In mid-February, I wrote here that inflation was widely expected to peak in the early months of the year “before falling back over the following 18 months or so towards the levels around 2% that we had become accustomed to.” Highlighting geopolitical threats, I did note that “risks appear to be skewed towards inflation staying higher for longer than is currently anticipated.”
The game changed when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on 24th February. Oil prices initially surged by about 50% while gas prices nearly tripled. Although both have come off their March highs, they remain much higher than pre-war prices. Ominously, there is a growing consensus the war is Ukraine will be prolonged, and growing speculation that Putin could shut off European gas this winter. Meanwhile, international food prices have hit historic highs, even before the impact of Russia’s Black Sea blockade fully feeds through to grain markets. High prices and scarce supply of food and energy will likely get worse before they get better.
Irish consumer prices kept accelerating through May, annual inflation reaching 7.8%. A combination of momentum in prices and the subdued monthly inflation seen in June and July 2021 suggest the annual rate hasn’t peaked yet. Surging inflation is a global phenomenon, and it has everywhere come to dominate political debate around domestic issues. Whether inadvertently or more cynically, this debate has been characterized by much pedaling of myths. So, let’s knock some of those on the head:
*** This article was first published at thejournal.ie on 3rd July 2022 ***
There was much Western hubris when the Soviet Union collapsed three decades ago. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama made his name heralding the ‘End of History’. The Cold War gave way to unipolar Pax Americana. The peaceful rise of China was to be accommodated within the architecture of neoliberal globalization. The onward march of social and economic liberalism seemed assured.
In 2022, however, revanchist Russia seeks to turn back the clock while China flexes its military muscles. Universal liberal democracy looks increasingly utopian while even some of its supposed exemplars in the West have flirted with an authoritarian turn. So, has Liberalism failed? Two new books address different aspects of this question.
*** A version of this book review was first published in The Irish Times on 19 March 2022 ***
In normal times, January sales for things like clothing and air fares are enough to bring down the price of an average consumer’s monthly shopping basket. January 2021 was very far from normal, of course, and prices ticked up slightly that month.
With the Omicron wave of the pandemic beginning to ebb, this year we are seeing a return to normality. Consumer prices fell -0.4% last month. This brought the annual inflation rate down to 5.0%, from the 5.5% registered in December. The last time inflation was that high, in April 2001, we were still using old money, punts and pence.
So, are we past the worst?
The good news is that, so far, rising inflation in Ireland has not been broad-based. Although supply issues have impacted on home rentals, and on some goods like cars and furniture, price rises have been largely confined to oil, gas and the sectors that depend on these energy inputs (transport, electricity).
*** This article was first published at thejournal.ie on 18 February 2022 ***
January 6th, 2021, will go down in history as a day of infamy. Although Trump supporters’ storming of the US Capitol doesn’t make its first appearance until a few dozen pages into How to Stop Fascism, author Paul Mason flags it as a “potentially historic turning point”. It is proof positive that leading liberal democracies are set for a fascist turn.
Correctly, Mason draws a sharp distinction between the populist far right and overt fascists. Trump is presented not as a fascist himself, but rather as an enabler, a “useful idiot”. Indeed, explicitly fascist parties are thin on the ground. Greece’s now-outlawed Golden Dawn is a notable exception, although fascist revivalism has been making its mark in both Italy and Spain of late.
*** A version of this book review was first published in The Irish Times on 29 August 2021 ***
Time will tell whether our post-pandemic economy really takes off like a rocket… and whether a rising rocket lifts all spaceships.
With a wholesale switch from bricks-and-mortar retail to online shopping accelerated by Covid-19, internet behemoths like Amazon have been among the big winners over the past year. While we´ve all been stuck at home, many of us have been lucky enough to have disposable income, but nowhere to spend it. A one-click purchase and a package swiftly delivered to your door can be quick thrill, a small luxury, or sometimes even an urgent need.
Something else that took off in a rocket this summer is Jeff Bezos, Amazon´s founder, world´s richest man, and plausible Lex Luthor super-villain impersonator. Worth more than $200bn, or about half of Irish GDP, he ploughs a reputed $1bn a year into Blue Origin, his hobbyhorse outfit aiming to bring space tourism to the masses. Well, at least to the super rich. On 20th July, shortly after stepping down as CEO, Bezos boarded Blue Origin´s first manned space flight.
*** This article was first published at thejournal.ie on 20 July 2021 ***
Who had heard of GameStop a month ago other than committed gamers and punters on the stock market? The bricks-and-mortar computer game retailer burst to prominence in recent weeks as a pawn in a supposed David-and-Goliath story, a battle of wits between plucky nerds and the wolves of Wall Street.
Spotting a chink in a hedge fund´s armour, small investors organized themselves through a small corner of social media, a reddit bearing the fitting moniker #WallStreetBets. Basically, the hedge fund had reached the not-unreasonable conclusion that computer game shops were going the way of Xtra-Vision. They borrowed shares in GameStop and sold them, hoping to buy them back at a lower price before returning them to their original owner and pocketing the difference.
*** This article was first published at thejournal.ie on 7 February 2021 *** Continue reading
Milton Friedman once noted that ´when [a] crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around´. Indeed, it was many of his own ideas that became bedrocks of neoliberalism and using monetary policy to manage the business cycle following the stagflation of the 1970s.
As the initial shock and awe of Covid-19 ebbs to reveal economic wreckage that could ultimately dwarf that of the global financial crisis of a decade ago, Finance Ministers and fiscal pundits are flagging a future retreat to the orthodoxy of fiscal hawkishness. Austerity by any other name would smell so foul.
But, what if one idea lying around was that the budget deficit didn´t matter – that fixation on debt sustainability was unhelpful myth-making? What if you could pay for the Covid-19 crisis, permanently improve the health system and end the housing crisis just by printing money?
*** A version of this book review was first published in The Irish Times on 18 June 2020 ***
Everything has changed, changed utterly.
Our new normal would have been unthinkable just a few short weeks ago. Social distancing measures are absolutely necessary to slow the spread of Covid-19. They help us buy time and avoid our creaking health service becoming more swamped than would otherwise be the case. Still, medical practitioners face difficult decisions, between life and death, who to treat first, to whom should scarce ventilators be assigned. These are unenviable choices to have to make.
It should go without saying that our frontline medical staff deserve our unquestioning support and cooperation in the weeks and months ahead. Right now, money should be no object to ensuring they have all the resources they need to avoid unnecessary deaths. To be fair, the caretaker government is taking resolute action. Of course, our health system should not be left short of resources at the best of times, but that is an important debate for another day. Even the best, most egalitarian health services in the world are now bracing for the worst.
A global recession is likely inevitable. As a trade-dependent economy, Ireland will be hit hard. But, the first to be affected are those service sectors that depend on social interaction: bars, restaurants, cinemas, airlines and the like. More than 100,000 jobs have already been lost, with up to half a million potentially at risk in the coming months. This crisis is different to 2008, but in some ways the economic effects could feel somewhat similar. And recessions and poverty are killers too. Continue reading
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
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