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Budget Choices 2009
The roots of the current economic crisis lie in a set of policy decisions taken in the late 1990s. It is important that this fact be recognised and acknowledged before decisions are made on the second Budget for 2009. Otherwise the decisions made may serve to worsen the situation rather than provide a pathway towards a solution.
Over the past half century Ireland embraced the whole process of liberal globalisation with enthusiasm. It built on the policy of free trade from the 1960s onwards. Its imports and exports as a percentage of GDP are among the highest in the world.
It supports transfer pricing, whereby transnational corporations take their profits in Ireland because of its low corporate tax rate and its many tax breaks.
Ireland presents itself to the world as a place that is attractive to global capital and the pursuit of foreign direct investment has been central to its development for almost half a century.
In the 1970s Ireland’s total tax-take and its expenditure as a percentage of GDP were close to the European average. In the following two decades both of these declined to a level that was much closer to the US by the end of the 1990s. The focus was on “getting Government out of the way”, on becoming ever more competitive and “giving people back their own money” in tax cuts.
Problematic policy decisions in the 1990s
Following this neo-liberal approach to policy development in the late 1990s Ireland:
- Dramatically reduced regulation on financial speculation;
- Persistently cut taxes;
- Developed a tax structure that was dangerously dependent on transaction taxes (stamp duty, capital gains and VAT, among others);
- Became addicted to high growth rates;
- Fuelled a building bubble;
- Failed to generate productive investment.
- Failed to improve Ireland’s infrastructure and services to EU-average levels.
Ireland is now facing five interconnected crises
The result of these and other developments has produced the current series of five crises that Ireland faces which have been well summarised in the recent NESC report as:
- A banking crisis - in which the taxpayer is taking responsibility for rescuing the banks and financial institutions from the consequences of the dishonesty and incompetence of individuals and institutions who were in charge of running and regulating our financial system;
- A fiscal crisis - because we are borrowing far more than we are collecting in taxes;
- An economic crisis - because we have lost competitiveness and jobs;
- A social crisis - because our social services and social infrastructure are being eroded, unemployment is rising, incomes are falling and debt levels are rising; and
- A reputational crisis - our reputation around the world has been damaged by, among other things, a perception that Ireland has a lax and ineffective system of regulation of the financial sector.
Source: OECD Factbook 2008, CSO National Accounts and Department of Finance Stability Pact Addendum
Significant declined in Effective (Average) Taxation Rates, 1997-2009
Source: CSO QNHS various editons; data for mid and later 2009 are projections
A clear, coherent, credible and integrated plan needed
To date Government has chosen to address these crises one at a time, tackling each problem as it emerged. This approach has caused serious problems for Government both at home and abroad.
- At home there has been an ongoing fury at what people perceive as unfair targeting of particular groups by Government. This perception has been strengthened when people cannot see how the various parts of Government’s response are connected. A clear, integrated plan would address this problem effectively, showing where each initiative fitted in the overall scheme and how each group were expected to contribute according to their means.
- Abroad there has been an ongoing problem with financial institutions who charge Ireland more for the money borrowed. This higher charge is based, in part at least, on their perception that Ireland lacks a coherent, integrated plan to address the range of crises it faces in a credible manner.
A clear, coherent, credible and integrated plan articulated by Government to address the five crises Ireland currently faces would go a long way towards addressing both of these problems.
A vision of Ireland’s future needed to guide plan
For such a plan to be credible and acceptable it needs to spell out where Ireland wishes to be in five to seven years time. A vision of Ireland’s future is required to guide the decisions being made on issues.
Ireland is now facing a crucial choice - whether to reduce the level of services and infrastructure or to increase the tax-take to pay for these.
On the one hand services in areas such as health, education and welfare are not at the level expected of a country with Ireland’s level of wealth.
Likewise, Ireland’s infrastructure in areas such as public transport, social housing and broadband is very inadequate.
On the other hand Government is facing very large borrowings that go far beyond the highest levels expected of any country in the euro-currency area.
CORI Justice believes that Ireland needs:
- Agreement on what level of services and infrastructure it wishes to have in five to seven years time;
- A clear, coherent and credible plan to reach that destination;
- A fairer tax system in which those who have more pay more while those who have less pay less;
- A public sector providing good public services and real value for money.
- To move in this direction Ireland also needs to recognise that:
- Ireland’s tax take is low by EU standards whether measured as a percentage of GDP or GNP;
- Ireland’s tax take is falling under both these measures in 2009;
- Ireland’s total Government expenditure is low by EU standards.
If Government were to seek agreement on what level of services and infrastructure Ireland wishes to have in the medium-term it already has a detailed outline in the national agreement Towards 2016. This agreement sets out a series of high-level goals to be achieved by the end of 2015 - a seven year period.
The time-frame would need to be adjusted in light of the current fiscal situation but those goals are supported by most people in Ireland and are worth pursuing. They should form the core of a vision of Ireland that would guide Government decision-making at this difficult time.
Principles/Criteria to guide decisions
In responding to the current crises CORI Justice believes that the following key criteria and principles should form the core of a coherent, credible and clear response. Government should:
- Ensure all decisions it takes are fair and are seen to be fair.
- Ensure that the contributions being sought from different groups in Irish society are proportionate - all should contribute according to their means.
- Grow the economy and restore competitiveness.
- Ensure that existing infrastructure is not damaged by decisions made.
- Ensure the brunt of the required adjustments is not borne by the unemployed, the working poor or those depending on social welfare.
- Support and develop public services realising that vulnerable groups especially rely on these services.
- Protect the vulnerable throughout all stages of the lifecycle (children, adults of working age, older people and people with a disability).
- Recognise that maintaining levels of services and social infrastructure will ensure that the system is poised to take full and early advantage of the economic upturn and avoid a lag between economic recovery and social service provision.
- Recognise that economic development and social development are complementary - they both need each other.
- Focus on doing what is sustainable in the long run
- Avoid causing cumulative damage.
- Be flexible
- Act in solidarity through consultation and partnership
Show how each decision will help Ireland
- Address the five crises it currently faces, and
- Move towards the overall vision that is guiding policy.
Public spending and social spending are low
What worked for Ireland in the good times?
The Celtic Tiger in its most effective years depended on a range of measures to secure development including:
- Significant spending on social and regional infrastructures;
- National agreements that coordinated wages, taxation, employment and social development;
- An industrial policy where state agencies worked closely with firms to develop them; and
- Public subsidies for social services such as education, mortgage relief and pensions.
But Ireland lost its way
However, Ireland changed direction in the early years of this decade and put its trust instead in property and financial speculation. The tax base was changed and tax rates reduced. This had two consequences:
- Ireland became dangerously dependent on increases in the tax-take being generated by constant high growth levels; and
- Ireland’s services (e.g. health, education) and infrastructure (e.g. public transport, social housing, broadband) were far below the levels being provided by countries across the EU with equal or lower levels of income.
The one exception to this was in the area of social welfare rates which rose to a point where the lowest rate for a single person equaled 30% of gross average industrial earnings. In reaching this rate Government honoured one of the key commitments it made in the National Anti-Poverty Strategy and had a dramatic impact on the level of poverty.
Reducing capital gains tax, for example, had major negative impact
In 1998 capital gains tax was cut from 40 to 20% (a move opposed by CORI Justice in its analysis and critique of the 1998 Budget). Capital surged into the economy. Bank lending between 1998 and 2007 increased almost five fold. But two thirds of the increased bank lending went into property (construction, developers, mortgages). An additional 14% of the increase went into lending between financial institutions. Relatively little investment went into the productive sector. In 2007 less than 1% of bank lending went into high tech computer hardware, software and research and development.
This showed up in investment. While capital investment increased from 22% of GDP in 1998 to 26% in 2006, that increase was entirely taken up with construction as non-housing investment decreased as a percentage of economic activity. Spending on technology by manufacturing businesses increased only marginally between 1998 and 2007. Underneath the boom, the financial, speculative economy was overwhelming the productive, innovative economy.
Serious problems emerged in the tax system
But the boom also masked serious problems in the public finances and in the changed structure of the tax system. Ireland’s tax revenue in 2007 was 32.5% of GDP according to the latest Department of Finance figures. This was well below the EU average of 37.4%. In these calculations Eurostat includes all taxes to central and local government together with social insurance contributions from employees and employers.
The structure of the tax system changed. An increasing proportion of the total tax-take came from taxes on transactions. By 2008 the tax structure was dangerously vulnerable – when growth slowed, the revenues from capital gains, corporate taxes, VAT and stamp duty collapsed.
The current crisis was not generated by high public or social spending
Despite the rhetoric, the current crisis was not generated by excessive public spending. Ireland’s public spending remains among the lowest in Europe. The total Government expenditure in the latest year for which comparable data are available shows that Ireland’s total Government expenditure was 34.2% of GDP compared to an unweighted EU-27 average of 43.6%. Only Latvia and Lithuania record lower levels of government expenditure.
A similar picture emerges when Ireland’s expenditure on social protection is analysed. Social protection expenditure is defined by Eurostat to include: sickness/health care, disability, old age, survivors, family/children, unemployment, housing and social exclusion initiatives not elsewhere classified. The most recent Eurostat figures show that Ireland spent 18.2% of GDP on social protection compared to an EU-27 average of 22.4%.
This low expenditure has meant that far less impact has been made on issues of poverty and social exclusion than would have been the case if Ireland were even to move a little closer to the EU average spend on these issues.
Poverty has not been adequately dealt with in the years of plenty
The number of people in poverty fell by 100,000 over a three-year period (2005-7) representing a fall from 19.4% to 15.8% according to the latest analysis from the Central Statistics Office (CSO). This development was very welcome.
At the same time however it has to be acknowledged that while there were many good developments over the past fifteen years the Celtic Tiger failed to deliver infrastructure, services and wellbeing on the scale required.
The fall in poverty rates is due principally to the increases in social welfare (totalling €51 a week) that were contained in the budgets of 2005/6/7. This in turn vindicates the CORI Justice approach which has emphasised the importance of raising the lowest social welfare rates. This is a strong indicator that any reduction in welfare rates would lead directly to an increase in the level of poverty in Ireland.
The vulnerability of people on social welfare to poverty was well illustrated in recent research by Dr Micheal Collins who showed that a reduction of €5 in social welfare rates would lead to an increase in the poverty rate of 0.4%.
CORI Justice notes that:
- Almost a third of all households at risk of poverty are headed by a person with a job (31.3% in 2007, up from 29.5% in 2006). These are the working poor. Government has failed to take the necessary initiatives to tackle this working poor issue.
- More than half of all those at risk of poverty (55.9%) live in households headed by a person who is outside the labour force (i.e. people who are older or ill, or have a serious disability or are in caring roles).
- 19% of children are at risk of poverty.
- In Budget 2007 the lowest social welfare rate was benchmarked at 30% of GAIE. This marked major progress. We were confident that its implementation would lead to further reductions in poverty rates complementing those already achieved and this has happened.
What should Ireland do now?
Unemployment is rising at a dramatic rate
The rapid turnaround of the Irish economy in recent months has lead to a sudden return to the phenomenon of wide-spread unemployment. Live Register data show how unemployment began to climb throughout 2008 and is projected to increase to a figure of 450,000 people by mid to late 2009.
While the increase has, and will be, spread across people of all ages and sectors, it is important to highlight the very rapid increase on the Live Register of those aged less than 25 years. In January 2008, 36,900 in this category were unemployed. A year later in January 2009 this had increased to 70,600.
Previous experience, in Ireland and elsewhere, has found that many of those under 25 and over 55 find it challenging to return to employment after a period of unemployment. This highlights the danger of major increases in long-term unemployment in the coming years and suggests a major commitment to retraining and re-skilling will be required.
In the long-run Irish society can ill afford a return to the long-term unemployment problems of the 1980s. In the short-run the new-unemployed will add to the numbers living on low-income in Ireland and will impact on future poverty figures.
What should Ireland do now?
Where should Ireland go from here? We have argued already that Ireland requires a clear, coherent, credible and integrated plan to address the five crises it now faces. Only in this way will it succeed in dealing with the fury felt by so many at home and with the scepticism of international financial institutions.
In this Policy Briefing focusing on Budget Choices we give priority to issues concerning the forthcoming Budget.
We recognise that waste in the public service, where it actually exists, should be eliminated. Likewise, we acknowledge the need for greater efficiency and getting better value for public expenditure.
We also recognise that a pause on foreclosures and other measures to maintain household living standards would improve both social and economic outcomes.
CORI Justice believes that the following proposals should inform Government in its April Budget this year and in its Budgets in the years immediately ahead.
1. Don’t try to ‘cut’ our way out of these crises
Tackling these crises will involve financial measures but, more importantly, it requires a re-orientation of the economy towards
- Development of productive and innovative firms,
- Creating a more sustainable tax base,
- Significant investment in the skills and well being of the population, and
- Securing social services and infrastructure at levels that Irish people wish to see.
This crisis is so severe that we cannot ‘cut’ our way out. CORI Justice acknowledges that cuts will be necessary but the core of any effective strategy has to be investment.
2. Change Government’s parameters on borrowing
Government argues that Ireland’s borrowing in 2009 must not exceed 9.5 per cent of Gross Domestic Product. To achieve this target they argue that €4.5bn or more should be taken out of the economy through a combination of tax increases and public expenditure reductions. These parameters are seriously problematic.
The target of 9.5 per cent is in stark contrast to the borrowing of some other countries. For example the comparable figure for the USA in President Barak Obama’s first Budget is 12 per cent (cf. A New Era of Responsibility: Renewing America’s Promise, Office of Management and Budget, US Government Printing Office, 2009, Figure 12, p 14).
Making adjustments of €4.5bn through cuts in expenditure and increases in taxation over an eight-month period is likely to have a very negative impact on Ireland’s economy.
These adjustments are being proposed in addition to the initiatives taken in the Budget of October 2008 and the series of subsequent adjustments most recently the pension levy imposed on the public sector in February 2009.
While a substantial part of the adjustment sought can be achieved by raising the total tax-take CORI Justice believes that Government should also adjust its borrowing parameters.
Ireland has a low debt/GDP ratio by international standards. For more than a decade it has run an Exchequer surplus and reduced this ratio dramatically
There are a number of concerns that must be considered when a country is running a deficit.
The first of these is that such a development would weaken the value of the currency. In the context of the euro Ireland is so small that this is not a problem.
A second concern is that it would cause inflation. Again, this is not a concern in the present situation.
A third concern is that too much public spending goes to pay the interest charges. While Ireland is being charged a higher interest rate than other members of the euro area it is a long way from spending as high a proportion of its public expenditure on this as many other countries.
The final concern in this context is that general interest rates will go up. Again, euro interest rates are not set on the basis of what Ireland does. We are a very small part of the euro area.
On the other hand if we reduce spending dramatically we can be sure that such a move will cause the economy to shrink.
Ireland needs to do both i.e. reduce spending and increase its total tax-take. However, the balance between these is the key issue. CORI Justice believes that the bulk of the adjustment should be borne by increasing the total tax-take in a fair and equitable manner. We outline our detailed tax proposals in section 5 below.
The NDP, unemployment and taxation
3. Recognise that economic and social development are two sides of the one coin.
Government must recognise the complementarity of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development. Economic development is crucial if the required social development is to be put in place. At the same time, however, it should also be recognized that the economy requires good social services and infrastructure if it is to develop to its full potential. For example, Ireland’s economy will suffer if the education system is not of sufficient quality or if Ireland’s adult literacy problems are not addressed.
Ireland has failed to recognise this complementarity in the past particularly at moments that were especially challenging for Government’s budget. We should not repeat these past mistakes.
4. Revise and re-prioritise the National Development Plan (NDP)
The National Development Plan (NDP) was originally developed and published on the basis of a consistent growth rate of 4% per year. It now needs to be revised in light of changing circumstances.
In making its decisions on the NDP government should give priority to:
- Resourcing initiatives that are good for the vulnerable and good for the economy.
- Prioritising initiatives that play a key role in ensuring that broader societal goals are met.
An example of resourcing an initiative that would be good for the vulnerable and good for the economy would be funding the continuation of the social housing programme contained in the Towards 2016 national agreement and in the National Development Plan (NDP).
Investment in social housing at this time would help address the housing waiting list which has been growing. This would be good for the vulnerable. It would also make economic sense. Given the huge slow-down in construction this is a good time to get maximum value from the resources invested in building social housing. Construction is also employment-intensive which would be welcome in a time of growing unemployment.
An example of prioritising an initiative that plays a key role in ensuring broader societal goals are met would be funding the commitment to have 500 Primary Care teams in the health system. Primary care has been recognised as a cornerstone of the healthcare system for many years. The national agreement Towards 2016 recognises this and commits Government to engage in ongoing investment to ensure integrated, accessible services for people within their own community with a target of 300 primary care teams by 2008, 400 by 2010 and 500 by 2011. Progress towards this target has been unacceptably slow but this kind of initiative should be prioritised in the revised NDP.
In revising and re-prioritising the NDP it is essential that priority be given to initiatives that address the rise in unemployment that we have already noted. This involves sustaining employment and providing practical supports for people who become unemployed. Initiatives could include:
- Providing supports for sustaining people in employment.
- Re-training and improving skills in an appropriate manner.
- Developing and implementing targeted responses for those in high-risk sectors e.g. white collar workers, new graduates, socially disadvantaged workers and foreign workers.
- Reviewing current processes to ensure people can access social welfare payments quickly.
- Securing education and training opportunities for those newly unemployed as well as for people who are long-term unemployed.
- CORI Justice also supports the NESC proposal that Government should convene a Jobs and Skills Summit to identify and implement a set of measures aimed at addressing the current challenges in this area.
5. Increase the tax-take and make the tax system fairer
CORI Justice believes that Ireland’s total tax take could be raised to a level that is 1.5% below the EU-average between now and 2013 thus providing two-thirds of the adjustments sought by Government over that period. In the recent talks with social partners Government claimed that total adjustments of €16.5bn were required by 2013. Raising the total tax-take to the level we propose would still keep Ireland’s tax system competitive.
CORI Justice points to the following:
- The EU-average tax-take is 37.4% of GDP (and rising) according to the most recently-published statistics.
- The proposed change would mean an increase in the total tax-take in Ireland to 35.9%.
- Using the Department of Finance’s most recent estimates this would mean an increase of €11.7bn on the notional level included in Department of Finance’s Stability Programme 2009.
CORI Justice proposes a number of options for adjusting the tax-system that would help broaden the tax base and make the tax system fairer. These include the following:
- Standard rate all discretionary tax expenditures (i.e. make all tax breaks available only at the 20% rate).
- Where the cost of a tax break cannot be calculated then it should be eliminated.
- Move towards the introduction of a tax on property preferably through the introduction of a land value tax (i.e. a tax based on the annual rental value of land so places with major public facilities e.g. easy access to public transport, would pay more while those with fewer public facilities would pay less).
- Introduce a carbon tax (while ensuring adequate compensation for poorer households and rural households is provided simultaneously).
Minimum wage, social welfare, services and infrastructure
On standard rating tax breaks: Despite some recent reforms, the Irish tax system still incorporates a sizeable number of tax expenditures (i.e. tax breaks). In November 2004 the Revenue Commissioners estimated that the annual cost of tax reliefs was €8.4 billion, a value that is equal to 22% of the total taxation collected each year in Ireland. They also indicated that they were unable to provide complete information on 44 individual tax relief schemes. In few other contexts would such lack of information on public expenditure (albeit via taxation revenue forgone) be acceptable.
On introducing a land value tax: Ireland is the only country in Europe without some form of residential property tax. A land value tax is based on the annual rental value of land - the rental value that a particular piece of land would have if there were no buildings or improvements on it. CORI Justice believes that such a tax should be introduced. This is not the re-introduction of rates.
On introducing a carbon tax: One of the objections presented to the introduction of new environmental taxes is that they would substantially damage the economic position of poor households and rural households. However, it should be possible to insulate poorer households from the effects of these new taxes. CORI Justice believes that environmental taxes should be introduced and that the compensation mechanism proposed for poorer households and rural households should be simultaneously implemented.
The minimum wage and the working poor
As noted earlier almost a third of all households at risk of poverty in Ireland are headed by a person with a job. These are the working poor.
- CORI Justice believes that the minimum wage should be kept out of the tax net. Despite much commentary recently indicating this is a regressive situation this claim is not borne out by the facts. 30% of all the households at risk of poverty in Ireland are headed by a person with a job. These are the ‘working poor’. Their situation is not helped by making them pay tax on what in fact is a relatively small income. Such a tax deduction would have the net effect of driving substantial numbers of people with jobs into poverty.
- If the working poor issue is to be tackled effectively then it is crucial that all those with a job who are at risk of poverty should be able to benefit from the full value of the tax credits to which they are entitled. It is very simple to do this and it would not be very costly. The costings supplied by the Department of Finance for this initiative are simply not credible.
6. Protect and enhance social welfare rates as a key to tackling poverty
As we have noted already more than half of all those at risk of poverty (55.9%) live in households headed by a person who is outside the labour force (i.e. people who are older or ill, or have a serious disability or are in caring roles). These are Ireland’s most vulnerable people and they depend completely on social welfare payments for survival.
CORI Justice notes that Government has said it is committed to protecting the most vulnerable in these difficult economic times. If it is to do this credibly then it must ensure that the value of social welfare payments are protected and enhanced over time. Otherwise poverty will grow in Ireland.
In its Budgets over the next few years Government should:
- Continue benchmarking the lowest social welfare rates.
- Make additional resources available to support households at risk of poverty by targeting further welfare increases at the second adult and the children in these households.
- Increase child benefit and do not tax it. It should be noted that Ireland’s support for children is low by international standards. Ireland also has a high child poverty rate.
- Take initiatives to tackle the working poor issue, the rising level of unemployment and issues such as food poverty that were not addressed in Budget 2009.
7. Protect social services and social infrastructure
CORI Justice recognises that poverty is about much more than income adequacy although income is of critical importance. Unfortunately social services and social infrastructure have come under systematic pressure since the middle of 2008. Large amounts of resources that were previously committed to these areas have been withdraw. Services are suffering and the infrastructure that underpins these social services is in danger of being eroded. In previous difficult economic times failure to maintain social services and protect the social infrastructure resulted in years of development potential being lost when the economy recovered and the services had to struggle to regain their losses.
Other countries who have endured recession in recent decades have sought to ensure that social services and infrastructure were protected. Finland, for example, in 2001/2 suffered the worst recession experienced by any country since the Second World War. It deliberately protected its social services and infrastructure to a point where these consumed a much larger proportion of the country’s GDP. Today, however, Finland claims that was a most enlightened prioritisation at the worst of times.
- It is important that the deficits in social services that Ireland continues to experience be addressed in the period ahead. Deficits in services need to be addressed in the areas of: education, health, childcare, eldercare, housing, transport and training, among others.
- People providing services such as teachers and nurses should not be made redundant in the coming years if they will have to be re-employed or replaced in subsequent years.
- Likewise it is critically important that activation programmes for people who are unemployed or at risk of becoming unemployed be supported adequately.
- It is also important to ensure that appropriate activation programmes for people with disabilities, for children and others should also be supported adequately.
The common good should have primacy over the market
8. Give primacy to the common good over the market
There are deeper values issues to be considered as Ireland reviews the series of crises it is currently facing. Much of these crises are rooted in a philosophy of individualism that does not value community or connectedness and sees the individual as the primary unit of social reality. This philosophical approach sees the person principally in economic terms and considers the market to be the key place for advancement and development.
Such a view of the person leads to endless struggle in the ‘rat race’ of achievement which in turn produces endless anxiety, about the market and about oneself. The individual constantly feels threatened, insecure, in danger. The standard response is to gather more, to have more, so as to be in control of both the present and the future.
The contrast with the Gospel and with the Catholic Social Thought (CST) tradition is striking. A recent book on CST is entitled Rediscovering Abundance. It analyses wealth and income across the world and concludes that there is an abundance of resources but that the distribution of these resources is problematic.
We need to move from a world that is built on individualism, anxiety and greed to a world that is built on the reality of abundance, the need for generosity, the dignity of the person and the centrality of the common good.
This analysis is not new. St Basil, a fourth century theologian and monastic wrote: “If one had taken what is necessary to cover one’s needs and had left the rest to those who are in need, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, no one would be in need.”
While much of economics starts with a focus on scarcity, biblical faith is rooted in the generosity of God’s abundance and in recognising the need to share with brothers and sisters across the world.
An alternative to the present dominant view of the world and how it should function is required. We need to move from a world that is built on individualism, anxiety and greed to a world that is built on the reality of abundance, the need for generosity, the dignity of the person and the centrality of the common good.
The Government’s second Budget for 2009 needs to be clearly situated within a clear, coherent, credible plan to address the five crises Ireland is currently facing.
It should outline the steps Government intends to take during the remainder of this year and in the period to 2013.