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.

Burning Our Future To Fuel The Past

The panel of Why You Should Vote No!, a discussion organised by the Campaign Against the Austerity Treaty in Galway.  Big budget stuff this ain’t.

Well the optimism of Tuesday has been smartly kneed in the crotch. I will still apply for the course, but any hope of actually being able to do it without starving to death is rapidly receding. There is basically no money now to help people do postgraduate studies. No wait, I tell a lie. The exception is postgraduate-level teacher training. There is no funding to employ teachers of course, but you can still train to be one.

Since the last budget there will be no further grants or other maintenance aid for students continuing to the fourth level. So much for the knowledge-based economy. Austerity trumps that, like it’s trumped every other strategy and aspiration.

And this is just a taster. The government plans something like a further eight percent in cuts next year to meet borrowing reduction plans. Where will this come from? It’s hard to say. We’re already cutting deeply into the things, like education, that led to our economic growth in the past. Sure, I can get by without investment in myself to improve my earning opportunities. But the country as a whole?

We’re burning the future to fuel the past. Whatever cuts we make further affect our opportunities to recover and so reduce our ability to pay off our debts. They’re essentially counter-productive, and it goes without saying that they will also cause real harm to real people as health, welfare, pensions and services come under increasing pressure. The more we cut, the worse lives become, and the longer it’s going to stay that way.

But note that I’m talking about the government’s current plan. This is without taking the Fiscal Compact into account. If we pass that, we will be committing ourselves to repay debts at a significantly faster pace than the government apparently thinks possible right now. They accuse the No campaign of offering no alternative strategy, without even beginning to attempt to explain how we can meet the criteria the Fiscal Compact sets for us.

The truth is, we simple cannot meet those criteria. How much more will we have to cut back compared to current reductions? Nearly twice as much. Who believes for a moment that’s possible humanely, never mind politically?

But wait, what’s politically possible doesn’t matter any more! Because the treaty provides that if we are too merciful on our own population and fail to cut deeply enough, the Eurozone will be able to impose budgets on us – essentially turning our democracy into a puppet administration. And as this outcome seems pretty much inevitable, voting for the treaty really is voting to wind up Ireland as a meaningful state. You think a foreign administration we can never vote out can’t do a worse job than our own shower? I invite you to consider how that worked out in the Great Famine.

I do believe that we’ll need some sort of budget management agreement if – an increasingly big if – we continue to have a common currency. But the one we’re being asked to swallow puts the interests of the larger Eurozone economies so completely before our own that it amounts to tyranny. For their sake we are being asked to take actions that run absolutely counter to our most urgent needs.

This is an anti-overspending compact just when we desperately need to spend. It exists because other countries overspent in the past, not us. Compared to the European average we underspent. Compared to Germany and France, we were choirboys. Our problem was that we took too little tax from far too few people, creating a tax base that was utterly, idiotically dependent on the boom. We need more tax income, desperately. Slowing down the economy instead – and so further reducing the tax base – is fighting fire with ostriches. It’s insanity.

But the larger countries do not give a damn because they have their own problems. All the really care about is that the Euro doesn’t fall in value, because basically that’s what their wealth is in. There are no two ways about this. We are being asked to sacrifice ourselves – really, do something quite suicidal –  in order to be a bulwark for the Euro. Our reward for this? The right to apply for loans we may or may not need, at rates that may or may not be better than we can get elsewhere, from a fund that we have no guarantee is ever going to exist.

Are we fucking mad?