Economist Brendan Walsh inspired generations of students
Brendan Walsh was a sharp analyst of Irish economics and society
Insights from Brendan Walsh’s many papers helped underpin the substantial progress in reducing unemployment in the 1990s
The untimely death of Brendan Walsh last week marks the passing of one of the foremost researchers on the Irish economy, and a gifted teacher who inspired generations of students.
One of the first Irish economists to return to teach in Ireland with a US PhD, he brought new rigour and scholarship to the study of economics that helped transform the quality of economic analysis in the Irish profession.
Brendan had a great ability to identify social and economic problems where analysis of available data could produce policy-relevant solutions. His life’s work focused on key practical issues facing the Irish economy, from the emigration crisis which had inspired him to study economics in the first place, to unemployment and the labour market, as well as work with his brother Dermot in the field of mental health and alcohol abuse.
Economic failureHis early research agenda reflected the searing experience of the economic failure of the 1950s. His publication in 1974 of a paper looking at the factors driving migration remains important and widely quoted. It examined how emigration in Ireland was affected by the difference between labour market circumstances in Ireland and in Great Britain.
He went on to explore a huge range of other factors affecting Irish demography – including factors affecting fertility, the age at marriage and life expectancy.
His research into the very obvious failings of the Irish labour market had a major influence on economic policy. When others despaired of tackling the unemployment problem, Brendan produced important and relevant research on how it might be made to work.
Insights from his many papers helped underpin the substantial progress in reducing unemployment in the 1990s. Looking back at this progress in 2004, he concluded that structural policies were not a major factor. Rather, the basic flexibility of the labour market contributed to the eventual solution.
A particular focus of his analysis was the factors driving changes in the labour market participation of women and the different factors affecting male participation. Changes in fertility behaviour affected female participation decisions but were not caused by labour force participation.
The breadth of the research undertaken by Brendan was not confined to pure economics. An interesting paper explored the relationship between alphabetical order on the ballot paper and electoral success: being first on the ballot paper matters. As a result, he recommended that the position of candidates should be randomised on each individual ballot paper. Later papers examined the results from different referendums.
Earlier this year, to mark the death of Tom Kettle in the first World War, his predecessor as professor of national economics in UCD, Brendan published a paper on Kettle’s contribution to economics. The range and depth of Brendan’s research meant that he developed a unique understanding of the Irish economy. While he remained neutral in the debate on Ireland’s membership of the EMU, his work on exchange rate policy over the preceding 20 years highlighted the limitations on economic policy that affect all small open economies.
Over three decades, his expertise, as well as being available to his students in UCD, was sought by policymakers. In the 1980s, he was one of the “three wise men” on the government committee on costs and competitiveness, and a member of on the National Planning Board. He was chairman of the National Statistics Board. He also worked on economic development issues in Iran in the 1970s and in Gambia in Africa in the 1980s.
Valuable workHis paper with Patrick Honohan in 2002, Catching up with the Leaders: the Irish Hare remains the most valuable work explaining the origins of the Celtic Tiger and the reasons why Ireland’s economy had consistently underperformed in the previous decades of independence.
Talking about economic problems that had engaged his attention over his career, Brendan emphasised the common feature where markets failed to deliver an optimal outcome for society.
In a 2006 interview he said: “Too many people glibly dismiss economics as irrelevant without understanding the crucial contribution it has to make, especially in areas where markets do fail. This applies to global issues like climate change as well as to more immediate concerns like how to manage the rapid growth of our population.”
Brendan’s own wisdom will be sorely missed, and his friendship will be treasured by two generations of economists.