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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: April 10, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    The Mainstream and Groupthink

    Harry McGee

    In the world of domestic politics, two words – both of them compound nouns describing a collective experience – have stood out for me in the past few weeks.
    The first was the word ‘mainstream’. Michael Noonan used it in the course of his contribution to the Fine Gael Ard Fheis. Essentially he was saying that ‘mainstream’ Ireland supported the thrust of the key decisions taken by the Fine Gael/Labour coaliton in government.
    The second appeared in The Irish Times this morning, in our article on the contents of the report on RTE’s Primetime Investigates programme, ‘A Mission to Prey’. The BAI-appointed investigator used the word ‘groupthink’ to describe the inability of the programme-makers and their editors to rigorously scrutinise the soundness of their own theories.
    I don’t intend to dwell on the Primetime programme, rather the use of the word. The last time I remember it being used in the political context was in the Nyberg report on the banking collapse, published in April last year.
    I’d contend that both are a little inter-related; in that both implicitly reject the concept of original and challenging thought, or any startling alternatives.
    What the Government has done, essentially, is continue the policies of the last administration, with a couple of minor adjustments, “just to show that we are different from the last shower”. To use an analogy pulled from the favourite sport of this newspaper (but not mine – I’m GAA to the core of my being), the change of Government is like replacing Johnny Sexton with Ronan O’Gara in the second half. The new outhalf brings a slightly different approach and gives a bit of fresh impetus but the overall game plan remains unchanged.
    So the Government which campaigned in poetry is now governing in prose (and small-print prose at that!). All those problems about confronting the big bad wolf of the ECB have more or less come to nought. There was a lucky break on interest rates taht came on the back of the the second Greek bail-out. And there’s been a small concession on one instalment of the promissory note but no real progress on the overall deal.
    Noonan was saying that the mainstream will support the Government no matter what. In other times and in other debates that group has been called the Silent Majority and the PPI (plain people of Ireland). And he is right. There is growing opposition to the Government and its policies but it’s still a relatively small minority. Irish governments reflect the mindset of its population and that mindset is a conservative and cautious one, resistant to any radical change. Most people have reluctantly bought into the austerity programme, albeit reluctantly. And when the Government is forced to go back on its promises and raise taxes and lower social welfare rates either later this year or next year, they will accept that too.
    Nyberg use the term ‘groupthink’ to describe the mindset that prevailed during the boom years, when banks lent out money indiscriminately. His criticism was not confined to the banks, but to other groups, including the ‘mainstream’, who bought into into the bubble mentality. Nyberg argued that the population was not wholly passive or ‘victims’ of a swindle played by bankers and developers on them. He said that everybody got caught up in the madness. And that included most political parties including Labour, all of which started parroting the low tax mantra.
    It’s not a popular argument to make. Brian Lenihan was pulverised for making the rather silly remark that “we all partied”. More recently Enda Kenny’s attempt to say that all the Irish people went mad with money during the property boom ran into a huge barrage of publicity. They are partly right. Any political party which might have suggested raising taxes and taking the heat out of the property boom pre-2007 would have been rejected at the polls. The concept of property equalling wealth had seeped deeply into the Irish psyche.
    The argument is partly correct.
    And the simple ascribing of blame to one party, to bankers and to developers doesn’t tell the whole story. But few are brave enought to challenge that new consensus, or groupthink.
    And a new dispensation – or if you like groupthink – has taken over about how to deal with the crisis. It’s the one handed down by the Troika to which the three biggest party have all bought into – and by extension, they claim, so have the mainstream.
    There is a groupthink mentality within that cohort that does not rigorously challenge if everythign that’s being proposed is right. I’m not an economist and am not qualified to say if the Keynesian alternative of borrowing and spending during the recession – as advocated by Paul Krugman – is a better solution. To me, it sounds moot, as it would be impossible for Ireland to get the funding from the markets or from the ECB to even begin testing the theory.
    But there’s another example of groupthink that has remained unscrutinised. That’s the arguments that have been put up by Sinn Fein and by the smaller socialist parties. They have been successful in harnessing public anger and disillusionment. But it seems to me that their alternative ideas, derivative of Marxist theory, are older and more worn-out than those being promoted by the ‘mainstream’. And so the only real alternative to the prevailing ‘groupthink’ is another form of ‘groupthink’, equally susceptible to weaknesses and flaws.
    * If there are glaring typos in this blog post, apologies. The excuse is that it was written on an iphone by a person in denial about his need to wear reading glasses.

    • barb.ie says:

      Interesting. But within the parameters (economic confines) that any government is now able to function in this EU Member State, I would observe that something quite insidious is going on since this FG/Labour coalition formed a government. A lot of despondent citizens seem to be of the opinion that there is no difference whatsoever between FF and FG (I think we can safely leave Labour out of any discussion/analysis such is the absolute two-facedness of that incompetent cohort), however, in my opinion, and which would become obvious on close political analysis, it is very clear to this citizen, at any rate, that the difference between FF and FG is actually acute, to the extent that it is observable that under FG we are moving out of the (hard won) system (parliamentary democracy) that had prevailed since self-government/independence, into something sinister and along the Orwellian spectrum……..already one of the top ministers in FG is being referred to as Big (Brother) Phil…
      Very worrying altogether

    • JOD says:

      “I’d contend that both are a little inter-related; in that both implicitly reject the concept of original and challenging thought, or any startling alternatives” – like a cutlefsih squirting out ink, as Orwell put it, our satraps misuse language to disguise confuse bewilder and befuddle. That is their nature. They govern by lies. And as long as the majority in Ireland wish to be so governed, so governed they will be.

    • Martin Collins says:

      An interesting piece.Why is it only the Government parties that are held to account.? Why are the policies of the parties of the left not scrutinised. Are journalist afraid to hold them to account? It is well known by the dogs in the street that the cigerette smuggling and the oil smuggling is being carried out by parties with close links to the IRA and yet no one has asked Sinn Fein to pass even an opinion on the topic. The State coffers are being deprived of much needed revenue to support education, the hospitals and the welfare state by these illegal activites – very patriotic I wonder!

    • JOD says:

      Cuttlefish I meant. Though the scales may long since have fallen from my inward eyes they’re building up nicely on the outward two.

    • RPE McCarthy says:

      Good piece Harry. There were people consistently pointing at the bubble. Right from early on, David McWilliams on Agenda (TV3) or Newstalk was asking how a house in Stoneybatter (his usual example) could be worth the same as the price paid for a house in Sandymount within the space of 6 years (yes really – that was the rate of inflation from 1996 – 2002).

      Thomas Friedman (The Lexus & the Olive tree) talked about information arbitrage being the defining feature of globalisation. That is to say that one leverages information that is useless (commercially) to one sector for commercial gain in another.

      The specific design and make-up of information distribution in relation mortgages and selling prices (and the Irish Times played a very significant cheerleading role in this respect) leant itself towards insiders like brokers, banks and realty agents (in particular) as well as vendors who capitalised on the gains created but the inequitable distribution of knowledge.

      Had selling prices achieved been known then gazumping and other significant features of the era would have been more moderate. Property taxes would also have had a moderating impact.

      The people paying for the information arbitrage are those who bought from around 2003 to 2008 as well as society more generally.

      A few years ago, I had occasion to study postal code introduction in Ireland. The whole country has already been divided into small area zones of approximately 50 dwelling units each.

      In my opinion, perfect competition should exist in a market like property when it relates to quantity and average price paid (selling not asking). I understand that confidentiality can be an issue so what could be done is to present the data as a 3 year or 5 year rolling average for spatial zones rolled up to groups of 10 (500 units) or 20. This would then help to mitigate against future booms along with other safe guards introduced by the Central Bank since the crash.

      The best way of preventing group think is to prevent monopolies where revenue, government, banks, builders, estate agents etc. are all gaining at the expense of the society that in public sense they should be serving.

      It is interesting that you mentioned the Hyland report. There is even more interesting material that has not been touched in Frank Daly’s fiscal council report about 3 years ago http://www.commissionontaxation.ie/.

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      Be honest about the role of the media too Harry.

      Let’s also be honest that for quite a large number of people the recession has barely dented their lifestyle. We all know people who might be on the dole but who don’t have mortgages anymore and have plenty of savings. So while not having a job is grim they are hardly struggling to put food on the table. If two married people get the best part of €500 per week on the dole and have no debts or dependent children and are past 50, it’s not the end of the world and it’s hard to feel that much sympathy for them.

      The majority of young people who lost jobs have emigrated.

      Then there are the negative equity people and again hard to feel that much sympathy as it’s only a paper loss or gain.

      Are there that many people who are struggling to huggle a mortgage, car loans, child care and the full range of debt from credit cars to all those hire purchase loans etc. I’m sure there are but it can’t be more than a few dozen thousand I would say. They are probably the ones for whom the recession is real.

      The real issue is not that we are in denial about our part in causing the implosion but in how we respond to it. Would all the people who made massive profits selling houses in the 00s that they bought in the 60s and 70s and even the 80s and 90s be happy to have a 20% reduction from their savings to be used to help others or kick start the economy? Bloody sure they would not.

      So here we are with the government consciously choosing to protect the well off (and it’s a credit to Ireland that despite all the things we got wrong there are still far more better off then are not well off, which is why thel ess well off are such an easy target) at the expense of the less well off. I don’t think a lack of trust in the government to use the money properly is the reason why people wouldn’t agree to give up 20% of their savings for the wider good – the me fein sleveen gene is hard wired into Irish people.

      Whether you follow the Fine Gael/Labour right wingish point or the Sinn Fein leftish point isn’t really the issue as each side has merits. It’s the principle of whether you believe the wealth of the many should be protected at the expense of the fewer or fewest.

      There must be a clever PhD student able to write their theis on why we almost revel in the level of pain inflicted on a certain sector of society and why that sector accept it without putting up any fight. You can almost see the pride in

      Enda Kenny as he tells his EU bosses that he inflicted another 3 billion of cuts and there wasn’t a word from the people and aren’t the Irish pain tolerance levels marvellous to be sure.

      Perhaps it’s a legacy of the famine that while the strongest survived the runt of those stayed and the real strongest emigrated and there must be a mental legacy to what happened. How many generations does it take for the ‘memory’ to fade? Ie you survive the famine and you hoard for the rest of your life afraid of being poor or hungry, you raise your children to keep what’s theirs, they pass it on too, how many generations does that last?

      Of course what does enda Kenny care given he’s lined his pockets with at least €1 million in tax free expense since 2002 (breaking no laws or rules of course as he’s ‘entitled’) so it’s easy to see why he finds dishing out such pain so easy when his own family have been completely unaffected by the recession.

      It’s like when Michael Moore asked how many members of Congress had their own children in the military when they were so keen to send others off to war. Check how many TDs/ Senators/ Cllrs or MEPs have family on the dole or struggling to keep the roof over their head and bills paid – none I bet.

      If they were all magically able to spend at least €20k each on their campaigns last year you have to wonder where the money comes from and if there is a recession at all to be able to raise such funding.

      Given these people set the agenda of what the chattering classes chatter about and there’s no challendge to them from the media, is it any wonder the bulk of the population not affected by the recession just do as they are told.

    • Scarecrows of the Stipe says:

      “that the difference between FF and FG is actually acute”

      What ever about the difference , the thing they have in common is that they serve the eilte and dont give a damn about the man/ woman on the street so in that sense they are part of the same old rubbish

      I wouldnt vote for either if you paid me

    • Mno says:

      Yes, with regard to a certain media complacency; in my view, some columnists’ weekly offerings (not Harry agus Deaglán) are venturing further and further away from political reality and heading deeper and deeper into the realms of the poetic/esoteric. No more the rabble-rousing invectives, which played no small part in the persuading of people re the bringing down of the last administration. What I perceive as an underlying complacency now on the part of certain columnists in the media in general with regard to real criticism concerning the modus op of this new regime (FG/Labour coalition) and how that is playing out very badly with regard to the fostering of a more egalitarian….or better, more just society, is that the more wealthy in society (including broadsheet columnists) seem to be even more happy now. I mean, who wouldn’t love to have the time and the ivory tower (tax incentives, not least) to compose prose all the livelong day……….while middle to lower income families and social welfare recipients are feeling so much pain and existing on survival money. It never “felt” this bad before for “ordinary” people.

    • Cop-on-pola says:


    • Mno catherine.r Alpha b says:

      ps……What I’m saying is that it never “felt” this bad before for “ordinary” people when FF were in government. I absolutely contend that FF is a much more people friendly party. Always, unfortunately there will be some sort of elite group at one end of society but the current elites’ treatment of the “underprivileged” in society is breathtakingly atrocious in its brazenness and the hypocrisy of the minister for social “protection” is beyond analysis when we examine the before and after “orations” relating to her current status.
      For example, widows, widowers and anyone else in receipt of social welfare payments (as their only income) and entitled to a fuel allowance, had their payments cut this week from €210 to €188 since the minister for social “protection” Joan Burton shortened the duration of the fuel allowance. This, together with increases all round this year on rent payments to Local authorities, increases in vat, bus fares, train fares and everything bloody else has made it very difficult for the “underprivileged” to even exist
      Labour can go to blazes for a start as far as I am concerned and that pompous little finger wagging Eamon Gilmore (arrrgh) and that arrogant big bully Phil Hogan (arrrrrrrrgh) — that pair have singularly done the work of the NO campaign re the upcoming “Fiskalpakt” referendum and already have succeeded in pushing this vexed citizen and I suspect many others into the NO camp………that and a Taoiseach whose love affair with the photographic image is getting beyond ridiculous……..who the hell is advising these people???????? The ghost of Mussoloni???? Stalin???

    • Trevor Hickey says:

      To paraphrase that Tom Cruise movie… You lost me at O’Gara. Writing I’m GAA to the core should have been warning enough that using a rugby analogy wasn’t going to work…

      You see bringing on O’Gara is a real meaningful change. These two men play the game in totally different ways and the difference is usually immediate and profound. So, to compare the change in government to the substitution of Sexton for O’Gara is quite wrong when the point your are trying to make is that it really isn’t change at all.

      Stick to the politics old chap… I’ll stick to the rugby; now where’s that Gerry Thornley article I was looking for?

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