Posts By Michael Taft

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Drawing Lessons from the Public Sector Pay Talks

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With the public sector pay negotiations getting underway, it is timely to step back from the details and look at the broader landscape.  For it is clear:  if the wage structure in the overall economy mirrored the wage structure in the public sector, we would have a more prosperous economy and society; the recession wouldn’t have been so hard, the recovery wouldn’t have been so delayed, and the social deficits arising out of inequality would not be so endemic. 

While there is much focus on the private-public wage differential, there is less attention paid to the distribution of wages from the bottom to the top – which is the key to long-term sustainable growth and better social outcomes.  Let’s have a quick look at the former first.

The CSO has done exceptional and detailed work on comparing private and public sector pay.  The lazy comparison is to compare the headline average private and public sector pay.  However, this comes up against the like-for-like dilemma.  For instance, there are no hospitality workers in the public sector; there are no Gardai in the private sector.  Without a like-for-like comparison you get all sorts of numbers that don’t tell you much.

The CSO has compensated for that – comparing professions, age, duration of employment, size of enterprise, educational qualifications.  When they do that, they come to some interesting conclusions.

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Among this grouping – which makes up the overwhelming majority of public sector workers – the ‘premium’ (i.e. the additional amount public sector workers above private sector workers) is a little more than one percent higher.  On a like-for-like basis, public sector workers earn fractionally more than private sector workers. 

What is more interesting is the gender difference.  Men in the public sector actually earn less than males in the private sector – two percent less.  However, women in the public sector earn five percent more than their private sector counterparts on a like-for-like basis.  And this is a good thing when one considers that women still face pay (and other types of) discrimination in the workplace.   If there was less gender discrimination in the private sector, the overall public sector premium would probably turn negative.

Just one more word:  This data comes from the CSO.  Since 2010 there have been small wage movements.  Between 2010 and 2014 (4th quarter):

  • Increase in private sector weekly earnings:  2.3%
  • Increase in public sector weekly earnings: (-0.7%)

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The Minister’s Problems with the Unemployed and Statistics

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We all know there will be people who will never work. They’re allergic to work.  So we’re not including those in the statistics. But everybody who wants a job will have a job in the next couple of years.’

There were a lot of criticisms of the Finance Minister’s comments, rightly describing them as a slur on people who cannot find a job.  What I also find illuminating is the innovative approach to statistical representation.

Imagine saying ‘We all know people who are allergic to obeying the law.  So we’re not including those in the statistics.’ Or ‘We all know people who are allergic to paying taxes.  So we’re not including those in the statistics.’  See – we just eliminated crime and tax evasion.  There’s no end of progress we can make on the outstanding issues of the day if we just employ the ‘Noonan Manoeuvre.’

But there are some statistics that the Minister is not including as well – statistics that his own government gathers and sends on to the EU.  Like this one:

  • There are 20 unemployed for every job vacancy.

This comes from the Eurostat Vacancy Rate as reported by the Nevin Economic Research Institute.  We’re not as bad as Greece where there are 74.3 unemployed for every job vacancy but we have a long ways to before we reach Belgium (5) never mind Germany (2.1).

To put that 20:1 ratio in perspective, imagine someone dropping five €10 notes from the roof of a building on to 100 people in the street.  There’s a mad scramble and eventually five people walk away with the notes.  But 95 people don’t.  What do we say about those empty-handed 95?  They’re allergic to €10 notes?  The mind reels.

But the Minister’s capacity to not include statistics does not end there.  Take this one.

There are, according to the last Quarterly National Household Survey, 2.153 million people in the labour force.  There are 1.939 million in work.  When you subtract those at work from the labour force you come up with 213,000.  That’s the number of unemployed.  The number of unemployed doesn’t determine the number of jobs in the market.  There are still only so many jobs to go around for a larger number of people looking for them (there are niche exceptions where an employer has a vacancy but can’t find someone with the matching skills necessary – a phenomenon in the ICT sector and foreign language skills; maybe we should teach all the unemployed Dutch?).

Of course, there are ways to manipulate this equation which, also, rarely gets included.

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To Those Who Have Made the Biggest Sacrifice – Nothing

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Government Ministers are fond of saying that they want to repay those who made the biggest sacrifices; hence: tax cuts.  They have also stated that they want to target the ‘squeezed middle’ which they define as the income group between €35,000 and €75,000.  This is an interesting figure.  A household with two people working at the upper end of this ‘middle’ could earn nearly €150,000.  This government wants to reward them because it is obvious that their current income level is a terrible sacrifice.

For me, those who have fallen into deprivation – now that’s a sacrifice.  And there are a lot of people who have been sacrificing.

Social Protection Payments 1

In 2013, there were over 800,000 reliant on social protection payments in these three categories, both recipients and beneficiaries.  Deprivation has increased from 45 percent to 76 percent.

However, in the Government’s discourse of sacrifice, these people never feature.  They have been effectively air-brushed from the social debate.  The standard response of Ministers is that they have ‘protected’ basic social protection payments but they have done nothing of the sort.  They have frozen these payments, which means that the value of the payment has fallen due to inflation.  Since the Government took office:

  • A single person has suffered a real cut of 3 percent, or €5.69 per week
  • For a couple, the real cut has been €9.45 per week

So how much have the unemployed, lone parents and the disabled and sick lost out on since the cuts commenced in 2010?  Let’s look at the nominal (i.e. the actual amount in Euros and cents) and the real cuts (factoring in inflation.  We will take this out to 2016, using the Government’s projected growth in inflation, to get a sense of what would have to be spent to compensate people’s sacrifice.

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A Democratic Economy, A Prosperous Society, A Risen People

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This is the speech I delivered at the May Day Conference organised by the five trade unions affiliated to Right2Water

 

When the Left wins the next election and forms the first progressive government in the history of the state, it will be inheriting severe economic and social deficits:

  • After seven years of recession and austerity our social infrastructure, in particular health and education, is in desperate need of repair
  • Nearly 1.5 million people live in deprivation
  • A crisis in low-pay and precarious work conditions
  • An investment crisis
  • One of the weakest indigenous enterprise sectors in Europe with an industrial policy that is mostly based on maintaining Ireland’s role in the global tax avoidance chain
  • And a golden circle of corporate and political interests which will fight like hell to expand their spheres of control

And if these aren’t challenges enough, the range of interests that will line up against us will be daunting.  Fine Gael and Fianna Fail will be the least of it.

IBEC, ISME and the SFA, Chambers Ireland and the American Chambers of Commerce, media outlets and commentators, Independent House, CEOs, EU institutions, the IMF and the OECD – a whole alphabet of hostile forces who will from the first day work to undermine us, destroy people’s confidence, and put up every obstacle possible.  And that’s just for starters.

If you’re in any doubt, just ask Syriza.

The five trade unions affiliated to Right2Water are seeking to bring together all the ideological, historical and community strands that constitute progressive politics to help meet these challenges.  

  • To start a constructive dialogue that will hopefully lead to an agreed set of policy principles that will form the core of a progressive government. 
  • Principles that are radical and deliverable, an alternative economic, social and political architecture based on a new common sense
  • Principles that give people confidence that we have an understanding of their everyday problems which leads inexorably to a collective and shared resolution.

We have started this process in the principles we have produced here today.  We will be adding to them.  They are not in any order of priority – but they are all urgent. We invite everyone here to contribute to this process and to come together on June 13th to debate and decide. 

The Low-Tax, Low-Spend, Low-Service, Low-Investment Economy

One of those urgent tasks is to break from the low-tax, low-spend, low-investment, low-service model the Government is foisting upon us.  This is the trap celebrated in the Spring Statement – a set of budgetary rules that will permanently immobilise national governments and impoverish the European people.  What can you make of this fiscal rule cookbook? 

You-take-heaping-of-a-10-year-rolling-average-of-potential-GDP-which-cannot-be measured-in-the-real-world,-based-on-components-like-Total-Factor-Productivity-which also-cannot-be-measured,-stir-in-a -convergence-margin,-pour into-the-GDP-deflator-and-put-in-the-oven-and-bake-until-the-reference-ratio-minus-the-convergence-margin-divided-by-100-and-multiplied-by-the-%-GDP-price-deflator-determines-the-allowable-nominal-spending-growth-net-of-DRM-or-discretionary-revenue-meausres.

 Take from the oven.  And don’t forget to subtract one. 

There is one word for this – mindless.  This is Father Ted economics.

A progressive government will have to deal with these rules – now in our Constitution, approved by the majority of people even if under duress.  We will need to push them out at every opportunity.   At the same time, we must work with our comrades in Syriza, and Podemos when they form the next government in Spain, to unravel these rules.

For the June 13th conference the Right2Water unions will publish an alternative fiscal framework – to inform the discussion of how we can turn the rules to our advantage.

The Government is launching the second phase of austerity.  In the first phase, Ministers announced actual cuts in public spending.  In the second phase, public spending will be kept below the rate of inflation, thus cutting its value.  This at a time of increased demographic pressures. We are facing into an indefinite period of what can be called ‘real austerity’.

A progressive government will reverse this.  We do not fully appreciate how little we spend.  We would have to spend an extra €10 to €12 billion a year more just to reach the average spending on public services, social protection and investment of other EU countries.  The Government claims they will do more with less.  The reality is that they will do less with less. 

Why?  Because the Government is locking-in a low-tax economy – one that will benefit the interests of capital over people.  The Government is pulling off the same stunt that Fianna Fail did prior to the crash – driving down taxation to unsustainable levels.  Except today we don’t have the windfalls of speculation, today we are bearing the cost.  Therefore, the Government will drive down living standards and privatise and outsource public services to subsidise its tax cuts.

Progressives compete over tax cuts at their peril.   Workers in Ireland are not highly-taxed by EU standards. However, our living standards are highly taxed, highly priced and highly inadequate.  We are driven into the private sector to purchase goods and services that workers elsewhere receive for from the public sector for free or at below-market rates.

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A Statement in Spring, A Society in Winter

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What was the point?  Two documents with over 100 pages between them.  Hours spent in the Dail.  Many more hours of commentary in the media.  And the whole thing boiled down to only one substantive policy statement:  the Government will have between €1.2 and €1.5 billion available for tax cuts and spending increases, which they intend to disperse on a 50/50 split.  That’s it.  Would have taken a Minister a few seconds to stand up and say that.  Instead, we got bells and whistles and the Spring Statement.

While we were led to believe the Government would outline their plans for the next five years, they did no such thing.  Tables feature budgetary projections up to 2020 but after 2016 they are, in policy terms, meaningless.  All they show is what would happen to revenue and expenditure if there were no policy change; in other words, no spending or tax changes.  So we have to take the Government’s intentions in 2016 and extrapolate from that based on Ministerial nods and hinds.  Let’s go through a few points.

Permanent Austerity

We are now entering Phase Two of austerity.  The first phase involved Ministers announcing actual cuts in government spending.  The second phase will see public spending cut in real terms; that is, after inflation.  Public spending will struggle to maintain pace with inflation.  And this at a time when we have (a) a massive social repair job after the damage of years of recession and austerity; and (b) growing demographic pressures.  And none of this considers trying to move to a modern European social state.

In 2016, we can see this pattern starting.

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Primary spending (which excludes interest payments) will rise by approximately €400 million in net terms.   This no doubt includes €200 million in reductions in unemployment-related payments.  However, using the GDP deflator as a proxy for inflation, we see an actual cut in spending – because spending would have to double just to keep pace with inflation.

Austerity is dead.  Long live austerity.

 

 

Playing the Fianna Fail Card

Prior to the crash, Fianna Fail slashed all manner of taxes.  They got away with this because the coffers were filling up with revenue from the speculative boom.  When boom turned to bust, the weakened revenue base was exposed and public finances collapsed.

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I Don’t Want Tax Cuts! I Want Investment and Public Services! And I Want it Nowwwww!!!

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Fianna Fail has announced that it will bring in a new childcare tax credit f it gets elected.  On that basis alone we can only hope they don’t get elected. And any other party that offers such a sop.

It seems that whenever there is a problem in our economy, some party or group of experts have a ready-made response:  tax break.  An under-performing enterprise sector?  Tax break.  A problem with housing?  Tax break.  Poor take-up of costly and uncertain private pensions?  More and more tax breaks.  It’s easy to understand.  With tax breaks, policy-makers don’t even break out into a sweat.  No detailed analysis, no innovative thinking, no attempt to build an infrastructure (which is truly hard work).  Nope.  Just close your eyes and throw the tax brteak at the economic dartboard.  And if it misses?  Throw another, throw more, convince yourself that you’re solving the problem.

Let’s cut to the chase:  if tax credits are introduced it won’t do anything to make childcare affordable.  It will probably increase the cost of childcare, thus wiping out some/most of the cash given to households through the taxation system.  There is nothing to suggest it will increase quality of care.  And it will have the least impact for the low-paid.  Here are some of the arguments. 

Childcare is costly – labour-dense and, thankfully, tightly regulated which can drive up costs.  A model that is based on economic charging – which means revenue must at least equal expenditure – has to charge high fees.  Deloitte’s Review of the Cost of a Full-Day Childcare Placement (which doesn’t seem to be on-line) estimated that the weekly cost per child is between €215 and €254 per week.  And that was in 2007.  Inflation index that up now and the costs will have increased.  For a 45 week placement, the costs could reach €10,000 per year.

Let’s say a tax credit of €2,000 is provided.  While that sounds high it would only mean a tax break of €400 (€2,000 at the 20 percent tax rate).  This wouldn’t even pay for two weeks for a full-day childcare place.

If the tax credit was increased to €5,000 – a hefty amount – the cash amount would be €1,000.  Again, sounds like a lot but would only amount to a few weeks cost.  This could assist households that only use childcare part-time (e.g. after-school) but it is the households that need full-time childcare that face the greatest costs.

In short, the tax credit could be substantial but would still have little impact on households most in need.

Then there is inflation.  Childcare providers are experiencing considerable cost pressures; most notably in the area of wages.  Some are using JobBridge and the Community Employment Scheme to lower costs while others have been suppressing wages to near minimum wage level.  Many community non-profit providers have experienced cuts in public grants and subsidies.  There would probably be pressures related to delayed investment as well as providers would be trying to minimise costs during the recession and stagnation.

Which is why it would be understandable and economically rational (if not necessary) if providers increased their fees were households to receive a subsidy.  In effect, the tax break would subsidise the provider, not the household.

We can see how this works when looking at the historical trajectory of childcare inflation. In the periods between 2000 and 2008, child income support increased dramatically (e.g. Child Benefit, Early Childcare Supplement).  So did childcare costs.

  • Between 2000 and 2006, overall inflation increased by 12 percent; childcare costs increased by 32 percent.
  • Between 2006 and 2008, overall inflation increased by four percent; childcare costs increased by 11 percent.

Let’s assume that childcare costs increased by five percent over the two years after a credit was introduced.  This would completely erode the benefit of a €2,000 credit and cut the €5,000 credit by half.  Households would be running to standstill.

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Racing Public Transport to the Bottom

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The decision by the National Transport Authority (NTA) to franchise out 10 percent of Dublin Bus and Bus Eireann routes for private tendering, which could cause industrial disruption, signals the start of the race-to-the-bottom in the public transport sector.

One of the more interesting aspects is that the NTA did not model their proposals, did not produce a business impact-assessment, did not undertake a cost-benefit analysis to justify the need for, or benefits from for franchising.  Now just think on that for a moment.  If a private sector company decided it was going to franchise or outsource 10 percent of its business, there would be cost-benefit analyses and business –impact assessments all over the place – upsides, downsides, alternatives.  Any senior management attempting to railroad such a franchise initiative through without such analyses would be clearing out their desks by noon.

What the NTA did do was commission Ernst & Young (E&Y) to provide an analysis.  And in keeping with that time-honoured tradition of providing the conclusion that the commissioning agency desires, E&Y did not disappoint (just as they didn’t disappoint Anglo-Irish Bank).  So what was E&Y’s main argument?  That franchising delivers efficiencies and cost reductions.  What did they base this on?  One academic study.

The OECD’s Privatisation and Regulation of Urban Transit Systems which E&Y relied on is certainly a comprehensive study, gathering evidence from a range of countries that purport to show the efficiency of privatisation of public transport systems.  The problem with this approach is that you can find academic studies producing a number of conflicting and contradictory conclusions over the same proposition.

For instance, the OECD study claimed that in Sweden between 1987 and 1993, following privatisation, total bus transport costs fell by 13 percent.  However, a more recent study found there is no evidence that the Swedish model of competitive tendering has reduced costs. Rather, the cost per passenger trip increased well above the rate of inflation while efficiency levels fell by over 30 percent.  This study was available to E&Y; they decided not to present this information.

Or how about this: a wide ranging international study of bus services covered 73 cities with different types of bus operators in Europe, North America, Latin America Asia and the Middle East.   It found no significant difference in efficiency between public or private operators:

‘Statistical tests do not show any significance as regards relationship between efficiency and the type of operator….The efficient cities … are spread over different continents and public administration styles – Anglo-Saxon, Nordic and bureaucratic – and they are not concentrated in any specific type of operator.’

I could go on an on – but you get the point.  Pull out an academic study that supports your preconceived position, claim this is what the ‘experts’ find, and ignore all other studies and experts who show something different – that approach hardly instils confidence.

Actually, E&Y gave the game away in a wonderful paragraph:

‘The key advantages associated with a move . . .  to competitive tendering stem from elementary economic theory in relation to the effects of competitive pressures and market discipline. In essence, by putting the contract out to tender, market forces are brought to bear to reveal the most economically efficient provider, thereby leading to lower costs and – all things equal – a reduced requirement for subvention.’

There are two things here:  first, is ‘elementary economic theory’.  There you have it – ‘my ancient neo-classical economics professor said competition is best, so let’s privatise public transport – and ,hey, why not primary education . . . ‘  Never mind that this elementary economic theory is highly disputed – especially in public services;  if you repeat it enough times you don’t have to bother with evidence or facts.

No wonder E&Y didn’t include the new wave sweeping through Europe – re-municipalisation of transport systems and public services in general.  Local /regional governments – Germany, France, UK to name some – that had previously privatised their public transport are taking them into public control because of poor service and high fares.  These places tried elementary economic theory – it didn’t work out.

But it’s the ‘reduce subvention’ argument that is the stunner.

 ‘A comparative analysis of subvention levels across Europe indicated that levels of public transport subvention vary between 35 and 60 percent of revenue. When all State interventions are taken into account, the level of subvention to Dublin Bus is at the upper end of the range.’

This is an outrageous assertion.  The fact is that Dublin has a rock-bottom level of public subsidy.

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Returning to the Business of Bonuses

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When everything came crashing down there was considerable discussion of the ‘bonus culture’; primarily but not exclusively in the finance sector.  Bonuses were tied to outputs that, while rewarding the individual (usually a senior management figure), played mayhem in the economy –as if the dispensing of loans for property speculation is a measure of commercial success.

Bonuses, in general, have been with us for a long time.  It actually started among workers and was paid out as ‘piece-meal’ work – the more you shovelled, the more you harvested, the higher the pay This benefited only a few, especially as the total pot of remuneration rarely grew – it was just redistributed (but it did get workers to produce more for their employers).  But as economies industrialised, bonuses became a phenomenon of management and those with special skills; and as the financial sector was deregulated, bonuses became associated with bankers – senior bankers.

Bonuses are justified on the basis of ‘rewarding performance’ or ‘attracting the talented’.  That’s the justification – a hypothesis rarely tested.  It can reward some aspects of work but it ignores others; they can attract some talent but demotivates other talent.  Employees rely on the fixed income of their wage – either the direct or social wage; bonuses can have a distorting effect and can leave employees reliant on HR whim no matter how dressed up it might be with metrics that aspire to measure productivity.

Whatever the justification, there is one thing we can be sure of:  bonuses benefit higher income employees; namely, managers and professionals.  Very little trickles down to workers on the shop and office floor, production line or building site.   The CSO used to measure bonuses by type of employee – not so anymore.  But we can reasonably assume that the share-out is much the same today.

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We Are All Dunnes Stores Workers

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This Thursday, April 2nd, workers in Dunnes Stores throughout the country are coming out on a one-day strike.  In essence, the dispute boils down to two urgent issues.

The first is zero/low hour contracts.  Such contracts require employees to be available for work but do not guarantee hours of work.  Therefore, workers cannot be assured of their income from one week to the next.  And because hours and shifts change, workers cannot plan childcare, eldercare, family time or leisure.

The Dunnes Stores Workers are seeking what is called ‘banded hours’.  This means people are rostered in such a manner that they are guaranteed a minimum and maximum number of working hours and, so, income.

While Dunnes Stores management might claim (if they ever went public to defend their position) they require roster flexibility, banded hours are widespread throughout the industry (e.g. Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Arnotts, Pennys, to name a few).  This is from Jennifer who has worked for eight years with Tesco:

‘Unlike my Dunnes colleagues, I am much more fortunate in that I have the stability and security of a banded contract. This allows me the guarantee of 30-35 hours every week but also, it does not restrict me to 35 hours. In the event that extra hours become available, I am able to work up to and including 39 hours weekly.’

The fact is that flexibility is a diversion.  Management uses the roster as an instrument of control, punishment and reward to create a compliant and submissive workforce.  If you try to organise a union in the workplace or make a health and safety complaint – don’t expect too many hours next week.

It is also an instrument of payroll cleansing.  This from a Dunne Stores worker:

‘I tell them I can’t work between 2pm and 5pm because of child care issues . . . but they keep putting me on the 2-6pm shift.  They are trying to push me out after 9 years because I’m on an old contract with higher wages.  They want to replace me with cheaper staff on new contracts.’

No wonder that in a survey of Dunnes Stores workers, 85 percent stated that insecurity of hours is used as a method of control.

It is, however, the second issue that cuts to the heart of the matter.  Quite simply, Dunnes Stores management treat their employees as nothing more than a factor of production.  What the Dunnes Stores workers are seeking is terribly simple and far-reaching:

‘You will acknowledge us.’

You will acknowledge us when we want to discuss our contracts, our pay, our working conditions.  We are not mere instruments in the value-added creating process.

Again, management will divert the issue by claiming it is about a union demanding recognition.  It is not.  It is not about Mandate or any trade union.  It is about what the workers want.  Do you or don’t you want to be a member of a union?  Do you or don’t you want to negotiate with your employer collectively?  Do you or don’t you want to appoint a trade union as your negotiating agent?  Do you or don’t you want to take industrial action?  It all starts, proceeds apace and ends with the individual worker and what she or he wants.

The Dunnes Stores workers have made their decision.  They have joined a trade union, sought to negotiate with management, were ignored, and have voted by an overwhelming majority to take this
one-day action.  Now they are paying a considerable price. Management is putting pressure on workers with threats of redundancies and layoffs (in a letter that wasn’t even signed) and especially key activists and workplace representatives whose working hours and income is under threat.

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Starving Ourselves: Ireland’s Low-Spend Economy

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When we look at the headline numbers, it appears that Ireland is a low-spend economy – that is, Government spending is well below EU averages.  This helps explain why we don’t have anything near the public services, income supports and investment that other EU countries enjoy.  However, it is claimed that a significant part of the extra spend in other EU countries is due to their older demographic which necessitates higher public resources (pensions, healthcare, etc.).  Strip this away, and we may find that Ireland is actually a high spending country.

Seamus Coffey has contributed to the debate by doing just that – stripping out spending on the elderly.  When this is done Ireland comes in, not near the bottom, but near the top:  the 5th highest public spending economy in the EU-15, even ahead of ‘high-spend, high-tax’ Sweden.

This is a politically loaded argument.  If it can be established that we are, in fact, a high spending country this would justify a tax-cutting agenda.   We have the money, so the argument would go, we just don’t spend it right.

So are we an average or even high spending economy by EU standards?  No.  Not even close.  In fact we are starving ourselves of public resources.  Let’s go through this argument because I’m sure we’ll hear more of this as the campaign to cut taxes continues.

Headline Figures

First, with the help of the EU Ameco database, let’s look at primary expenditure (public spending excluding interest payments) with an adjustment for GDP per the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council (which has created a hybrid measurement between GDP and GNP).  2012 is the last year we have data for old age expenditure – and as we will see below, it is highly misleading to make any conclusions about spending levels for this year.

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The Politics of Breathing Space – or Why the Irish Government Can’t Let Syriza ‘Win’

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It is difficult to make sense of the EU governments’ attitude towards Greece – not if we’re using rational measurements.  There was a deal on the table – as reported by Paul Mason of Channel 4 news.  The Greek government was happy enough with it, the EU Commission was happy enough with it, it didn’t cross all the t’s but it provided the necessary breathing space to allow a more sustainable and beneficial deal for both creditors and debtors to emerge.  So what went wrong?

One of the problems with writing about the current crisis is that by the time this gets posted, events have moved on – such is the speed at which events, and rumours of events, are moving.  So let’s just hit some highlights.

You’d think Greece has been lethargic in applying its austerity programme, resulting in comments like – ‘Why can’t Greece be more like the virtuous Irish?’  But as Kevin O’Rourke states, pointing to the comparative fall in the structural deficit between Ireland and Greece:

‘So, to summarise: the Greeks have done more “reform” than we have, have endured a lot more austerity, and live in a country where the costs of austerity are likely to be higher than here. Perhaps the Irish government might want to tone down its assertions of relative virtue, and display a bit of solidarity with Greece. Is a less deflationary and less creditor-friendly Eurozone  not in Ireland’s long term interests, assuming that we remain a member of the single currency?’

What the new Greek Government wants is very reasonable:  a few weeks to draw up an agreed programme.  Claims that ‘we don’t know what they want’ (made consistently by our Finance Minister) are misleading and insulting. They are not asking for extra money, they are not seeking transfers from, or additional liabilities to, other members states.  From the outset, Greek Ministers has been asking for what can be called a ‘bridging loan’ which would only last a relative few weeks – in order to negotiate a new programme.  In other words, they are asking for time – a reasonable request for any new government.

And that is exactly what was almost agreed – or at least was on the table.  Paul Mason quotes from a draft agreement was drawn up by EU Commissioner Pierre Moscovici

‘The above (the proposed agreement) forms a basis for an extension of the current loan agreement, which could take the form of a (four-month) intermediate programme, as a transitional stage to a new contract for growth for Greece, that will be deliberated and concluded during this period.’

This coming from the EU Commission which is not known for its debtor sympathies.  Nonetheless, it was a constructive intervention – even if some officials from the EU Finance Ministers’ meetings tried to insist it didn’t exist.

This got nowhere even though Greece was willing to sign.  So why the opposition to what could be seen as a face-saving compromise for all involved?

Quite simple – the Syriza government cannot be seen to ‘win’.  Never mind debt write-downs (which Syriza is not looking for – Alexis Tsipras has made it clear they will honour all contracts, all obligations); the ‘win’ here refers to breathing space and the political momentum that such space might encourage throughout Europe.

The breathing space would give time to construct an alternative to austerity.  The breathing space would provide momentum, not only in Greece, but in other countries (and not just the periphery) to those forces who have been arguing for an alternative to the current deflationary regime.  The breathing space would create the danger that the initiative could be wrested away from the controlled-rooms of Minister meetings and taken up by popular forces.  The breathing space could be a very dangerous space – dangerous to the current elite.

What might happen if the new Greek Government constructed a programme whereby relaxation of arbitrary budget surplus rules (which would cost nothing to anyone but would allow for a humanitarian and investment programme), coupled with an authentic reform that tackled the corruption and tax evasion imposed on Greek society by the oligarchs?  A programme that met all EU fiscal targets but did so in a different way than what is being demanded by EU member-states?  This wouldn’t put some folk and some ideologies in a good light.

This helps explain why only a matter of hours after they were elected, the new Greek government was subjected to a torrent of demands to continue the Troika, extend the current bailout deal, maintain the current course – no deviation, no relaxation.  Even now, the bottom line from the Eurogroup is that Greece must apply for a bail-out extension – even though this is unnecessary and gratuitous given the EU Commission’s intervention.

Syriza raised hopes and expectations throughout Europe in the aftermath of their historic victory.  They continued those with the new Prime Ministers’ first address to the Greek parliament.  They swept through Europe in the person of the Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and his support team.

That had to be shut down – and shutdown quickly.  If Europeans got similar ideas, all manner of problems could arise for domestic governments who have a more grim agenda in mind.  The last thing the Syriza government should be allowed is to carry on all this hope and expectation-raising.  Normal business must be resumed and seen to be resumed.  Immediately.

This explains the Irish Government’s attitude of ‘no breathing space’.  This might give time for progressive voices here – in concert with other European groupings – to critique and propose alternatives to a deflationary programme of squeezing public spending, cutting taxes and obsessing over a balanced budget while labouring under incredible debt levels.  Give the Greeks breathing space and we might get ideas about getting one of our own– and that can’t be allowed.

The Irish Government’s position is unconscionable and unreasonable.  Their opposition to the Greek Government’s reasonable request should be highlighted at every opportunity, opposed at every turn; and not only for the sake of the Greek people.

For, like the Syriza Government, the next Irish Government – hopefully the first progressive government elected in this state – will be demanding the same thing:  breathing space.  Let’s hope it is not too late – for Ireland, for Greece and for Europe

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Sacrificing Our Young

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It is often stated that everyone has made sacrifices during this crisis.  Whatever about ‘everyone’, there are certain groups that clearly have ‘made sacrifices’; or, rather, have been sacrificed. And one of these groups is young people.

We have seen emigration rates rise substantially, high levels of unemployment, substantial cuts in social protection payments and even insults (the infamous ‘unemployment as a life-style choice’).  Let’s look at another grim metric – Eurostat’ssevere material deprivation rate.

As stated before, this benchmark is particularly dire.  Severe material deprivation is defined as enforced inability to pay for at least four of the following items:

To pay their rent, mortgage or utility bills * to keep their home adequately warm * to face unexpected expenses * to eat meat or proteins regularly * to go on holiday * a television set * washing machine * a car * telephone

Eurostat looks at the plight of young people throughout Europe, aged 15 and 29 years.  For 2012 this is the percentage of young people suffering severe material deprivation.

Youth Deprivation 1

Unsurprisingly, Greece leads the league.  But there’s Ireland right there at the top.  More than 13 percent – or more than one-in-eight young people live in severe material deprivation conditions.  This is more than double the average of other non-Mediterranean countries (a particular comparison given that our Ministers continually claim that we are not Greece or Italy, etc.).

The growth in severe material deprivation among young people over the course of the crisis has been alarming to say the least.

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The French Elephant in the Room

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How do EU countries manage to provide better public services and income supports than us?  And are the Irish willing to pay for European-style public services (the implication being we are not).  These were the two questions posed by the Claire Byrne Live show which compared life in France with our lives here.  It was both provocative and frustrating; frustrating because it did not answer the first question.  Had it done so, we would have realised the second question is irrelevant.  

Provocatively, we learned that in France:

  • Children receive full-time education from the age of three, totally free
  • A visit to the GP costs €7 and the waiting times for medical procedures can be measured in days – not months or years
  • If you become unemployed, you get 80 percent of your last wage in unemployment benefit for up to two years.

In other words, the French social model is far, far advanced compared to ours. 

How do they do they achieve this?  Do they tax their citizens more?  The programme provided a couple of statistics in a video introduction that should have alerted the discussion.  They compared a French two-earner household with an Irish one – both on €80,000.  The Irish household paid higher personal taxes (income tax, USC, PRSI). 

The second stat showed French government spending at 57 percent of GDP; Irish government spending is well below that at 40 percent.   So, if Irish personal taxes are higher, but spending is much lower – well, somewhere in there is the answer.  Let’s see if we can find it with the help of Eurostat and the EU’s Ameco database.

Claire Byrne 1

When it comes to personal taxation on employees and household consumption tax (VAT and Excise), Ireland and France are pretty close with both trailing the EU average.  So the reason can’t be found here.

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Debt? What Debt?

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With the Dail to debate a private members motion from Catherine Murphy, TD calling for support for a European Debt Conference, it is worth looking over Ireland’s debt numbers; especially as we will get a flood of claims from some quarters that our debt level is fine, its’ sustainable, we don’t need debt relief, etc. etc. etc.

The starting point in such debates is the question:  is Irish debt sustainable.  This can, however, descend into a black hole of formulae.  Simply put, just about any debt can be considered ‘sustainable’ if the debtor is willing to starve the kids and live under the railway bridge.  ‘Sustainable?  Sure, but there will be sacrifices’ (which, in Ireland are never inventoried).  If you believe this is an exaggeration, consider the EU elite’s attitude towards Greek debt levels. 

Let’s go through some bald numbers.

Debt 1

Irish debt is among the highest in the 19 Eurozone countries.  Officially, it is at 110 percent of GDP; when measured against our fiscal capacity as suggested by the Fiscal Council, it rises to 122 percent.  We’re placed fourth though look out for Cyprus and Belgium in the next few years.

When we turn to what some call an ‘illegitimate’ debt – that private banking debt that we all ended up paying for – Ireland remains league leader.

Debt 2

While banking debt makes up a quarter of our GDP, in the Eurozone the total debt is less than 2 percent.  And for Ireland, this doesn’t count the nearly €20 billion taken from the National Pension Reserve Fund for recapitalisation – since this is categorised ‘investment’ and not debt.   Were it not for the official banking debt, our overall levels would be close to the average Eurozone level. 

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