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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 26, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

    The Mess We’re In and meaningless speculation about a reshuffle

    Harry McGee

    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.

    • Harry says:

      I wanted to mention Michael McDowell in the piece. He had ideas, tons of them. Some were good. Some were awful. We scoffed at them all, even the good ones. His idea of creating cafe bars was fantastic. And it was downed by Fianna Fail stick-in-the-mud cynicism and by the pub lobby. McDowell, for all his hypberbole, is a loss to politics.

    • Liam says:

      I hope the pressure continues on the “Vampire Squid” that is GS. They were not the cause of the problem but there will always be corruption if any vested interest has too much access to government.

      As for Joe Public , I wouldnt lump everyone together, I paid off my mortgage and saved as much as I could (as I knew it had to end) but I dont want to be punished to help/pay for the losers. There are many other groups like younger people who should not have to pay higher taxes either.

      The government is still wasting billions every year so unless there is real reform from the centre there will not be any buy in from the public.

    • Brian says:

      Agree wholeheartedly with the entire piece, but in particular with the McDowell comment. I disagreed with many (if not most) of his economic and political arguments, but he had the courage (or arrogance, as was stated at the time) to express clear opinions, policy ideas and argued their validity in a logical, proactive manner. Is there anyone in the present government who does this?

    • kynos says:

      Agree the cafe-bars being a very good idea a realignment of social objectives as regards the consumption of alcohol and personal interaction, refocussing on the value of conversation and the interchange of ideas. What our pubs used be more widely known for before the Age of the flat pack drinking barn. To inflate that small idea to big idea status why isn’t Ireland a memer of CERN? It isn’t that we think it’ll gobble the earth is it we should be so lucky the trouble we’re in at least it would cancel the mortgage.

    • Ronan L says:

      Interesting article, a couple of thoughts:

      Re the Denmark comparison, their model is quite peculiar and rests on a maintained hypothesis that will be increasingly tested over the coming century, namely societal homogeneity. A group of Irish policymakers went over to Denmark about five years ago, one of those mutual admiration visits – the one thing (apart from corporate taxes) that divided the two nations was Ireland’s openness to migration, inward and outward. Race and ethnicity is a huge but hidden issue for Scandinavia generally. As it stands, on openness and attitudes to globalization, I’d definitely rather be where we are, imperfect as it is, than where the Danes are.

      Back on-topic, I agree that a reshuffle would be largely meaningless, as surely any good ideas Eamon O’Cuiv has in relation to broadband policy have already been communicated over the Cabinet table. Generational challenges call for generational (attempted) solutions. The last generation learnt the lesson that we can’t borrow/spend our way out of recession, and solved it by a united political front in relation the economic model underpinning the country.

      I think that model is fundamentally sound (or at least sounder than all other models open to us), but what we need to learn from our current challenge is that we can’t spend our way through a boom either. A cross-FF/FG platform will more than likely be needed again – as will an independent fiscal policy committee, to guarantee to overseas lenders (of which we’ll need many for the next 25 years) we’ve learnt.

      In truth, we need to set aside issues like NAMA and the public finances – as large as they are – as quickly as possible, so that the Government can put in place the structures for the economy we’ll need in 2050. It’s not rocket science, we know that every system the country works on will have gone from analogue to digital by then, just as communications infrastructure did in the 1980s/1990s. But if we don’t do it, there is no question but that we’ll be laggards.

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      The rot started from 1997 – it’s unlikely a returned Rainbow government would have lost control of the Celtic Tiger – it would have spent to excess on some things of course but I can’t believe it would have driven the whole thing into the wall and leave it a write off.

      Therefore, the buck stops completely with the people of Ireland and how they vote. It’s all very well setting out how useless FF politicians are – we all know that. It was ever thus.

      The question we need to confont before any reform or rebirth can begin is why people vote for FF despite knowing full well the conseuqneces of doing that.

      It won’t be an easy conversation and breaking the cycle of voting for corrupt wasters after 80 years won’t be easy and like a cornered rat, FF will fight to the death to protect the vested interests who bankroll it.

      We have been independent for nearly 100 so blaming the Brits is a cop out. Just like blaming the Pope for the abuses of the Catholic church is a cop out – a means to do the usual Irish stroke of deflecting attention away from our own culpability in creating the mess we are in.

      It is not credible for anyone to say there is no alternative to FF. There is; FG or L or G or SF or Ind or get off your own ar*e and stand for election.

      The irony of course is that the very type of people who would fight for the sort of changes the place needs are the very type of get up and go people who do go, and use their skills and talents in countries where they know they are appreciated and will get places.

      Hence why there has never been any groundswell demanding reform. Those who lead it emigrate. The wasters stay in control – wait and see O’Dea’s vote go up to 25,000 next time and you wonder are these people mentally unstable?

      Tax relief on pensions in Ireland cost €3billion last year – add in then the payments into pension funds for civil servants and you have another €3billion – they should be abolished or frozen for the next 2 or 3 years.

      But of course all that would happen then is FF would do even less to tackle the problems. Like someone who is up to their neck in debt winning a grand on the lotto and blowing it on a big night out instead of using it to pay off something.

      Until FF is out of office and destroyed at the polls Ireland hasn’t a hope. There is no one single person in that FF PP who is fit to be in the cabinet. Not one single person.

      Given the political genepool of Cowen, Lenihan, Coughlan and the likes of Hanafin; they simply cannot intellectually conceive of what needs to be done – Cowen has a go at an FF national exec member because he broke loyalty – not that he was right and the party is useless. But that he was disloyal. That’s all you need to know about Biffo the smalltown solicitor with a tax defaulter as a brother.

      Don’t forget either the abject failure of the media to hold FF to account. The Irish Times in particular has a shameful record – nothing to do with Madam’s links with the former political party, who still inexplicably have a member at cabinet, that gave its full and wholehearted support to unleashing the gates of cronyism.

    • barbera says:

      Well the suggestions are just pouring in! So far we’ve got CAFÉ-BARS (au lieu des pubs). I am imagining the changes such a ground-breaking, cutting-edge venture would bring about with regard to ‘realignment of the social mores’ within the inner cities, especially Dublin, Cork and Limerick. Practically overnight, I imagine, the hoodie top will be discarded in favour of the suave sport’s jacket and open-neck shirt — former heroin addicts will quite naturally become au-fait with les cupla focal Francais and expert in the art of sipping languidly on café-au-lait, or espresso, or some exotic liqueur whilst nibbling on a croissant or une petite tranche de tarte au pomme ou cerise …and all the while chitchatting nonchalantly about nothing in particular of a hazy warm sunny après midi — such as we in the new EUmerald Isle may totally depend on — and only to delight in the occasional cool summer breeze or even more occasional light summer shower. Mon oeil!

    • Buttercup says:

      Where would politicians find the time to come up with innovative ideas for the country? Why would they bother when there aren’t any votes in that kind of thing for them? Aren’t they too busy keeping their seats safe by helping constituents with personal matters and going to funerals? It’s not like they’re chosen to run for a party because of their ability as statesmen or women. How many voters will not bother to contemplate the issues and will follow a surname from one generation to the next or vote for the candidate who’s done something for them? Some people don’t even make the connection between their vote for a candidate meaning that candidate will get a seat for a particular party which will bring that party one TD closer to getting into government. I fear people vote locally in general elections and think the guy or girl with ideas will be too busy coming up with big notions to look after those who voted for them.

      Why were all of Michael McDowell’s ideas scoffed at, including good ones? Does “we” mean the country or the media? I’m not asking for political reasons but because I’m curious as I depend on media comment to a certain extent. I consider myself politically aware and I am interested enough to follow what is going on. I can extrapolate some of the consequences of political decisions taken, but I am not an expert. I don’t devote great portions of my day to pondering the indepth details of such matters and I read/listen/watch news, comment, opinion and analysis to help me join the dots and give me a better understanding of what is going on.

    • Agree 100% with Harry. FF are basically elected administrators. Aside from maybe Noel Dempsey, can anyone think of an FF minister who arrived in office determined to try to push through his own big (non-constituency) idea. But the blueshirts aren’t much different. Try and talk to a blueshirt about politics without bringing up Fianna Fail, and you take away 75% of their talking points. I campaigned for McDowell, and there was stuff I disagreed with, but McDowell loved discussing and debating ideas, and is sorely missed for that. The voting system, with an obsession with geographical representation, is killing us.

    • steve white says:

      cafe bars, can u not think of some other examples, other people had that idea, its implementation that counts and he couldn’t get it through

    • Sean says:

      My suggestion to help tackle the job crisis is to introduce a lower grade graduate entry post in the public service for people whose career prospects have been destroyed by the embargo. Why not give teachers, environmental technicians, etc a three year contract for 20K per year to help them get some experience and to fill much needed gaps in service? This is just 8K more that it costs to have them unproductive on the dole. As far as I can see the biggest problem is going to be with the unions, as they would much rather see people emigrate or loose their jobs than take pay cuts, yet local government and other services are collapsing as a result of the embargo.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Harry, we have plenty of work that needs doing but we’re not willing as a society to pay for it. Just look around you and compare it to most other developed countries you’ve ever been in. Aren’t they that bit cleaner, more organised, better maintained than here? Not for them the glory of the grand opening with ministers and the media in attendance only for the facility, whether new park or hospital or community centre to be ignored from then on until it falls apart.

      After the building boom, we’ve a lot of space around that is unused or underused, I like the efforts in city centres whereby vacant shop fronts are being used by the arts community. Provide water, electricity for machines, (to hell with heating, make them wear warm clothes or simply layers of it) and decent broadband and let them loose on thinking about ideas that they can sell. And remember that it’s a global market they are selling into, they know that. We should let a thousand flowers bloom. Give them a place to congregate and the minimal means to think and converse, and see what happens. Don’t pay for FAS type managers for these places, let them select from their own. Paper and pens, what we don’t want is people sitting at home, dwelling on their lot in life and getting more and more despondent.

      Service and finish some of the ghost developments (in those areas that are suitable) as suggested by someone on the your country, your call site and get older people from abroad to retire here by leasing the properties at low rates so ownership reverts to the state (NAMA or GRAMA as we might call it) on their death. Think of it as a sort of wetter, more temperate Florida for northern Europe, plenty of golf and places for them to see and spend, access to cheap air travel and free public transport too. Imagine the impact of 50,000 extra people spending their pensions here! Of course, we’d probably need a decent health service to do all that but they would have insurance to cover it.

      Biomass energy, all sorts of stuff (weeds in particular) grows well here. Feck it, it can be hard to stop it sometimes. We should be able to find a way to get electricity out of it. Give tax breaks for research conducted here.

      And let’s do something really radical like split the unemployment payments in 2, one portion you get by default to allow you to subsist, the other you get if you undertake 2 days per week of work orientated towards your own community that is not currently being done.

      Stealing the notion from Hillary Clinton about it taking a village (to raise a child), human society didn’t look to create jobs back when we were hunter gatherers, either you made a contribution or you didn’t share in the spoils of the hunt.

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      There’s no point talking about pay cuts unless you address what people spend their money on.
      The bulk of wages go on mortgage payments, transport costs and childcare costs – all of which are direct result of FF/PD policies.

      Therefore, just as those policies were deliberately pursued the reversal of them can be pursued too.

      Why can’t a family buy a decent 3 bed house, with a garage, driveway and proper actual gardens front and back on a 25 year mortgage anymore. Why can’t one decent income support a family anymore. Why is tax releif still being given on pensions. Why isn’t the retirement age for everyone with over 30 years to retirement, public or private, being raised to 70.

      The crux of the issue is the Irish mentality to politics – wait and see O’Dea and O’Donoghue and Lowry top the poll even more at the next election.

      Until that mentality changes Ireland will stay a banaa republic. As bad as Greece and Italy – still at least the Greeks care enough to riot. The Irish are too lazy to even bother to do that. The only people who could muster any anger were the pensioners. They very people most cushioned against the worse of the recession! You couldn’t make it up.

    • Blimey O'Riley says:

      Des mate …you wanna get out more…

    • barbera says:

      @11 Sean.
      I just love the “Hi” at the beginning of your post — so sweet — and I think you make really good suggestions.

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