I’m always heartened when I hear about Celts acting up. So I read “The Irish Rebellion Over Water” by Fintan O’Toole with some interest. Background: the Irish economy crashed because a handful of greedy bankers had been playing Ireland like a slot machine, and they lost. And the Irish have been paying for the bankers’ sins with a gawdawful austerity program that conservatives have praised as the model all nations must follow.
According to conservatives, the Irish Recovery is the wonder of Europe. According to Fintan O’Toole — and Paul Krugman — it’s a fraud. O’Toole writes,
There is a deep sense of injustice at being turned into one of the most indebted nations on earth in order to rescue international bondholders who gambled on rogue Irish banks. There is the way the pain has been inflicted most deeply on the poorest people — the last four government budgets have been regressive, hitting those on the lowest incomes hardest. There is the bitterness of yet again having to export the country’s greatest asset: its talented, highly educated young people.
Above all, there’s the gap between the Irish story and the Irish experience. The story is upbeat — austerity works. The experience is rather different. The impressive G.D.P. figures are at least partly unreal, boosted by the accounting practices of Irish-based multinationals.
Unemployment remains very high, and the figures would be much worse if people were not emigrating. Household debt in Ireland is still the second highest in Europe relative to disposable incomes, which have not improved.
But Ireland has two economies: a global one dominated by American high-tech companies, and a domestic one in which most Irish workers have to make their living. The first is indeed booming. Not least because of those low corporate taxes, large global corporations find Dublin convivial for reasons other than its pubs and night life. …
… But home is where the heartache is: in the domestic economy outside the gated community of high-tech multinationals. Outside Dublin, property prices are still falling. Wages for most workers have dropped sharply. Unemployment remains very high at 12.8 percent — and that figure would be higher if not for emigration. There’s always been a simple way to measure how well Ireland is doing: Go to the ports and airports after the Christmas vacation and count the young people waving goodbye to their parents as they head off to the United States, Canada, Australia or Britain, where they have gone to find work and opportunity.
In wingnut lore, Ireland is the Official Proof That Keynes Was Wrong. Spending cuts, not government intervention and investment, would get the economy growing again, and they’ve got numbers to prove it. They’ve always got numbers to prove whatever they want to believe; righties are brilliant in that regard. But these numbers are statistical illusions. Yes, Ireland has seen an increase in exports, but Krugman explains that “most — most!– of the export rise has come from pharma, which is very intensive in foreign-owned capital, and does very little for Irish incomes and employment.” And, as O’Toole says, the drop in unemployment is mostly because of emigration — educated young people especially are leaving Ireland in droves.
The Irish have thus far been fairly accepting of their government’s policies. But now they are rebelling over water. O’Toole:
In a recent Irish Times poll, 33 percent of people said they would refuse to pay the charges for domestic water when they become due in the spring (and less than half of those polled said they intended to pay). This is in spite of the government’s having already made huge concessions in the face of an earlier wave of protests by reducing the average effective charge to just 160 euros (about $200) a year per household, making Irish domestic water the cheapest in Europe. Compared with many of the other tax increases endured over six years, this seems too small a measure to have such large consequences.
But, O’Toole says, for the Irish this was a deprivation too far. Water? In western Ireland it typically rains 225 days of the year. Water falls from the sky in Ireland, copiously. And having lived with center-right governments for many years, polls show the electorate is turning Left. Éireann go Brách.