Economy

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Did New Labour Spend Too Much?

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This article originally appeared on the Socialist Economic Bulletin on Tuesday, 19th of May.

It is not sufficient for big business to have secured an election victory and an overall Parliamentary majority for the Tory Party. It is also necessary to intervene in the Labour Party to ensure that its leadership also conforms to big business interests too. This has currently taken the form of candidates in the leadership contest being asked to declare that Labour ‘spent too much’ in the run-up into the Great Recession. Answering Yes to this question is effectively a loyalty oath to big business interests, a renunciation even of the social democratic vestige of economic policy under New Labour.

The question is economically illiterate. It is taken as axiomatic that if there was a deficit that spending must have been too high. But all deficits are composed of two items; spending and income. In the case of government that income arises mainly in the form of taxes. It does not follow from the existence of a deficit that the culprit must be spending.

The reality is that measured as a proportion of GDP New Labour spent less on average than Margaret Thatcher. This is shown in Fig. 1 below. On average New Labour’s spending amounted to 41.5% of GDP. By comparison, under Thatcher government spending was 44.2%. In relation to the deficit, the taxation levels were also very different. Under New Labour taxation revenues were on average 37.5% of GDP. Under Thatcher taxation revenues amounted to 42.0% of GDP.

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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.

psp1

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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mtaftR2W

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.

primary_spending

 

 

 

 

 

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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From Protest to Politics: How Can We Get a New Republic?

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An important question that those opposing the water charges, austerity, growing inequality and those looking for an alternative to the establishment political parties are asking is; what exactly are we looking to achieve and how are we going to do it? There are immediate changes needed such as getting rid of the water charges and Irish Water, reversing austerity and cuts and standing up to Europe (and with Greece) on the immoral debt. There are also more profound changes being sought such as achieving the right to housing, health, education, decent jobs etc for everyone. These will require the creation of a real Republic of equality and a genuine democracy where people are treated with dignity and have a real say in the running of their community, their country and Europe. But the most important change is already happening; that is the active participation and empowerment of the (extra) ordinary citizens at the grassroots who are changing their world by standing up for themselves through protest and political action.

It is becoming clear to more and more people that a government dominated by the establishment parties (Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Labour, Renua & other ‘fake’ independents) will not achieve these necessary radical reforms. Ordinary people have to do it themselves by creating a government that is made up of the people’s representatives – without any of the establishment parties involved. A people’s government would be anti-austerity, anti-establishment, rights-based, and progressive. Let us learn from previous mistakes and understand that it is not sufficient to be a minor player in government – for real change the people’s representatives must be the government.  To do this anti-establishment and anti-austerity groups and parties will have to convince the majority of people in Ireland (particularly the undecided voters from a wide breadth of societal groups) to vote for anti-establishment candidates. The task then is not just to protest and resist but also to try win the coming general election. In order to win we must believe that we can win and we must plan to win. But winning is not just changing the faces in government, it is bringing about a New Republic – a real democratic transformation by an empowered citizenry.

This means that electing an anti-establishment government is only one part of a process of empowerment of ordinary people to transform Ireland. That process must also take place in communities and workplaces, creating new forms of socially caring and enterprising employment that can make solidarity and cooperation the key values of any New Republic. It also means that election and government processes should be led by the citizens, communities and ordinary people. It should continue the new wave of citizen empowerment from the water movement. This also means that if anti-establishment opposition do not win the coming election at least we will have been further empowered to pressure whatever new government is elected to take these issues seriously. Importantly, it will ensure that a solid foundation is put in place to be the major opposition (in the Dail and on the streets) and to be in a much better place to win in the subsequent election, which could come much sooner than expected, and to continue to protest and campaign on a wide range of issues.

Convincing a majority of the population to support an anti-establishment political alternative is going to be extremely difficult and challenging. Multiple approaches and strategies are required. None of the anti-establishment groups, the trade unions, independents, Left political parties, or the communities can achieve this on their own. Therefore, unity and coherence is required amongst as many of these as possible in order to offer a clear alternative to people in the election. This will show people that we are serious and that there is a credible, serious and coherent alternative that is worth voting for.

That is not to say everybody has to be part of the one organisation or alliance. There is the opportunity for multiple organisations to be part of a new alliance or there might be a number of alliances and parties co-ordinating together. There will be some who do not wish to be part of any of these and that should be respected just as the desire for those who want to work together on this new alliance should also be respected. The politics of new alliances must be inclusive and respectful of each other and the principles or plurality and diversity. If we are not trying to be the very change we want to see in the world then we have failed from the start.

One idea could be to form a new umbrella alliance or political movement like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain or the SNP in Scotland. This new alliance could be made up of some of the Left parties, new movements, independents, communities, trade unions, and individuals. Let’s call it the Movement for A New Republic for the moment. In the election the people would have a real choice between the Movement or the establishment parties. The Movement for A New Republic would say to the people ‘we are standing for election to become a government of the people that will not involve any of the establishment parties’. This new political movement would aim to represent the ideals and vision of the 1916 Proclamation- in a meaningful way – for a sovereign, democratic, New Republic, New Ireland of equality and social justice, based on the protection of the vulnerable, community and fairness and assertion of the rights of all.

One single major political alliance or movement appears to be a key part of gaining majority public support for a new radical politics in Greece and Spain, rather than lots of smaller groups. The experience of other countries also suggests that the success of new political parties and movements is exactly that – that they are actually new and are not dominated by their past. A new movement that is clearly anti-establishment, standing for the ordinary people against the cronies and elite, made up of leaders that are new (or clearly independent from) to the political system, could gain significant additional support, and therefore, increase the possibility of an alternative government and a new politics in Ireland. This movement should also play a key role in representing the desire for a completely new politics in Ireland for the long term beyond the coming election.

Ideally then the Movement for a New Republic would include the broadest possible alliance from Sinn Fein to Says No Groups, trade unions, independents, communities and socialists, similar to the successful water movement. While there are many differences between these groups – the only realistic way an alternative government is going to be formed is to work together. Anti-establishment candidates should be supportive of each other against the common enemy of the establishment parties. There has to be an end to divisive actions and attacks on each other, and removing dogmatic approaches that alienate potential supporters beyond the ‘true believers’, and an agreement that we want to be in government and not just permanent opposition. There would need to be Movement candidates in every constituency in order to get sufficient TDs to gain the majority to form a government. The media will also be an important battle ground and, therefore, leaders and spokespeople are required who can represent the message of the new movement in a way that connects with the majority of people.

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Greek Myths Retold

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This article originally appeared on Socialist Economic Bulletin on Friday the 24th of April. 

The world economy is not strong and the President of the United States is sufficiently concerned about new shocks to it that he recently met the Greek Finance Minister to urge ‘flexibility on all sides’ in the negotiations between the Syriza-led government and its creditors. US concern is fully justified. 

In any attempt to reach agreement it is important both to have an objective assessment of the situation and to understand the perspective of those on the opposite side of the table. In Mythology that blocks progress in Greece Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator for the Financial Times argues that negotiations to date are dominated by myths. He demolishes some of these key myths in turn: that a Greek exit would make the Eurozone stronger, that it would make Greece stronger, that Greece caused the crisis driven by private sector lending, that there has been no effort by Greeks to repay these debts, that Greece has the capacity to repay them, and that defaulting on the debts necessarily entails leaving the Eurozone. 

Together, these provide a useful corrective to the propaganda emanating from the Eurogroup of Finance Ministers and ECB Board members. Some of this is slanderous, in repeating myths about ‘lazy Greeks’ (who have among the longest working hours in Europe). Much of it is delusional, based on the notion that Greece can be forced to pay up, or forced out of the Euro without any negative consequences for the meandering European or the world economy. 

Austerity ideology
 

A genuine belief in a false idea, or a demonstrably false system of ideas constitutes an ideology in the strict meaning of that word. Inconvenient facts are relegated in importance or distorted, and secondary or inconsequential matters are magnified. Logical contortions become the norm. 

All these are prevalent in the dominant ideology in economics, which is supplemented by another key weapon, the helpful forecast. In Britain for example, supporters of austerity argued it would not hurt growth and the deficit would fall. Now there is finally a recovery of sorts, they argue austerity worked, ignoring all the preceding five years and the unsustainable nature of the current recovery (and the limited progress in reducing the deficit). 

For Greece the much more severe austerity and its consequences means that supporters are still obliged to rely on the helpful forecast to support their case. The Martin Wolf piece includes a chart of IMF data on Greek government debt as a percentage of GDP, which is reproduced in Fig.1 below. 

The IMF includes not only data recorded in previous years but its own projections for future years. From a government debt level of 176% of GDP in 2014, the IMF forecasts a fall to 174% this year and 171% in 2016 and much sharper declines in future years. The IMF has also forecast an imminent decline in Greek government debt ever since austerity was first imposed in 2010, which has not materialised. 

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cryingbab

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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Bernanke versus Summers and the Irish ‘Recovery’

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There is widely followed debate between Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers which has important implications for the Irish economy and its trajectory. 

Summers, who holds innumerable titles is a Harvard Professor and formerly chief economist at the World Bank, initiated the debate with the view that the advanced industrialised economies were experiencing ‘secular stagnation’ (pdf). Bernanke, who is ex-chair of the Board of the US Federal Reserve Bank, accepts that the industrialised economies have been experiencing weak growth but argues that that this was because of very different and easily remedial problems.

They are both wrong. Those who are interested in their detailed arguments, and the responses and counters, should read their many articles and papers in full. But the debate does shed light on some key problems, and the shortcomings of mainstream answers. Here the particular relevance is to the Irish economy.i

In dismissing the idea of ‘secular stagnation’ (that is, a long-term economic malaise which is distinct from the recent slump and its aftermath) Bernanke argues that it is the imbalances of savings and investment between countries that are the key problems. In a generic sense this would place Ireland in the dock, since the CSO reports a current account surplus in 2014 of €11.4bn, roughly 6% of GDP. Ireland escapes Bernanke’s censure, unlike China, because the scale of the Irish surplus is trivial in a global context.

But this highlights a wider point. The Irish current account surplus barely represents the activities of anyone based in Ireland at all. It is due to the activities of multinational corporations, many of them US-based, who park profits and other activity in Ireland to avail of ultra-low corporate taxes. Any national accounts are the sum of the different sectors, or classes, operating within it.

Risk and reward

Summers’ analysis has the merit of not treating the world as an economic version of the board game Risk. He relates ‘secular stagnation’ to the declining rate of productive investment (plant & machinery, factories, software, vehicles and so on, not housing) by companies operating in the industrialised economies.  He also argues austerity is counter-productive, as it reduces their incentives to invest.

But Summers uses the economic jargon the ‘declining natural rate of interest’ to describe the decline of investment. This is in effect a decline in profitable investment or the requirement for investment to achieve profitability (citing companies such as Google and Apple who are hoarding vast sums of cash or WhatsApp which required little productive investment before becoming a stock market darling).

Yet WhatsApp made only losses, not profits before it was bought by Facebook for $22billion. Summers confuses stock market or financial speculation returns with profits. It is also the case that both Apple and Google do invest in new products, and require increasing productive capacity to do so. It is simply that the growth in their profits exceeds the growth in their investment, so that the cash hoard continues to grow. In effect, this is a drain on the economy as profits are realised but this capital is withdrawn from productive use.

How does any of this affect Ireland (apart from many of these companies being based here, for accounting purposes or otherwise)?  This is shown in Fig.1 below, the total financial balances of two key sectors of the economy, companies (Non-Financial Corporations, NFCs) and government. 

 

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bag

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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dunnesdecency

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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2010

Not a Vintage Year

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This is a post by Michael Burke originally posted on Notes on the FrontMichael works as an economic consultant. He was previously senior international economist with Citibank in London. He blogs regularly at Socialist Economic Bulletin.  You can follow Michael at @menburke

The publication of the ESRI’s latest Quarterly Economic Commentary follows the recent publication of the national accounts for 2014. But they were both strangely muted affairs given that the headlines were GDP growth of 4.8% in 2014 and GNP growth of 5.2%. The ESRI is forecasting 4.4% and 4.1% respectively for 2015- although it does not have a very good forecasting track record.

Not only are these the strongest actual and projected growth rates since the recession began but they are also the strongest growth rates in both the EU and in the OECD. So why the long face? Why are people still taking to the streets to protest water charges and the government parties getting no bounce in the opinion polls?

One factor is that despite all the talk of recovery, even on the distorted GDP measure of activity the patient is still convalescing. The economy has not returned to its pre-recession peak, as shown in Chart 1 below. GDP contracted by 12% from the end of 2007 to the end of 2009. In the 5 following years about 70% of that shortfall has been recovered.  On that trend it will be 2016 before the economy is finally in recovery.

Chart 1. Real GDP

MB ESRI 1

On most indicators including GDP the level of activity is now back to around the level last seen in 2010, which was hardly a vintage year. Following a deep recession, industrialised economies much more usually bounce back equally sharply. But this is a slow, painful and incomplete recovery from a deep recession.

Stagnation apart from exports

There is another factor in the subdued mood. GDP is a measure of activity. But it is not designed to be a measure of prosperity. It is widely accepted that recorded export activity is hugely distorted by the activities of multinational company operations in Ireland. Yet since the economy stopped contracting at the end of 2009 these highly distorted net exports (exports after imports are deducted) have risen by an annualised €16bn, almost exactly equal to the rise in GDP.  Net exports, many of them purely fictitious, account for the entirety of the partial recovery.

Chart 2 below shows that the key components of domestic activity are either still falling or are stagnating after a sharp fall. Personal consumption is over €7bn below its peak on an annualised basis and is stagnating. Government spending is €5.6bn below its peak and continues to contract. Popular anger is actually inclined to grow the more there is talk of ‘recovery’.

But the most dramatic contraction is in fixed investment which is now €23.6bn below its peak at the beginning of 2007. The decline in investment led the recession and continues to act as the main brake on recovery. The fall in investment now far outstrips the total decline in GDP since the recession began.

Chart 2 Personal Consumption, Government Consumption and Investment

MB ESRI 2

There might be grounds for increased optimism if the ESRI were plausibly making the case for higher consumption, government spendign and investment. But that is not the case. Private consumption and government consumption are projectedf to rise by just 2% and 0.5% respectively in 2015. Investment is forecast to rise by 12.5% following a double-digit increase in 2014. Even if the ESRI’s optimism is borne out, the fall in investment is now 60% from its peak. So it would take another 4 years of growth at that pace to begin a full recovery.

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