© Catherine Scott

David Thunder: Time to Put Quality of Life at the Heart of Our Economic Policies

According to a new report issued this month by property website Daft.ie, the number of properties available for rent in the Republic of Ireland is now at its lowest level ever recorded (in a time series starting in 2006), while average rents in Dublin are now double what they were in 2011.

These are just the latest symptoms of the dysfunctionality of Ireland’s fast-growing economy. Other warning signs are included in a report by the National Competitiveness Council issued earlier this year, which points to a rising cost of living, prohibitively high childcare costs, increasing traffic congestion in Irish cities, increasing commute times for many Irish workers, and house prices over nine times the average annual earnings.

It is worth recalling that all of these dysfunctions are being produced by a country with an impressive rate of economic growth (6.7% in 2018) and an enviably low unemployment rate (just 5.3% in 2018).

This puts the lie to the lazy assumption that economic growth and investment will automatically bring prosperity in their train. Indeed, if there is anything our recent history should have taught us, it is that boosting economic production and investment does not guarantee overall prosperity, and may even become a curse, if our national and local services and infrastructure fail to keep pace with a fast growing population.

The uncomfortable truth that politicians and policymakers have not prepared us for is that high levels of economic investment, employment, and production now go hand in hand with a declining quality of life for many citizens, who find themselves compelled to squander their savings on exorbitant rent, or make insanely long commutes to work, not to mention the estimated 10,000 who now find themselves homeless.

These sobering facts should be reason enough to rethink the relevance of conventional indicators of economic progress as measures of overall prosperity.

If we want to think clearly about how to promote prosperity, then we need to move away from reductive, GDP-led approaches, toward an approach that puts sustainability and quality of life at the very heart of economic and social development. Only by focusing on enhanced quality of life and sustainable development as the target output of a sound economy, can we begin to tackle the pathologies of bloated, unsustainable economic growth.

Government spokespersons should spend less time bragging about GDP, falling unemployment, international investment, and increased tax returns, and more time showing how the national government, in tandem with local authorities, plans to promote forms of economic development that boost present and future generations’ overall quality of life, and ensure a proper balance between the expansion of our workforce and the expansion of housing and public services.

What matters far more than traditional quantitative indicators of economic growth, is whether people in Ireland can live a flourishing and meaningful life, and pass it on to their children and children’s children.

What is a flourishing and meaningful life? Obviously, everyone will answer that question in his or her own way. However, it typically includes feeling accepted within a supportive and respectful community, participating in a society blessed with high levels of security, trust and social cooperation; as well as having a warm and welcoming home, a physical environment one can be proud of passing onto one’s children, quality time with one’s loved ones, opportunities to develop some minimally fulfilling line of work, opportunities to earn a sufficient income to live a dignified life, and access to decent and affordable healthcare.

Obviously, economic growth can contribute in important ways to our quality of life. However, our recent history is a bitter reminder that high levels of employment and economic production may actually coexist with, or even perversely contribute to, a decline in people’s overall quality of life.

That is because quality of life is the outcome of a delicate blend of variables, many non-economic in character, including the quality of management of public services, care for the environment, the equity and efficiency of housing policies, the successful integration of first and second generation immigrants, the quality of education from infancy to adulthood, and the quality of family and community relationships.

Economic and social policies focused on quality of life and sustainable development would aim to support a balanced spread of international, national, and local investment, promote even regional and urban development, protect the environment, and ensure that economic expansion does not far outpace our housing and services infrastructure, so that the country can offer a decent and sustainable way of life to citizens as well as recent immigrants, both in urban and rural Ireland.

Chasing indiscriminately after foreign investment, or indefinitely expanding the workforce, without ensuring the necessary adjustments to the country’s housing and public services infrastructure, will only harm our quality of life in the long run, and make Ireland a less attractive place to live for anyone but high earners.

Thinking of a prosperous society in a more holistic manner, as a question of present and future generations’ access to opportunities to live meaningful and flourishing lives, rather than reductively in terms of economic production or average household income, would not make our economic and social problems any less daunting. But it would surely be a more lucid and promising starting-point for developing sound public policies than our current obsession with GDP.

David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain. Twitter: @davidjthunder

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