Apple Pay?

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Apple and their ilk – remember it’s not so long since Microsoft was Ireland’s favourite taxpayer – save billions a year simply by offering to create employment here. While it would seem to make a lot of sense for a small country to buy jobs at the cost only of tax revenue that it would not have received anyway, it’s a pretty Faustian pact. For a start, what Apple is offering is not actually that great – just a few thousand jobs, and not necessarily quality, high-earning ones that feed skills into the economy. (That 200 at the new giant data center? Mostly maintenance.)

But worse, we are aiding and abetting an act which even if not illegal (as the European Commission believes), is certainly immoral. Apple is just creating artificial transactions between artificial sections of its own corporation. On paper this makes profit in Ireland; in reality of course the only transaction that has occurred was on a spreadsheet in Cupertino. The service we are offering our corporate clients is basically to act as if this is all somehow legit.

In doing so we are not merely competing with other countries. We are helping undermine the legitimate ability of countries to tax. In this race to the bottom, the only winners are the wealthy. Minister for Finance Michael Noonan claims that taxing Apple now would harm our reputation. But which reputation – the one of being a pushover for a handful of jobs? The one of being a country that sides with big business against the interests of our neighbours and of democracy itself?

Consider what harm this does to the reputation we do want: of a knowledge-based economy that pulls in investment thanks to a talented and educated workforce. There is some truth in that on the ground; people are working hard here to innovate and create businesses. But we are providing the perfect opportunity for competitors to say “That’s all bullshit, companies invest in Ireland because it’s a tax haven.”

And it isn’t easy to gainsay that view, because there’s truth in it too. The more government policy depends on low tax for foreign investment, the less we need bother with the education and infrastructure that would otherwise be the lure. (And which, we might mention in passing, would also stimulate domestic business.) The story about talent and education becomes just shtick, a hollow patter to distract from the financial shell game.

And this devalues us; not just as a place to do business, but as a country and as a people. It devalues our talent. It devalues the Masters degree I worked damned hard for. Indeed it devalues the very companies that invest here, because obviously they’re in it for short term balance-sheet gains rather than a long term investment in place and people.

Low corporation tax has been a useful tool, but that’s all it was ever meant to be – a way to help us transition from being an underdeveloped and largely agricultural economy into a diversified social democracy. The tool has now outlived its usefulness. There is no future in being the Cayman Islands of the EU.

Privilege

Can you really prevent the country from knowing what was said in the Dáil? Of course you can’t. The idea is plainly ridiculous. If you’re rich enough though, you can send out a flotilla of lawyers to try.

I can’t say whether that’s the action of a balanced mind, but it does seem clearly to be oppressive and anti-democratic. The whole notion of an interlocutory injunction is problematic at the best of times, allowing you to censor media without having to first prove that the information in question is either harmful or untrue. We only accept it because we’re used to speech being insanely curtailed in this country. But attempting to impose one on the national law-making assembly seems just downright hubristic.

And I think I’m beginning to detect another sickening aspect to this story: An attempt by Fianna Fáil to spin Denis O’Brien as Fine Gael’s creation because of his dealings with Michael Lowry, in the hope of making themselves seem the clean party by comparison. This is specious of course. The fortune of Denis O’Brien and of others like him grew under both governments, as each pursued virtually indistinguishable policies of making the rich richer.

And with that greater wealth came greater power, until the super-rich think nothing of biting the states that fattened them. The democratic form of government has never been in greater danger than it is now; not from revolutionaries or evil foreign dictators, but from the elites it itself created, beginning to believe that they can do just fine without it.

How About A Meanness Test?

The IMF has some helpful suggestions about how we might meet our loan repayments. To sum up: Make the poor poorer. Social welfare rates that are “too high” are a disincentive to work, apparently.

Ask yourself though, what level of unemployment assistance would be low enough for the IMF? Just one euro a day would be sufficient inducement to stay at home, if the job market was also only offering one euro.

And right now the job market is offering most people precisely no euro at all, because there are no jobs for them. To those, even a zero level of dole payment would still act as a disincentive.

To follow the IMF’s logic to its conclusion therefore, we need to fine people for not working.

It is orthodox nonsense of course. All lowering welfare can do is make more people desperate for work, so increasing the labour supply. It doesn’t magically create jobs. If viable employment just appeared because people wanted it badly enough we wouldn’t have a lot of famines in the world, would we? The only thing lower welfare can magically create is poverty, and poverty in turn increases despair, dissent, conflict and crime.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, IMF, but we have already lowered the social welfare rates. Several times. Did it lead to an increase in jobs? No. Funnily enough, the number of unemployed actually rose.

Oddly, the proposal which seemed to get all the media attention is the idea that means-testing might be introduced for child benefit. I think I see why. We have come to expect that the poor will routinely be taken outside and kicked bloody at every budget. Means-testing child benefit though, that could hit middle class people. Controversial!

(Though I noticed that Radio 1 immediately hosted an argument about whether we need child benefit at all. “Why should I pay to bring up someone else’s children?” etc. RTÉ once again failing to distinguish between socially useful public debate and the entertainment value of terrible people shouting at each other. There is really not that big a step between Liveline and the Jeremy Kyle Show.)

Well, should families who don’t actually need child benefit still get it? It seems illogical on the face of it, but there are some good, idealistic reasons behind the payment. One is that a mother, especially of young children, usually doesn’t have much income she has real control over – and that can be true in rich homes as well as poor. This makes her hugely vulnerable, her children effectively hostage to whoever holds the purse strings. The children’s allowance makes here less dependent on her husband or other family members, less vulnerable to bullying and manipulation. It seems like a good thing to me.

Now we may ask is it any business of society to intervene in that way. And in these days of ascendant right-wing selfishness, I am sure there will be plenty willing to debate it. But you know what? That’s our debate. I don’t let the bank tell me what Christmas presents to buy or what food to eat, even if I’m buying them with money they lent me. They can dictate the interest rate and the repayment schedule, but not my values.

IMF, if you want a role in formulating social policy then stand for bloody election. Otherwise, butt out.

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Rabbit Of Government Versus Truck Of Euro

So having looked at the reasons to reject the Fiscal Compact, let’s examine the government’s pro-treaty arguments.

 

Fiscal Compact in Ireland - YES Campaign [MEP] Olle Schmidt support
But fear not, here’s the opposi… oh

Well that didn’t take long. Really there is no positive argument beyond the stability of the Euro. As good a thing as that might be, it seems a trifling technicality when compared with the very real and immediate suffering the treaty would impose. So it is perhaps not surprising that the government has focused instead on reasons not to vote no. Effectively they’re reduced to the null argument: Well what would you do? If we need more money, how would you raise it?

By asking this they hope to split opposition. Different opponents of the treaty have different ways they’d prefer to raise income, and if they can move the debate on to that then people may forget it’s not the urgent question. It’s like someone driving straight at an oncoming truck and saying “Well which way would you swerve?” The government’s case rests almost solely on the argument that we may require aid from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), and that this would be preferable to other loan options. But that’s actually composed of two questionable assumptions:

Firstly, we are obviously going to avoid another “bailout” if we at all can. The necessity will depend very much on global markets, how fast we can regrow our economy and so on. The really mad thing here is that if we sign up for the Fiscal Compact, the restrictions it will place on our opportunities for growth make it so much more likely that we will need a further emergency loan.

If we do, will the new ESM be the best lender? Well it will almost certainly offer the lowest interest rates going – for sure lower than any we’ll be able to get on the open market for a long time. The problem is the  conditions. Obviously the ESM won’t lend us money to invest in growth, because that’s what the whole Fiscal Compact is ideologically opposed to. We can borrow to pay for emergency things, like public wage bills or – irony warning – loan repayments we can’t meet, but not to invest.

And the mad part of this is that if we do sign the treaty, we are committing ourselves to these conditions even if we borrow from somewhere else. Even if we raise funds on the open market, even if we go to the IMF, even if the European Social Fund never comes into existence – which is a very real possibility – we still have a commitment not to borrow to invest, on pain of having our budgets dictated to us. Joining the Fiscal Compact is agreeing to abide by the conditions of a loan we may never get. Who does that?

Quite opposed to there being no other option for funding except the ESM, there is almost an embarrassment of of them. None of them is a picnic of course, but I would argue that any one of them is preferable to the Fiscal Compact. This post is already too long, but tomorrow let’s play the government’s game and see what other options we have apart from destroying our own economy just to be obliging.

On The Road, On The Border

Ballybay

Lying on the floor of a cottage by the sea, theoretically trying to sleep, feeling guilty about how little I’ve written in the last couple of days. It has been a great break though. An adventure in a lot of ways, particularly driving ways. I’m not used to steering by satnav, and kept missing my turning. I have literally no idea where I’ve been. Wandering around the back roads, I think I crossed the border with Northern Ireland about six times. You can tell because the quality of the roads suddenly drops. Not so long since it was the other way around; the British really seemed to stop trying after the peace agreement. I also ended up driving on motorway for the first time, something I wasn’t allowed to do before I passed my test. Shouldn’t have been doing out now either, I was going in the wrong direction.

Had my first flat too! Changing a tyre is quite exciting when you’ve no idea how to do it. The Japanese like puzzles, so they make it interesting. Along with the jack they give you a couple of bits of metal to see what you make of them. As it turns out, one levers off the hubcap, one undoes the wheel nuts, and if you fit them together and revolve them in a really rather surprising way, it turns the jack. All pretty straightforward really; I had it nearly figured out by the time I was finished.

Charge Of The Lie Brigade

“Better communities start at your doorstep.”

That’s what it says on the final reminder to pay your Household Charge (the new property tax being introduced here in Ireland). They manage to combine meaningless bullshit, calculated deceit and veiled threat all into one brief phrase. That shows flair.

Don’t pay the charge and your neighbors suffer, it seems to say. As if central government is lowering its funding to local authorities by precisely the amount the household charge should raise. Of course, central funding for local spending will be reduced by far more than the household charge was ever going to raise – even if everyone could pay, never mind will. The shortfall will eventually be made up by allowing local authorities to raise the charge. So central government can keep lowering its contribution, effectively raising taxes while avoiding blame.

Neat.

I just wish though, instead of this careful blend of wheedle and threat, instead of pitting neighbour against neighbour, they’d try being honest for once.

“We’re sorry, we know it isn’t fair to ask you to bear such a big portion of this debt. But as you probably know, the more money people have, the harder it is to get it out of them. We promise we’ll go after the the tax-dodging bastards, but right now we need money fast and it looks like it’s got to be you. What do you say?”

I’d pay that.