The Mess We’re In and meaningless speculation about a reshuffle
One of my favourite books of all time is Joe Lee’s 1912 to 1985, A Social and Political history of Ireland.
In the amazing Perspectives chapter at the end of the book, Lee rails and vents against the dearth of ideas, courage and innovation in Ireland during most of the first six miserable decades of the State. Denmark started off the last century on equal footing to Ireland but innovated, adapted and adjusted while Ireland stagnated and stalled into a decades-long sclerosis.
A decade later, in 1995, and two decades later in 2005, Lee’s pessimism seemed premature. Sure, didn’t we have the Celtic Tiger and the boom that brought us from the zero of Europe to the hero of Europe.
Many of the underlying truths of Lee’s remained as valid as every they were, as the runaway success of the first decade gave way to the runaway excess of the second decade. We now see how much of the economic miracle was nothing more than old-fashioned snake oil – the system plunging into debt on the back of cheap money, a credit bubble, a consumer boom, a property boom, and obscene ‘leveraging’ by most companies, banks, developers and speculators.
We were offiically at full employment for a while with hundreds of thousands of migrants flooding into the country. And that statistic, of course, was built (literally) on two pieces of fantasy: , that demand for property would continue to rise; that property prices would also continue to increase unabated. The extent of national delusion and amnesia was staggering.
What really scares me is that all the mantras that we all bought into were wrong. Low taxes were a myth. Perhaps low corporation tax was the only exception to that. The only reason we got away with them for so long was because of the property boom and the temporary bonanza in once-off transactional taxes like stamps, VAT, capital gains tax, and capital acquisition tax. As long as we continued to build record numbers of houses and scored obscene loans securitised on obscene valuations of properties we didn’t own, we could continue on our journey into never-never land.
They engendered complacency at all levels and shielded systemic problems that should have been identified much earlier by those with responsibility in this regard.
I have long argued in this blog that it is a little bit too easy and too neat for Joe Citizen or Joan Citizen to absolve himself or herself from all blame, to say that all the blame for the greed that infected us all rests solely with Government and with bankers.
I’ve said my piece. I think we all should ship some responsibility. By the same token, Government and the banks should be condemned from a height for using all the dope-pusher strategies that got many of us addicted to debt.
The low taxes. The pro-business, pro-enterprise outlook. The fallacy that the markets could correct and regulate themselves. The fantasy that economic cyles with downturns were no longer valid. The almost unforgivable move by Government and banks towards ‘light touch’ financial regulation – or put in plain English, no real regulation, as the inadequacies of the job done by Financial Regulator have since revealed.
Banks lorded over the roost, here and elsewhere. Will Hutton, writing recently in a pamphlet for a new ‘citizens ethics’ effort in Britain wrote a couple of devastatingly good paragraphs about the disproportionality and unfairness of investment banking and the concept of ‘moral hazard’, where somebody takes risks and suffers no consequence for failure because somebody else pays for it.
This passage begins with a denunciation of the incredibly arrogant statement by Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blanfein that investment bankers were doing ‘God’s work’.
Hutton’s paragraph: “This is not God’s work. It’s an old-fashioned rigged market by a bunch of smart insiders who have managed to get away with it for decades because hard questions were never asked about fairness or proportionality. And, to add insult to injury, when the sky fell in on what was a gigantic Ponzie scheme, it was governments, backed by ordinary taxpayers, that launched a bail-out to save the economy – but in the process also bankers.”
What worries me about the situation we are in is the dearth of ideas and the dearth of policies. We’ve had a couple of announcements about job creation that are more fluffy than solid. The green and smart economy initiative looks all very well until you realise that some of the jobs (tidal energy) are still a long way off. Moreover, some of the jobs are merely replacements for existing jobs (alternative energy replacing conventional energy). And then you find out that the Government hasn’t actually put its money where its mouth is in terms of stumping up the money for its ‘ambitious’ (yeah!) national home retrofitting project (the one that’s supposed to provide gazillions of jobs in the construction sector).
The Government, when pressed to the pin of the collar, did show a lot of energy, innovation and steel in coming up with a bad beast of a Budget and with NAMA (whatever its merits). But all that industry of thought and action has stopped once the sirens have stopped and international focus has turned towards other bush fires (in Greece, Spain, Iceland and Portugal).
Where are all the ideas to create jobs and to stimulate growth? Where are the policy papers? Where are the think tanks? Where are all the bright sparks hiding?
Brian Cowen doesn’t seem to have an original idea in his head. Sure, he’s a great man for absorbing detail and knowing his brief inside out. But what direction is he taking the country in? Do we know? We don’t have a clue.
Part of the reason for that is that Cowen doesn’t exactly share much with the public. He does an annual gig for the Dublin Chamber of Commerce where he orates for 20 minutes about values and destiny as he did as a schoolboy in Roscrea. He does one or two in-depth radio interviews a year. He gives interviews to Six-One or the 9 o’clock news occasionally, but usually on the specific issue of that day.
I believe our current Taoiseach is the least accessible leader in recent political history. Cowen has done two, perhaps three, in-depth newspaper interviews in the almost two years he has been the leader of the country. And I may be wrong, but I don’t recall him doing any in-depth or detailed newspaper interviews whatsoever in the past year, at least with domestic publications.
Newspapers were given a collective interview with him in Government buildings before Christmas. Elsewhere, he has done questionnaire type interviews where newspapers submit questions and he answers in writing or on the phone. What an artifice. He does doorstep interviews, but they tend to be very much on the issues of the day. Other than that, the only forum the public can hear him expound his thoughts is at the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis.
All in all, there’s little evidence about what ideas and vision drives him.
Let’s turn to George Lee for a second. A fortnight after his exit, what remains with me isn’t his naivety, or his mistakes, even. It was his obsession with tackling the jobs crisis. He’s right. It has to be done. The Government should be throwing every single atom of energy they have at it. And showing the public that it’s doing that.
Instead, what do we have? A new news cycle, this time majoring on a reshuffle, with politicians and the media all playing the game.
A reshuffle is meaningless. There are precious few Fianna Fail backbenchers who have strong policy ideas or the personality to see them through. We have no philosopher politicians, no ideas merchants, no dreamers coming up through the Fianna Fail ranks.
There is no impetus for radical change. It’s all about management. And change when it comes is incremental in the good times and only radical when it is forced upon Government (like the current economic crisis).
Sure, half a dozen ministers should go because they have been there for too long or are indolent or not up to the job.
You look through the Fianna Fail ranks and you don’t exactly have a long list of ready replacement. There are lots of good middle managers, more noted for their obedience and loyalty than to any great enrgy or ideas floating around in their heads. Let’s have a couple of big ideas. Let’s have a society-changer like a smoking ban, or free education, or free travel for pensioners. Make it real and then make it happen.
Oh yes, the Greens have had a couple of good ideas. But the ones that have worked have been too small. The big ones have been far too fuzzy and fluffy and look unworkable. They also need to start making it real and making it happen. Now.