Peadar Kirby: The focus of public attention and debate on recession and cutbacks at the moment indicates the extreme poverty of public discourse in this country. Essentially it confirms that at the heart of our current crisis is a crisis of ideas and imagination. Those academics contributing to the debate seem to be vying with one another in describing the cuts in living standards facing us all (though, of course, those whose actions created the bubble economy have so far not suffered in any direct way at all), but few are offering a way forward beyond the vacuous mantra of ‘competitiveness’.
A number of key debates are urgently needed:
1) What sort of state do we want? All attention so far has been focused on cutbacks to the current state apparatus – through the actions of the so-called An Bord Snip Nua, through public spending cuts and through cuts to the incomes of all public employees. But this begs the question of devising an agenda for reform of the state, fashioning a state that can effectively carry out the tasks that are required of it. Indeed, it needs to be acknowledged that the Irish state is constantly managing crises and has developed very little ability to plan proactively across the range of public policy areas.
2) Answering what sort of state we want requires us to debate how the state and the market should relate to one another: in other words what is the role of the state in configuring the market for social development and how should the state play that role? This raises another set of very important issues which most Irish economists seem completely unable to address because of their neo-classical training.
3) Setting the context for economic and social recovery: commentary on our current situation fails most of the time to take any account of the fact that decisions in Copenhagen in December will require us to reduce carbon emissions very substantially and very fast. The only way we are addressing this is through presenting the ‘green economy’ as a possible source of new jobs. Yet, while this is true, there is no chance whatsoever that we can achieve anything like the necessary cuts in carbon emissions by that means alone; huge changes in how we source our food and drink, in our patterns of mobility, in our sources and uses of energy will also be required.
If we could begin debating these wider issues, realising that some attempt to return to a growth paradigm within the petrochemical economy is simply not an option if we are going to survive as a species, we might free the imagination and generate some really creative thinking about what future we can build for ourselves.
Professor Peadar Kirby teaches at the University of Limerick