Friday 6 December 2019

Getting to the root of our big questions

Ireland's Malaise €16.99, The Liffey Press

THIS surprisingly readable book asks a lot of questions and has the courage not to answer them.

Written by Michael Casey, a former Central Bank economist, the style is light and the subject matter wide ranging. Casey's main preoccupation is the personality of the Irish economy and how Ireland and the Irish economy differs from other countries and their economies.

Casey's three years with the International Monetary Fund in Washington appear to have left him with a healthy and sceptical view of economic models invented by US economists and their applicability outside America.

Ireland has a small, open economy dominated by foreign companies; while the US has a large, closed economy dominated by domestic companies, he notes. These differences mean that US theories do not transfer to Ireland easily. The question of national character is so delicate and so difficult to capture that most analysts prefer to ignore it.

This is a pity because no honest debate about relative performance can afford to ignore such an important topic. Casey's book tackles this subject head on and, while most readers will disagree at times, Casey deserves credit for asking important questions.

However, some of Casey's observations verge on the bizarre. One example, presented without any evidence, is his contention that the women have been promoted in the civil service because their male counterparts believed that TDs would not give women a rough time during Oireachtas committees.

Having sat through innumerable Oireachtas committees and Central Bank briefings this reviewer can only observe that he has never seen a senior female civil servant answer any questions in the Dail and never seen a woman on the top floor of the Central Bank other than the receptionists, so Casey's unproven contention seems unlikely at best. The book's cover is almost childishly bad but this is a worthwhile book, written by someone who has seen policy making close up.

The conclusion -- that we could do better if we change everything -- reads rather like a trite Hollywood ending and one doubts that Casey really believes it. In any case, it is about as useful as telling somebody that he could play hurling like Henry Shefflin if only he exercised more, improved his hand-eye co-ordination and developed a more determined personality. All true but not much help.

Thomas Molloy

Irish Independent

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