Avoiding the abyss


Back from the Brink: Ireland’s Road to RecoveryBy Marc Coleman Transworld Ireland, 328pp. £12.99

CURRENT AFFAIRS:ECONOMICS IS OFTEN described as the dismal science. It is, therefore, refreshing to see a professional economist, with big media impact, trying for once to inject some optimism into our current situation in Ireland rather than the usual blame-laying and I-told-you-so egotism with which some celebrity commentators have approached the subject of our deep economic recession.

Marc Coleman, a former economics editor of The Irish Times, is now best known for his appearances in the Sunday Independentand on the Newstalkradio station but is modest enough not to boast on his dust jacket that he once worked as an economist with the European Central Bank.

“Ireland needs to start believing in itself again. Badly. We have swung from excessive belief in our abilities just a few years ago to dejected despair. There is a middle ground. A strong and balanced centre that we need to find,” writes Coleman, in a book that is not afraid to be lyrical as well as forensic when it comes to facts.

This book has already won some telling endorsements from across the political and economic spectrum. It is worth noting that it was launched by Ray MacSharry and Alan Dukes, both of whom, it can be said, know a good bit about recessions and how to get out of them by delivering tough, and at times unpalatable, medicine. Both MacSharry and Dukes, as well as former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, are quoted at length in this book, along with other Irish political luminaries.

While Coleman studiously quotes the opinions of others he is not without his own views, and he does include them in a way that is based on evidence rather than the pure assertion technique that has become the trademark of the celebrity or rent-a-quote economists who have tended to proliferate in the years of the economic boom.

It came as a shock to most of us on the Government benches in the year gone by to discover as they came more into the limelight that there were so many economists in third-level institutions in a country as small as ours.

At the heart of this book are three core ideas: firstly, the idea of the equalisation of pay rates between the public and private sector; secondly, a renewed focus by policymakers on competitiveness, which is not just about getting wage rates down; and, finally, a call to take on the challenge of poor spatial planning by increasing the levels of housing density in our urban areas so that public services can be delivered cost-effectively.

Behind his density argument is a view that our population is rising and will rise again, despite the recession, and that high-tech societies need to be organised around mid- to high-rise living that of itself encourages innovation.

Coleman’s only throw to the populist style of commentary championed by David McWilliams is a derogatory reference to the period after the local-elections disaster for Fianna Fáil in 2004 as the “Inchydoney years”, which, he argues, led to a spending binge that materially affected our underlying competitiveness.

The main reason voters turned against the government on that occasion was the very sudden adjustments made to the public finances in the wake of 9/11 and a feeling that Fianna Fáil had moved to the right by dint of our long period in coalition with the Progressive Democrats.

There are other aspects to this book that bear mention. Coleman makes a strong plea for a reinvestment in our sense of our own culture and in particular our efforts, so far ineffective, to speak our own language. He also gives approval to efforts by President Obama to draw evangelical campaigners into the world of politics. Quoting Pope Benedict, he states that the free market is only as good or bad as the morality of those involved in it. While not an advocate of the now discredited concept of “light touch” regulation, he does make the point that it is only fundamental changes in human behaviour that will have lasting effect in the financial markets, along with more robust enforcement of regulation.

Conor Lenihan is Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation. He also has responsibility for the knowledge society and natural resources