Fintan O’Toole: The Minister for Finance and his know-nothing Budget
Neither before nor after the budget will Michael Noonan produce even a basic analysis of whether his measures as a whole are progressive or regressive
Poor Pearse Doherty, utterly defeated, meekly withdrew his proposal for an analysis of the impact of the Budget
The cockspiratorial system of government is largely about not knowing things. Believe it or not, one of the things the system chooses not to know is how the budget really works. When he stands up in the Dáil this afternoon, Michael Noonan will, in important respects, deliberately not know what he’s doing.
On March 6th 2013 Pearse Doherty of Sinn Fein put down an amendment to that year’s finance bill. It proposed that three months after the act was passed the minister for finance would lay before the Dáil an analysis of the effects of its tax and spending measures on real people, broken down by income, gender, age, marital and disability status. This was, if anything, far too modest a proposal. The Government had come to power, after all, promising to “open up the budget process to the full glare of public scrutiny”. It had also sworn blind that it would “radically overhaul scrutiny of public spending”, “throwing open the doors rather than seeking protection behind them”.
The expected effects of the budget should be worked out and presented to the public before, not after, it is passed. Nevertheless, Doherty’s modest proposal was worthwhile: an official statement of what the budget really meant for different kinds of people would be better coming late than never.
We’ve all become so inured to the ritual of the budget that we forget how utterly weird it is that the Government does no systematic analysis of what it thinks its effects will be and no evaluation of what they actually were. Last week, for example, Social Justice Ireland published an excellent analysis of how various measures that have been mooted for today’s budget would affect those on higher and lower incomes. But the Department of Finance has published nothing like this. On past performance, it will append to its budget documents today examples of how the measures will affect perhaps half a dozen different households - a useful but very limited exercise. Neither before nor after the budget will Michael Noonan produce even a basic analysis of whether his measures as a whole are progressive or regressive. He is like a plumber turning on a stop cock without knowing where the pipes lead.
So what happened back in 2013 when Pearse Doherty put down his very modest amendment? How did Michael Noonan respond? By saying, in effect, that the department of finance really couldn’t be bothered with this sort of thing. He agreed “in principle”, of course, that such analysis is highly desirable: “The more transparency there is in these processes, the better and the more democratic our process will be.” But, he explained, his officials were very busy people and couldn’t possibly find the time to do it. Asking them to actually analyse the effects of the budgets would “place an extra burden on them”.
Breathtakingly, he suggested that the best people to do this analysis are voluntary groups: “I suggest that the voluntary organisations dealing with people with disabilities, who are very supportive of them, are the best people to proof a budget or a finance bill as to its impact on disabilities.” Anyway, he said, the job of the government is simply to make decisions: “The Government must govern. We can look at things all of our lives. In the context of the crisis in which we find ourselves, taking decisions is the important thing to do.” It is not even a question of shooting first and asking questions later - the shots are fired decisively and no questions have to be asked at all. Poor Pearse Doherty, utterly defeated, meekly withdrew his proposal.
This is government by willful ignorance. By defining a knowledge of how budget measures will actually affect, say, people with disabilities or people on low incomes, as an excessively bothersome “extra burden”, the system avoids responsibility for its actions. The voluntary groups can do their analysis and tear their hair out at the results but they have no power. Those who have the power literally don’t want to know the consequences of their choices. What they don’t know can’t hurt them. Ignorance is political bliss.
So we can guess what will happen in the days after this budget. Think tanks like the ESRI and Social Justice Ireland will produce their analyses and those analyses will, unless all the leaks are wrong, show that the budget does indeed favour the better off. This will mean that the Government has a straight flush, not a single progressive budget among the five it has produced. And when those bodies say these things, they will be attacked by government TDs and spinners who will insist that they are wrong and that the budget was wonderfully fair. But the Government will itself produce no actual systematic analysis. And this gives it a strange kind of advantage. Albert Einstein said that the great difference between knowledge and ignorance is that knowledge has its limits. Those who actually produce analysis of what the budget really means will be limited by the tools of their trade - they won’t know everything. By avoiding knowing anything much, on the other hand, the Government has access to a boundless resource.