Save The Senate

Logo of the Oireachtas of Ireland
Logo of the Oireachtas of Ireland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s not try to avoid the obvious here. The Seanad is an embarrassment. It’s astonishingly, intrinsically and indeed deliberately unrepresentative. It is a pawn of the executive, a sinecure for the superannuated, an affront to democracy.

But it’s something.

Embarrassing and undemocratic, because our Senate is fascist through and through. I’m quite serious. Its structure was inspired by a social theory called corporatism, applied under Mussolini’s government and endorsed enthusiastically by the Papacy as an alternative to the danger of electing socialists or communists.

The idea was that instead of voting in the traditional area-based way, members of society would be represented according to the role they played. So there would be workers’ representatives and bosses’ representatives, and instead of strikes (which would be illegal) they would reach agreement in parliament. It all seems rather sweet and naive really. If you overlook the fascist bit. It’s also fantastically paternalistic and condescending. Rather like communism, you don’t get to elect lawmakers directly. You elect people who elect people who elect people.

Well OK, one sort of person is considered sufficiently mature. As a university graduate, I get to vote directly for a Senator! We’re smart. The rest of you, you’re all represented by your trade union or your business organisation. And if you’re not an employee, an employer or a member of the graduate professions, well I guess you just don’t belong in the ideal world of Pope Pius XI.

At the same time though, the Senate can’t actually do anything. In framing the constitution of 1937, de Valera wasn’t going to create a power system to rival his party machine. Arguably it was a sop to the Catholic Church – which unlike communism actually could threaten democratic government. The Senate can say what it likes but it can’t stop a law passing or force any amendments. It can just delay a bill.

Unless the Dáil considers it urgent, and suspends even that power.

We should be glad I guess that it’s both powerless and undemocratic, and not just one of those things. But what it should be of course is neither. Whether directly elected or appointed by lottery (actually a better idea than it sounds), it must be constituted in a way that represents people equally. And it should have powers. Not to rival the Dáil’s authority of course, but sufficient to oversee legislation.

We speak of the checks and balances necessary to democracy, but in practise we ignore them pretty much completely. We have a winner-takes-all system of government. When you’ve got the Dáil you’ve hit the jackpot. Take the opposite extreme: In the US the executive is elected directly, entirely independently of the legislature. The legislature itself is divided into two houses of almost equal power, watching each other. These three branches plus the judiciary keep power balanced. Sometimes rather closely balanced as we’re seeing right now, but balanced.

Our system looks a lot like that, but the resemblance is almost wholly superficial. Despite being directly elected, our President is virtually powerless. The executive is elected by, and from among, the party or parties that win the Dáil (House). Finally, the Senate is packed with the executive’s nominees. So it’s true to say that the deadlock currently besetting America wouldn’t happen under our system. But that’s because under ours, the President and the Senate would be Republican too.

An Irish Taoiseach is as close to a dictator as it’s possible to get under the rule of law. Party discipline ensures cabinet assent. Except in rare cases of a minority administration, his will is inevitably carried out by the legislature. Only the judiciary is truly independent, and the circumstances under which they can review legislation are highly circumscribed. So it’s true that abolishing the Senate won’t remove a lot of government supervision. Just the little bit we had.

And once it’s gone, once all power is finally vested in the Dáil, do you seriously think they’ll ever give it back? We need a parliamentary system with more checks and balances, not fewer.

Michael The Huck A Bee

A Huckabee supporter's bumper sticker.
Mike’s interests include prayer, gardening, mystical visions, what you do in private, and running for President. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mike Huckabee is sending me email. Why, I don’t know. I could not care less what the man thinks. Calls himself a “Conservative Christian”, which apparently means that he was enjoying the Bible right up until Jesus came along and spoilt it. Mike wants me to know that a bunch of people in robes are not more important than God. This isn’t an anti-Islamic thing, he’s referring to the US Supreme Court and their judgement that some laws against Gay marriage were unconstitutional. He argues that they must be wrong because his God doesn’t agree with Gay marriage. This shows that he either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care for the constitution of the United States. Both, I suspect.

So I’m not an American voter. Was this sent to me by mistake? I get mail intended for other Richard Chapmans (Richards Chapmen?) all the time. I’m not sure; American conservative Christianity is not just a mixture of politics and religion. It’s also a business. Witness the fact that a while after this, along came another mail from Huckabee. Only this one began “Please find a special message from our paid sponsor”. Mike Huckabee’s political spam has breaks for commercials.

(Incidentally – “paid sponsor”?)

It was headed “Sopranos Star Ignored 4 Signs of Imminent Heart Attack, Doctor Says”, and was designed to terrify you into some dubious heart-health scheme by quite literally cashing in on the recent death of James Gandolfini. Classy. Interesting to note though, Outlook’s filters decided Huckabee’s advert wasn’t spam – but that his politics was. I think I see where they’re coming from.

My favourite bit:

Dr. Crandall says that if you ever suffer a heart attack outside of a hospital, you only have a 7 percent chance of survival!

That also means in 93 percent of the cases such an episode is fatal!

No comment of mine could add to that in any way.

Yes, all organised religions from Scientology on down are commercial entities. But the US religious right, seeing as it does no real distinction between Christianity and Capitalism, is among the least embarrassed to blatantly seek “customers”. These don’t necessarily have to be American voters as long as they can raise the funds and spread the programme. Witness “our” Youth Defence, in many ways a bridgehead into Ireland for American Conservative Christianity. (And one to which an outflanked Catholic Church has still to find an effective response.) So there’s every possibility that this mail reached me intentionally. Pointlessly, but intentionally.

Local Poverty Tax

TaxForm
What is this? Pretty sure this wasn’t on the form before. Is this something I need to know about? Who are “High Income Individuals” – and why do they get their own special forms? What the hell is “Restriction Of Reliefs”? It sounds like something you pay for in a PVC-themed night club.

It’s that time of year again. The time when I do my taxes. Yeah, I know it’s not the time you do your taxes, but it is the time I do mine. About six months late, on average.

Once again, we open the form all a-tremble, excited to see just how many wholly indecipherable questions – perhaps entire pages – they’ve added this time. It’s not so long since they re-formed the form for the self employed so that non-accountants could read it. Year on year since though, entropy has dripped back in. A clause here, a category there, and now about 90% of it doesn’t even seem to apply to me. I guess some people’s businesses must be very different from mine, making very different things.

Money, to name one.

At least the online version has asterisks to mark the required fields. I figure I can’t go too wrong if I just fill all those. Then I scan for places to put in expenses and allowances I can apply for. Did you know by the way that if you are getting any form of social welfare payment you are entitled to a PAYE tax credit on top of your normal tax free allowance? I have no idea why, I can only guess it’s because tax is deducted at source from welfare payments – in some sort of entirely notional way. Anyway, ours is not to reason why, ours is to remember to tick the box. It may come in useful if they disallow some of my larger expenses again.

Antique erotic netsuke are research materials, dammit.

While getting my tax affairs in order, I remembered that I’d received an email from the new Local Property Tax agency. We didn’t use to have any residence-based taxes in Ireland, a Fianna Fáil government abolished them one time in a spree of vote-buying. Now that another FF administration has driven the economy off a cliff we have to have them back – though of course it’s the parties now in power that get the blame for it. Political lesson: If you create the most mess, nobody asks you to clean up.

Anyway I hadn’t paid much attention to the email. It’s a tax for property owners and I don’t own any property, I just rent a small apartment in an old four-storey building in the middle of town. Reading it now though, I find that seemingly I do. According to “our records”, as the tax people put it – by which I think they mean a hat – I own the building. Not just the room I live in. The whole. Fucking. Building. Walls of solid stone four feet thick, older than the United States, a good restaurant downstairs. According to an official government agency, it is all mine.

I tell you one thing, I’m not paying any more rent.

Coup In Ireland

Noonan

It was strangely reminiscent of that military coup where the signal to attack was, of all things, the Portuguese entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. With coded announcements, the President snatched away from a diplomatic mission, an emergency all-night sitting of the house, and plenty apparently deliberate misinformation, “Project Red” saw Ireland taken over – though not by the military.

If you went by the news coverage, you might be forgiven (a special offer, today only) for thinking that we just escaped the jaws of disaster here. On the contrary – Ireland avoided an acute short-term problem by making an awful long-term commitment. A very, very, very long-term commitment. We were forced into it at what might be termed fiscal gunpoint.

On September 30th 2008 in the wake of the collapse of Lehman brothers in the US, the Irish government pledged to guarantee the banking industry here. Not just the banks’ deposits but all their liabilities – including the vast amounts they’d borrowed from banks overseas to fuel the country’s property speculation bubble. That figure turned out to be truly mind-boggling – over €400 billion. That is more, even after inflation, then all of Germany was forced to pay in reparations after World War I.

You might fairly ask how the government of a small country could hope to come up with €400 billion. They couldn’t of course. It was a bluff, a confident front designed to ward off market chaos and speculation. But if you’re bluffing, you don’t bet the house. The government exposed the country to a liability that beggared belief. Indeed, beggared the lot of us.

It’s been argued in their defence that the industry lied to them, directly, about the scale of their liabilities. That’s true, but they knew damn well that there was something seriously wrong anyway. These banks had been making staggering profits for a decade mainly by lending people money on excessively easy terms, thereby boosting the price of housing, thereby creating demand for bigger loans… Banks had been enjoying a prolonged bonanza, but it was a bonanza of debt raised against assets that no one could seriously argue were not grossly overpriced.

Why had banks not simply raised the price of borrowing, to profit more from less lending – and at the same time moderate demand? Because there was no limit to the amount of money they had to offer. Other banks, in the US, the UK, but mainly in continental Europe, were lending them as much as they could shift. There was a global credit boom going on of course, there was an (originally) quite genuine boom in the Irish economy, and to cap all this there was no longer a national currency to wildly inflate and so damp things down as had happened in booms gone by. Ireland represents perhaps 1% of the Eurozone economy, so even incandescent levels of overheating here were not going to drive up the cost of money. Money was, as odd as this may sound, too cheap. Yet keeping inflation down was the main – indeed about the only – guiding principle of the European Central bank. It, or rather its political masters, chose to pursue a policy which might have been reasonable for the Eurozone as a whole, but which was utterly unsustainable for Ireland.

Some people, mainly politicians eager to share out their responsibility, have blamed the population for borrowing too much, as if economic meltdown is caused by sudden outbreaks of cupidity. Those who borrowed more than they should have did so in the main because banks were quite literally pushing money on them. Like many, I opened my post one morning to find I’d been approved for a loan I hadn’t asked for. Certainly far too many got into property, but the housing boom was not only driven by speculation. Another major factor was that thanks to all this cheap credit, house prices were rising far faster than incomes. People worried – not unreasonably – that if they didn’t buy a house soon they would never be able to afford one. Lenders fuelled the fear with the marketing image of the “property ladder”, the idea that if you wanted any chance of owning a good home in the future you needed to buy a bad one now. Many, many awful houses and apartments were sold – and even more built. The entire Irish banking industry had in effect become a Ponzi scheme, profitable only as long as there was new investment. When the market fell it fell like a lift with the cables cut. In doing so, it called the government’s bluff.

At which point they could and should have said “You got us. Of course we can’t possibly afford to pay that much money. Ever. It’s an insane figure.” And they would have been right of course, we can’t. Even after realising the assets of the collapsed banks and throwing in the national reserves, we’re still left something like 70 billion short. They even had an excellent excuse to renege on the guarantee when it came to light just how much these banks had been lying to them about their assets. They should have known better, sure, but officially they didn’t.

Unfortunately however government needed to pay more than just the billions in bank debt. This Ponzi scheme had essentially become the tax base. Not only was a lot of revenue raised on property sales, a simply ludicrous proportion of the population was by then employed in building buildings that no one would ever actually want but which existed solely to be traded on the bubble market. Without this income the exchequer couldn’t even keep public services going, pay doctors and teachers and police and pensions. But the fact that our economy looked to be (and indeed, was) on the point of collapse meant that the country couldn’t borrow cash on the market at anything approaching an affordable rate. The only institutions with both the money and the motivation to lend to us affordably were those of the Eurozone, the very ones who were to a large degree responsible for the collapse. In return, they held us to the untenable: The undertaking to pay back all the money our failed banks had borrowed to fuel the property bubble. The fear being that if we didn’t, the banks that lent to our failed banks would in turn fail, and so on.

So the Irish government’s gamble didn’t save our banking industry; virtually ever lending institution in the country (honourable exception: the Credit Union movement) went bust. But it probably stopped the European banking system going down like the world’s most expensive set of dominoes.

This is what really rankles. Instead of being punished by the market for poor – indeed, reckless and harmful – investment decisions, these institutions are going to be rewarded just as if they had made profitable decisions. They’ll probably give themselves bonuses. And these rewards will be paid not willingly by the market but unwillingly by the taxpayers of Ireland whose jobs and lives they so damaged. And the taxpayers’ children. And their children, if there’s anyone left here by then. Those of us who had the willpower to resist the easy credit have to reward them, just as if we’d taken it. Those who lost their homes because they could not afford the repayments to these institutions, still have to reward these institutions. Those who now own homes worth a fraction of what they owe on them but who are nevertheless still making repayments to these institutions, will see their taxes go to these institutions. The injustice of it is barely conceivable. Ireland is paying roughly 42% of the cost of Europe’s banking crisis. We can’t possibly do it of course. That’s why the Eurozone governments and ECB cut the deal that all the fuss has been about. To help us.

To help us pay back the money we didn’t borrow.

You may have seen the headline figure, that this is meant to save us €20 billion. Are they writing off some of the debt? No. On no account are we to even contemplate not paying any of that money. The twenty billion is just the difference between the “easy” interest we’ll get from them and a rate we might have paid otherwise. They’re giving us easy terms to repay the debt we don’t owe. Some deal.

This explains why we had to shut down the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation – formerly Anglo – literally overnight. While most of the bad debts of the various failed Irish institutions were still being held by this “zombie bank”, there lingered some remote possibility that a government would have the guts to say “Look, the state has no moral duty to pay back failed private investments. Goodnight.” We almost certainly would have negotiated a deal rather than just pulled the plug of course, but we had that bargaining chip. Instead we’ve cashed in our last chance for freedom. Whereas repudiating Anglo’s debts would not have been technically or morally a loan default – indeed, might have been seen favourably by the markets as the shedding of a liability – there is no way out of our commitment to the ECB. Short, that is, of crashing out of the Euro in flames.

So now we are committed to this vast payment. That still doesn’t mean we can pay it of course; indeed, attempting to will just drive us deeper into recession. We will inevitably default on this, as Germany defaulted on the onerous Versailles treaty terms. It will just be later rather than sooner. The only achievement will be a few more years – perhaps decades – spent impoverishing ourselves to enrich those irresponsible lenders.

The “deal” won yesterday was quite the opposite – a scared and desperate government buying time and in doing so, condemning their country to indefinite economic servitude. Death of the Republic would hardly be an exaggeration. Democracy is effectively suspended; the government we elected to overturn the errors of the last has repeated and even amplified them. We are being dictated to – not by the military, not by a despot, but by an industry.

Inadequatebowl

English: American football positions
As we can see from this diagram, American football is basically a cross between armed combat and noughts & crosses

American football is like rugby with all the bits I understand taken out. Admittedly that leaves plenty to be getting on with, but it seems to consist pretty much entirely of men charging directly at one another. That can’t be the most efficient way to accomplish anything. To make it even more confusing, when I tuned in no one was doing anything at all. I’d heard there were pauses in the play, but hadn’t expected them to last half an hour.

I gather though that the power cut is not an official aspect of the sport. Which is a shame, in many ways it seemed the best bit. Like the half-time show but with far more scope for improvisation. You’d think this would be cripplingly embarrassing to the Americans, having probably their most-watched event globally turning into an advert for inadequate engineering. Fortunately however they can all blame it on the political party they don’t support, thereby avoiding any conception of collective failure. Democracy in inaction.

Mend The Constitution

Pregnancy in the 26th week.

Over four thousand women from Ireland are known to have obtained an abortion in England or Wales last year, a figure that probably under-represents the true numbers significantly. Why are they having abortions abroad and not here?

If you could sum it up in a single word, that word would be “hypocrisy”.

We have a hypocritical Constitutional ban that has the effect not of preventing abortion, but of making it someone else’s problem. It allows us to pretend it hardly happens at all, that we live by higher ideals. In fact, we live a lie.

And oddly, to an extent it is not even our own hypocrisy. The amendment was the result of a manipulative campaign coming largely from overseas, particularly the British organisation SPUC, that intended to make Ireland a showcase for Conservative Christian values. They wanted to prove it was possible, despite the examples of the US, UK and most of Western Europe, for abortion to be banned in a country where women had a vote.

Yes, a clear majority disapproved of abortion. They don’t necessarily approve of enforced birth either though. Irish people are no strangers to moral complexity and contradiction, and even if doctrinal absolutes came easy in those post-Papal-visit days they would not have stayed that way for long. But the amendment to the constitution stifled that moral debate by rendering it pointless.

It still stifles it. Even now we are hung up – insanely – on whether a danger of suicide constitutes a legitimate threat to the life of a pregnant woman. Of course suicidal feelings are a real threat to life, but some want to pretend the danger away in case it is used as a pretext to give abortions to those who merely want them.

This is all mad. Why are we trying to force women to give birth when, for whatever reason, they do not want to give birth? Only remorseless ideology produces such inhumane law.

Ah but the unborn are people, you can’t kill them!

Except they are not. That is just a religious doctrine, a philosophical view, forced into our Constitution to make hypocrites of all of us. Who is to say at what point human life begins? We could leave the decision to priests, to doctors or scientists. But I think instead we should leave it up to the woman who has to bring that life into the world.

Who else’s decision should it be?

I Still Deny lt's Autumn

image

It’s a little bit of America in the garden, really. Behind, entirely covering a disused shed, we have virginia creeper. In front, a staghorn sumac. I wonder if there’s any reason these two lurid plants should come from the north-eastern Atlantic seaboard. Maple too, come to think of it.

Is there some predator there that can’t see the colour red? Just as it’s getting hungry, all the trees suddenly go invisible. Fiendishly clever.