28 August 2006

What’s behind Ireland’s economic miracle—and G.M.’s financial crisis?

A insightful article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker on how examining the ratio of workers to non-workers portends national economic wellness.
America's private pension system is now in crisis. Over the past few years, American taxpayers have been put at risk of assuming tens of billions of dollars of pension liabilities from once profitable companies. Hundreds of thousands of retired steelworkers and airline employees have seen health-care benefits that were promised to them by their employers vanish. General Motors, the country's largest automaker, is between forty and fifty billion dollars behind in the money it needs to fulfill its health-care and pension promises. This crisis is sometimes portrayed as the result of corporate America's excessive generosity in making promises to its workers. But when it comes to retirement, health, disability, and unemployment benefits there is nothing exceptional about the United States: it is average among industrialized countries — more generous than Australia, Canada, Ireland, and Italy, just behind Finland and the United Kingdom, and on a par with the Netherlands and Denmark. The difference is that in most countries the government, or large groups of companies, provides pensions and health insurance. The United States, by contrast, has over the past fifty years followed the lead of Charlie Wilson and the bosses of Toledo and made individual companies responsible for the care of their retirees. It is this fact, as much as any other, that explains the current crisis. In 1950, Charlie Wilson was wrong, and Walter Reuther was right.

The key to understanding the pension business is something called the "dependency ratio", and dependency ratios are best understood in the context of countries. In the past two decades, for instance, Ireland has gone from being one of the most economically backward countries in Western Europe to being one of the strongest: its growth rate has been roughly double that of the rest of Europe. There is no shortage of conventional explanations. Ireland joined the European Union. It opened up its markets. It invested well in education and economic infrastructure. It's a politically stable country with a sophisticated, mobile workforce.

But, as the Harvard economists David Bloom and David Canning suggest in their study of the Celtic Tiger, of greater importance may have been a singular demographic fact. In 1979, restrictions on contraception that had been in place since Ireland's founding were lifted, and the birth rate began to fall. In 1970, the average Irishwoman had 3.9 children. By the mid-nineteen-nineties, that number was less than two. As a result, when the Irish children born in the nineteen-sixties hit the workforce, there weren't a lot of children in the generation just behind them. Ireland was suddenly free of the enormous social cost of supporting and educating and caring for a large dependent population. It was like a family of four in which, all of a sudden, the elder child is old enough to take care of her little brother and the mother can rejoin the workforce. Overnight, that family doubles its number of breadwinners and becomes much better off.

This relation between the number of people who aren't of working age and the number of people who are is captured in the dependency ratio. In Ireland during the sixties, when contraception was illegal, there were ten people who were too old or too young to work for every fourteen people in a position to earn a paycheck. That meant that the country was spending a large percentage of its resources on caring for the young and the old. Last year, Ireland's dependency ratio hit an all-time low: for every ten dependents, it had twenty-two people of working age. That change coincides precisely with the country's extraordinary economic surge.

Companies with older work forces are heavily penalized, whereas new companies have no such burden. As the number of workers needed to generate revenue has dramatically declined, it has left firms like General Motors an abundance of retirees, the cost of which is borne by the smaller lot of present day workers. And American companies face a "fifteen percent cost disadvantage" due to the fact that every country we compete against has universal health care.


Good article, and supports what I'd been figuring all along. That's why I don't have kids--because I'm patriotic!

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