As Ireland faces years of consecutive economic growth, is the so-called recovery being felt and is it sustainable?
So, should we find the claim by the European Commission that we’re facing 5.7% growth in 2018 reliable? Not particularly – after all, that absurd 26% growth figure that Ireland achieved in 2015 was fully in compliance with Eurostat regulations. When compared to GNI*, GDP growth for Ireland in 2016 was revised downwards by the CSO by roughly a third. Under our new measurements, the March 2018 OECD survey found that, in 2015, the GNI*-to-debt ratio was 116.5%, contrasting to the GDP-to-debt ratio of around 76.6%, painting a significantly different picture for the state of the Irish economy. It also found Ireland’s debt per capita to be the second highest in the OECD, at roughly $62,000 per person.
In this context, there’s an ongoing debate over whether or not the Irish economy can be considered to be “overheating” – that is, whether or not our actual output (economic activity) is exceeding our potential output, and if our economy is doing more than is sustainable for our economic base. Capital and labour gets overemployed and and the end result is that the labour pool becomes “inflexible” and we’re unable to take on new major projects or public works. It’s a fundamentally unsustainable situation given that we cannot indefinitely overemploy labour. There is no consensus with regards to Ireland’s status, with the OECD warning us of overheating whilst the European Commission projects that Ireland will be operating below potential capacity into 2019. If Ireland were overheating, the consensus would be for the Irish government to engage in contractionary fiscal policies in an attempt to decrease consumption and deflate the level of demand in the economy, and key social needs such as mass housing builds to resolve the housing crisis would be completely off the table.
Ultimately, the framing of the discussion is wrong – if Ireland is in danger of overheating, we simply need to adopt policies which increase our potential capacity. We can invest all the capital we want, but it will be unproductive if there are no workers to be employed. However, considering the prevalence of precarious work, the burden put on parents by the cost of childcare and insecure housing, full participation in the Irish economy is proving impossible for hundreds of thousands of workers. “Overheating” in this case, is the product of right wing economic policies adopted by successive Irish governments. Simply put, we can go a long way towards improving Ireland’s capacity for economic activity by tackling key social problems.
In addition to this, policies such as relaxing immigration restrictions, ending Direct Provision and opening up our country to refugees, would have the impact of expanding the available labour pool in the Irish economy. Historically, right wing governments have taken advantage of immigrant labour to undercut pay and conditions of workers and to stir up racial tensions, all while exploiting them for economic gain and greater profits for their business partners. Contrary to this rotten approach, a government pursuing leftist policies could institute rigorous labour rights protections, facilitate stronger unions and the provide secure employment for all.
The open nature of the Irish economy on the back of decades of neoliberal policy making has resulted in an intense vulnerability to tremors in global capitalism. The global financial crisis hit Ireland especially hard because of our exposure to the global banking system and reliance on foreign direct investment compounded with the fact that the Irish government was completely unwilling to curtail an obvious property speculation boom. In terms of fundamentals, little has changed other than the fact that successive governments have doubled down on our low-tax model and have gone kowtowing to multinational companies for investments.
The uncertain nature of Brexit and the Trump presidency leave the Irish economy laid bare and at the mercy of the global markets, and the economic stagnation occurring globally means that Ireland’s period of on-paper growth is ultimately unsustainable. A recent report by the World Bank argues that recent growth may be fleeting with a projected deceleration of growth rates and investment in the coming years, and a danger of further shocks to the global economy and a potential recession within the next decade.
While the Irish government fought tooth and nail for Apple to keep its ill gotten €18 billion in the name of jobs, they conveniently ignored that a state investment of roughly one billion euros could create up to 16,000 jobs. State investment and public ownership provides the way out of the uncertain nature of the Irish economy, and the reality that in the face of global economic downturns that productive investment dries up and we get left to the vultures. If we want to turn this uneven recovery, a recovery for the top layers of Irish society, into a socially and economically just one – then the first prerequisite is a recognition of the necessity to break with the neoliberal capitalist status quo and push for the implementation of left policies which would bring industry into public control, radically redistribute wealth and plan our economy with the future in mind. If we should have learned anything from the past decade, our economic model leaves our economy and the working people of this country extremely exposed on all sides – we need a socialist model to correct it.