Fergus Finlay: Fiscal Advisory Council needs to be parked in a long narrow cul de sac

We don’t need another period of austerity, artificially caused by stereotyped economists’ responses, writes Fergus Finlay

Fergus Finlay: Fiscal Advisory Council needs to be parked in a long narrow cul de sac
Mark Reidy of Duhallow Seafood getting ready his seafood takeaway in Kanturk, Co Cork. Fergus Finlay feels that slowing down during the pandemic has had its value. Picture: Dan Linehan

HARD political choices. Is that what he said? Really? We have a new head of the Fiscal Advisory Council, and this is his first outing in print. Hard political choices? And according to the new chief, if we make hard political choices we might be able to avoid the “severe” austerity of the past. There are now, it seems, degrees of austerity.

I was looking out at the sky on Sunday night, and wondering when the weather would turn. One of the consolations of the past week has been decent weather, when we could get a bit of work done in the back garden. I’m building a fence you see.

Well, that’s not quite true. My wife is building a fence. Intricate in design, complex of execution, this fence needs the skills of an architect, a designer, an engineer, a craftsman carpenter, a supervisor and a stern taskmaster. That’s her, all rolled into one. She needs a labourer. No skill required, just the willingness to hump bits of wood around and follow instructions. That’s me — when my back and shoulder aren’t hurting.

We’re going to need another couple of uninterrupted days to get it done. So I said to the boss (sorry, my wife) on Sunday night, let’s hope it doesn’t rain. There’s enough misery about.

Crack of dawn Monday morning? The rain hasn’t arrived yet, although there’s a noticeable dip in the daily temperature. And the Fiscal Advisory Council has an opinion piece in The Irish Times, written by its incoming chair. Who needs rain?

Sebastian Barnes is his name. I should stress that he is not the professional footballer who got one cap for Ghana, but played most of his football in the lower German leagues. This is a warning to you — if you want to know who Sebastian Barnes is, don’t go to Google, because all you’ll find is the aforementioned German footballer, whose views on the future of the Irish economy are only, to be honest, of limited interest.

But because Sebastian Barnes does get a mention in Monday’s national newspapers, and is described as the acting chair of the much-loved Fiscal Advisory Council, I looked up their website. There he is all right, in all his glory.

He seems to have been born an economist and been employed as an economist all of his distinguished career, first in the Bank of England and then at the OECD. But he does, thank heavens, have a couple of master’s degrees from prestigious European universities after a stint at Oxford.

Over the next four years we’re all going to be hearing an awful lot about him and from him. I’ve never met Mr Barnes, and I’m sure he’s delightful in every possible way.

In the oped, he says: Spending will have to be reprioritised between government programmes or become more efficient, or the tax burden will need to increase. Someone will need to pay.

If this is the quarterly dose of excitement we’re going to have to read in his four-year term, I’m strongly inclined to the view that the first thing the new government should consider doing (will we ever have a new government?) is putting the Fiscal Advisory Council out to grass until we’ve got back on our feet.

To be really scrupulously fair, Mr Barnes’ opinion piece wasn’t quite as bad as the headlines.

“Despite the difficult background,” he says, “universal healthcare, better housing and addressing climate change are all still achievable. However, these goals require substantial resources to succeed… This will require hard political choices about how to fund these policies.

“The ability to finance them through economic growth will likely be more limited, even with policies to raise Ireland’s productivity. Spending will have to be reprioritised between programmes, or become more efficient, or the tax burden will need to increase. Someone will need to pay. These choices will be much harder than in recent years.”

Yeah, yeah. We all know that the economy has taken a massive hit. Who hasn’t felt it? Who, in the view of the Fiscal Advisory Council, isn’t feeling the uncertainty? Who isn’t afraid that there won’t be a recovery?

We haven’t made bad choices in recent years. We’ve all done our share of heavy lifting to help the economy recover from the disastrous mistakes of others. We’ve seen crucial policy choices — like the need to build affordable housing — sidelined by silly ideology.

And then, just as it seemed that the people had been able to send a powerful and strong message that society had to come first for a change, we’ve been floored again by a global pandemic.

It was a pandemic that we didn’t cause. Once again, we made the necessary choices to protect our neighbours and our families and ourselves.

Once again, everyone in Ireland has done our share of heavy lifting. Once again, we’ve realised that we can get through it best if we get through it together.

It hasn’t all been negative, of course it hasn’t. We’ve been sort of forced to smell the coffee. The air is cleaner, fast food has been replaced by home cooking, we’re sitting down to meals instead of rushing. Some of the things we valued — the consumerism, the labels — seem utterly pointless.

And we have recognised that the real heroes in our world aren’t the celebrities and the wealthy, but the nurses and the ward orderlies and the carers that are keeping our world together.

So, slowing down has had its value. It’s been necessary that we lock ourselves down and that we learn how to live differently and to value differently. And I’m guessing that all of that will stand to us in the future.

But don’t, whatever you do, offer us any guff about “hard political choices” once this is over. We all know what “hard political choices” mean in this context. It means that the minute the health crisis passes, there will be a raft of suggestions about “essential” cuts in public spending. And we know what that means too — it means that some of the people who have had to endure the most during the Covid-19 crisis will be told they have to carry the burden of the economic recovery afterwards.

THERE will be debts to be paid off, of course, and we all know that it’s never the rich that are asked to shoulder that burden. They’ll be too busy leading the recovery — getting their own share values back up, and other important stuff.

I think we should be deadly serious about this. We’ve behaved responsibly and well, and there is no way we should tolerate being punished for that. This has been a global and European crisis, and recovery needs a global and European impetus. What it does not need is another period of hardship and austerity, artificially caused by a lack of imagination and stereotyped economists’ responses.

If that’s the best the Fiscal Advisory Council can do for us, they need to be parked. In a long and narrow cul de sac — the sort that only reverse gear will get you out of. Then let’s see whether they’re capable of any imagination at all.

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