This post was originally written on April 21st in response to an article in the Sunday Business Post. We are re-posting it following last night's Prime Time Investigates programme on social welfare fraud.
Peter Connell: As the Irish economy has spiralled downwards over the past six months, those with an interest in attempting to understand what’s happening and evaluating the solutions being proposed are, at least, being exposed to an increasing informative public discourse. You may not always agree with what economists write as opinion pieces in the national media, over at Irish Economy, here at PE or elsewhere in the blogosphere but, generally, you’re presented with reasoned, well informed arguments that represent genuine attempts to enlighten.
Instinctively when you prepare to read an opinion piece on the solutions to the country’s economic ills by Dr. Ed Walsh, ex-president of the University of Limerick (UL), you know it will be written from a particular ideological perspective. No problem there. We all have ideological perspectives, whether acknowledged or not. Dr. Walsh, since being appointed the first president of UL (then the National Institute for Higher Education) in 1970, has almost four decades of experience of public policy formation in Ireland and has held numerous influential positions in areas key to the country’s economic development including chairperson of the Irish Council for Science Technology and Innovation that advises the government on science policy. So, you could reasonably expect to find some good ideas in Dr. Walsh’s piece in the Sunday’s Business Post entitled ‘Back to when we were winners’.
According to Dr. Walsh it’s all about competitiveness. We were winners in 2000 when we were the fourth most competitive country in the world. Then we ‘lost the plot’. In 2007-8 we were back in 22nd place. And why are we down in 22nd place? The World Economic Forum said the poor quality of our infrastructure was the most problematic factor for those wanting to do business in Ireland. So, does Dr. Walsh identify some innovative ways in which we can fund investment in our infrastructure? Or perhaps he has some insights into how we might convert the significant state investment in fourth level education into innovative, hi-tech enterprises? The strange thing is he doesn’t mention the state of our infrastructure at all and, in this article at least, has nothing to say about the role that technology and innovation might play in growing jobs and creating wealth, an area in which he has considerable expertise. Instead, his piece identifies our overly generous welfare system, high wages in the public sector and failure to tax those on low incomes. Into the mix he adds rigid labour laws, the undue influence of teachers unions in curriculum development and the lack of reform in local and national governance as being the cause of our problems. That’s quite a list. And he backs his arguments up with some figures.
First of all, he suggests that we reduce the size of the public sector workforce by 85,600 to get us back to the level in 2000. Even at the crudest level we can say that, thankfully, we’ve about half a million more people in the country than we had in 2000. That’s about 70,000 more children of school-going age who require teachers in schools that have some of the highest class sizes in the OECD, and it’s up to 40,000 extra older people aged 70 and over who depend on public services more than other sections of the population. In 2000 our health service was just beginning to receive the investment it required to repair the damage done by cuts in the late 1980s. Since then an additional 9,000 nurses have been recruited, but I guess they’re surplus to requirements if we’re to ‘get back to when we were winners’. Certainly, there’s scope to reform the public sector, but not with a demolition ball.
Next up, public sector wages. Dr. Walsh argues that ‘benchmarking against other EU countries provides the framework within which Irish public sector salaries can be brought into line’. He goes on to claim that Irish teachers are paid 37% more than their British counterparts and 26% more than those in Germany. This claim appears to be a quote from Danny McCoy of IBEC writing in the Irish Independent in November 2007. The data is from 2004. But OECD data from 2005 shows something quite different (see pages 384-387). While Irish teacher’s salaries were towards the top of the table internationally, they were lower than in Germany, somewhat higher than in England, but lower than in Scotland. The OECD report also shows teacher’s salaries as a ratio of GDP per capita as a way of assessing the relative value of teacher’s salaries across countries. A secondary school teacher in Ireland with 15 years experience earns a salary equal to 1.2 times GDP per capita. This places the Irish teacher at 14th in the international league table of 30 countries reviewed by the OECD.
Next, Dr. Walsh, pleading the case of high earners, quotes the discredited statistic that the top 6.5% of earners contribute half of all income tax collected, and that 38% of the workforce paid no income tax at all. Colm Keena of the Irish Times, in an article I quoted in an earlier post, presents an alternative perspective on the data on which these statistics are based focusing on individual earners rather than revenue cases. If Dr. Walsh cares to examine the data, he will find that perhaps the most striking fact is that just 9,129 individuals earned €6.7 billion in income, while the lowest 1.2 million earners had an income of €13.3 billion between them.
And now we come to welfare fraud. According to Dr. Walsh ‘welfare fraud and welfare tourism are now a major burden on taxpayers’. And the evidence? Apparently, there are 1,044 welfare claimants at Ballyconnell Welfare Office and the town only has a population of 747 according to the 2006 census. This, he remarks, is an alarming statistic. The source of his information on the number of claimants is a Department of Social Welfare and Community Affairs press release issued by Mary Hanafin. And the implicit aim of the press release is to lay the blame for the doubling of unemployment rates in the border counties on fraudulent claimants.
Unfortunately the situation is worse than Dr. Walsh thinks. The most recent figure for March 2009 is 1,161. This information is readily available from the CSO website, which is generally a more reliable source of information than ministerial press releases. Anyone who has ever dealt with a Social Welfare Office would also know that they serve wide hinterlands, not just small towns. Preliminary research suggests that the Ballyconnell office serves a population of about 14,000. It’s one of two covering the whole of Co. Cavan. Unfortunately there are over 6,500 people now unemployed in the county, many of them young local men who worked in the construction industry.
Dr. Walsh suggests that this welfare tourism is down to our over-generous welfare payments. I suggest he reads Michael Taft’s excellent piece on this topic over at Notes From the Front. Referring to another league table, he shows that we’re in 13th position out of EU 15 when it comes to the level of unemployment benefit paid to a single claimant. Dr. Walsh chooses to compare Irish rates with wages in Lithuania and Romania.
So, unfortunately I wasted seven or eight minutes reading Dr. Walsh’s piece in Sunday’s Business Post. It’s disappointing that one of our brightest opinion formers didn’t do his homework, but presented an argument based on press releases and snippets of information chosen to bolster a particularly extreme view of where we’re at and how we can solve our problems.
In any case I’m not convinced that we should set our sights exclusively on climbing the competitiveness league table. We’re now 22nd. Above us, in 20th place, is Iceland.