Consensus on protecting weak - now that would be priceless


Uncritical adulation of wealth is still name of the game, as vulnerable more exposed than ever, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

A NATIONAL consensus would be great, if it were a consensus about the right things. For example, imagine if we had a national consensus on the idea that we should protect the weakest and most vulnerable in our four-year budget plan.

Imagine if we had a consensus that we need to work towards a more equitable society, and this should be reflected in every budgetary decision we take. Imagine if we stopped hankering after the bubble days and decided that, for most of us, our incomes around the year 2000 did not constitute poverty, and that if we are lucky enough to return to that level, we should be grateful.

Imagine if we stopped lionising people like Peter Sutherland, which we do for the most part because of his wealth and success in business. Without in any way questioning Sutherland’s probity on a personal level, a large part of his career has been spent with entities that have not exactly covered themselves in glory.

He is, for example, non-executive chairman of a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs, Goldman Sachs International. Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the US Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations described Goldman Sachs as “self-interested promoters of risky and complicated financial schemes that helped trigger the [global financial] crisis”.

Infamously, Goldman Sachs initially made a profit on the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007 by gambling against the same subprime products they had designed and sold to others. Despite that, when their own share price began to fall, and it looked in danger of collapse (of course, it staunchly denies it was near any such thing) it took all the government aid that was going. In February, managing director Gerald Corrigan told a US Senate committee that it had benefited from about $28 billion of US taxpayers’ funds.

The company also engaged in a highly dubious, if legal, manoeuvre with Greece in 2001. According to Corrigan, currency swaps allowed Greece “a rather small but nevertheless not insignificant reduction in its debt-to-GDP ratios at that time”. In other words, it contributed to Greece’s ability to look like it was balancing its books even though it wasn’t. If it was legal, it was certainly unethical. It is the separation of ethics from business that has brought us to this pass, part of what historian Tony Judt called the “uncritical adulation of wealth for its own sake”.

Judt, who died in August of Lou Gehrig’s disease, wrote in April in the New York Review of Books: “Much of what appears ‘natural’ today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatisation and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.”

Judt argued passionately for a new engagement with politics and ideas. He spoke as a social democrat, something far from most Irish people’s view of the world. Here, we wanted high levels of services with low levels of taxes. Now it looks like we will get the worst of all possible worlds – high taxes and low levels of services.

Perhaps what we need first in Ireland is a return to a respect for ethics and fairness, rather than “uncritical adulation of wealth”. There is a political consensus on the need to meet the target of achieving a fiscal deficit of below 3 per cent of GDP by the end of 2014. There are a few stray voices saying that it is unnecessarily harsh, and that what we need is to reduce the deficit to the level of other countries, which can hover around 6 per cent to 7 per cent of GDP, but there are few such voices in the mainstream parties.

There does not seem to be much consensus on how to reduce the deficit. Leo Varadkar advocates frontloading the pain. Labour’s Eamon Gilmore wants middle-income earners left alone, no change in social welfare and higher tax rates for people earning over €100,000. He also is against a property tax of any kind.

It is depressing to see an allegedly left-wing party ruling out a property tax, and apparently that includes even a site value tax on non-agricultural land, which is in the programme for government, though it would require considerable preparation.

It is a fairer tax than stamp duty, and does not discourage development of sites, unlikely though that is any time soon. It was a tax that would have made even greater sense during the boom, but there’s little point in discussing that now.

What are the Greens hoping for from this meeting of the political parties that Brian Cowen has belatedly endorsed? Are they hoping throwing open the books will shock the other parties into realising how dire our situation really is and encourage them to become more patriotic, or just hoping to smooth their way to participation in a national government? Let us devotedly hope it is the former.

The move has been greeted with great suspicion. Before the call for cross-party consensus, Enda Kenny said the “Tallaght strategy” had lost Fine Gael votes, an extraordinary thing to say given the depth of the crisis.

He does not seem to see that Fine Gael’s failure to capitalise on Fianna Fáil’s political collapse is in no small part due to its failure to provide any vision other than getting Fianna Fáil out.

It will also test the mettle of Labour. Gilmore has been sailing along, careful to avoid nailing his colours to any mast. Presumably he is doing so in the hope of gaining power, where he could implement whatever agenda it is that he is being very coy about.

Imagine if a national consensus emerged that, yes, times are dire, will continue to be so for some time, but we still do not have to descend to the savagery of attacking the most vulnerable.

Imagine if, for once, our politicians took up that part of their job description that includes the ability to inspire.

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