Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ireland: Oasis for American multinationals, desert for Irish workers

From last Sunday's NY times, opinion write Fintan O'Toole discusses life in Ireland, after it first gorged on a panoply of tax reforms meant to lure in multinationals, and then starved under austerity under financial crisis. Of note:
...Ireland has two economies: a global one dominated by American high-tech companies, and a domestic one in which most Irish workers have to make their living. The first is indeed booming. Not least because of those low corporate taxes, large global corporations find Dublin convivial for reasons other than its pubs and night life. The sheer scale of Ireland’s dependence on this kind of investment for its exports can be judged by the fact that Irish gross domestic product took a serious hit in 2013 when Viagra (which is made by Pfizer in County Cork) went off patent in Europe. Broadly speaking, however, the global side of the Irish economy has remained robust. 
But home is where the heartache is: in the domestic economy outside the gated community of high-tech multinationals. Outside Dublin, property prices are still falling. Wages for most workers have dropped sharply. Unemployment remains very high at 12.8 percent — and that figure would be higher if not for emigration. There’s always been a simple way to measure how well Ireland is doing: Go to the ports and airports after the Christmas vacation and count the young people waving goodbye to their parents as they head off to the United States, Canada, Australia or Britain, where they have gone to find work and opportunity. 
...[People in Ireland] are not convinced that the cruel scale of the punishment was necessary or that the nasty medicine has, in fact, worked. 
Behind both of these propositions looms the great contradiction in the supposed success story of Irish austerity. It was austerity only for citizens. Running parallel to all the cuts in public spending and all the calls for fiscal responsibility has been a program of spending so lavish that it makes a drunken sailor look stingy. 
The converse proposition is that when it comes to contributing to the mechanisms of the state--rule of law, infrastructure, educated workforce, etc etc, which fully support those multinational gated communities--the state looks primarily to workers to do the bulk of the heavy lifting, in the form of personal income taxes (41% at the top) and consumption taxes (23% on most goods). But Ireland is not alone in this political decision.

The story of feasts for corporations, famine for workers is a familiar one, and the trade off is supposed to be the positive externalities corporations bring. In other words, the political tradeoff that politicians think they are making goes as follows: we can give up our tax on corporate income if that lures more corporations into our jurisdictions which then hire our workers, whom we can then tax on their incomes and then again on their consumption, to pay for luring in more corporations, in a virtuous cycle. O'Toole's column strongly suggests that the externalities are not anywhere near what was expected or would be needed to continue the virtuous cycle.

The problem for the state is that the owners of corporate capital have received their benefit up front, but when they do not produce their side of the equation in exchange, there is no way for government to demand a refund.

Thus we can add Ireland's story to the multiple examples that exist in various iterations of it around the world, including for example the constant intra- and inter-state fights to lure in manufacturers, filmmakers, and sports teams. Maybe governments should be thinking about adding a carve-back clause to the fiscal bargain that creates oases for bargain-seeking multinationals, which would disgorge untaxed profits when it is clear a party to a tax incentive-fueled deal is not bringing what they said they would or could.

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