Senator defends President Michael D Higgins after economists disparage speech

Higgins questions ‘obsession’ with economic growth and finds fault with teaching of economics in universities

Labour Senator and economist Marie Sherlock has defended President Michael D Higgins after a number of economists rubbished a speech he made last week that questioned an “obsession” with economic growth and criticised the teaching of economics in universities.

“The reaction from economists is not surprising,” said Ms Sherlock, who holds an MPhil in economics from Cambridge University. “Most economists here are not grounded in ecological economics, which holds that there is a limit to consumption growth … The President makes a fundamental point about growth for growth’s sake. For the past three decades, we know that unconstrained growth in certain sectors like manufacturing and fuel extraction are imposing massive environmental and social costs on communities. It is the State that is left to pay for the health, water and other damage inflicted on those communities.”

However, she acknowledged that “no economic growth in a country like Ireland, that relies so much on trade, is not an option”.

In a speech at Áras an Uachtaráin on Friday President Higgins criticised the “obsession” with economic growth and made several cutting comments about economists and the teaching of the subject in universities.


“A fixation on a narrowly defined efficiency, productivity, perpetual growth has resulted in a discipline that has become blinkered to the ecological challenge — the ecological catastrophe — we now face. That narrow focus constitutes an empty economics which has lost touch with everything meaningful, a social science which no longer is connected, or even attempts to be connected, with the social issues and objectives for which it was developed over centuries. It is incapable of offering solutions to glaring inadequacies of provision as to public needs, devoid of vision.”

Several economists responded sharply to the President’s criticisms over the weekend.

Speaking to the Business Post, Stephen Kinsella, Professor of Economics at Limerick, said the President “is critiquing an economics that existed in the 1970s before I was born”.

Seamus Coffey of UCC said that as President Higgins “has shown no interest in engaging how economics is actually taught, I see no point in engaging with what he has to say on the matter”.

Others were more practical in their criticism of the President’s remarks.

“Give us a decade of zero growth and see how that works out,” said economist Jim Power.

Others found the President’s speech — a typically dense composition, littered with references to thinkers and political philosophers — impenetrable.

“I can’t understand half of what was in the speech and I am a political economist,” UL economic historian Ciarán Casey told the Business Post. “If you are going to make criticism, make it comprehensible to people.”

Áras reaction

A spokesperson for President Higgins told The Irish Times that in his remarks on Friday, the President continued his “consideration of the necessary connection between economics, social policy, ethics and ecology. In doing this, the President is aware of the different contexts in which these ideas have to be addressed — for example, he recently gave two papers on food security in Senegal, addressing their specific circumstances.

“In Friday’s address, President Higgins was highlighting the importance of ensuring that policymaking takes account of, and is informed by, not only indicators such as GDP [gross domestic product] growth or the necessary economic analyses, but the broader social and ecological needs of both Irish society and humanity more broadly in different circumstances.

“Key to the development of all disciplines, including each of the social sciences, is a constant reflection on practice and training to ensure it is appropriate to the major challenges we face. In his address, President Higgins specifically highlighted the progress that has been made in the study of Economics over the last 15 years and highlighted the work of some leading economists in this regard.

“The President welcomes the strong work being done in the Economics departments of many of our universities and hopes that the debate which his comments have provoked will assist in ensuring the broadest range of considerations —economic, ecological, ethical and societal — are considered in the policy formation process. The President is convinced that Economics students are at the forefront in welcoming critical thought in their courses.”

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times