Bus Éireann should be let go to the wall. An Post should not.

In this column two weeks ago I argued Bus Éireann should be shut down. Sixteen years of data convinced me the organisation did not deserve the taxpayer’s largesse. Bus Éireann did not pass a simple test: should the state intervene to save it? Competition, not austerity, had sunk its fortunes. Its highly-paid management should be fired, and its staff reassigned or made redundant.

Take the public service obligation routes and school bus businesses into the state proper, or put them out to more than 8,000 privately contracted buses, and let the workers find alternative employment. A harsh call, to be sure, but neither blithe, nor driven by ideology.

Another semi-state faces exactly the same problem this week. The public policy disaster du jour is An Post. The question - should the state intervene - is the same as it was two weeks ago. And here the facts are entirely different.

Not only should An Post see the government reaffirm its commitment to a public mail and financial services network, that commitment should be expanded, and regulations holding An Post back should be removed. Why do I have two different opinions? Well, I examined the facts.

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A month with the MacBook Pro

This is a quick update to the the previous post about getting a new MacBook Pro. So far three things have happened that people considering the purchase might be interested in.

  1. The keyboard has only gotten better over time. So much better, in fact, that I’m typing more and for longer (I have pretty poor wrists) and I have not been able to use the removable keyboard and trackpad I had for my office, as they were no longer comfortable. As a result my large screen, wireless keyboard, and trackpad, are all sitting on my filling cabinet.
  2. The battery is definitely worse than my MacBook Air’s, but not enough to make me want to return it. I’ll get 7-8 hours if I’m really careful, or 5-6 if I’m not. This is a bummer because it means I must carry the charger around everywhere I go, which increases weight somewhat.
  3. There is, so far as I can see, no downside to the ‘dongle life’. I have one (the VGA adapter) and it handles everything I’ve needed so far. The Hyper one I bought to connect to my screen is sitting on top of the screen, on my filing cabinet.

Governing is about making decisions. Sometimes those decisions are life and death

Ultimately, governing is choosing the best option for society given many competing alternatives and scarce resources. What is best for society might not be best for individual groups within society, however. When you are about to decide to harm a section of the population by action, or inaction, you need robust evidence. And how robust is that evidence? How do you evaluate an emotional claim?

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic condition that affects sufferers’ lungs and digestive systems. About 70,000 people worldwide have it. Ireland’s 1,200 cystic fibrosis sufferers have lobbied for years for specific treatments from the state, with some notable successes including specialised hospital facilities, and some treatments.

In each case, the taxpayer, via the state, comes to the rescue of a group of citizens whose only fault was to be born. This is correct and right. The price you pay with your taxes is not just social services. It is also civilisation. So my taxes help you, and your taxes help me. Very often we forget this important circularity when discussing individual issues such as public sector pay or universal social charges.

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Invested: 2017 An economic odyssey

We still live in the shadow of the global financial crisis of 2008. Investors need to be clear about this in order to prosper.

Countries that have failed to recover their previous dynamism have not grown. Economic growth allows the redistribution of more of the fruits of growth to those closer to the bottom of the income distribution. The government taxes those who have done well and transfers it down the income distribution in the form of health, education and social protection expenditure.

Without that redistribution, living standards stagnate and resentment builds. Populists exploit this resentment by lying through their teeth about their ability to deliver more growth and less inequality.

In the past, the ‘elites’ could be relied upon to fatten their own purses first and redistribute second. Without redistribution, typically via the tax system, the people see the purse-fattening much more clearly.

Which brings me back to the global financial crisis. People aren’t stupid. Before the crisis, they see those above them in the pecking order doing very well indeed. Then they see those above them make the most appalling mistakes as the crisis unfolds. And then, once the crisis has happened, they see . . . nothing. Nothing happens. Those above them keep their jobs, their living standards stay high, either because they receive golden parachutes, or they just stay where they are. In a paroxysm of bluster, denial and moral hazard, the system just keeps going.

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Will robots eat your job? @ryanavent's snapshot of a global economy in flux

Review of 'The Wealth of Humans', By Ryan Avent, Penguin, €19

Will robots eat your job? Will your kids have higher standards of living than you, in an age where there are too many workers and too much savings, when technological change makes the jobs many people do obsolete? When their citizens see their jobs disappearing due to international competition or technological change, how will politicians react? Will we see an increase in globalisation or a series of Brexits to re-nationalise the global economy?

Ryan Avent’s new book The Wealth of Humans takes us through the arguments around the digital revolution, the development of the world economy and the very notion of work and wealth in a new post-scarcity age.

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Profile Mark Carney: The Guv’nor


Age: 51

Appearance: urbane, besuited and calm

Newsworthiness: the British media turns on the only steady hand in the post-Brexit confusion

Oh, the irony. After the Brexit result of June 23, as the leadership of both the Conservative and Labour parties imploded, the person who stepped up to save the system was a Canadian. An immigrant! Taking a British job! In fact, the first immigrant to hold the governorship of the Bank of England in its 322-year history. As the system flailed and sterling’s value collapsed, Mark Carney calmly allocated £250 billion to steady the markets, and promised more should it be required.

In a series of speeches over the next ten days, Carney laid out the fundamental issues with respect to Brexit — uncertainty, economic damage, the loss of Britain’s position as a global power — and provided leadership when none was forthcoming from a political class which, to its eternal shame, did not do its job. He said: “At times of great uncertainty, households, businesses and investors ask basic economic questions. Will inflation remain under control? Will the financial system do its job? Will I keep mine?”

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Budget 2017: What's in it for us?

Budgets are all about context. They can’t be understood without a sense of the political situation the government of the day finds itself in, or without a good sense of the state of the international economy. Be assured the government has a good sense of both, if not a sure sense of how to deal with either.

Ministers are far from the disconnected, remote beings bombing around in the back of Mercs they are often caricatured as. It’s closer to the truth to say being a minister makes you hyper-connected. They hear many, many things. Everyone wants a word with them. Everyone has a request or three. Officials fill their heads with analysis of all kinds, and of course, they all read the papers to find out what people are saying about them.

The political situation means the government must solve a constrained optimisation problem, where the constraints are the availability of funds from taxation, the fiscal rules, the needs of three coalition parties, and the expectations of the public. The optimum those crafting the budget needed to reach is the stability required to rule, rather than the maximum welfare of citizens.

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Budget 2017: Will Noonan raid the sweet shop at last?

It’s not a fiscal space - it’s a sweetie space

Sweeties for all. The good times have returned, total domestic demand is forecast to grow by 3.5 per cent in 2017, and everyone seems to have forgotten that the country needs to to borrow to keep the lights on, that only three or four years ago we were in a troika bailout programme, and that the structure of our society has changed markedly since the early 2000s, when sweetie-giving became the order of the fiscal day.

Ireland is almost unique in the developed world in the way it does its fiscal planning. The process is: figure out roughly how much tax you’ll have by budget day, listen to lobbyists, float possible policies suggested by lobbyists through the media, and then do a big announcement in the Dáil, but only after handing the entire budget over to the media, thus making the Oireachtas completely redundant, except as an audience for your big speech and a rubberstamp to the Finance Bill a month or so later. No scrutiny beforehand is allowed.

This process is completely bonkers. It results in policy madness like decentralisation in the 2000s and the abolition of water rates in the late 1970s, and it has to be thrown in the deepest part of the sea, preferably after being set on fire for quite some time beforehand. It is the core of the process which has bankrupted our state three times since independence. It has got to go.

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Households can give Dublin Bus no more

Tom Waits is always right. The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away. Let’s look at the small print of the Dublin Bus pay dispute by going through the company’s annual accounts from 2008 to 2015.

(You can learn a lot from annual accounts, including how they are presented. Every year since 2008, Dublin Bus has really, really wanted you to know that some of their bus drivers are women, for example. There are pictures of female bus drivers everywhere. But I digress.)

First, the large print: Dublin Bus workers are striking in search of higher wage increases than the 8.25 per cent offered to them over several years by Dublin Bus in previous pay talks. They want 15 per cent to 21 per cent wage increases over several years. The strikes are expected to replicate the recent Luas driver disputes, in that they seek maximum disruption for maximum negotiating leverage. This behaviour pisses off customers, of course, but that is the nature of strike actions everywhere, all the time.

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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.

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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.

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My bloody Valentine

Some call economics the science of self interest. When he was six, my son Cillian wrote Valentine’s Day cards to the person he loved the most: himself. My wife Elke and I thought that perhaps he didn’t really understand the premise of the cards, and sat him down, using our best patient-parent voices to get the kid to see the truth of things.

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