It is time to dust off old ways of thinking about the Irish economy that were useful in the past.
In the long run, migration sets a floor to Irish wages. It has been thus ever since the Famine of the 1840s, and I don’t believe that the Irish have become less mobile in the last 20 years. Now, a lot of Irish wages are still high by international standards, but eventually as ‘internal devaluation’ proceeds, and as peoples’ living standards are lowered as a result of tax hikes and cuts to public services, it seems inevitable that the ‘migration constraint’ will start to bind again.
Once this happens, then very roughly speaking the size of the Irish economy will be largely governed by relationships of the following sort:
w(1-t) + b + P = E
where w is the wage (which determines employment and output, for given levels of the capital stock and technology); t is the tax rate; b is the value to workers of the public services they receive; P is the premium we enjoy as a result of living in Ireland; and E is the living standard which we can enjoy overseas. If the left hand side of this equation falls too far below the right hand side, people will leave until equilibrium is re-established.
Once we hit this constraint, either because w falls, or t increases and b declines, adjustment in the economy will be more quantity-based and less price-based than it has been to date.
And it gets worse, since t and b depend inter alia on the levels of output and employment. There are fixed costs to running a state, and the debts we are now being saddled with are not population-dependent. You don’t have to be Paul Krugman to see the potential for some pretty nasty feedback loops here.
What can politicians do? The most obvious thing to do is to minimize the debt overhang facing this State, so that t is not higher, and b is not lower, than they otherwise would have to be. Less obviously, if politicians — not the existing ones, obviously, but an entirely new political class — can increase P, by providing people with a political project for national renewal that they can buy into, this might also help convince some people at the margin to stay at home. This is not just essential for our democracy, but for the economy as well.