Ok..this is going to annoy everyone I suspect…
One of the things that strikes me about the debate in Ireland is the fundamental misunderstanding that exists about the public sector.
There is a large constituency of people who exhibit tendencies in their discourse that suggests that any wage over zero is too high – these are the die-hards whose discourse is a toxic mixture of ideology jealousy and half remembered catchphrases gleaned from too much Fox News. Small government via starving society of essential services or else making the workers therein so impoverished that they are amenable to bribery works so well in so many places…
There is another large, overlapping but discrete, group who suggest that while of course the government should have a role in the economy it should confine itself to capital and not current spending – far be it from me to suggest that many of these are private sector rent seekers who will cheerfully take the government (taxpayer) cash and spend it on whatever madcap idea has come to mind by a an unholy combination of bureaucrats chasing what they think is going to make ireland rich and vested interests seeking warmer vests, regardless of how low the total ROI will be
Then there is a group, again discrete, who urge us to “scrap croke park” (a football stadium cum conference center and also a totemic 2009 agreement between the government and public sector unions to keep nominal wages uncut in exchange for productivity and other gains), regardless of the fact that such cuts a) will, given higher fiscal multipliers in recessions, exacerbate an already bad domestic demand position, b) will in any case be utterly incapable, the downstream effects of a) ignored, of making a massive dent in the deficit and c) will result in a massive industrial relations mess.
Finally, we have the public sector unions, now moderatly cowed but who have over the years taken advantage of the supine and spineless political system to extract massive rent. Most public sector union leaders in Ireland have beards, for some reason.
I spoke recently to a representative of the first/third group, who urged me to brace for a 40% pay cut “like the private sector has had” via the immenent (wished for?) scrapping of the agreement. Hmmmm. Not quite true… Here is a graph of public/private sector average hourly wages and total employment over the last while. One of the things we want, those of us who dont deem all public servants inherent spongers (or is that the people on welfare? cant ever remember) is that government act to stabilize and smooth out the economic cycle. You dont have to be an unreconstructed keynesian (or even Paul Krugman) to think that smoother cycles are perhaps preferable to more jagged ones.
Both Public and Private wages have remained remarkably constant, or it would be remarkable if we didnt recognize that nominal wage rigidity (the empirical fact that people usually dont get/take/accept reductions in nominal wage packets) is the norm even in distressed sectors. We also see that the government employment total has declined slowly – taken together this is what we would WANT to see, that government act to keep its injection into the economy smooth. Of course this is not, for the more thinking and conscious, a problem (for the reflexive “small government is good and therefore smaller is better so zero must be optimal” merchants this is a heresy) and acts to ensure that the government is doing its job. The adjustment in ireland has been in the fall in private sector employment. But it has not been in private sector wages.
The problem in Ireland lies in the fact that there is a significant wedge beween public and private wages. Normal economics would suggest that , all other things being equal, having a permanent defined benefit pensionable job would allow people to take lower wages than those in comparable employment who have less security of tenure and less certain pension. But the opposite is the case here, as over decades governments bought industrial peace and election by generous wage increases.
A significant part of the wedge in pay (lets table the pension issue and how much that would cost to fund) can be explained by on average higher qualifications and greater experience in the public sector. While the government have announced new lower pay scales and less generous pensions for new public sector entrants , it is not clear that they can or should or will do anything for those (like me) who are already in the system. Amongst other things while there has been significant forbearance in relation to industrial relations cutting nominal pay would result in this evaporating. There would be legal difficulty and the certainty of challenges in moving existing pensioners or even those with a reasonable expectation of their pension entitlements to a less generous system, and at least in the university and internationally tradable sectors of the public sector we would face an accelerated brain drain. And yes, there is one of those – right now it is hard to hire lecturers in Ireland, paying at the bottom of the scale which overlaps with the UK pay scales. It might come as a shock to UK academics but their prospects are positively rosy in comparison to here. And of course removing several billions at one fell swoop from the pay bill will not magic jobs up for the unemployed but will instead add to their numbers (larger negative shock multipliers are so nasty), while also adding to the hole in the (state owned, supported and money absorbing ) banks from foolish mortgage lending.
Its a mess – there are no simple solutions and no lack of simplistic ones.