Category Archives: Ireland

New politics is old hat

Making virtue of necessity is a tried and trusted political tactic. With neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil able to command a sustainable majority after the 2016 election, and unwilling to give up the narcissism of small differences by forming a grand coalition, we were left with a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement that pleased nobody. Independents were brought into the government fold while the soldiers of destiny reserved the right to play hurlers on the ditch without pulling the plug.

The necessity of this ‘temporary little arrangement’ was wrapped up in the virtuous rhetoric of so-called ‘new politics’. Political reforms were to open up the legislative process, making it more deliberative and less confrontational. Due consideration would be given to opposition proposals and private members’ bills. The Committee system was to be streamlined and treated more seriously.

‘New politics’ was treated in some quarters as a breath of fresh air in 2016. Some thought it might last until 2017 or 2018 at a push. One thing that wasn’t expected was that the UK would vote to leave the European Union later in 2016. The political psychodrama across the Irish Sea has since kept audiences agog, and kept the Dáil in suspended animation. The Taoiseach dare not face the electorate with Brexit unresolved. The ‘temporary little arrangement’ has lasted longer than many would have expected, providing stability in uncertain times.

But, is this a good thing? Continue reading

Counting the Cost of Brexit

At the time of writing, just as the UK Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Prime Minister Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was unlawful, the range of potential Brexit outcomes remains shockingly wide. More than three years have passed since the UK people voted narrowly to exit the European Union, yet it is still possible that there will be a no-deal Brexit at Halloween, that there will be no Brexit at all, or that sooner or later they will leave with a deal.

Yogi Berra is known not only for his baseball exploits for the New York Yankees around the middle of the 20th century, but also for his way with words. He famously asserted that “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” At the best of times, economists often convey a false sense of certainty about their own forecasts. What economists do is make certain assumptions, such as how they expect a “shock” will impact on variables like trade, investment and consumer behavior. At times like these, facing an unprecedented event such as Brexit, even making accurate short-term forecasts becomes next to impossible. Continue reading

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

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