The hollowness of GDP: The case of Ireland

22 September 2016

Dan Bailey - SPERI

John Barry - Queen’s University Belfast

Ireland’s GDP statistics highlight the disconnect between ‘official’ growth and the real economy, and raise questions about the nature of growth itself

In the last decade, the prominence afforded to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in political discourse has increasingly been challenged by a series of social and environmental critiques. These critiques – made by the likes of Wilkinson and Pickett, the Stiglitz Commission, the ILO, and the New Economics Foundation – argued that policy-making ought to be sensitised to alternative metrics better suited to the socio-economic and ecological conditions of the present day. Recent GDP announcements in Ireland have only added to the contestations surrounding the political centrality of economic growth in political economy.

The credibility of the GDP statistic in Ireland was strained when the Central Statistics Office (CSO) announced that its growth rate for 2015 was 26.3%; far superior to any of the figures recorded during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years of the 2000s. This figure was met with widespread ridicule, including by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman who described it disparagingly as ‘Leprechaun Economics’.

The drivers of this growth spurt, according to official sources, were a series of ‘inversions’ whereby companies re-locate their official headquarters to Ireland, where only a minority of their business operations take place, in order to benefit from subjecting their profits to Ireland’s low corporation tax rate. This has included companies re-structuring in such a way that sees them legally transfers its assets or its intellectual property to Ireland despite the country only fleetingly hosting the economic activity of these companies. As a consequence, there was a simultaneous boost in net exports in 2015 as these multinational companies contracted non-Irish companies to carry out certain operations.  Such volatility in the GDP numbers is facilitated by the small and open nature of the Irish economy and its reliance on foreign direct investment, and by its 12.5% corporation tax rate which attracts multinational corporations looking for a foothold in the Eurozone.  The Irish Times have reported that Apple – whose exact tax arrangements with Ireland have been under some scrutiny recently – was one company responsible for the rise in Ireland’s capital stock, as well as AerCap in the aircraft-leasing sector. In addition, the robust defence of Ireland’s corporate tax arrangements by the current Irish government, and most of the opposition in the Irish Dáil (parliament), is telling and revealing in demonstrating the alliance and common interests between global corporations and nation-states such as Ireland.

In other words, although Ireland’s 2015 growth rate has some impact on governmental income and the debt-to-GDP ratio, it has only a diminishing connection to the performance of the ‘core economy’ and the reduction of unemployment. Prime Minister Enda Kenny, lost his parliamentary majority in February’s General Election not least because his appeal to the electorate on the campaign trail to ‘keep the recovery going’ was met with a response of: ‘what recovery?’.  The eroding credibility and meaning of the GDP statistic in Ireland was evident in such a debate, and the subsequent data released by the CSO will only further these perceptions.

The susceptibility of the Irish economic model to accountancy practices such as those seen in the ‘inversion’ strategies above mean that further volatility and the financial risks associated with it cannot be ruled out. Indeed, the 2016 economic data thus far forms an ironic postscript to the 2015 data as it shows that the economy has contracted so far this year. The volatility of the GDP measurement – an inherent component of the internationalised Irish economic strategy – means that it is highly problematic for either public spending or deficit reduction to be planned reliably on the basis of growth projections.  The contraction, however, tells us similarly little about economic trends such as the unemployment rate which have become increasingly disconnected from GDP levels; just as GDP has become disconnected from well-being, economic security or global poverty reduction.

Following Tom Healy, the methodological nationalism of GDP is disguising the existence of two economies operating within Ireland today. One is a very high-productivity, relatively low-labour intensive, export orientated and highly profitable economy.  The other is a low-productivity, high-labour intensive, domestically orientated and relatively less profitable economy.  Clearly this is a stylised depiction, but it does capture the misleading character of ‘single country’ and undifferentiated analyses of the ‘recovery’.

Therefore, alongside the credibility or usefulness of GDP we have to ask a connected but larger and more crucial question for modern political economy: who wants ‘jobless economic growth’? Posing the idea that GDP growth can be compatible with continuing joblessness does open up a possibility of delegitimising GDP growth.  This is based on the idea that for most people their support for ‘economic growth’ is not based on corporate profit-making or reducing government debt-to-GDP ratios, but based on strategies for growth producing jobs, and ideally high-paying, good quality jobs at that.

This is not a problem unique to Ireland. To differing extents, capital flows in many countries distorts the original premise of its ascension in political discourse.  The increasing mismatch between economic structures and the conventional statistical framework developed more than 70 years ago has recently prompted Diane Coyle to suggest that the ‘path dependency’ of the latter is now threatened more than ever by a coalition of interests seeking to develop alternative indicators more suited to the ecological, economic and societal challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

Ireland, however, is a particularly extreme example of GDP serving an increasingly misleading and irrelevant measurement not only wellbeing, but also for the wealth of the nation. As such, the GDP growth figure has rarely been as ethereal or mythical as it is in Ireland today. But more than that, the hollowness of the statistic for the lives of the Irish people means that it is even more important for Ireland to develop a notion of national prosperity or success which goes far beyond conventional understandings of economic growth.  If ‘jobless economic growth’ is not working, can we begin to move our political economy thinking beyond GDP growth to envisage political economies of job rich non-economic growth?  If the Irish experience of ‘jobless growth’ is a discredited form of ‘Leprechaun economics’ (which should really perhaps be called ‘corporate profit shifting economics’), what do we put in its place in a ‘post-growth’ political economy?

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