stopped in its tracks if the sword of Damocles that is the threat of protectionism – whether emanating from Trump’s White House, May’s Westminister or elsewhere – falls. This could throw the process of globalisation into reverse, they worry, and slow growth in the size of the economic pie.

Alongside their biannual economic forecasts, the IMF also publishes its latest thinking on various themes. In light of increased focus on the issue of inequality since the global financial crisis, to which the recent rise in political populism has been attributed, the IMF provides a timely chapter on “Understanding the downward trend in labour income shares”. It explores the reasons why the share of wages in GDP has declined markedly – in advanced, emerging and developing economies alike – in recent decades. Between the mid-1970s and its 2006 low, the labour share has declined from around 55% of GDP to around 50% in advanced economies, before recovering only slightly since the financial crisis, while income inequality has increased significantly over the same period.

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Basic Income: an idea whose time has finally come?

As far back as 1516, Thomas More first suggested a guaranteed income as a way to reduce theft. In 1797, enlightenment thinker Thomas Paine proposed a set of radical reforms in his seminal pamphlet on Agrarian Justice.Among these proposals was the idea of a universal basic income that would be paid to everyone, unconditionally. In the intervening 220 years, polemicists and policymakers have toyed with the idea, without it ever really catching on.

What has changed?

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Something went Br-ump in the night

First it was Brexit. Then it was Trump. Twice in recent months, we have awoken to news from across the water that shook us to our core. Something has gone ‘Br-ump’ in the night.

For Ireland, the biggest impact of Brexit and Trump’s ascendancy are likely to be economic. Even if recent decades have seen Ireland Inc. diversify its economic ties, the UK and US are still by far our most important trade and foreign direct investment partners. Directly or indirectly, hundreds of thousands of Irish jobs depend on these countries’ fortunes and policies. The temptation will be for Irish policymakers to adopt a reactive stance, but this needs to be complemented by a proactive and comprehensive approach.

As a tiny, very open economy, Ireland has surfed the wave of neoliberal globalisation more deftly than most, making the most of our geographic and cultural proximity to the US and the UK, in particular. For decades, for better or worse, we have been ‘all in’ on an economic strategy aimed at grabbing a slice of the global economic pie. As a result, there is perhaps no other country as uniquely exposed to the twin ‘Br-ump’ challenges.

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Let’s have a budget that makes Ireland more equal

The Irish people deserve better.

This is the not unreasonable thrust of ICTU’s pre-budget submission for 2017.

People deserve better than the five-in-a-row inequality-increasing budgets they were subjected under the previous Fine Gael-led government.

People deserve more investment in the health, education and welfare services on which they depend: more hospital beds, more special needs assistants, more home care packages. These can make a real and positive improvement in people’s immediate living standards, while reducing reliance on the sort of spending that becomes necessary when such early interventions have been in short supply. Home care packages are a prime example. For a relatively small outlay, people can be helped to live a full life in their homes and in their communities, as they grow older, rather than being carted off to a more expensive hospital or nursing home.

The country also urgently needs to ramp up its capital spending programme to address the housing crisis and plug the most critical infrastructure gaps that are holding our economy back. The Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness is clearly welcome, but it’s a case of too little too late. The housing crisis has been brewing for years as the dysfunctional rental and owner-occupier property markets have been allowed to fester. The Plan’s social housing target of 5,000 new builds per year by 2021 – from next to zero currently – lacks ambition in the face of the scale of the emergency. More generally, capital spending has been cut to the bone since 2008. Under-investment in public transport, rural broadband, flood defence, waste management and water infrastructure reduce living standards today while imposing constraints on future economic growth.
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