Tom O'Connor: The exchequer figures published last week show that government tax revenues have fallen by €700 million from €3.7 billion in January 2009 to €3 billion in January 2010. Also, the CSO published figures this week showing unemployment had risen sharply by 13,341 in one month. We are also now led to believe that NAMA may result in very little lending by the banks, according to media reports on a leaked memo by the IMF to Brian Lenihan at the NAMA instigation stage.
These results and revelations are very bad. However, a new spin has been put on them by government to show the opposite. Brian Lenihan has said that the fall in tax revenues is in line with the government’s expectations, and the sharp rise in unemployment was also what they expected. He assured the public on the media that there isn’t any problem simply because he expected it!
It would seem that the 436, 936 workers signing on the live register at the moment needn’t worry because Brian Lenihan expects them to be there. Because he expected unemployment to rise, he obviously expected tax receipts to be down, which may mean that more cutbacks will be necessary. But that would seem to be o.k. Why? Because Brian Lenihan expected it.
This type of economic reasoning will do nothing to reduce unemployment and will leave poverty-stricken families, many on the verges of having their homes repossessed; exasperated, frustrated, angry and fearful for the future of their families. It sends a clear message to them that the government doesn’t care.
However, there is a very clearly discernible economic policy at work here: Brian Lenihan is content because he knows that the draconian cutbacks for this year may still help stabilise the economy, despite the fall in tax receipts. He has clearly chosen to ignore making any serious efforts to solve unemployment and get tax receipts up, simply because he is implementing enough cutbacks in the coming year.
Why would a government not prioritise reducing unemployment, virtually give up on tax receipts and instead go for a one-dimensional solution of cutting back government expenditure? The answer is well-known in economic models: Lenihan is implementing a classical monetarist, expectations-augmented Phillips Curve solution to the Irish economy.
These fancy words mean that: the government is taking the view that,, with huge unemployment workers expectations will be very modest and they will feel they are lucky to have a job at all. In fact, they will be softened up in to accepting wage cuts.
This softening-up exercise was confirmed last Monday with Colm Mc Carthy stating that his ‘Mc Carthy Report’ was simply a ‘political exercise’. For those whose jobs have been lost due to the government accepting the veracity of Mc Carthy, they now know that it was a political exercise to soften up the population for cuts in all directions.
In order to shock the population in to accepting lower wages, you will need the recession and a huge army of unemployed people to carry this through, with workers expecting pay cuts to stay in a job. The next stage in this reasoning is that, once workers have become more ‘competitive’, than the conditions will be ripe to hire more of them.
In addition, severe cutbacks in public services allow the government to stay in a strong bargaining position by not relying on increased tax receipts due to cutback savings. It further increases the supply of nurses, speech and language therapists and special needs assistants so that they will accept lower wages if they are lucky enough to be re-employed in the future.
Then, with workers wages significantly reduced in both the public and private sectors, sufficient economic incentives will be restored to employers who may then employ some workers to produce increased amounts of goods and services. At this stage, economic growth, employment and tax receipts grow again and this has the knock-on effect of improving the government’s finances.
There are huge problems with this approach: firstly, it is in effect an IMF type structural adjustment programme and has no respect for the social hardship it creates. The fact that speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, nurses, special needs assistants and other personnel are being laid off is seen as a necessary part of the plan, even though thousands of children and sick adults urgently need them. In some cases, it is a matter of life and death.
Secondly, once the plan is complete and some workers are re-hired, they will have to accept wages which may be so low as to force them in to poverty. They may also have to work more hours to make the same wages they made previously, either with their old employer or with an added part-time job just to pay the mortgage. This is exactly what has happened in the USA in the past 20 years, where low-skilled workers have to work two minimum wage jobs to afford the cost of living in a trailer.
The third point is that it is economically unsustainable. This approach is not really about inventing any new, highly productive and highly skilled well paid jobs. It is about making the economy competitive without moving towards the knowledge economy. The problem here is that with 50% of taxpayers earning less than 30,000, and 25% who haven’t completed a leaving cert, the government is trying to force these to accept less by competing for wages in an increasingly low cost environment.
These workers will not be able to compete with low cost countries. Instead, they need to be re-trained and redeployed in high skilled areas where wages can still remain at the level of the economically developed countries of the EU. This requires state investment in both retraining and productive capacity.Wages can be reasonably good if the worker has increased productivity and skills gains to give her a competitive advantage over workers in cheaper, low skilled countries. To achieve this, the government needs to invest in technologically advanced infrastructure, high skilled industries and in high grade services areas. Increased productivity levels for those at the higher end of the income distribution also need to happen in both the public and private sectors.
Fourthly, by leaving unemployment to rise, to achieve, what is in effect, a rather merciless agenda, the government will almost certainly cause unemployment to stay stubbornly high for at least five years after 2010, and will cause the emigration of tens of thousands of workers whom the government itself has spend thousands training. It also continues to ignore 30,000 families whose homes are in danger of being re-possessed, many of whom are out of work.
Fifthly, these policies are the antithesis to investing in the productive and competitive capacity of the economy to stay competitive and allow for decent wages. For example, the government’s huge investment in research, if not mainstreamed, will result in hundreds of incubated companies being bought out by huge global high knowledge companies who will subsequently reap the rewards of billions of state money. They will also take hard earned ideas, technological advances and associated personnel of the Irish universities and Institutes of Technology.
Sixthly, even though social partnership has been pronounced dead, the current policies do little for any of the social partners. Several businesses are closing every day, banks are not lending, the government has reined in its investment in the economy. Businesses are suffering. Workers are suffering. Community groups are suffering. Farmers are suffering from lower prices on the grounds of depressed consumer demand. In addition to the opposition parties, large numbers of FF TDs do not favour the current agenda. We are left with the cabinet and less than a half dozen academic advisors pushing this agenda. So much for democracy Irish style.
In short, Brian Lenihan’s approach is economically and socially retrograde and will serve the economy and society very badly unless changed. To make matters even worse, in the light of noises coming from the banking sector itself in recent months and the news of the IMF memo to Brian Lenihan on NAMA, there is a clear need to reverse the irresponsible policy of structural adjustment and the associated complacency on the part of the government in running down of the economy and accepting continued increases unemployment.
If not, any growth in the second half of the year will be too little, too late to avoid misery for hundreds of thousands of people, and the skills/productivity weaknesses in the economy will persist for many years afterwards. In doing nothing right now, the government is burying its head in the sand.
Tom O’Connor is a lecturer in economics, public policy and health/social care at Cork Institute of Technology.