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Imagining a different society

Posted on December 05, 2014 by Tom Healy

Tom Healy, Director NERI
Tom Healy, Director NERI

Recent debates about politics, water charges, tax cuts and austerity have focussed on the short-term and how we can get out of the economic slump. This is understandable. Now we need a conversation in Ireland about our long-term goal and how the policies and goals of the immediate months ahead relate to our long-term objectives.

To avoid the terrible mistakes of the past we need to learn how to do things differently. This impacts on economic policy in areas such as inequality, incomes, financial regulation, industrial democracy and the growth of Irish owned enterprises in exports markets.  Some of these fundamental goals will take many decades to fully realise. But the work begins here.

Were we to try and imagine, back in 1984, what Ireland, Europe and the world would look like thirty years later in 2014 we would never have guessed it – a peace process in Northern Ireland, the fall of the wall in Central Europe, the spread of internet technology, email, smartphones, the celtic tiger, the crash of 2008 and even the recent tentative signs of economic recovery. 

We need to imagine an Ireland in 2044 which is more prosperous, fairer and more sustainable. It would be hard for anyone to disagree with this. But, what would this mean and how exactly would we achieve it? These are not idle questions. Already, there is pressure to reduce taxes on the highest income earners, to continue a policy of outsourcing in the public service and to allow the market to determine house prices to take off again and rents to rise to astronomic levels.

A social vision for the next thirty years needs to be linked to a strategy for the short-term (the next 12 to 24 months), the medium-term (the next 5 to 10 years) and the long-term (the next 30 years). The focus of public policy must be on raising human well-being through more and better jobs, a growing but sustainable economy, stronger dynamic and exporting Irish firms including small and medium-sized businesses, more democracy in enterprises with workers and other stakeholders have a say and a stronger public service with education, health and accommodation seen as human rights and goods and not as commodities to be traded and restricted on the basis of ability to pay.

In other words: an economy that works for a society and a society that puts human well-being of all its citizens at the centre. This is the goal of trade unions throughout the world and was achieved with some partial success in the Scandinavian countries especially in the years following World War II. Today, there are examples and signs of good social policies in many European countries and further afield in South America. There is no perfect example or social model anywhere and never will be. However, we can aspire and strive to avoid the mistakes of the past and improve conditions for the future by attending to what needs to be done now.

To make this possible we need a different model of development in which the state plays a key supportive role especially in the area of credit and banking. A separate retail and investment banking structure is needed in which there is place for a publicly-owned bank to provide a secure place for savers and a means of prudential lending to households and small businesses. We have something to learn from other small European countries with systems of national innovation and industrial support that targets key markets, new products and services and links new skills and emerging enterprises (e.g. Finland).

Societies need to:

-          invest in people, communities, enterprises and public goods and services;

-          achieve a fair and equitable distribution of income including a living wage floor for families and individual workers; and

-          raise the importance of a ‘social wage’ funded and paid for by adequate taxes and social insurance contributions where everyone contributes but fairly and in proportion to their means.

Ultimately, the choice is whether we are serious about what needs to be done to build a better world for our children and our children’s children.

Digital Revolutionaries