The Political Economy of the Current Crisis

There is widespread agreement as to the policy errors that have compounded the current crisis. These include a pro-cyclical and politically driven fiscal stance, the failure to reform the tax system and tackle the house-price bubble, the first round of public-sector benchmarking and the weakness of financial sector regulation. There has been less analysis of the institutional and political economy factors that led us into these errors. I think a number of them can be seen to be interconnected. Thinking about these dimensions is necessary if we are to be saved from future crises.

Philip Lane (1998) and Colin Hunt (2005) have shown that some components of Irish fiscal policy at least have been pro-cyclical since at least the 1960s, and we stand out in this in comparison with much of the rest of Europe. I don’t think the political economy reasons have been fully identified, but McCreevy’s dismissal of ECOFIN’s 2001 criticism of Ireland’s fiscal stance represented a tragically missed opportunity to exploit external fiscal commitments to help overcome the political pressures that drive pro-cyclicality. McCreevy famously announced that “when I have the money, I spend it; when I don’t, I don’t.” He even used the occasion of the 1999 launch of “Understanding Ireland’s Economic Growth” to jeer at the economic perspective!

Instead of retrenchment, 2001 saw the introduction of the profligate SSIA scheme and continued income tax reductions. While such reductions had expanded the supply side in the earlier years of partnership by helping keep the lid on wage demands, their impact fell increasingly on the demand side as labour supply became increasingly inelastic (Barry and Fitzgerald, 2001).

Partnership, as Patrick Honohan has pointed out, contributed to a shifting of the tax burden away from income tax. We ended up excessively reliant on transactions-sensitive and property-sensitive forms of taxation (stamp duty, capital gains tax and VAT). Instead of tax reform we got further tax breaks for property investment, even as house price inflation soared. Areas like Achill and Clifden now look like Dublin suburbs.

The Bacon reports, which were supposed to take the steam out of the housing market, were conservative in the extreme. (One insider suggests they were ghost-written by the Department of Finance, which, if true, is shockingly indicative of the extent of regulatory and insider capture). I have previously cited research suggesting that the proportion of the price of a house that is accounted for by the site cost rose from around 15 per cent – which is apparently the norm by international standards – to some 40-50 per cent at the height of the property boom. The Kenny report of the early 1970s was asked to consider ways in which increases in the value of development land attributable to the decisions or operations of public bodies could be secured for the benefit of the community rather than of the property developers concerned. Nothing has been done about this over the last three decades. The rezoning decisions of public officials can still create massive overnight profits for private individuals. (I suggested this as a perfect example of what our penny catechisms used to call “an occasion of sin”!).

The problem lies, of course, in Fianna Fáil’s continuing entanglement with property developer interests. The only way I can see out of this is through wholesale reform of how political parties are funded, though Blair, Mitterrand, Kohl and many others all found ways of sidestepping such legislation. It remains a crucial area of policy design.

The housing boom was compounded by the failure of the Financial Regulator to hold bank lending to traditional standards of 2.5 times income and so forth. Many of us have long felt that the regulator’s office should not have been staffed from within the same institution (the Central Bank) that had purposely turned a blind eye to the Ansbacher and DIRT scandals.

The final connection I want to draw between the various policy errors concerns the excessively generous awards made under public-sector benchmarking Mark 1. This was arguably driven by the fact that traditional house-owning groups like the Gardaí, teachers and nurses found themselves increasingly excluded from the housing market. Under tighter credit conditions, the generosity of public-sector pension provisions and the permanency of public-sector employment would have ensured their housing market status. This was no longer the case. Hence the house-price boom can be seen as directly responsible for the generosity of these much-criticised awards.

The most recent research shows that public service salaries are some 20 percent higher than private sector salaries when comparing like-with-like in terms of education, experience etc. The real benefits or otherwise of social partnership will become apparent in the near future when this issue comes to be addressed. Supporters such as Paddy Teahon, secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach when the process was established, argue that partnership has promoted a shared understanding among unions, employers and the government of the key mechanisms and relationships that drive the economy. (This was not apparent, though, in the debate preceding the devaluation of 1993). Other analysts viewed it as successful – in the early stages at least – by providing a mechanism to deliver wage moderation in exchange for income tax cuts. The Teahon view will be seen to be of validity if some agreement can be reached to reduce public-sector pay until the current crisis is overcome. The only politically viable option that could deliver this, many of us feel, would require that other more advantaged groups such as hospital consultants and the legal profession that receive much of their remuneration from the public purse are also faced with similar or larger reductions.

The issue of public sector reform has also come up for discussion. An underlying problem that is reflected in Irish unions’ choice of tax cuts in contrast to economic historian Barry Eichengreen’s (1996) characterisation of the Continental post-war “social contract” (which purchased wage moderation by guaranteeing construction of an efficient welfare state and maintaining high private-sector investment) is that the Irish electorate and Irish workers do not trust the state to be able to deliver on such a deal. Kingston (2007) argues (pretty convincingly, to my mind) that a Whistleblowers’ Charter could have prevented some of the major public-service failures of recent times, such as the lethal blood transfusions, illegal charges for long-stay institutional care, police criminality in Donegal, the PPARS health-service payroll system, the electronic voting machine fiasco, the failure of the Revenue Service to stand up to then-Taoiseach C.J. Haughey, and the corruption of the system by Justice Minister Sean Doherty. A more effective public service and a shift away from the crony capitalism that has characterised Irish politics would leave us on a much stronger institutional footing.


Barry, F., and J. FitzGerald (2001) “Irish Fiscal Policy in EMU and the Brussels-Dublin Controversy”, in Fiscal Policy in EMU: Report of the Swedish Committee on Stabilization Policy in EMU, Stockholm: Statens Offentliga Utredningar, 2001

Hunt, C. (2005) “Discretion and Cyclicality in Irish Budgetary Management 1969-2003”, Economic and Social Review, 36, 3, pp. 295-321

Eichengreen, B. (1996) “Institutions and Economic Growth: Europe after World War II”, in N. Crafts and G. Toniolo (eds.) European Economic Growth, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kingston, W. (2007) Interrogating Irish Policies, Dublin University Press (reviewed in the current issue of Economic and Social Review).

Lane, P. (1998) “On the Cyclicality of Irish Fiscal Policy”, Economic and Social Review, 29, 1, 1-16.

RGE monitor

Today’s RGE monitor has a feature, or whatever you’d call it, bringing together recent articles on yesterday’s IMF rumours, on intra-EMU government bond spreads, and on the possibility of exits from the Eurozone. The fact that these topics are being linked tells you something about how people are thinking. However, the Buiter and Eichengreen articles linked to by RGE are helpful in stating the case as to why Eurozone membership is so helpful now for countries like us: the counterfactual is pretty scary. The implication of EMU membership however, as many of you have pointed out, is that nominal wage cuts are badly needed (so what on earth are the ESB thinking of?).

Why the UK Should Join the Euro

As reported by Eurointelligence,  a new publication collects the views of 31 contributors that advocate the entry of the UK to the euro area. (This initiative was convened by Peter Sutherland.)  An executive summary of “10 years of the Euro – New perspectives for Britain” can be download here. The full report is available here.

Industrial output declines

I have been reading and enjoying for a few years now. You learn a lot about the Dublin property market, and sometimes about other stuff too.

I recently came across this post which alerted me to recent Eurostat industrial figures that ought surely be getting more airplay. As you can see, in the year to November 2008, industrial output dropped by 7.7% in both the Euro area and in the EU as a whole. There was a wide range in performance across countries:

Among the Member States for which data are available for November 2008, industrial production fell in nineteen and rose only in Ireland (+2.6%). The most significant decreases were registered in Estonia (-17.6%), Spain (-15.1%), Latvia (-13.9%) and Luxembourg (-13.8%).

Now, the question is, are these big numbers or small numbers? Here is a table giving changes in industrial output between 1929 and 1937. Looking at the three-year declines between 1929 and 1932, and comparing these with the one-year declines from 2007 to 2008, my answer is that these are frighteningly big numbers. Industrial output is not declining at the rate experienced in the US or Germany during the Great Depression, but that is setting the bar pretty low. It is declining more rapidly than the average falls experienced in Europe as a whole during that period (although those average falls are unweighted, and thus have a large health warning attached to them).