A very interesting concept whereby countries that generate surpluses end up causing poverty to its own people. Ireland being a great example of this. The Troika demand that goods and services generated, are exported all the while wage reduction and austerity are forced on the people.

The extreme form of what Adam Smith called a “folly” occurs when surpluses finance poverty and economic instability. Two infamous twentieth century examples were the German reparation payments after World War One, and the Latin American debt crisis in the 1980s and into the 1990s. In both cases, external powers pressured governments to generate trade surpluses in order make payments to foreign governments (in the case of Germany in the 1920s), or to foreign banks (the Latin American countries in the 1980s). The former led to Hitler and the latter to a generation of impoverishment.

In effect, these externally-imposed, government-generated surpluses take goods and services from residents and transfer them to foreign governments, banks and corporations. This type of trade surplus falls into the category of what Jagdish Bhagwati, the famous Indian economist (now at Columbia University), termed “immiserizing growth”, economic growth that generates poverty not improvement for a population. To put it simply, the country exports and the population grows poorer.

Armed with the ideas of “mercantilism” and “immiserizing growth”, we can have a look at the “Star Pupil”. The chart below shows why the Triad of the EC, IMF and German government (and the German opposition, it would appear) make Ireland the teacher’s pet. While the famous PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) languish in stagnation or plunge into decline, Irish GDP has increased, by 1.4 percent in 2011 and one percent in 2012. Not great, but looks good compared to decline. More important ideologically, the Triad assures us that this growth shows that “austerity works”. It shows the PIGS the shining path to recovery.

Here is the logic of the Troika

In case we missed it, the path to recovery runs along the following road. Austerity forces down wages, lowering production costs. Lower costs result in export competitiveness, and the growth of exports rejuvenates the economy as a whole. The rejuvenated growth reduces the fiscal deficit by raising tax revenue that can be used to pay foreign creditors. If the residents in the PIGS would show the discipline of the Irish, the euro crisis would soon end.

Who benefits from Ireland’s surplus?

The exposé of this ideological story would not be complete without pointing to the recipients of the Irish export surplus, the major banks in Europe that hold the debt of the Emerald Isle.

Even if by some miracle a mega-importer appeared on the world horizon (think China), the Irish path would still represent a road to misery. The chart below shows three economic trends since 2001. Unemployment rose continuously after 2007 in the land of the star pupil, with economic growth brining no reversal (measured in percentage of the labor force on the left). This rising unemployment rate went along with increasing exports per capita, from less than six thousand dollars per head in 2007 to over eleven thousand in 2011-2012 (measured on the right hand vertical axis).

While exports per head increased, domestic national income per person, total national income minus the trade surplus, declined, from $35,000 in 2007 to 25,000 in 2012, a drop of one-third. Domestic income per head declined in both the years of positive GDP growth. This appalling redistribution from the Irish to the European 1%, aka a trade surplus, was not the result of austerity reducing labor costs. For over twenty years Ireland ran a continuous annual trade surplus with no austerity to “lower costs” Under austerity imports contracted in Ireland because of falling incomes of the 99%.

Ireland, the Star Pupil of Immiserizing Growth, 2001-2012


This is Bhagwati’s “immiserizing growth” in real time, unrequited transfer abroad of almost a third of national income. The star pupil fails the test of a decent society, to protect the welfare of its people. And if the cause does not jump off the page, have a look at the final diagram. The vertical axis measures Ireland’s export surplus per capita, and the horizontal one measures domestic income per capita (GDP minus the export surplus). From 2001 through 2004, more exports per person went along with more domestic income per person. Then came the bad news, more exports, less left over for the Irish population to consume and invest.

Ireland may be the star pupil, but for the sake of the 99% its government needs to find different teachers and perhaps drop out of school.

Ireland, Star Student of Export-led Impoverishment, 2011-2012 (thousands of dollars)



Source: social-europe