Economy

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Low Corporation Tax Rates Do Not Boost Growth

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This article by Michael Burke originally appeared as a guest post on Notes on the Front. Michael blogs regularly on Socialist Economic Bulletin and tweets @menburke.

There are a number of reports that Ministers have travelled to the US in order to reassure investors following the closure of the ‘Double Irish’ tax loophole. It is not just highly-paid US executives who are concerned about the possible impact of changes to the corporate tax regime.

There is a widespread belief that low taxes for companies are the key to prosperity, in Ireland and in the Western economies generally. Taxes on companies have been falling in the OECD economies over a prolonged period. The corporate tax regime in Ireland is just one of the most extreme examples of this trend.

The off-setting factor has been a sharp increase in the proportion of taxes by ordinary citizens, either through income tax and social charges, or by indirect taxes on consumption (VAT, alcohol, fuel, tobacco duties and so on).

The argument is that lower corporate taxes increase the incentive and capacity of business to invest. Since investment increases productivity this would mean that lower taxes boost economic growth, create jobs and increase the quality of those jobs, including pay. The only trouble with this is that there is no evidence to support it. The evidence paints a very different picture.

According to the OECD, a weighted average of the main corporation taxes applied in its member states has fallen progressively over the last 32 years. In 1981 the average rate was 49.1%. In 2012 it was 32.4%. This was a period of the most severe economic crisis since the OECD was formed. Clearly low taxes were not proof against economic crisis. Even if we disregard the crisis itself, it is clear that GDP growth has been declining over a prolonged, which has coincided with cuts to corporation tax.

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The same is true in Ireland. The corporation tax rate was cut drastically and a 12.5% rate was phased in up to 2003. The 10-year period of GDP growth since has been the worst in the history of the state. Yet it is still widely claimed that a low rate of corporation tax determines Irish prosperity. This claim is evidently false.

The strongest ever year of Irish growth was in 1997.  This was not a part of what has become known as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ period and was six years before the 12.5% tax rate was fully phased in.

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Even when this evidence is presented, the persistence of the myth on taxation is formidable. It is argued somehow that the inclusion of the crisis years distorts the comparisons, as if the purported reason for cutting taxes was not to increase growth and prosperity. But it is also the case that average GDP growth was 4.9% in the 5 years between the cut to 12.5% rates and the crisis (2003 to 2007). This is less than half the growth rate in the in the 5 years before the rate was cut, which averaged 10.3%.

The mechanism through which lower corporate taxes is supposed to lead to increased prosperity is higher corporate investment. The argument that lower tax rates leads to higher investment has been disproved throughout the entire OECD area, which has a experienced a secular decline in both the rate of GDP growth and the rate of investment for the last 30 years.

The same is true in Ireland. Lower taxes did not lead to higher investment. The chart below shows the level of corporate taxes versus the annual growth in the rate of investment (GFCF, Gross Fixed Capital Formation). The peak period for the growth rate of investment was in the mid-to-late 1990s. This coincides with the period of strongest GDP growth, which is not coincidental as investment plays a decisive role in growth. Both of these were before the corporate tax rate was cut drastically.

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Not only did the rate of investment growth slow when corporate taxes were cut, but the composition of that investment was changed in a negative way. The chart below shows the rate of Irish corporation tax and the proportion of total investment devoted to housing. The increasing proportion of investment directed towards housing led fairly quickly to the unsustainable housing boom. The evidence is that as the tax rate fell the proportion of housing investment increased until the bubble burst. In 2004 to 2006 more than half of all investment was in housing, which was immediately after the tax rate fell to 12.5%.

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Squeezing the ‘Public’ Out of the Economy and Society

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We are experiencing a privatisation of the economy and society by stealth.  We usually associate privatisation with the sale of state assets to a private company.  But there’s a larger privatisation process at work, slowly squeezing the ‘public’ from our social life.  It is ongoing and the Government has signalled it will continue up to at least 2018 and in all likelihood beyond.

In a previous post I pointed out the ‘real’ cuts to public spending the Government intends to pursue up to 2018 – the second phase of austerity. This phase will entail public spending falling below inflation levels, which means the value will be cut.  This won’t mean Ministers standing up in the Dail announcing cuts as they have been doing the last six years.  But it will mean a squeeze up to 2018.

But this is against a backdrop of substantial reductions in government spending over the last six years.  Indeed, so severe have been the cuts that spending levels on public services and investment are hurtling back some 20 years.

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The chart above tracks expenditure on public services (government consumption) factoring out inflation.  We find that in 2018 expenditure per every man, woman and child is estimated to be only slightly above spending levels in 2000 (the red line represents the Government projections).  There is a continued downward trend that we should expect to continue until the end of the decade.

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Unrealistic Timelines: Water Charges and the Fiscal Deficit

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During a recent debate on water charges, Minister Alan Kelly had this to say about Government policy:

‘I would go so far as to say that the timelines operating to date have been somewhat unrealistic, squeezing many years of work into too fine a condensed period of months.’

To which a reasonable policy response would be abandon the current timeline; in particular, the introduction of water charges.  If the timelines are unrealistic then, clearly, it is realistic to proceed with the charges.

However, an argument that has arisen in the last week is that if water charges were abolished, suspended, postponed, put in cryogenic freeze, whatever, it would have a negative impact on our deficit.  This arises because Irish Water is now ‘off-the-books’ for the purposes of calculating our deficit.  This means that, unlike in the past, expenditure in water services is not counted as government expenditure since more than 50 percent of its revenue comes from non-government services (i.e. household and business charges).   There is an exception to this which is discussed below.

So how much would it cost the state to get rid of the charges?  I have heard claims that it would cost an extra €600 million, €800 million, €1 billion and more.  Would it?

FF’s Micheal McGrath asked the Minister of Finance a pretty straight-forward question:

‘To ask the Minister for Finance the deficit in nominal and percentage terms which would exist in 2015 if domestic water charges were not applied, and the costs associated with water provision if brought fully back on to the State’s books.’

The Minister refused to answer the question or even offer an estimate.   So when you hear Ministers, backbench TDs and commentators going on about how much it would cost the state to get rid of water charges, just remember:  the Minister for Finance refused to tell the Dail how much.

[Also, SF’s Angus Ó Snodaigh also asked the same Minister Kelly ‘the amount it will cost to provide water and sewerage services in 2015’.  Again, no answer.  What does it take to get a direct answer to a direct question?]

Given the official silence on this issue, I went in search for the answer.  The PwC report on water services published in late 2011 stated that the cost of water services, which includes investment, was €1.1 billion in 2010.  Let’s assume some growth in spending, though during this period it could have easily been cut (Eurostat numbers show a steady reduction of expenditure since 2010 but they have a different method of categorising water expenditure so we can’t be sure if we’re comparing like-with-like).

If the cost of providing water services in 2015 is €1.2 billion, and the €533 million is ‘on-the-books’, then the Government will benefit by €667 million.  Therefore, if there were no water charges, then the deficit would rise by €667 million.

However, the Minister also stated that €233 million in revenue from non-domestic sources (does this refer to businesses?) counts as Government revenue which wouldn’t be the case with households.  I can’t say conclusively how this impacts but if given that off-the-books revenue must be at least 50 percent, and the Government has trimmed this to be as low as possible, we could be looking at a saving of only €300 million for the Government.

And the cost of the child-free water allowances will also count as government expenditure.  If the charges were abolished, so would this expenditure.

Is this clear?  No, but the Government has refused to answer straight-forward questions.  To complicate matters further the Government is intending to spend €223 million in an equity investment in Irish Water.  But if we just freeze the situation, this €223 million wouldn’t arise, so we shouldn’t allow this to be thrown into the pile.

So what have we got?  On a static basis:

  • If the savings to the Government were €667 million, then the deficit would rise by 0.3 percent.  The Government would still hit its 3 percent deficit target.
  • If the savings were €300 million, then the deficit would rise by only 0.1 percent – meaning the Government would come in comfortably below target (at 2.8 percent).

However, this is on a static basis.  One has to estimate three things:  first, with the removal of the water charges, consumer spending will rise, thus increasing GDP (for most people, every €1 not spent on water charges is likely to be spent in the domestic economy).  A higher GDP means a reduced deficit (as a percentage of GDP).

Second, tax revenue rises from the increased spending; this has a downward pressure on the deficit.

Third, social protection costs may fall if employment arises from this increased spending; again, putting downward pressure on the deficit.

Therefore, the Government would come in below their targets.  And that’s for 2015.  When you estimate the impact on the deficit for 2016 and beyond, it makes little difference to the deficit as it will be falling substantially.

If my estimates of costs hold then the Government will hit its fiscal targets next year and the following years.  I am open to correction – but the only ones who can do that are the Government and they aren’t telling.

The Government should call a halt to this mess called Irish Water.  It is a toxic brand that no amount of re-branding will save.  If the Government, as part of a panic measure to mollify the opposition, caps water charges until 2016, this could actually threaten the ability of the Government to keep expenditure off the books (never mind the whole conservation mojo). The Government would be imposing charges, but be unable to keep the spending off the books.  All economic pain, no fiscal gain.

Stop the mess.  Put the numbers out into the public domain.  Go back to the drawing board.

There are other, better ways to finance water investment, dis-incentivise wasteful consumption and fund a modern, state-of-the-art water and waste system.

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The Changing Pattern of Foreign Investment in China

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This article was originally posted on John’s blog Key Trends in Globalisation on the 21st of October

Inbound investment into China continues to be the highest for any developing economy – US$101 billion in 2013 on UN data. But the pattern of investment in China is changing significantly as the country develops, and this trend will inevitably become more pronounced. China refusing to acknowledge and internalise that only 30% of the world’s population now lives in countries with a higher per capita GDP than China leads to confusion on the key issues in foreign investment.

In the first decades after the start of China’s economic reforms in 1978, inward foreign direct investment (FDI) was primarily undertaken by overseas companies to create a base for exports. Although this was helpful in China’s early stage of “reform and opening up,” the investment was frequently very low value added. For example, a 2009 study found China received only 2 percent of worldwide wages paid for iPod production despite the fact that every iPod, at that time the world’s most successful consumer product, was manufactured in China.

As recently as 2010, the majority of China’s exports came from foreign-owned companies. Among large exporters, the role of foreign investment was even greater – of the top 200 exporting companies in 2009, 153 were foreign-funded. Only among small and medium size exporters were Chinese companies dominant and Alibaba’s original success was creating the Internet systems that connect these Chinese companies to their foreign markets.

But as China’s economy has developed, the reason for its attractiveness to foreign companies has radically changed. In comparative international terms, China is no longer a low-wage economy. On World Bank data, only 30 percent of the world’s population now lives in countries with a higher per capita GDP than China, and wages will be approximately proportional to this. In Southeast Asia and South Asia, every developing country except Malaysia now has a lower per capita GDP than China.

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Welcome to the New Tax Avoidance Scheme, Same as the Old Tax Avoidance Scheme

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Well, not quite – but the effect may be the same.  Many international commentators welcomed the Irish Government for ending the infamous ‘double-Irish’ tax scheme.  But just as it shut this down, it announced a new scheme: a ‘knowledgedevelopment box’ designed to reduce corporate taxation to a little over six percent.

The ‘knowledge-development box’ is based on the concept of the patent box used by the UK and the Netherlands to attract multi-nationals with preferential tax rates on income flowing from patenting activity.  However, the scope for the Irish box could be wider.

After all, what exactly does ‘knowledge-development’ encompass?  In the UK and the Netherlands, companies get a tax break on income generated from inventions.  In Ireland, we may see all manner of activities thrown in – source code, copyrights, patents, branding, trademarks and that expandable concept – R&D.  And we’ll have to wait and see to what extent it facilitates more than just actual activity in Ireland (will it encompass activity ‘managed from Ireland’).

The Government was keen not only to put in a replacement for the double-Irish scheme, but to reassure key multi-nationals.  Government officials briefed ‘multinational investors’ on the rationale for the Government’s policy (question:  were any of you included in a conference call by officials prior to the establishment of the water charge?).  The message was clear: the Government may have been forced to abandon the double-Irish due to considerable international pressure – but don’t panic; a replacement is at hand.

It is argued that we need multi-national capital to create high-end employment in the global supply chain.  No one disputes this.  Ireland’s indigenous economy, even with the best policies in place, would not have created the pharmaceutical sector we have today.  However, this common-sense observation is then used to argue that the only way to achieve this is to pursue our current accommodative corporate tax regime (that’s a nice way to describe a tax haven-conduit).  Yes, we have another roll-out of TINA – there is no alternative.

But are there alternative approaches to attracting multi-national enterprises without resorting to tax tricks or ultra-low tax rates?  Does Ireland benefit more than our peer-group EU countries from multinational employment?  This argument – that we have been more successful than other countries in attracting multi-national jobs – has been restated so many times that it is taken as gospel.  But is it true?

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Austerity is Over? Now Back to the Real World

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Headlines and sound-bites abound: ‘austerity is over’, ‘the beginning of the end of austerity’, ‘we beat austerity’ and so on and whatever and sure, why not.

Let’s cut to the chase: austerity is not over. It is entering a new phase. We will now experience austerity ‘below the waterline’. Austerity by stealth, austerity beneath the radar: give it any description but have no doubts. We will continue to suffer austerity, probably up to the end of the decade.

You don’t have to believe me – just look at the Government’s own projections. They clearly show what is in store. And it is not pretty.

The following comes from the Budget 2015 Full Report (Table A.2.2, page 99). In this table the Government projects their spending plans out to 2018. You’ll see that spending pretty much flat-lines, with some slight downward pressure, up to 2018. However, this is what’s called the ‘nominal’ spend – the actual Euros and cents. To get a real world sense you have to factor in inflation.

The Government provides the inflation or deflator figures in Table 5. They estimate that inflation (for the economy, the inflation figure is the GDP deflator) will be over six percent up to 2018. Therefore, public spending – if it is to maintain its value – must rise by that amount. If it falls below that figure, we have a real cut; if it rises above that figure, we have a real increase. So what do we find?

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Primary expenditure excludes interest payments; therefore, it is the total spending on public services, social transfers and investment, with other small categories such as subsidies. We find that total real spending will fall by over six percent by 2018.

In regards to public services (estimated on the basis of figures produced in Table A.2.1 on page 97), we find that real spending will fall by five percent. That’s five percent less than we have today to fund schools, hospitals, policing, transportation, enterprise supports – all our public services. That is going to put a real squeeze on the breadth and quality of our services.

As to investment – the key to long-term growth – the Government intends to cut its spending by nearly 13 percent. This will undermine our infrastructural and business capacity. We will fall further behind our trading partners (and competitors) who are investing far more than us. Of all cuts this is the most irrational from an economic growth point of view.

But there’s another twist to this. For populations do not remain static. Our population is estimated by the IMF to grow by over three percent up to 2018 – which means more people to provide services and income supports to. So if we take the real spending cuts above and break them down on a per capita basis what do we get?

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It is worse. Now overall real primary spending falls by nearly 10 percent, with public services falling by over eight percent and investment taking an even bigger hit.

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A New Kind of Trade Unionism Emerging

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This article was originally posted on the Trade Union Left Forum on the 14th of October.

A new kind of trade unionism is emerging and consolidating itself within the right2water campaign, led by Mandate and Unite and supported by OPATSI, the CPSU, and the CWU. These unions are bringing the broader social and economic interests of their members to the fore and committing resources, time and effort to support mobilisation not only of members, but also the working class and communities more generally.

By viewing their members as workers (as opposed to people paying a subscription for work-place representation services) these unions are placing the workers’ immediate social demands alongside, and equal to, their immediate work-place concerns. This is crucial if the trade union movement is to really represent its members and to recover its power and leverage in society. Wage increases alone will not improve the lot of workers while the political economy of the country is being restructured from one made up of citizens to one of customers in a toll-booth economic and political structure.

The TULF on many occasions has suggested that the trade union movement has a unique position in Ireland in having the resources and channels of communication to support the mobilisation of working people in a way that no left party can. And now it seems that some unions are realising this potential, which is both necessary and welcome.

The right2water alliance is a genuine alliance of union, political and community groups, making a clear demand and statement, “calling for the Government to recognise and legislate for access to water as a human right. We are demanding the Government abolish the planned introduction of water charges.”

As well as the five unions mentioned, community groups and parties have signed up to the campaign. Some 40,000 people have signed a petition calling for the scrapping of the water charges, close to 100,000 marched at the demonstration on 11 October, and more local actions are planned for 1 November.

The right2water campaign is not dictating tactics to communities or individuals but is building and growing a broad campaign of groups and people based on the principle of water as a human right and as a publicly owned utility and resource. Some on the left have attacked the campaign for not demanding non-payment; but at this moment building the biggest, broadest alliance against water charges and privatisation is the priority. A turn towards direct non-payment may be necessary in the future, but right now the campaign’s strength is in growing and building the alliance rather than splintering over tactical matters.

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Open Letter on the Housing Crisis

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An Open Letter to the Dublin City Council, Real Estate Agencies in Dublin, the USI, the PRTB, the HEA, Department of Education and skills, the NAMA, Landlords, the Citizens and Students of Dublin City on the Housing Crisis in Dublin.

As well as being sent to all of the above today it was also published on www.increature.com issue 4 on Sunday the 12th October

Dear all,

We are two final year university students who live in Dublin and wish to express our profound discontent with some of the situations we found ourselves in during the housing crisis that took place this summer in the Irish Capital and the clear discrimination against students which is common practice in the rental market.

Between June and September, we were actively looking for private accommodation in Dublin. We sent several hundreds of emails, made hundreds of phone calls, many of which were from abroad, went to numerous viewings and spent a lot of time, money and energy looking for a place. This house hunt was long, stressful and, overall, a very unpleasant experience which resulted in us sacrificing a large part of our summer, spare time after work, family time and the possibility to advance with college work (readings, dissertation, etc).

We finally found a place two weeks before the start of the academic year. A place that we are not entirely satisfied with, but had to take because we had no other decent offers. We are somewhat relieved that we were lucky enough to have found something, as we are very aware of the fact that many students were not as lucky and are therefore forced to commute, live in hostels or even have to take a year out of college.

One of us is a final year Student in the faculty of arts and humanities who worked the whole summer in a well-respected office in Dublin and will continue to work part-time throughout the academic year. The other is a final year Political Science and Geography student who works during the summer months and is financially supported by her father who works in one of the European Institutions in Brussels. Both of us have letters of references from all our previous landlords stating we are responsible tenants, that the rent and all utility bills have always been paid on time and that we left our previous flats in good condition. Furthermore, we both have good work references from well-respect institutions.

Having such documents, one must wonder how it took us three months to find a mediocre residence.

To us, the answer is very simple. The housing crisis meant that it was hard for everyone to find a place in Dublin due to the fact that this year there was a 43% drop in supply in the rental market and a 7.5% increase in rental prices, but in particular students have a clear disadvantage and are discriminated against.

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Arise Kilnamanagh and take your place among the nations of the earth

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Book Review: Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin, Karl Whitney (Penguin Ireland 2014)

Dublin, perhaps uniquely, has suffered mythologization by genius and by sentimentality. Caught between Leopold Bloom and the Leprachaun Museum (yes, there is), the city of Dublin, the living breathing people and the physical structures they live in and on, has fallen out of sight. Joyce and Flann O’Brien caught its speech, but the one did it so perfectly people are afraid to read him, and the other was so accurate they think the humour is a laughing matter; James Plunkett wrote Dublin on a human scale and gave it flesh and blood characters, but is little known outside Ireland. We have ended up with Bloomsday and Paddy’s Day, the first now more kitsch than the second.

Karl Whitney has now written a book that gives us back Dublin as a city, not the set of a novel, or the battlefield of dreams of some misty eyed tourist in search of their heroic and downtrodden ancestors.

While some of the tourists might be inclined to follow Whitney’s Joyce trail—visit all of Joyce’s Dublin addresses in order (the Trieste equivalent includes his favorite knocking shop)—or even his Liffey descent—from where the river becomes tidal to the last bridge before the sea, crossing every bridge on the way—his bus game would be a bit too Situationist. In this one, you take buses for ninety minutes, changing bus every fifteen, crossing the road if a coin comes up tails. The first time he tries it, he ends up in an area with only one bus. A later attempt is no better. Taking a bus in Dublin has no element of play, but only `the extreme frustration familiar to the demoralized commuter.’ Whitney would not be the first artist crushed by the inadequacy of Dublin’s infrastructure.

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The ‘Taxes’ on Living Standards the Government Won’t Be Addressing

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With all this talk about taxation and Budget 2015 (and one of the few doing any plain talking is Fr. Peter McVerry – calling tax cuts for high-income earners ‘outrageous’) there are ‘taxes’ that people pay that the Government will do little, if anything, to address. Indeed, the budget will be framed in a way that undermines the Government’s ability to provide relief against these ‘taxes’.  What am I talking about?

We automatically assume that ‘taxes’ are something the Government levies.  Therefore, when we discuss ‘tax relief’ or ‘tax cuts’, we refer to reductions in things like income tax, USC, PRSI or VAT, though the latter doesn’t feature much.

However, there are ‘taxes’ that people pay when the Government fails to provide the services and income supports it should – if one accepts that we are a modern European state.  We can call these ‘taxes on living standards’.

Take, for instance, childcare:  in Ireland, a household can pay up to €800 a month and more for a childcare place.  In most other continental countries, childcare can cost as little as €150 per month and even less for the low-paid.  Why the difference?  In other European countries, childcare is financed through the public sector, usually local authorities.  In Ireland, people are forced on to the private market.  This is quite ‘taxing’ for these households.

If the Government rolled out affordable childcare, households with children could expect reductions of up to €500 to €600 a month – or thousands of Euros a year.  This reduction in childcare fees (‘taxes’ for those in need of this vital service) would be greater than any income tax cut.

Or take another example – public transport.  In other countries, public transport receives a high level of public subvention, or subsidy.  This ensures expanded services and affordable fares.  In Ireland, public transport receives an extremely small subvention.

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What is Going On in the Irish Economy?

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After a deep recession, after years of stagnation, the Irish economy is growing in leaps in bounds.  The ESRI is projecting by 10 percent growth over this year and next.  These are almost boom-time growth rates.  Should we be a bit wary?

It’s hard to disagree with the ESRI’s Dr. John Fitzgerald when he wrote:

‘ . . . the standard EU harmonised national accounts are not a satisfactory framework for understanding what is happening in the Irish economy.’

This is primarily due to the impact of multi-nationals and the IFSC which can give a false reading of headline.  Let’s go through some of these categories and then come back to the question:  how satisfactory or reliable are the national accounts and growth projections based on those accounts.  This is a bit long and may be a tad technical in parts but hopefully you can stay with it:  it tells a story about how a story is being told – and it is the telling we should be wary of.

Multi-nationals and the GDP

Everyone knows that GDP is not the best measurement of the Irish economy.  But it’s not just because multi-nationals make profits here and then repatriate them (that is, take out of the country).  The reality is that the profits are not made here but are counted here.  Let’s look at two key sectors where multinationals dominate:  manufacturing and information & communication (the latter is where the Apples and Googles would be located). Note:  this is data supplied by the Irish Government to the EU.

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Profits in Irish manufacturing nearly 8 times that of other EU-15 countries; in the Information & communication sector, it is over 3 times.  Clearly, these are not profits generated by employees in Ireland; they are generated in other economies and ‘imported’ here to take advantage of our low tax rate and our position in the global tax-avoidance chain.

The point here is that our GDP is distorted by multi-national profit-shifting – and that’s before you start taking account profit-repatriation.

Well, Then, We Can Use GNP

Well, no, that isn’t a satisfactory measurement either.  GNP is just the GDP after you take account of money flowing in and out of the country (and more money leaves Ireland than comes in).  Therefore, GNP is still distorted by the multi-nationals’ profit shifting that we saw above.

We can’t be certain if the ‘fake profits’ that appear in our GDP are automatically taken out by multi-nationals.  They may be retained or swim around the IFSC pool (don’t forget that US companies avoid US tax by keeping their money abroad). And not all money flowing out of the country are repatriated profits – they can be interest payments, indigenous multi-nationals investing abroad and households sending money out of the country.

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Five Points for a Citizen Economics

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Budget time is really the only window where citizens are encouraged to engage in economic debate, and even then the space of time is too short and the range of topics up for debate too narrow to make much impact. When it ends, and for the other eleven months of the year, economics is the preserve of technocrats.

That is a serious problem. Economics is the discussion of how things in our society are produced and distributed. If you leave it to experts there is a big cost for democracy. Yet, while people feel comfortable engaging in debate about politics in the Middle East or presidential elections in the United States, there is a reticence to talk about economics.

Part of this is down to economics as a discipline, which has become increasingly remote from day-to-day life. The primacy of the market as a means to resolve problems has led to the rise of ‘market scientists’, who are seen as the authoritative voices on running an efficient economy. The language deployed by these experts is deliberately exclusive. Certainly they are unlikely to start explorations of economics with parables about pin factories, as Adam Smith did in The Wealth of Nations.

Yet they dominate economics discourse. When economics is discussed with any substance in the mainstream press market scientists from universities, think-tanks and finance houses are given free reign to make objective statements about the common good. Research by Julien Mercille has shown that between 2008 and 2012 77% of commentators on austerity were from elite institutions.

Another factor leading to the retreat of ordinary people from economic debate is the narrowing space for democracy in the economy. The democratic sphere only extends to areas where there is or could be public ownership. Outside of this decisions are made by private individuals or organisations. As wealth becomes concentrated in fewer hands, fewer economic decisions are made with public participation.

This has bred a cynicism about what can be achieved by discussing economics. With capital increasingly breaking free from taxation – and mobile enough to defeat strikes – people have come to accept that social problems can only be resolved by appealing to private individuals and organisations to solve problems profitably through the market. And so we are relegated in the economy from citizens to consumers.

This must be reversed if we are to build a politics in Ireland that can reclaim our society from the political establishment and the interests they serve. Joan Robinson, one of the great economists of the twentieth century, was once asked why people should study economics. She replied, “so that economists can’t fool you”. Implicit in this comment is the need for citizen economics.

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Squeezing the Middle

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So the Government wants to give relief to the squeezed middle.

‘Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said easing the tax pressure on the “squeezed middle” will be a priority in the upcoming budget.’

The very first question is:  who exactly is the Taoiseach referring to?  The squeezed middle is an amorphous and infinitely elastic concept that can apply to just about anyone you want it to.  Let’s try and get a handle on this much-talked about but rarely defined group using the latest Revenue Commissioners statistical report.

Let’s define the squeezed middle as the middle 60 percent – between the lower and upper 20 percent group.  Remember, this doesn’t refer to everyone, just those in the workforce.  It excludes those without a job (pensioners, the sick and disabled, the unemployment, lone parents, etc.).

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We can see that, according to the Revenue distribution tables, the middle 60 percent of earners have incomes between €8,700 and €51,300.  However, there is a big caveat here.  Couples where both spouses and civil partners are working are counted as one tax unit.  This means that while in the tables, a tax unit will show an income of €60,000 – this actually means the combined income of two people.  So they may both be earning well below the average income.

We can adjust for this but we have to make assumptions.  To breakdown the one tax unit where there are two people working, I assume that one spouse / civil partner earns 60 percent of the total, while the other earns 40 percent.  When this is done, the revised income range looks something like this.

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This is just an estimate (other might come up with slightly different numbers, working with this data – but it won’t change all that much).  However, looking at the two charts there are three striking things:

  • First, there are many in the squeezed middle that earn very little.  They will be low-paid, part-time, and underemployed (or precarious workers).
  • Second, those earning over €42,400 are in the top 20 percent   (€51,300 using the unrevised chart)
  • Third, between 64 and 73 percent of those in the squeezed middle (depending on which chart you use) are taxed at the standard rate, the marginal rate or are exempt.

A substantial number of the squeezed middle do not earn enough to pay income tax or earn below the top tax rate threshold – so any income tax cuts, never mind cutting the top rate of tax, will have no impact whatsoever.  Is this the group that the Taoiseach is referring to?

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TTIP Trade Deal: Bad for Democracy

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European and American civil society have deemed the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) an anti-democratic threat to the environment, food safety and workers’ rights. Barry Finnegan explains.

While likely to generate increased profits for large companies by removing and reducing production costs associated with health and safety standards (referred to as ‘unnecessary and burdensome, restrictive barriers to trade’), neither citizens nor parliamentarians can get access to the details of the TTIP currently being negotiated by the European Commission and the US Department of Trade; while claims of economic and job growth have been exposed as mere marketing messages.

Private Corporate Courts

Despite the fact that the EU and the US have the world’s most advanced and well-financed legal systems, the TTIP makes provision for a new private ‘court’ called an Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) which would allow a company who imagines its future profits being reduced as a result of legislation, to sue a government by way of a private arbitration case.

In the absence of a list of clearly identified problems with the Irish and European justice system, only one conclusion can be drawn from the TTIP negotiators’ desire for a private international court for foreign investors which would allow them to bypass Irish and European courts: namely to avoid the jurisprudence and constitutional rights accompanying the application of justice in democratic societies.

This point was well made by Business Europe (the lobby organisation for 35 European national business federations – including our own IBEC) in their document, Why TTIP Matters To European Business, where they explained how they want to be able to use ISDS in TTIP to overthrow the right of the Americans to use the US constitution to protect themselves. They explicitly state: “If in the US a domestic law is adopted after TTIP enters into force and its content violates the [TTIP] Agreement, it can still be found constitutional by domestic courts. So the only possibility for the investor to ensure its adequate protection is to bring the claim to international arbitration”.

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