Writing this time last year, I expected our economic fortunes to get better before they got worse. I saw clouds gathering on the distant horizon, but no major storms forecast for 2018.
*** This article was first published on thejournal.ie on 28 December 2018 ***
Ireland isn’t quite partying like it’s 2006, but the stats don’t lie – 2018 has been a bumper year by most measures.
The economy generated nearly 1,300 extra jobs per week in the 12 monthsto end-September, up from less than 950 per week the previous year. Even if the pace of job growth slowed after the middle of 2018, this is still impressive progress by any measure, and enough to see the unemployment rate fall to 5.3% in November, down from 6.4% the previous year.
Although this is close to what economists call ‘full employment’, it should be remembered that the share of the working age population making themselves available for work is still (62.6%) significantly lower than its 2007 peak (67.4%). This flatters the unemployment rate and suggests there are still some 300,000 people that could be enticed back to the workforce.
Growth in average hourly earningshas picked up, from 2.1% a year ago to 3.2% now, more than double the growth rate from two years ago. The minimum wage will increase by 2.6% from New Year’s Day, from €9.55 an hour to €9.80.
Only part of the increase in people’s pay packets is being eaten up by higher prices. Consumer prices are basically flat, edging up only slightly from 0.5% in November 2017, to 0.6% in the same month this year. This average hides important differences: the cost of housing, water, gas and electricity increased more than 5% on the year while the price of furniture and household equipment fell by more than -4%.
This means real hourly wages are increasing in every sector with the exception of public administration, which clocked up only a 0.8% gain in the year to end-September.
With more people at work earning higher wages, it is hardly surprising that we are spending more. Ireland’s GDP figures are heavily distorted by multinational activity, but the most unpolluted – and least volatile – component is private consumption which grew by 2.9% in the third quarter of the year compared to a year earlier.
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
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 ***
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 ***
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.
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
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
You can’t be ‘a little bit pregnant’, as the saying goes, but you can be ‘a little bit equal’.
In February, we marked the centenary of women getting the vote in Ireland and the UK. Later this year, we will celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the 1918 general election. This was a momentous occasion not only because it marked a seismic shift on our path to independence. Sinn Féin’s Countess Markievicz became the first woman elected to the House of Commons.
But, all else was not equal. All men over 21 were entitled to vote, but women had to wait until they were 30. Combined with property ownership requirements, this meant that less than half the women across Ireland and the UK could actually vote.
*** This article was first published on thejournal.ie on 18 April, 2018 ***
But, things are surely getting better? Continue reading
LIKE A SUNNY spell sandwiched between snowstorms, the number crunchers at our Central Statistics Office published their own blizzard of economic data recently.
The headline numbers are nearly too good to be true: at 7.8%, GDP growth last year was comfortably the highest in Europe, and ahead even of India, which has leap-frogged China as the fastest-growing big economy in recent years.
Strong growth helped generate nearly 1,300 new jobs per week during 2017. This meant that by the end of the year the total number of people in work was within touching distance of the two-and-a-quarter million peak hit in late-2007. Cue cries that the lost decade is over. These are neither lies, nor damned lies: just statistics.
*** This article was first published on thejournal.ie on 26 March, 2018 ***
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