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25 September 2008 Edition

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‘Economic Development’ – 50 years on

THIS year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of TK Whitaker’s influential book, Economic Development. To mark the occasion, the Institute of Public Administration and the Department of Finance held a one-day conference on 19 September in Dublin Castle.
The event was not only a celebration of the contribution of one of the state’s most influential civil servants but a reflection on an economic policy recognised as providing the intellectual origins of the Celtic Tiger.
Speakers included Government ministers, former taoisigh, senior civil servants and high-level academics. The €395 entrance fee ensured that the audience was as high-powered as the contributors.
Much of the discussion focused on the content of Economic Development: the need to increase competitiveness; the importance of export-orientated growth strategies; the prioritisation of productive over social investment during leaner times; the value of flexibility and adaptability; and the centrality of low taxation, low wages and fiscal responsibility.
What was the message of the day? Fifty years on, the lessons of TK Whitaker are to be found in the substance of Economic Development, a return to which will see us through the hard times and lead us back to the path of growth and prosperity.
The problem with this message is that it ignores the fundamental difference between the 1950s and today. When Whitaker was drafting Economic Development the most pressing policy problem facing the state was how to achieve economic growth.
Fifty years on, the problem is different. The last two decades have demonstrated that sustained economic growth is an achievable objective.  However, the Celtic Tiger model of economic development comes at a price.
Today, 720,000 people across the state live in relative poverty, 292,000 living in consistent poverty.  Meanwhile, the Celtic Tiger has produced 33,000 millionaires, not counting the cost of their family home.
And yet 5,000 people continue to experience homelessness while 270,000 homes lie idle across the state. 
Most shockingly, as revealed by the Institute of Public Health, 5,400 people die prematurely each year in Ireland as a result of poverty and inequality.
If achieving economic growth was the great challenge of the 1950s, today it is developing a model of development that secures both economic prosperity and social equality.
A return to the substance of Economic Development, an approach clearly favoured by those in Dublin Castle last week, will do nothing to address this challenge.
Despite this, we should not abandon TK Whitaker. Rather we should embrace the spirit that informed Economic Development.  Reflecting on the 1950s, Whitaker talked about how he felt need to “take a more critical approach” to economic policy and to develop “new policy orientations” as “change was necessary and urgent”.
Embracing this spirit today would lead us to challenge the prevailing status quo and to break through the conservative economic consensus that dominates political, academic and civil service thinking.
Doing so would enable us to break out of the straightjacket of narrowly-defined economic competitiveness and develop new solutions to the pressing problems of our time.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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