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Senator defends President Michael D Higgins after economists’ disparaging speech – The Irish Times

Senator defends President Michael D Higgins after economists' disparaging speech - The Irish Times

In a reception for think tank Tasc, Michael D Higgins condemned “neoliberalism” and urged the country to “rebalance economics, ecology and ethics.”

Labor senator and economist Marie Sherlock has defended President Michael D Higgins after a number of economists denounced a speech he gave last week, questioning an “obsession” with economic growth and criticizing college economics education.

“The response from economists is not surprising,” says Ms Sherlock, who has an MPhil in economics from the University of Cambridge. “Most economists here are not rooted in ecological economics, which states that there is a limit to consumption growth… The president is making a fundamental point about growth for growth’s sake. For the past three decades, we have known that unrestrained growth in certain sectors, such as manufacturing and fuel extraction, has enormous environmental and social costs for communities. It is the state that must pay for the health, water and other damage done to those communities.”

However, she acknowledged that “no economic growth in a country like Ireland, which is so dependent on trade, is not an option”.

In a speech Friday in Áras an Uachtaráin, President Higgins criticized the “obsession” with economic growth and made several cutting remarks about economists and the teaching of the subject in universities.

“A fixation on narrowly defined efficiency, productivity, continued growth has resulted in a discipline that has blinders on the ecological challenge – the ecological catastrophe – we now face. That narrow focus forms an empty economy that has lost touch with all that makes sense, a social science that is no longer connected, or even tries to be, with the social issues and goals for which it has been developed over centuries. It is incapable of providing solutions to the blatant inadequacy of provision with regard to the needs of the public, devoid of vision.”

Several economists reacted sharply to the president’s criticism this weekend.

Speaking to the Business Post, Limerick economics professor Stephen Kinsella said the president is “criticizing an economy that existed in the 1970s before I was born”.

UCC’s Seamus Coffey said that since President Higgins “has shown no interest in how economics is taught, I don’t see the point in getting into what he has to say about this”.

Others were more practical in their criticism of the president’s remarks.

“Give us a decade of zero growth and see how that plays out,” said economist Jim Power.

Others found the president’s speech—a typically dense composition, dotted with references to thinkers and political philosophers—impenetrable.

“I can’t understand half of what was in the speech and I’m a political economist,” UL economic historian Ciarán Casey told the Business Post. “If you are going to criticize, make it understandable to people.”

Ára’s reaction

A spokesman for President Higgins told The Irish Times that in his remarks on Friday, the president continued his “consideration of the necessary link between economics, social policy, ethics and ecology. In doing so, the president is aware of the different contexts in which these ideas must be addressed. For example, he recently delivered two papers on food security in Senegal, in which he discussed their specific circumstances.

“In Friday’s speech, President Higgins stressed the importance of ensuring that policymaking takes into account and is informed by, not just indicators such as GDP [gross domestic product] growth or the necessary economic analyses, but the wider social and environmental needs of both Irish society and wider humanity in different circumstances.

“Key to the development of all disciplines, including any of the social sciences, is constant reflection on practice and training to ensure it is fit for the major challenges we face. In his speech, President Higgins specifically highlighted the progress made in the study of economics over the past 15 years and highlighted the work of some leading economists in this regard.

“The president welcomes the strong work being done in the economics departments of many of our universities and hopes that the debate his remarks have provoked will help ensure that the broadest range of considerations – economic, environmental, ethical and societal – is considered in the process of policy making. The president is confident that economics students are at the forefront of welcoming critical thinking into their courses.”

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