OECD Economic Survey 2018: An honest, challenging judgement

The conventions of family speeches endure because they work. In his wedding speech, the father of a bride, or, say, a daughter speaking at her mother’s 80th birthday, will open on a light, welcoming note, before touching, however briefly, on serious matters. Ideally, the speaker will be able to close on a happy note, to leaven reality with a sense of possibility, emphasising that happiness is a tender, uncertain flower that needs constant encouragement.

The authors of the OECD Economic Survey: Ireland 2018 have followed that well-trodden path almost to the inch. However, Ireland being Ireland, the gentle chastisement at the centre of the report was substantial, even if it came after very cheering — especially for Government Machiavellis trying to finalise election strategy — opening remarks. The real meat in the sandwich, however, points to serial failings and non-delivery, driving a growing disquiet.

The authors found that our living standards are high and are supported by the strongest post-crisis output recovery in the OECD. It recorded that the economy has demonstrated impressive durability— as has the population — over three decades and that average wages are comparable with top-tier OECD countries. Private-sector workers at the lower end of that spectrum may not be reassured by this conclusion, as they know that Irish figures are skewed by some higher-than-normal — compared to domestic, European Union, or OECD standards — public-sector packages.

The OECD found that income inequality has been reduced through the highly redistributive tax-and-transfer system. This evidence-based conclusion will not sit easily with the no-way-we-won’t-pays, even as scores of thousands of homes and businesses struggle today with rationed water supplies. Those issues are fast-becoming a no-way-we won’t-learn crisis that demands a brave, forceful review.

It would be dishonest not to recognise that the three-decade durability celebrated by the OECD might have been tested to destruction, as the architects of our economic downfall, institutional or individual, have not been held to account. This is one of the social-contract failings driving the rage revolution changing Europe’s political landscape and it is foolish to imagine Ireland is immune to that darkening mood.

The report tries to read the runes on Brexit. The OECD warns that should back-in-control Britain have to trade under the terms of the World Trade Organisation’s most favoured nation rules, Irish exports could fall by 20% in some sectors, such as agriculture and food. This would undo generations of real progress and hard work, and, for very many, fair Irish people, tragically make Albion seem perfidious again. The report points to health service performance that does not match investment, the shameful housing crisis, and high levels of youth unemployment. But, conforming to speech-maker convention, it ends by reporting that our satisfaction and happiness levels are high. Which, irony of ironies, gives the Government Machiavellis the escape hatch they need, when confronted with the institutionalised failures at the heart of this valuable and challenging document.

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