War On The Poor

Man walking dog, Lahinch, Clare, Ireland
Clare in better days (Photo credit: Mark Waters)

It’s not that I don’t have any time. It’s just that I don’t have any time where I’m not thinking “I should really be studying now”.

But the news today finally got my attention. It seems only recently we were having a war against poverty. Now, it’s all-out war on the poor.

I really didn’t expect Clare County Council to be leading the charge though.

Some background: In 1977, during a boom not so unlike the one just past, Fianna Fáil bought an election largely by abolishing local taxation. From now on, the towns and counties of Ireland would be funded not by householders, but from central government. This situation was allowed to continue even after the economy fell face-first off a cliff in the early 80s.

After this latest crash though, and the terrible deals made to get out of it, they need all the money they can get. So if there’s an asset that can’t be hidden – like say a job or a house – a tax has been slapped on it. At the moment there’s only what they call the Household Charge, an almost token €100 a year. This is just a clever ruse though. They believe people will be shamed into paying it. What householder cannot afford €100? Look at all you get for it! But it’s a trick; what they want is to get people onto the radar. Ultimately of course they intend to charge us far more than €100 a year, but thanks to the intervening 35 there is no reliable and comprehensive registry of home ownership in this country. So a property tax would be an administrative impossibility – unless we are tricked or forced into volunteering the information ourselves.

That’s why they’re being such hard-asses about it. Central government is forcing local to force people to put themselves on the register, by the brutal tactic of declaring how many households there are in a given locality, and reducing central funding by that times €100. Local government will now run out of funding for services like water and sewage and waste – unless they squeeze it out of the people they’re supposed to be representing.

Another service local government funds – for reasons lost to time – is higher education support. What fee assistance and maintenance grants they provide though are heavily means-tested and only paid to the poorest. And now, in Clare at least, applicants will also be required to provide proof that their families have paid the Household Charge.

This is not right, and it’s not right for a whole bunch of reasons. It’s contrary to several important ideas about how society works. Are we really going to stop services for everyone who hasn’t paid their taxes? Other forms of education too? Hospital services, welfare? If so, then surely Bertie Ahern should have all his pensions withdrawn. Are we going to put pressure on parents by withdrawing life opportunities from their children? Will we discriminate against children and young adults because of the choices of their parents? Will we set families against each other to raise tax?

Yes, some people aren’t paying this because they don’t want to get on that register when they know they’re going to be hammered by a new property tax. These though are hardly the people who qualify for the paltry maintenance grant. Others refuse as a form of protest, because they consider it unjust that the ordinary citizen of this country is being forced at financial gunpoint to pay off the losses of multinational banking giants. And they are right, it is unjust. To pay this tax is effectively to hand money over to a banker; not money that you ever owed to a banker, but money that a corrupt government promised to this banker. Why would you pay that?

And then there are some who simply haven’t been able to spare that €100. This is an (inadequate) subsistence grant which only the poorest, remember, can qualify for. Making it a condition of educational assistance provides yet more discouragement to the underprivileged, pulls jobs and wealth still further away, strikes another blow for the rich against the poorest. Another in an incessant rain of blows.

But it really doesn’t matter what the motivation of parents is. To use their children as an instrument against them speaks of a society that has divested itself of all values except the monetary. I realise Clare County Council are under a lot of pressure from our broken government, but they need to be deeply ashamed about this.

Oh, I have no dog in this fight by the way. The banking industry’s failure has already taken away all maintenance and fee support for postgraduates. I will have to borrow the money for my degree. And pay it back, with interest, to a bank.

What A Day

President George W. Bush accepts a bowl of sha...
Can you count all the things in this picture that make me angry?

Dropped off the radar again there, sorry. Thanks to some amazing weather for March – I think it reached 20C (68F) today – I’ve been held prisoner in the garden. At least it’s an opportunity to grow a skin. Technically, I don’t have a skin by the time winter ends. More a film.

It’s been a great day too in another sense – former leader Bertie Ahern has resigned from the Fianna Fáil party, on foot of the findings of the tribunal into planning corruption. This is huge, really. If it’s not literally an admission of guilt, it’s at least the admission of guilt he can sue you for calling an admission of guilt.

Too wrecked to go into this right now though, didn’t get any sleep last night to speak of. I’d gone shopping for a phone case online, and naturally I’d noticed small things here and there that would be useful too – a spare battery, a spare charger for the spare battery, a spare spare spare battery charger, so forth. The whole thing had rolled into a pleasant shopping safari, and it was about 4 a.m. by the time I was finally ready to proceed to the checkout. All that remained was to enter my credit card – done – and confirm my shipping address – done – and… Wait.

Of the five things I’d decided to buy, through five different sellers, not one of them would ship to Ireland. Actually it didn’t even tell me this. It just said for each item that there was a problem with my address, so possibly it was five different problems. Messages that vague and unhelpful only qualify as information in the theoretical sense, like yelling in an unknown foreign language. You know that it conveys meaning, but not what or to whom.

So what could I do about it? As mad as it may seem, Amazon.co.uk offers no system for filtering search results by where the seller will ship too. The process of separating the exporters from the non-exporters is essentially trial and error. Which is ludicrous for an online seller, and kept me up until well past dawn. And yet when you go to Amazon from Ireland, they tell you to use Amazon.co.uk. In the end I just bought almost everything elsewhere; a policy I may stick with from now on, at least until the day we finally get an Amazon.ie.

And now it is 4 a.m. all over again. Tomorrow I must go to toil in the fields once more, so farewell.

How The Euro Exploded, Part 1

Berlusconi-comizio
"I have no idea what I'm doing!"

Italian stock markets rally on rumours that Berlusconi may step down. That says everything really. Usually the forced resignation of a head of government sends the markets plummeting, as a country switches from general predictability into leaderless chaos. But it seems even leaderless chaos would be more relaxing than Silvio Berlusconi. You can actually calculate the millions he’s costing his country every minute he hangs on.

If he does go though, he will be the third national leader directly forced out by the financial crisis. I don’t think there’s been such a wave of regime change across Western Europe since 1968. How did it come to this – and to ask the question that everyone really wants answered, whose fault is it?

You can’t pinpoint a single cause in these things of course, but surprisingly I think we can narrow it down to just three:

Problem one: The credit boom. We’ve spoken of this before, but its origins can be traced back to the liberalisation of the US banking industry, and the creativity this consequently introduced into a previously staid profession. In particular, the creativity about what the term ‘asset’ means.

It’s always been quite acceptable to loan someone some money and then consider their promise to pay you back as an asset you own – as long as the value you give to that asset realistically reflects the risk of them not paying you back at all. Be unrealistic however, and you’re in trouble. Though many complex and obscure mechanisms were applied to the task, I don’t think it’s grossly oversimplifying to say the basic problem was that overvalued loans were used as collateral to raise more money, which was then turned into more overvalued loans, which were used to raise more money, which was… Et voilà, magic money from nowhere. Inevitably this reached the point where it was mutually profitable for everyone involved to overvalue the loans they were all giving to each other.

This free money fountain naturally encouraged borrowing throughout the US and Europe, and indeed about everywhere with access to currency markets. The first I knew something had gone badly wrong was when I got a letter from my bank telling me I’d been ‘pre-approved’ for a loan I hadn’t asked for. I’m a freelance artist for God’s sake. When banks go round pushing loans on poor people, the Emperor is out waving his dangly bits to a cheering audience.

But it wasn’t just private borrowing that got out of control. Countries too found credit temptingly cheap. What’s more, easy credit helped fuel a consumption boom, which upped tax revenues, which encouraged governments to ease off rates and make more promises. The problem is that largely fictitious revenues can dematerialise overnight.  Public borrowings and spending commitments on the other hand are not so easily gotten rid of.

This though merely sets the global scene; in Europe specifically there was further trouble brewing. To follow…

No On Both Referendums

"Well Connected" - Photo Irish Independent

Turnout is low. Too low.

Late in the day as it is, I want to urge people to get out and reject both referendums. There is a lot of confusion about them, I do not think government has paid sufficient attention to explaining them – in itself a reason to refuse their request for a change – and in particular there seems to be misunderstanding over the judges’ pay issue with many associating it with the exorbitant legal costs, of the Tribunals in particular.

The legal profession does need to be reined in, but this amendment simply has nothing to do with that. It is the fees charged by barristers and law firms that make legal action so expensive. Judges are paid by the state, and the cost of employing them is almost trivial by comparison.

Of course reducing their pay would save some cash. But not a lot, and it would come at the price of a very important principle. What is there to stop a future government, with a bill being tested in the Supreme Court for constitutionality, threatening judges with drastic pay reductions? If this amendment passes, nothing.

The independence of the judiciary is essential to a free country, and we shouldn’t even be dreaming of compromising it.

As for the other amendment, I think the Oireachtas should have the power to hold parliamentary enquiries. But I would rather we did without them for a bit longer than give excessive powers to government. This amendment seems very vague, and I simply can’t believe that broad new powers for TDs and Senators won’t end up being abused for political ends. We need to examine this more carefully.

And as for the Presidency, that’s turned from a fun game into a desperate last-minute attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of Fianna Fáil. You may not be a fan of Michael D., but he’s the only one now who can prevent our next President being a man who, increasingly, looks like a new Bertie Ahern.

Please, get out there and help.

The Fianna Fáil Revival Starts Here

LOL (Laughing Out Loud) - Bertie Ahern
Image by infomatique via Flickr

I don’t know what Bertie Ahern‘s balls are made of, but perhaps we should be using it to generate nuclear energy. For they are massive. He told us today that not preventing the national economic collapse was the fault of the media, because they were too preoccupied with investigating his wrongdoing.

No that’s just awesome. Even Berlusconi must have gasped.

It’s utter nonsense of course. The media were full of voices shouting stop – certainly more so than government. Mr. Ahern is living out a self-justifying fantasy, and his words are as relevant now as, well, pretty much anything else said by a member of Fianna Fáil. With the obvious exception of course of Seán Gallagher. Yes, I think we can regard him as a member still. Though it appears he did resign both from his cumainn¹ and the party’s national executive, he hasn’t exactly distanced himself from the organisation, launching the campaigns of FF party candidates – presumably for a fee – as recently as six months ago.

It looks very likely therefore that his split with the party was not moral or ideological, but pragmatic. He wanted to be elected. To have any chance, he had to lose the stinking albatross-corpse of a Fianna Fáil ticket. And the ruse seems to have worked. People say they will vote for the honestly-really-not-Fianna-Fáil candidate. I don’t know what to say, you’re all mad. Mad, or masochists.

Rather like McGuinness², he’s building foundations for his party’s eventual rehabilitation. Unlike McGuinness though, he might actually win. And if he does, what are the odds of him returning to the party – in a greatly enhanced role – just as soon as his term is over? If not sooner.

  1. Local party branch.
  2. Sinn Fein’s presidential candidate.

Merry-Go-Roundup 2

no spam!
I do not like it

The last week was of course dominated by 9/11, its conspiracy theories especially, but my attention was also arrested by a court in England which created some rather unusual and onerous conditions of bail. I ranted somewhat about the extraordinary birthday arrangements for Ireland’s disgraced former leader Bertie Ahern, and got good and mad with what seems like an ever-rising tide of ever-more-tedious spam.

But I’d swear, writing about spam attracts more spam. And writing about conspiracy theories attracts weirder spam. Look at this one:

We have learned a great deal about recovering from narcotic addiction and have found several methods that work well. This is information drug treatment programs would not want out since it would cause them to lose a large number of patients.

The what now? Are they offering me drug rehabilitation, or drug rehabilitation as a business opportunity? I don’t want to know.

The surprise hit of last week though was the one about the cyberstalking of Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google. It was picked up by a couple of other sites, including the formidable Reddit and the forums of the veteran Ctrl+Alt+Del webcomic. This made it the single most-read post of the blog so far. Lovely stuff. I encourage you all to follow this example and spam other sites about I.Doubt.It.

Er, I didn’t say spam.

Happy Bertie To You

Croke Park Dublin
Intimate Venue Available For Family Occasions

Talk Show host Joe Duffy just claimed “Nobody is saying Bertie Ahern¹ was corrupt.” Does he not know about the libel laws in this country? A person can pull shit like this and we are still not allowed to say they’re corrupt.

Let’s just put it this way: Nobody is saying his financial affairs were entirely above board either. Among the people who aren’t saying that are the tax office.

It’s hard to say if somebody personally received corrupt payments when that person seems to have no clear concept of a difference between personal, family or party money. But corruption isn’t just kickbacks and envelopes full of cash. Ahern, and the party he led, were closely involved with the property, construction and finance industries in two distinct but intertwined ways: On one hand the party came to associate its political fortunes with the runaway success of these sectors. On the other, a great many of them associated their personal fortunes with that success too. Virtually the whole party – and it must be said, a sizeable portion of the Irish political caste as a whole – were compromised by their involvement. Is compromised the same thing as corrupted?

Not if it won’t get me sued.

Ahern is in the news again now because it’s his 60th birthday this weekend. More specifically, because he’s having his party in the country’s most important stadium, Croke Park. Seriously. His immediate family don’t seem to see any problem with this. Sure it’s an entirely private matter. It’s just that it’s being done in the most public possible way.

I invite them to consider how this will be perceived from abroad. As our country depends for its day-to-day running on funding from the rest of Europe, the man who presided over its financial implosion is being fêted at our national stadium. It’s difficult to explain, isn’t it? Frankly it makes Berlusconi’s Italy look respectable.

 

  1. For late arrivals, the Taoiseach of Ireland during most of the boom years.