October 31st Morning: The Recession Diaries

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If I were a Fianna Fail Minister I would be embarrassed to go abroad to meet my peer group. I’d put a bag over my head. I’d put on an accent and pretend I was a county supervisor from Winnemucca, Nevada. I’d do anything to cover up the fact that I was a Minister in a party that has governed Ireland 19 of the last 21 years. Either that, or I’d buy up every copy of the 2008-09 Global Competitiveness Report and burn them (and hack their website to bits).

For the World Economic Forum’s (aka Davos) recent report makes for some truly embarrassing reading. Every year they compile a competitiveness index – made up of a number of measurements (governance, business, economy, etc.). I’m not totally convinced by their methods. Their measurements mix hard data with subjective reports by CEOs. But even if its not completely objective and scientific, it has its uses.

So let’s focus (for this post, anyway; I’ll want to investigate other areas over the next few days) on infrastructure. Ireland’s rankings under this category are nothing short of abysmal. In fact, abysmal is too small a word. Terrible, awful, appalling – these don’t capture it. The thesaurus is lacking.

In the category of ‘Quality of Overall Infrastructure’ we rank 64th in the world. 64th! 64th out of 134 countries. Our infrastructural quality ranks behind Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Azerbaijan, Jordan and Jamaica. We are one of the richest countries in the world (as measured in GDP) and,yet we still trail behind Guatemala, a country 21 times poorer. Now let’s run through the dismal sub-indices.

Quality of Roads: We rank 70th – behind even Georgia. With a mean score of 3.5, we are closer to bottom ranking Mongolia (1.4) then we are to top ranking France (6.7).

Quality of Railroad Infrastructure: We move a little bit up the rankings on this one – coming in 50th.

Quality of Port Infrastructure: But then we fall back down – all the way to 64th (we own 64). This is particularly dismal given that over 90 percent of our exports go through our ports; and we’re an exporting nation. We even rank behind Zimbabwe and they’re landlocked! (They rank higher because they still have better access to South African ports and any inland waterways.)

Quality of Air Transport Infrastructure: We rank a little better on this one – 46th – though with Shannon and the regional airports coming under pressure it remains to be seen if we can maintain this ranking in the years ahead.

Quality of Electricity Supply: this is our best infrastructural ranking: 29th. This measures interruptions and voltage fluctuations. This is a considerable achievement given that the Government National Development Plans don’t provide investment into our grid. This investment has come from the ESB, paying for it out of their own resources (and, so, having to pass it on to consumers which makes it a regressive investment levy).

And that, as they say, is that.

All this raises a number of issues. it’s not just that Fianna Fail has spent most of its years in office since 1997 slashing taxes, rather than adequately investing in our infrastructure, even if just to pull ahead of Jordan. There are more worries.

Fianna Fail is gambling on the idea that if we could only improve our infrastructure a hundred enterprises would bloom. This is questionable, not only because it assumes our poor indigenous enterprise performance will improve with better roads, etc. It also assumes that (a) the capital investment programme is well-thought out, and (b) we will catch up. Both these assumptions are disputable.

There is no question we have been throwing more resources into our capital stock than our EU partners – at least in percentage terms. Between 2000 and 2007 we increased capital investment from 3.5 percent of GDP to 4.2 percent (In GNP terms these percentages are much higher), while the EU-27 has increased investment from 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent. So during that period we were investing at more than twice the level of other European countries. Has it paid off?

Not according to Davos. Two years we ranked 31st in the overall infrastructure indice. At that time our mean score was 4.6. Compare that to this year’s score of 3.7. Last year we ranked 48th. Even though we are spending more money we seem to be on a sliding to nothing.

So, are spending enough? Should we spend more? Is that the key? Can we spend more? In recessionary days, it’s difficult enough to maintain current spending levels, never mind increasing them.

Or is the problem more endemic – that Fianna Fail’s investment programme – the NDP – lacks strategic visions, competency, and priroritisation. If so, we could spend all the money in the kitty and still be backsliding.

Or maybe we should just throw up our hands and admit to ourselves that Fianna Fail has so mucked up past policy priorities that we’ll never catch up, never become a truly modern economy. We’ll just have to adapt to shoddy roads, shoddy ports, shoddy railroads; adapt and convince ourselves that we’re doing well, that we really are rich; adapt and believe our own propaganda.

And, with just a tiny bit of effort, we could pass out Trinidad and Tobago.

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