The Leaving Cert may be slowly changing

Parents are crossing their fingers and their toes. Novenas are being said. Girls are outperforming boys. The scramble for places has begun. Accommodation problems abound. Guidance counsellors have expressed concerns. Parents think the Leaving Cert places too much pressure on their kids. Employers think third-level courses need reform to better match their needs. The Minister for Education is looking seriously at reforming the rote-learning exercise that is the Leaving Certificate. Students’ unions want more money. Parents are hard-pressed to meet the costs of college.

You might think those headlines are from 2016. They’re not. They are from 1996. Search the papers in 1996, and 2006, and you see exactly the same patterns, the same stories, the same issues.

They’ll be the same in 2026 and 2036. Ireland has really excellent education correspondents, but apart from changing some of the names, the stories are the same year in, year out. There always seems to be a picture of young people jumping. And, of course, there’s the obligatory profiles of the people who get nine As and the mature students completing their Leaving Certs.

Continue reading

360 hours smartphone free

Like most of my generation, I live in, and on, my iPhone 6. This is not hyperbole. The fantastic (and rather scary) Moment app tells me I spend 8% of my waking life accessing my iPhone. I pick it up over 110 times a day, every day. Worryingly, I use my iPhone more on the weekends—when I’m most with my kids—than I do during work.

I’m 38. Imagine I live to be 85, which, statistically, I can expect, and imagine I sleep 50% of that time. I have 23.5 years left awake before I die. That’s 1.88 years of my remaining life I’ll spend on an iPhone.

1.88 years of my allotted time on planet Earth. Fuck that.

I don’t spend 8% of my waking life reading books, or working out, or walking with my family. I’d like to think I spend my time somewhat productively, and I’m a reasonably happy person, but I’m pretty sure I can think of better uses for 1.88 years of my life than staring at a smart phone.

Smart phone use is this generation’s smoking, and I’m a heavy smoker. I’ve been aware of this for some time.

Moment tells me I use Twitter the most, followed by RSS feed app Reeder, podcast app Overcast, and then everything else.

The thing is, I love my iPhone. I love everything about it. But I don’t think spending 2-3 hours a day accessing it is smart.

The Punkt phone challenge came at exactly the right time. It’s summer and as an academic I’ve fewer responsibilities, apart from writing. I also had a nice mixture over the weekend of free time, and travel.

I started the challenge on Thursday the 5th of August in the evening. I sent a tweet announcing it, and the fun began.

Unboxing the phone was a lovely experience.  The packaging is sleek and well considered, the setup instructions are very clear, and the phone itself is both pleasing hold and obviously, very simple.

Once I was up and running, I sent a few text messages to friends to tell them not to message me on WhatsApp or any of the other iPhone centric services I use, and then got stuck in to doing not much at all with my phone.


The urge to tweet about how I didn’t have a phone anymore was somewhat overpowering.

The idea of disconnection is appealing, and a little frightening. I write to be read for a living, and I am a digital native. But have I ever really been disconnected?

There is a German word to describe the nostalgia for things you never knew, and the word is Sehnsucht. Nostalgia or longing for a distant place you’ve never actually been to, but which may inexplicably, be home. There’s nothing quite like   Sehnsucht in English.

The Punkt MP01 is a Sehnsucht phone. It is nostalgia for disconnection in a small, modern, well designed plastic shell.

The lack of music, of podcasts, of feeds, of twitter, was a little alarming. I didn’t get iMessages, or pictures of my kids. Because I couldn’t import contacts onto my sim, I didn’t know who any of the calls I received were from. This unnerved those on the other end of the call more than me after a while. We’re used to being pre-recognised these days. The predictive text messaging is deliberately rudimentary. Replying to text messages became a total pain, so I just started calling people back, which I could tell annoyed some of them a little bit, sometimes. Voice calls can be an intrusion in 2016.

On Sunday, I travelled from Limerick to London to give some lectures. I’ve flown this route dozens of times. It is, essentially, a bus ride for me. Printing out boarding passes felt very 20th Century. The Punkt phone was to be my alarm clock and my phone. My iPhone stayed in Limerick. I brought my laptop for work, and an old kindle.

I managed to read a few books on my kindle, which is itself a form of ‘calm’ technology, the kind of tech that demands the smallest amount of attention, be as informative as possible, and create calm when it can. I read books by Theodore Zeldin, Warren Ellis, and James C. Scott. Those were, I think, a better use of my time than reading tweets. I still allowed myself to tweet a bit from the computer when it suited, but I wasn’t running to it every 5 minutes. From Thursday 5th to Thursday 11th, I sent 15 tweets, 4 of which were retweets of the news paper I write for. More importantly, the hours I normally spent on twitter were now minutes.

Travel was a good bit harder for me. I got lost on trains, on streets. In fact, I got lost pretty much everywhere I went in London. With no map apps to guide me, I had to rely on the kindness of strangers. Strangers who mostly had earbuds in, foreheads down, and when stopped for directions, didn’t know how to get to where I was going either. They used their phones to show me, but we had a laugh as well. There was a human connection, however brief, brought on by the phone.

I became much more aware of street signs, and of just listening. No headphones and no notifications beyond the odd text message meant I had a lot of time to just listen on planes and trains. The average train carriage is quite a loud space. Everyone listening to an individual sound source but me, shuttling through London’s underground and overground services. I looked out the window a lot.

When I got home from London, I played with my kids and didn’t think to check my phone once. I only realised this when it beeped at me. I charged the phone fully on Thursday the 5th. I’m writing this on Wednesday the 10th, and it is has just demanded a bit of power with a little vibration. My iPhone 6 barely made it past 3pm on any day.

I then travelled to Belfast for another set of lectures. Again, no iPhone. No problem this time as I was driving, but without the turn by turn navigation, the trip into Belfast city became a little fraught. I'm also really missed podcasts, which were a staple of my driving experience up to now.

I've now been using it for 15 days. The iPhone has stayed in its box and hasn't been used once in 15 days. Thats 12,650 times I haven't picked it up. I've charged the phone twice in those 15 days.

I am going to keep using the Punkt phone for another 15 days. 48 hours wasn’t enough to really see where this can take me. 360 hours gave me a sense that phones like this, which represent a sort of pulling back from the notification nirvana that is the iPhone, have a real place in the lives of digital natives like me.

The conditions I'm using the phone in are, as economists say, out of sample. I’m going to extend this experiment into a new academic term and new responsibilities at work, to see how much I really need the iPhone in my professional life.

Life Cycle Inequality and Welfare: Two thoughts and a gedankenexperiment

Here's my lecture on life cycle inequality (.pdf) for the Queens University Summer School on social welfare and social policy (.pdf). This was a really interesting engagement with public and civil servants who work in this area, at the coal face, as it were. Incredibly thoughtful and engaged people, willing to be challenged and to debate the issues of the day.

King Trump could hit Ireland hard

Donald Trump may be a sham, but his tax plans could expose the sham that makes us one of the world’s richest nations

I place the crown on your head. Your Majesty, what tax policy would you like for your subjects? Perhaps more importantly, what tax policy would you like for yourself, given that you’re now the head of state? Given all this power, wow could you resist the temptation to tax yourself, and people like yourself, less?

Nobody likes paying taxes. The wealthiest enjoy it even less than the poor, especially in the world of progressive income and capital taxes where they more they have, the more they pay.

Continue reading

How low can sterling go?

The decision last week by the Bank of England to cut interest rates to 0.25 per cent to offset some of the effects of Brexit caused a large change in currency markets. The Brexit result has caused British purchasing managers’ indices to slide, permanent job placements to fall at their sharpest rate in over seven years, and profit warnings by companies to increase.

Continue reading

British Leave-ing is getting Pythonesque

We are just starting to see the effects of Brexit on the British and Irish economies, and guess what? It’s not pretty.

In fact, saying ‘it’s not pretty’ is an understatement. An understatement reminiscent of the very British dinner guests visited by the Grim Reaper in Monty Python’s film The Meaning of Life. The guests, you’ll remember, were murdered by a salmon mousse. Once they realised they were bound for the lakes of fire, they said: “Well, that’s cast rather a gloom over the evening, hasn’t it?”

Things are becoming Monty Python-level ludicrous.

Continue reading

Charity status for vulture funds – someone shout stop!

Can you trust charities any more? In an inefficient and poorly regulated sector with huge overlap in terms of service provision, not only do we contend with a string of scandals, we now learn charitable status is being used by vulture funds to shield incomes earned in Ireland from the Irish tax system.

That is, to put it mildly, not a good thing. Facilitated by legal firms, somehow special purpose investment vehicles are being given charitable status, which allows them to pay almost no tax. Irish tax legislation, via Section 110 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997, provides for special treatment for qualifying SPVs (special purpose vehicles). Essentially this allows a tax deduction for interest payments.

Continue reading

Paying the price for free education

Today, I’m writing as an academic and as the Acting Chair of the Higher Education Authority, because I think it’s really important to respond to the recent publication of the Cassells Report on the funding of higher education.

You might not know much about the HEA. It has three main jobs. It disburses about €1 billion in funding to the higher education institutions of this State, it regulates the higher education sector, and it provides policy advice to the Minister for Education and Skills.

Continue reading

The Dickensian repercussions of Britain’s decision to leave the EU

There’s something Dickensian about the contrasting approaches of the Irish and British governments to the Brexit crisis. Remember Dickens’s opening line from A Tale of Two Cities, a collage of stories from London and Paris in the 1770s?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

I can’t stop thinking about this line since I started reading the book to my sons recently. Dickens’s book is really about how ordinary things change after an extraordinary event. In his case it’s the French Revolution, which overthrew a monarchy to establish a republic. In our case it’s the potential dissolution of the European Union and the weakening of one of Ireland’s largest trading partners. Somehow in its universality Dickens’s line speaks to the kind of large structural change we’re seeing post-Brexit.

It was the best of times

The financial markets have been battered since June 24. The Ftse 100 index of very large multinational firms, which benefit from the incredibly weak sterling level, is up €30 billion. British exporters have seen huge increases in demand for their newly-cheap products. Some currency speculators made out like bandits, and anyone holding gold is feeling very smug indeed. Little Englanders and euro-sceptics are triumphant. This is their moment.

It was the worst of times

The Ftse 250 index has lost €38 billion in value. The Eurostoxx banks index, which tracks the 30 largest banks in the eurozone, has lost over €110 billion.

Over half of the £25 billion Investment Association property sector has now suspended trading, with five of the largest British property funds suspending any redemptions. Companies importing products have been hammered and are issuing negative profit guidance, especially airlines such as EasyJet and Ryanair.

Employers cut almost 800,000 job ads following the result in order to compensate, somehow for austerity. Local authorities and city councils across Britain have to prepare to lose large percentages of their budgets, bringing in austerity measures for those who need government services the most.

In England, the EU funds more than £5 billion. In Wales they’ll lose almost £2 billion, and in the North, they’ll lose almost £400 million. Scotland will lose over £700 million. Here, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan revised down his estimates of Irish GDP growth from 4.3 per cent to 3.4 per cent, and while insisting the figures for Budget 2017 were sound, he admitted the future of the Irish economy was now more uncertain.

Ireland’s fortunes depend on the ultimate form the Brexit takes. Whether it’s a Norway-style or a World Trade Organisation-style deal matters hugely to us.

Continue reading

The shock of Brexit has not yet faded. It may take years to fully absorb the consequences of what has happened.

One thing is certain: Ireland’s fiscal future is more uncertain because of Brexit. Let’s look at some of the upsides and downsides.

At the National Economic Dialogue last week, ministers Paschal Donohoe and Michael Noonan stuck rigidly to the script that the Summer Statement, released only 48 hours before the Brexit vote, took much of the effects of Brexit into account in the short term. Both agreed the real changes to Ireland’s fortunes would come after 2018, when the actual Brexit occurred.

Last week, I wrote that Brexit, if it occurred at all, would take far, far longer than the two years mandated by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Think closer to ten years. The sheer complexity of a disengagement from the European Union would require an army of negotiators, lawyers, trade experts, a phalanx of other assorted parasites. Every person running for Tory Party leader has been very relaxed about invoking Article 50, with the front runner Theresa May saying it would not be invoked before January 2017.
Continue reading

Fiscal space. What fiscal space?

For once, Ireland’s civil servants got it exactly right. No, I haven’t been hitting the Blue Nun early. Honest.

The recently drafted National Risk Assessment placed the threat of the UK leaving the European Union as a real and negative threat to the Irish economy, and a taskforce from the Department of the Taoiseach has been working for more than a year on contingency plans for Ireland in the event of a Brexit vote.

The decision to leave has historic consequences, and we need to think in terms of decades, not days.

Continue reading

Brexit’s benefits are an illusion. The cost is not

At present, we are days away from Britain’s decision to stay within the EU or to leave it. The polls are forecasting a very close result, with Leave and Remain camps very close to one another in terms of overall support. As I write this, surveys from three major surveyors, ORB, ICM and YouGov, show the Leave campaign opening up a margin over Remain.

The Brexit debate is already affecting Ireland’s borrowing costs. The gap between Irish and German ten-year bond yields widened to almost 100 basis points this week, while this week, yields recorded their biggest daily jump since January — up 12 basis points at 0.95 per cent.

The markets are pricing in just how hard they think we’ll get whacked if the British vote to leave the European Union. The best case scenario would see Irish GDP fall by 1 per cent, with the worst case scenario seeing a 3 per cent drop.

That’s a huge drop in growth and living standards for Ireland, just when the economy looks like it is righting itself, with taxation revenues coming into line with expenditure, and a normalisation of spending patterns across the main areas of the economy, most households, firms, the government and the rest of the world. Only the banks remain impaired now, after their restructuring.

In Britain, the key variable separating each camp seems to be education. Those with more education are overwhelmingly for remaining, while those less educated are overwhelmingly for leaving the EU.
Continue reading

New bodies are there to prevent TDs from pledging too much

We have bankrupted the state three times since 1950. Each time the broad pattern was the same: an international shock depressed economic activity here and the state’s ability to fund itself through general taxes was compromised. National debt levels rose to plug the funding gap, and spending on redistributive programmes to help the weaker parts of society fell. The state’s ability to fund itself was not as strong as the people, or their government, thought.

Each time we’ve found that politicians can gain popularity by lowering taxes and increasing spending in the short run, only to find that promising everyone the Mater Private in their front garden and Croke Park in their back garden isn’t sustainable.

As I’ve written many times now in this column, we are back full circle to 2002, when unrealistic public expectations and a political system paralysed by the need to be popular is talking about spending more, and taxing less.

But there’s a difference this time. We have spending rules built into our Constitution, and a quango to monitor whether those rules are being observed.

We also have a much more analytically-driven civil service, which has tried to learn the lessons of the crisis by building much more analysis and data into its decisions.

Last week, the aforementioned quango, the Irish Fiscal Council, released its report showing that Ireland was technically in breach of its fiscal rules, and that tax-and-spend measures announced in the Programme for a Partnership Government aren’t costed. The language is firm but very clear.

Here’s a sample: “[The Programme for a Partnership Government] document does not reconcile the overall cost of the various policy proposals with an estimate of the resources that will be available in future years to fund new tax and spending measures.”

Can’t be much clearer than that.

The council is clear that exiting the ‘corrective’ arm of the fiscal rules Ireland has signed up to is a good thing, but tells us that the ‘preventative’ arm’s rules are quite a bit stricter, and so budget giveaways will be harder and harder to do.

Remember the context Ireland is within now. We have the fastest growing economy in Europe. Even stripping out some of the activities of multinationals and just looking at domestic demand for goods and services, we can see that Ireland is booming ahead. Unemployment is falling and employment is rising – everywhere across the country – and workers want wage increases and employers want tax cuts. Everyone wants their share of the recovery. It’s all back to normal.

In 2014, then minister for health Leo Varadkar gave a speech at the MacGill Summer School in which he said that, far from the people not trusting politicians, the politicians don’t trust the people. Varadkar wrote: “We tell them that you can have a school in every village, a university in every large town. And worse still, even if it is affordable, we do not trust people enough to tell them why it would not be a good idea. Routinely, in opposition, politicians promise the undeliverable and then, surprisingly, under-deliver.”

The fiscal council is designed to get around this problem – of having to promise too much to get elected, and then either delivering on promises you know are fiscally foolish or being flogged at the next election for failing to deliver them.

Frankfurt’s way, etc, etc.

Think how far our budgetary institutions have evolved. From Charlie McCreevy getting up on Budget Day in the early 2000s and announcing measures his own cabinet hadn’t heard of, to today’s fiscal council reports, Spring Statements, National Economic Dialogues, a Parliamentary Budget Committee, a Budget Office to cost the figures independently, and an agreed spending envelope by the public, a lot has changed in 15 years.

Despite the annoyance it generated during the election, ‘fiscal space’ is a well recognised academic idea dating to the 1990s, and the fact that the entire debate took place using broad parameters everyone serious agreed upon is a very good thing. We actually had a debate in Ireland, messy and all as it was, on whether to spend more on services, or give back more in tax cuts. The public chose the former in large numbers. They want a recovery in services.

The fiscal council estimates that, just to keep the show on the road, red-queen style, the government will need to spend another €6 billion to cope with demographic pressures, inflation pressures and more. And that’s just to stand still.

The fiscal council punctures the balloon of unrealistic expectations when it writes that despite the boom in our economy this year, we have seen “only a modest improvement in the public finances”.

It is only through rigorous and transparent analysis of where we actually are as a state that we can strengthen our finances to avoid the vicissitudes of another collapse. We are one of the most open economies on Earth. Every shock has the capacity to affect us. The state’s finances have not been able to cope three times before. Next time, if the warnings of bodies such as the fiscal council aren’t ignored, we just might avoid a fourth national crisis.

Life and death: At mercy of the market

Imagine a new drug has been invented that would save only one person, but which would take the entire health budget to administer it to them. Should you sanction the use of the drug? The pot of money is finite. All other resources will be diverted and stopped. Others will suffer, if not die, because of your decision. If you don’t give that person the new drug, they will die.

What would you choose?
Continue reading