March 26, 2006
Do you want to live in an Ireland with another million people, with traffic gridlock like Mexico City, where 20 per cent of the population are immigrants, where house prices are double or treble what they are today and where the suburbs stretch right across the country?
This is the Ireland envisaged by a new report published last week. The economists at NCB have done the rest of us a great favour with the publication of their comprehensive and fascinating view of Ireland in 2020. The authors, Dermot Oï¿½Brien and Eunan King, are credible, experienced professionals, not given to hyperbole.
They have painted a picture of the economy and society in 2020.
Some of the projections are startling.
For example, the population might rise by one million, and as many as one in five Irish people will be foreign immigrants.
They see enormous growth in cars on the roads and continued rapid increases in house building.
You can learn more about the economy from scanning the marriage, births and death columns than poring over many academic reports, because economics is about people. It is the study of families, baptisms, weddings and funerals. When demographics are positive and money is not scarce, little can stop the march of an economy.
The problem for most countries is that they rarely get this dream combination.
Sometimes they have great population growth but no cash, like the Congo; or loads of money, but no population growth, like Germany. The NCB team assumes that we will have both for the next 20 years.
If there is a flaw in the logic of the report, it is that the authors have decided that we are unlikely to experience an economic cycle for the next decade and a half.
Still, letï¿½s not nit-pick, because to do so would be to miss the central point of the report.
Letï¿½s assume NCB is right. What tensions will we have to deal with? What plans should we put in place? What would an Ireland with more than five million people look like? A lot more sallow, for starters.
We would be able to take the sun better.
The report envisages huge immigration in both historical and comparative terms.
The implication is that we may face serious social and racial tensions, where Chinese landlords evict black tenants and a displaced white Irish underclass votes for a 21st-century version of a National Socialist party that promises an Ireland for the Irish with a strong state.
One potentially hot issue touched on in the report is that the productivity of the average Irish worker is falling. As we move to a more service-related economy, productivity will decrease further. This means output per worker will lessen, which implies that wages have to fall relative to where they were before. In practice, this means that Irish and foreign workers will be working side by side on lower wages, causing resentment.
Yet different immigrants are likely to have different experiences. Recent history of Chinese migration indicates that they will prosper in business more quickly than others. South-east Asia is full of Chinese emigre billionaires. They are particularly well represented in the property business.
In Britain, the most successful recent immigrants are the Indians who were expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin. Time will tell what happens in Ireland, but itï¿½s interesting to speculate about who will be the New Irelandï¿½s Ugandan Indians.
The great Polish community of Chicago made its presence felt economically in the blue-collar trades, and it used this power to launch first generation politicians who agitated for the community. Might we have a second-generation Polish taoiseach in the decades ahead?
In contrast, if the experience in Britain and France is replicated here, Africans and Muslims could struggle economically.
That sense of alienation appears to heighten, rather than diminish, in the second and third generation.
Obviously, we are using very broad brush strokes here, and such racial stereotyping can be dangerous, but we need a framework and a point of reference – and where better to learn from than our neighboursï¿½ experiences?
It seems fair to conclude that such levels of immigration – over one fifth of the population – will cause some racial tensions.
The probable political implications are that either a new party will emerge with an ï¿½ï¿½Irish firstï¿½ï¿½ policy, or some sort of bar on free immigration will be introduced.
What about the practicalities? Where are people likely to live? While the NCB report shies away from this issue, the CSO attempted to answer the question in a fascinating publication last May when it confirmed what most of us privately suspected ï¿½ that Dublin between the canals will be a largely non-Irish zone by 2021.
During the same period, the white Irish middle classes will flee to the suburbs. We saw this pattern in the US during the 1970s and 1980s.Likewise, in Britain, immigrants are over-represented in central London and thin out as you head towards the M25.
This is described as the ï¿½ï¿½doughnut theoryï¿½ï¿½ in the US, whereby centres of the cities are left to immigrants, while the richer natives flee to the sanctuary of the suburbs for better schools, a perception of greater safety and, frankly, to ï¿½ï¿½be among their ownï¿½ï¿½.
This is the historic middle-class reaction to immigration. They donï¿½t riot – they trade up. The Central Statistics Office predicts that, by 2021,112,000 white Dubliners will move out (10 per cent of todayï¿½s population), to be replaced by 250,000 immigrants (25 per cent of todayï¿½s population).
Where will the natives go? The CSO forecasts that the region with the strongest growth will be the mid-east area: counties Offaly, Westmeath, Laois, Kilkenny and Carlow. The population of this region will increase by 51 per cent. Already, these are amongst the most fertile counties in the country. Their growing populations will be bolstered by unprecedented white-flight from Dublin.
While the CSO spoke of 250,000 new immigrants in Dublin, the NCB forecast suggested as many as three quarters of a million new immigrants. Are they to live outside the capital? And if so where? If we do not build new cities like Almeer in Holland or Milton Keynes in England, the implication is that provincial towns will absorb huge population increases in the years ahead. This has already happened.
Quite apart from the Dublin commuter belt, the 2002 census reveals a similar arc spanning a 40-mile radius around Galway, Cork and Limerick, where young families, both indigenous and immigrant, are nesting.
NCB implies in the report – by the car ownership figures that it predicts – that the government will not get its act together on public transport. NCB envisages an explosion in car ownership and suggests 200,000 new cars on our roads per year for the next ten years. Obviously, Mexico City is the model, as traffic and the commute times will reach intolerable levels.
The big question is whether this is the country you want to live in. What is the alternative?
Maybe itï¿½s time we reassessed the basis of our economic model. Is economic growth the objective in all cases, at all levels of income and for all people?
There is a discipline of economics called ï¿½ï¿½steady state economicsï¿½ï¿½ which questions the addiction to ï¿½ï¿½growthismï¿½ï¿½. It contends that gearing the economy – and, by extension, our lives, families and society – exclusively for growth is somewhat silly, given our present levels of wealth.
The NCB report offers a vision of the future. It is not the only vision, but it is the most likely outcome of our present policies and philosophies. Is this what you want?
Or have you even taken a break from the rat race to consider the future?