From top: Irish Fiscal Advisory Council Chairperson Seamus Coffey (left), Chief Economist and Head of Secretariat Mr Eddie Casey (centre) and Mr Michael G Tutty speaking to the media at the launch of the The Fiscal Assessment Report last week; Michael Taft
The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council has provided the Left an open goal. If we shoot, we score. But first we have to get on the pitch. And right now the Left has not even put on their jerseys.
In their latest Fiscal Assessment Report, the Fiscal Council got more than a bit tetchy with the Government’s handling of the public finances.
They used some undiplomatic language:
‘ . . . the medium-term budgetary plans are not credible . . . ‘
Ouch. The Fiscal Council’s critique of the Government’s fiscal policy boils down to (a) failing to drive a budgetary surplus in the good times; (b) leaving the debt at an elevated level; (c) stimulating an economy to the point of over-heating; and (d) failing to factor in the downsides in future projections.
All of this is leaving us badly exposed of the inevitable slowing down of the economy, never mind the damage Brexit, changes international taxation and trade wars could do.
In short, Fine Gael is squandering the recovery. Put this together with Fianna Fáil’s reckless pre-crash policies (never mind the equally reckless austerity measures both parties pursued) and the Left has a good starting narrative: you can’t trust the Right to manage our public finances.
This doesn’t mean people will automatically trust the Left, which to date has had little to say about the issues of debt, over-heating, deficits, etc.
This allows the Taoiseach to get away with deflecting the debate away from the Fiscal Council’s criticism:
‘[The Taoiseach] insisted the Government’s spending was modest compared to the constant demands of the left-wing Opposition for increased spending . . . if people listened to that kind of left-wing rhetoric the economy would plummet very quickly.’
The Left’s silence allows our opponents to monopolise the issue and distort its position. So let’s start engaging the debate.
Here are some ideas. These are not comprehensive or necessarily authoritative. But hopefully it will get things started.
1. Stick with the Fiscal Rules.
Never thought I’d write that but for now the Fiscal Rules are a practical defence against more orthodox policies. Sticking with the Rules’ deficit target will allow us more space than Government spending projections. We can still critique the Rules’ faults, though: the treatment of investment, the inapplicability of the Rules’ methodology to a small, open economy; their deflationary bias, etc.
2. Strengthen Automatic Stabilisers
There are two key stabilisers: Unemployment Benefit: In the event of a slowdown higher unemployment benefits will help maintain domestic demand. In our EU peer group, unemployment benefit is far stronger – over €300 and €400 a week; in Ireland, it is only €193. Increase unemployment benefit with a small increase in Employers’ social insurance.
Employment Subsidy: It is important to maintain employment in downturns. Therefore, rather than job losses, employers would reduce workers’ hours with the state subsidising workers’ income to prevent loss in take-home pay. This programme was pursued by Germany during the last downturn with considerable success. This would be less costly than growing the dole queues.
3. Underpin the Productive Economy
There are three main areas: Introduce cost-rental housing to substantially reduce rent levels. This would increase spending on goods and services and reduce unnecessary upward pressure on wages.
A new financial model for childcare: current policies are not working (last year, the Government handed over €1,000 in cash subsidies to childcare providers– and fees still increased). Reducing fees would, again, allow for higher expenditure on goods and services, and reduce entry costs into the labour market.
Human capital, education, and innovation capacity: to see us through the medium and long-term, increase resources into education, innovation, and basic and applied research (Ireland compares poorly to other EU countries), switch away from tax credits to grants for SMEs, increase links between state, universities and progressive enterprises, etc.
4. Collective Bargaining Rights for Workers
Optimising our response to any downturn requires employees to be part of the solution, part of the decision-making process at firm-level. Further, sectoral committees should be set up in those sectors most at risk of Brexit or other-related slowdowns with full employee participation.
Collective bargaining has two significant benefits:It tends to favour those on low and average incomes – the groups that have a higher propensity to spend during a downturn
It tends to reduce precarious contracts which currently exclude people from fully participating in the consumer economy (that is, they are forced to save during those weeks they have less work or no work at all).
5. Keep Public Banks Public
Notably, AIB. Banks are notoriously counter-cyclical; when the economy goes into downturn banks withhold lending. A public bank can act differently since it is not beholden to short-term shareholder interests. It can continue to support viable companies, which might not otherwise be able to access credit.
6. Engage in Real Public Services Reform
We need to ensure efficiency and productivity in our public services. So why not bring in the actual producers of public services; namely, the employees. Employee-driven innovation is a feature in many other EU countries. It is employees who are best placed to know why something isn’t working and how it can be put right.
7. Unleash Public Enterprise
Public enterprises are essentially investment-driven businesses. This will be all the more needed in the rough periods ahead. During the last recession, public enterprises maintained investment. Currently, the top six public enterprises invest the equivalent of 40 percent of the state’s capital budget.
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It might seem curious this hasn’t focused on tax issues. Budgets, however, merely reflect the state of the economy so we must first look to economic policies.
You will increase revenue if you raise the wage floor, end precarious contracts, drive investment, strengthen stabilisers, reduce rents and childcare fees, and support innovation.
Measures that put the economy on a more sustainable footing can then be complemented by tax measures – in particular, taxation on property, assets and passive income.
Two short-term measures would be to introduce a net assets (wealth) tax and substantially increase inheritance tax. And, of course, stop Fine Gael from introducing its €3 billion tax cut bonanza.
However, the debate involves, whatever other and better measures are proposed, the key thing is to resolve in the New Year to enter the fiscal debate. Let’s put on our jerseys and get on the pitch.
An open goal awaits us.
Michael Taft is a researcher for SIPTU and author of the political economy blog, Notes on the Front.