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Over-Excited and Undersophisticated Post October 21, 2008

Posted by Garibaldy in Science Fiction, Television Shows.

I’ve just seen on Sky One that all new Futurama is starting on Sky on Sunday at 6. A very welcome return for something which is much better than that Simpsons nonsense, not least due to the more frequent appearance of Lucy Liu (or her head in a jar anyway). Alas this bears no relevance to progressive politics, or the state of chassis we are in, but deserves to be shouted from the rooftops.

Tough times demand, tough talk demand Tough hearts demand tough songs… Budget Redux October 21, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.

Or so Rush sang, back in the day. And as stony hearted Objectivists to a man, and multi-millionaires to boot, well, they would, wouldn’t they?

Stephen Collins was discussing the Budget fall out in yesterday’s Irish Times, and it made for interesting, if not convincing reading. He argues rightly that:

THE CHAOS in Fianna Fáil over the budget decision to abolish the automatic entitlement of the over-70s to a medical card has struck a serious blow to the authority of Taoiseach Brian Cowen, and now poses a real threat to the stability of the coalition Government.

I don’t think we can underestimate the credibility issue. Already this was a Government that had seen it’s initial authority dissipate in the wake of Lisbon. It’s inability to push that across the line looked simply appalling. Granted one might argue there were extraneous factors, but none so great that they couldn’t have been dealt with. And while one might argue that at least the Cowen was listening enough to appear on TV over the weekend attempting to explain and modify the situation, well, hey, they’re paid to work this stuff out beforehand.

Before last week there were some who hinted that in the wake of the global financial crisis Lisbon would be seen as a small hiccup, all things considered. Well, yes. But as was suggested to me yesterday, quite some sell next time Cowen goes to the people to convince them that it’s worthy of a YES vote, particularly having alienated a sizeable proportion of the over-70s. And their families. And their friends. And so on.

And credibility is difficult to regain once expended.

It has also raised profound doubts about the ability of Fianna Fáil to govern in the very difficult years ahead. If party discipline cannot withstand the first serious controversy of the current economic downturn, how will it possibly cope with the inevitable succession of unpopular decisions to come?

Great. Collins is wedded to this idea that things can only get worse. In that he’s probably correct. Unfortunately he’s also wedded to the notion that this means that ‘unpopular’ decisions, for which read fiscal and budgetary policies that largely affect disproportionately those on average wages. Odd that.

He is right though when he notes:

The political ineptitude that has characterised the handling of the medical cards controversy at every stage has been astonishing.

For a start, there seemed to be little appreciation of the storm the initial budget announcement was bound to generate.

Now, why would that be? After all, who could have envisaged that decisions with negative impacts would have less than optimal results in the court of public opinion?

Well…er… Stephen Collins for one, who had argued at length in previous columns about just such tough decisions having to be taken. So the government is somehow inept for appreciating that the toughness he called for would not be popular.


He also continues on this line.

With hindsight, the decision to bring the budget forward to October was probably the source of the problem. In the rush to consider a raft of cuts and savings from different departments, the penny never really dropped at Cabinet just how much opposition the move was certain to generate.

Er… again, no. The source of the problem was cutting various provisions… an approach that – once more – he had suggested as the way forward. And these guys are paid to foresee this sort of problem. From our taxes…

But note the following.

It appears that Minister for Social and Family Affairs Mary Hanafin cut up rough at Cabinet and successfully resisted pressure to either tax child benefit or adopt significant cuts in the young child supplement scheme.

Bad Mary, protecting – perhaps if the account can be believed – one of the weakest and most vulnerable in our society from ‘significant’ cuts.


By contrast, Mary Harney made a serious effort to come up with cuts in her department and the proposal to end the automatic entitlement to the over-70s medical card was one of them. The intention was to claw back the exorbitant fee extracted by the doctors for the scheme back in 2001, but it was the pensioners who suffered.

So, yet again, ‘serious efforts’, ‘toughness’, ‘clawing back’…

From which we can only conclude that Collins believes that the Budget wasn’t tough enough…

And as to his solutions…well look, this is my sixth post on the Budget. Six, count ’em, and in each I offer the same solution… a short term one prior to the introduction of a better socialised health system. A reintroduction of proper taxation. But his spin of the wheel offers us this.

If a way could have been found of removing the wealthiest 10 per cent of pensioners from the scheme and leaving it at that, things might have been different but, instead, 90 per cent of those who had been given the medical cards on age grounds were removed.

Yes! If only a way could have been found. If only it could have been restricted to that 10%. If only. If only. If only.

But it wasn’t.

And perhaps it wasn’t because noises off from the centre-right media talk about ‘toughness’, ‘seizing the nettle’, ‘reform’ and such like as if words in this context have no implications in actions. As if there are no consequences, or impacts, on the people who are constantly the central target of such actions.

And here’s an interesting aspect of his piece that I think exemplifies that view…

The biggest surprise of all is that Fianna Fáil has appeared so weak. The nerve of the party, which has dominated Irish politics for decades and whose discipline through thick and thin has been its overriding characteristic, suddenly crumbled.

One of the problems is that most of the party’s TDs don’t have any experience of ruling in difficult economic times.

Well, let’s park the word ‘ruling’ for a moment, intriguing as its use is… And let’s examine the truth of that.

It is true that of the 77 or so Fianna Fáil TDs 35 were elected prior to 1997 and 42 since. Since we could – just about – argue that 1997 was a time of discernible economic improvement I guess we could argue that the cohort of 42 know little enough about ‘ruling’ during a period of economic difficulty. But…

Here’s the thing. If you look at the age profile of that 42 it is remarkable that only 5 were born after 1972, and only 1 of those was elected at the 2002 election – Niall Blaney (28 in 2002) who took the scenic route into Fianna Fáil, so is arguably sui generis. Or to put it another way. The average birth year of the cohort was 1959 (although it varies at the extremes between 1944 and 1977). So, broadly speaking the vast majority lived through the recession in the 1980s and would have some understanding of it.

But that’s not what Collins says. He talks about experience of ruling. And yet I can’t help but wonder if it is that very fact that some of these individuals were on the outside looking in, as it were, that made them a little bit more open to the complaints of their constituents. Because really what Collins is arguing for is riding roughshod over the feelings of those constituents and using representatives who, by any reasonable standard, are well insulated from the realities of life outside the Oireachtas (whatever their contact with constituents).

And that, I think, is a very telling insight into the thought processes of a section of our media and political elites.

McGrath has gone… October 20, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.

And… ahemhe

He also signalled the possibility of the re-establishment of a technical
group in the Dáil,
comprising Sinn Fein, Tony Gregory, himself and Joe
Behan. He said he would be talking to Mr Behan tomorrow.

Of course, it takes seven to tango. And whether a good five of them will be in a forgiving mood is an interesting question…

Gamekeeper and Poacher: David Adams talking about the media coverage of the North in the southern media. October 20, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Northern Ireland, Uncategorized.

Got to admire David Adams. For as reported in the Irish Times at the Cleraun Media Conference he has decided that:

…the North could do with a lot less interest from outsiders. He said the attention of everyone from US presidents to taoisigh had only led the North to be “self-regarding, self-centred and spoilt with attention”, and it had benefited from billions of pounds of investment even though other conflict zones were worse off.

“The less attention for attention’s sake that Northern Ireland gets, the better it will be for us all that have to live there, and the more encouragement it might be to the politicians who are actually supposed to work and earn the large cheques that are passing through their letterbox every week,” he said.

Indeed. He may well be correct. And what is his particular expertise in such matters?

Why, not only…

…was [he] once a senior figure in the Ulster Democratic Party

But also…

Mr Adams [is] now a freelance journalist and columnist with The Irish Times.

Shaken and stirred. The Government in the wake of the Budget. October 20, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.
1 comment so far

This is a fascinating state of affairs. And would be more so if it weren’t for the underlying issues which are of the greatest importance to the future shape of this part of the island and its approach to healthcare, education and welfare.

Firstly, let’s consider the Green Party. Now, their latest stance is once of ‘concern’.

Green Party leader John Gormley spoke to Mr Cowen yesterday, and conveyed the concerns of its TDs and senators over the decision.

The party said it had asked for a review, which was being done.

But in a bit of fancy footwork they also stated…

[that] yesterday it said it had said this issue was never a pulling-out-of-Government-one.

However, party whip Ciarán Cuffe said the handling had been appalling, and warned that “a good outcome must be found to protect the vulnerable”.

Hmmmm… on a political level it makes sense for them to avoid the old Progressive Democrat “march to the exit” tactic on every contentious issue. On the other hand this is very very clearly an issue that has enormous resonance. If not go now, well then when? And I can’t be the only one to wonder at how they stuck solidly through Ahern’s growing travails over the past year before his departure. Or – to put it another way – what precisely is their bottom line and when would they walk?

Moreover again on a political level, how much leverage can they exert if they’ve already said they’ll stay put? They seem to be saying that even if the original proposal were passed they would stay in government – although Cuffe appears to be trying to generate some slight wriggle room. Now perhaps their thinking is that this demonstrates their new seriousness of purpose, that as coalition partners they’re stuck solid and they’re not going to be buffeted, as were the PDs before them, by every passing crisis.

But I think it’s fair to suggest that there are crises and then there are crises.

But here’s another thought. Perhaps they’re being utterly cynical and hoping that the Joe Behans and other still seated Fianna Fáil backbenchers and their constituents will do the heavy lifting for them on this matter and provoke sufficient ire to force the Government (a.k.a. Cowen et al) to back down to the necessary degree on the matter.

I hope they’ve read this right. Word is that the non-FF TDs are getting a considerable degree of flak from constituents. An hitherto unprecedented degree. That’s got to hurt. And word has it too that while in the earlier part of last week the public’s ire was directed against FF as the week lengthened the penny dropped amongst said public that the non-FF TDs were helping keep the ship afloat.

And keep it afloat they are doing. Over lunch I had a quick look at the figures. As it stands FF, the Green Party and the other one… oh, yeah, the PDs, have 85 seats . The combined opposition (including Behan and – yes, the prodigal son of the Irish independent left, Finian McGrath, of which more later) have 78. That leaves two, Jackie Healy Rae and Michael Lowry.

The Irish Times suggests that the latter two will abstain in a vote, despite JHR’s protestations that:

“It’s a pure disaster in the world. I could not go to a funeral and go out the door but people were sticking into me. The one thing they do not want to hear the word of is a ‘means test’. A lot of them feel if there’s a means test then their pensions will be taken away. I cannot vote against the old people.”

Ah… the old people…

But look again at the figures. On paper the government remains solid, short of an FF meltdown – not beyond the bounds of possibility but less likely today than it was on Saturday (and how Cowen must be thanking God for that weekend intervening so that it allowed some of the febrile energy of Friday to dissipate).

Which leads us back to the Green Party, this is I think pure poison for them and they don’t seem to have recognised it as such. I’ve touched on the idea before that they may have cultural problems dealing with social welfare and provision issues, and here we see this made manifest. It’s not that they are, like the PDs, indifferent to such matters, simply that they are tone deaf as regards their impact – indeed I’m reminded somewhat of the Fitzgerald incarnation of Fine Gael whose social democratic gloss was very very thin indeed and often amounted to little more than good intentions writ small. How else to explain them waving through this raft of measures through Cabinet? And while they can make great play of the concept that their being in government is a priori a good thing in itself because the greater issue of planetary survival is at stake, well, that only goes so far when set against the actuality of political campaigning.

And the thing is that that simply won’t cut it with the electorate. I would argue that they came out agin the proposals a bit too late… certainly once McGrath and Lowry made the running and Behan hopped over board on Friday afternoon anything they did seemed to be borne of necessity rather than principle. So their collective appearance to express unhappiness (but no exit plans) seemed weak. And pulls the spotlight back onto them.

Who would be a Green Party TD in the Dáil this week?

And what about our Finian? Well, he’s back… Sort of. Perhaps. Probably. Maybe.

Mr McGrath, who represents Dublin North Central, contacted Government chief whip Pat Carey on Saturday to say he could not support the Government unless the decision to withdraw the universal availability of the card to over 70s was reversed.

He told The Irish Times yesterday he was likely to walk away from the arrangement he made with the coalition in return for his support. This would mean he would support a Fine Gael Private Members’ motion condemning the medical card decision when it was debated in the Dáil this week.

Mr McGrath said he had received little reassurance from Mr Cowen’s RTÉ interview yesterday. “It leaves me in a difficult position. It is looking like I am on the way out. My view is that tinkering around and including a few more thousand people will not wash.”

Naturally. But… It is looking like I am on the way out. Am I the only one to find that a curiously ambiguous and detached phrasing. Looking like to who? The guy he sees in the mirror every morning? His constituents? The political media?

And curiously different to his statements earlier in the week which appeared to show support of a kind for the Medical Card removal.

What of the rumours swirling around that Harney might go if the Medical Card issue is parked or dropped. Hardly a huge loss, and one that would presumably bring McGrath back into the fold.

Her language has been a little vague:

If the Government could not get it through the Dail, clearly it had “an issue”, she said.

Asked if she would resign if she felt scapegoated by Fianna Fail, Ms Harney said she worked as a team with the Taoiseach and other colleagues whom she trusted.

“We did not blindly make this decision. We discussed it at great, great length,” she added.

Anyhow, who could have predicted this disaster? For an example of appalling management of the issues, let alone the policies themselves, it’s hard to think of a similar situation in recent times. And to see a crisis which has the potential to split FF, or see Harney leave government, develop so rapidly. It’s really something.

I can’t help but admit that while I think it will be sorted out, albeit to no-one’s satisfaction, it is great to see the discomfiture of the great and the good. Disarray. Excellent.

A further small thought. If McGrath walked and Behan remained outside FF (big asks) then the numbers to re-establish a Technical Group with Sinn Féin and Tony Gregory would exist. It would alter not so much the composition as the tenor of the Dáil giving SF a more prominent role. Going to happen? I doubt it. But who knows?

Well, I asked one person who has seen these sort of things come and go, whether they thought this was a full blown crisis and their read was that more than likely it’ll be business – more or less – as normal by next week or so. They think that the sting may have been taken out of it. I don’t know. I guess we’ll see.

And something else to consider. I’ve been thinking a bit more about the contrast between McGrath and Gregory, and one might argue that Gregory had the great good luck to see the government which his deal sustained not last jig time in the end, allowing him to claim (entirely correctly) the glory with none of the messy compromises that an extended term would have entailed, and the consequent finger pointing. You know, that might be true not just of McGrath in this Dáil, but also the Green Party.

The Left Archive: Ireland: The Socialist Answer, Socialist Organiser, 1989 – Part 2 October 20, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Communist Party of Ireland, Irish Left Online Document Archive, Sinn Féin, Socialist Organiser, Socialist Party, Socialist Workers' Party, Workers' Party.

As promised, and with an unexpected hiatus last week, the second part of Ireland: The Socialist Answer from Socialist Organiser.

The first part can be found here.

Just a further note. Consider that this document charts the views of all the significant left protagonists in Ireland at the time, from the Workers’ Party, the SWM, Militant, Sinn Féin, CPI and so on. And it also looks at the position of the British Labour Party and has contributions from Tony Benn.

One may quibble with its conclusions, but it would appear to be the most comprehensive overview of the area produced at that time.

The files, as previously noted, are fairly large so I’ve broken them up for easier download.

Smaller files… fewer pages:

Pages 35 – 51 (file size – 6.9mbs): itsa-35-51

Pages 52 – 68 (file size – 7.2mbs): itsa-52-68

One big file…

Pages 35 – 68 (file size – 14.1mbs): itsa-35-68

Harney Chooses to Bail Out Private Hospitals While Savaging the Elderly October 19, 2008

Posted by guestposter in Health, Irish Politics, Social Policy, The Left.
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This is a very timely cross-post from the Irish Left Review. On a regular basis we hope to bring the best of the ILR to showcase the breadth of material available there…

This week, indignant old men and women have led a wave of unprecedented social protest in the national media. Next week, the same old men and women will take their protest to the streets. The government may fall.

The primary issue may be medical cards but the core value at the heart of the matter is the entire concept of the universality of welfare entitlements. Universality has become the battle-ground. Joe Behan has powerfully articulated the core Irish values long since jettisoned by Fianna Fáil. We may be witnessing the death throes of the Progressive Democrats, but the cancer of their neo-liberal ideology has spread.

Ms Harney, in particular, seems hell bent on ensuring that Ireland will not have the opportunity to transform itself into any form of egalitarian state, operating a Nordic-type social model, before she departs the scene. She wishes to dismantle the last remnants of the Irish welfare state.

What has been particularly striking about the budget debate in general is the absence of any protest about increased taxation by the wealthier members in society – as noted in the recent TASC survey, there has been a shift to the left among ABC1’s. There is an acceptance that the wealthier must pay more tax – this is simply no longer in dispute. No one is protesting about the cut in the ceiling for tax relief on private pensions or the 2% levy for higher earners. Higher earners themselves would probably support even more progressive taxation if it was clear that good public services and universal education and health care would be maintained. And the entire population seems to be unified in its outrage by, not just the threat to the universality of the medical card for the over 70’s, but also the application of the 1% levy to even the lowest earners.

Health care is the key battle ground in the universality war. For over a decade now, universality has been losing ground to ‘market justice’ and privatisation, despite growing evidence that the market system has failed in health care provision. For example, it is common knowledge in medical circles that many of the country’s private hospitals would not survive at all without the National Treatment Purchasing Fund (NTPF). And it is also well known that the NTPF is a gravy train for private hospitals. Ms Harney has a displayed a particular fondness for the NTPF, which has managed to escape any real scrutiny despite its massive budget.

The 2008 budget for NTPF is €100 million – the same amount of money that was to be saved by taking the medical card off the ‘ineligible’ over-70’s.

Reducing expenditure on the NTPF would have been one of several health care ‘cuts’ considered by the government, but cutting the medical card for over-70’s is what it chose. Above all else, bail out the boys. Maintain the illusion that the private hospital sector is efficient and cost effective, rather than invest in the public hospitals so that they can deal, in a timely manner, with the patients that were referred to them. And spin it so that it looks like the medical card money was only going to doctors for doing nothing anyway. In this analysis, spending money on GP’s is the same as wasting money. (On the contrary, the evidence in the medical literature is that expenditure on primary care offers the best value for money in health care – much more so than expenditure in the acute services). But do not, under any circumstances, dare to mention or to threaten the extravagant profligacy of NTPF money (€100 million) being doled out to the beloved private hospitals and investors.

It’s not as if all of the cases being dealt with by NTPF are exactly high priority – only 44% of those offered outpatient consultations on the NTPF bothered to take up the offer and only 17% required any surgery. The annual reports of the €100 million endowed NTPF are a complete disgrace, thick with unctuous self-congratulation but exceedingly thin on meaningful data. They make no attempt whatsoever to provide any information on value for money or any comparison with the cost of the same treatments if they had been carried out in the public hospitals. The sum of money involved in 2007 was €92 million and the number of in-patients treated was 22,000.

This year, the Regional Maternity Hospital, Limerick, will provide comprehensive maternity care to some 6,000 mothers of all levels of clinical complexity on a budget of a mere €18.5 million (and this includes the neonatal intensive care of many extremely preterm babies, some born as early as 24 weeks and the cost of whose care can amount to over €0.5 million per baby).

The maternity hospitals in this country continue to struggle to provide a decent level of care on very miserable budgets. And for the second year running, despite huge increases in the number of births (44% in a decade), not an extra red cent has been provided in the budget to improve them.

Will pregnant women will have to descend on the Dáil, along with the pensioners, to pelt eggs at the ministers responsible before anything will be done? And pelt them they should. We have indulged and put up with this type of messing for far too long.

“This Budget serves no vested interest. Rather, it provides an opportunity for us all to pull together and play our part according to our means so that we can secure the gains which have been the achievement of the men and women of this country. It is, a Cheann Comhairle, no less than a call to patriotic action.”

This was Brian Lenihan, ending his budget speech on Tuesday and apparently trying to sound like Franklin D Roosevelt. What unmitigated blather. No vested interest served? Patriotic action? Please, give us a break.

Here’s Roosevelt himself, proclaiming his New Deal in his 1932 election campaign – “Throughout the nation men and women, forgotten in the political philosophy of the Government, look to us here for guidance and for more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth… I pledge you, I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people… This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms.”

There are no FDR’s in this government.

Dr Gerry Burke, FRCOG, is a consultant obstetrician & gynaecologist in Limerick’s Regional and Maternity Hospitals. He is also a member of the Labour Party.

Entertaining… yes, but troubling… October 19, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in US Politics.

Interesting to watch the US Presidential candidates delivering entertaining lines at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner. This sort of unbuttoned approach is a world away from the staid formality of the election campaigns.

Or as Dahlia Lithwick noted on Slate.com…

It’s not just that both of them are wreck-yer-mascara funny. They are. And it’s not just that they let themselves laugh out loud at each other’s jokes. They do. The really stunning part is getting to see them both again, the way they were back when we loved and adored them: Two men in full, completely inhabiting their quirky, funny inspirational selves. Watching them makes you wonder who these freaky spectral candidates are — the boring squashed up versions of Obama and McCain we’ve endured through the end of last night’s debate. It makes you wonder what it is about presidential politics in 2008 that sucks out what’s best in our candidates, and leaves us with a distillate of small, safe, hard, angry little men.

Except of course it isn’t, or at least not exactly. Every line was prepared and presumably co-written (if the candidates even had a hand in it at all) so, in its own way it was as artificial a construct as any we’ve seen so far. On the other hand, it is fair to say that this gave them space to breath – oddly enough in the semi-public eye – and we got at least some insight into their personalities in a way that the more official events have stymied us.

But that said I was fascinated by the way the rhetoric danced around some fairly tense lines.

And then there were some pretty good jokes… As Obama noted:

“I got my middle name from someone who didn’t think I’d run for President…”

“Fox News the other day accused me of fathering two African-American children in wedlock…”

While McCain noted that:

Maverick I can do, but Messiah is above my paygrade…

Meanwhile, check out the absolute nonsense which has the PUMA crowd far too over excited – as entertaining to watch are their valiant efforts to spin a political environment where Obama is on the rise into the opposite (and their ’empty suit’ rhetoric is pretty tiresome. Daniel Plotz on Slate gabfest months back made the fair point that running for President through the Primary process, flawed as that process is, is in itself an educative and challenging process both in terms of projection of policy and beliefs and in terms of organisation. Few ’empty suits’ have made it all the way). An outfit called African Press International (who curiously are on WordPress and were top ranking yesterday when I logged in to the CLR, hence I had some advance warning of the following) claimed to have recorded a phone call from Michelle Obama berating them for ‘spreading rumours created by American rumours created by American bloggers and other racist media…’.

As the Huffington Post notes, this is fakety-fake, and piss-poor too.

But API – operating out of Norway, natch – say:

1. API had a telephone call from Mrs Obama after consultations with Nairobi. We will avail all the details and what transpired so that all interested parties may understand that the story is not fake.

2. API has no interest in the outcome of the US elections and we do not partner with any group in the promotion of any candidate for the presidency.

3. Our recordings will be released when we are satisfied it is not intended to be misused in any way or for any gains by an group.

Yeah, right.

I’m sorry that I continue to delve into these depths, but they’re remarkable as an insight into how the internet functions during elections. Sure, all this stuff is utterly peripheral, but when one sees that people at McCain rallies still believe Obama to be Muslim and shout highly abusive rhetoric it’s not hard to link such to a political hinterland of worrying lack of thought and in many cases outright mendacity.

So now we know there’s a fourth rail… and what about the house that Bertie built. Those foundations are looking shaky… October 18, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, The Left.

The events of the past twenty four hours have been, well remarkable isn’t too strong a word I’ll hazard. I’m at home nursing whiplash so I’ve had more opportunity to see this unfold than I thought I would. First up we see components of the coalition painstakingly assembled by Bertie begin to tremble and crack. First up it was the mutters from Fianna Fáil backbenchers, then we had the entirely unlikely duo of Finian McGrath and Michael Lowry appearing together to berate the government on the plinth at Leinster House. Followed later in the afternoon by the Green Party, cleverly putting forward Mary White to voice of their concerns. She managed to pull off the trick of expressing her worry while simultaneously fending off the obvious question as to how her Ministerial colleagues had been unable to see what now appears to be the bleeding obvious, that this was one bird that wouldn’t fly.

Now I have to come out hands up and admit that I thought Child Benefit would be the issue that sank the Budget – at least before hand. But as noted they avoided touching that rail to any particular degree. Instead they went for the elderly.

Ooops. That’s now the fourth rail of Irish politics. Don’t touch it. And how wrong I was to suggest that the grey vote wouldn’t mobilise. Don’t touch ’em either.

We can look at this in two ways. We can be heartened that there now appear to be areas of public and social provision which simply cannot be touched by governments. Yaaay!

Or alternatively we can wonder at the point raised in the comments here that the levies which are equally unpalatable and unacceptable from a left position as the attack on the Health Cards. These – as well as education cuts – simply haven’t aroused the same passion. Now this can be for many reasons. Firstly because it’s simply too difficult to diffuse anger and focus on the entirety and it’s easier to take a single issue and vent about it. Or alternatively because the Medical Cards hits home in a more universal way, or that our public discourse on such matters is now so distorted by right thinking that it is impossible for people to empathise in quite the same way with those who are economically so vulnerable.

And what of that almost perfect construction by master political builder Bertie Ahern? Well, to lose the outlying elements is bad, but worse by far to see the rot creeping into the foundations with a Fianna Fáil deputy, a Fianna Fáil deputy for God’s sake, Joe Behan having the temerity to resign from the party. And a new TD at that.

If you had said to me on Budget day that this government looked shaky I’d have probably dismissed the idea out of hand. Now? I’m not so sure. Although – it may well be that none of the alternatives are particularly keen to return to the people just yet. Or… perhaps they are.

Let’s note that this is a huge opportunity for the Irish left. Here is a clear case where the slash and burn approach of the centre-right consensus has run up against public antagonism and hostility. And it requires a very clear left response towards it that such provisions are non-negotiable – even if we can rightly discuss their individual nature. That puts a considerable onus on Labour, Sinn Féin, and yes, even the Green Party.

Still, one can point to one constant star on the political horizon. For for Stephen Collins it is that the ‘reforms’ didn’t go far enough.

In time, Fianna Fáil TDs may come to regret not the tough choices already made, but the fact that not enough of them were taken this year. Putting off issues like taxing child benefit or, more importantly, introducing root and branch reform into the public service has only postponed the evil day.

Politically it would have made more sense to get the bulk of the bad news out of the way in one fell swoop. Going back to the well again and again will only make the voters angrier.

Okay, so on a day when the Coalition wobbles, when the political situation is as fragile as it has been in a decade or more and when the country is in revolt on the rightward thrust of these measures one of our leading political commentators remains wedded to the faux – realism of that previous economic consensus…

Right. Indeed.

How to Interpret the Current Crisis. From the London Review of Books October 17, 2008

Posted by Garibaldy in Economy, Media and Journalism, The Left.

In January, I read quite simply the best piece of analysis I have seen during the whole of the credit crunch, by John Lanchester, the son of an old-school City banker. in the London Review of Books. Entitled Cityphilia, and published not long after the Northern Rock fiasco, it cut right to the heart of the matter:

“There is no mystery about how we got to this point: successive governments have, in policy terms, given the City more or less everything it wants. One of the last big things any government did to piss the City off – truly piss it off – was the windfall tax on profits imposed in 1981 by Mrs Thatcher’s chancellor Geoffrey Howe. (Blair or Brown would never dream of doing anything like that to the City.) But the abolition of exchange controls in 1979 and the increasingly international flow of capital, combined with the abolition of restrictions on trading practices which culminated in the ‘Big Bang’ in 1986, have all led to the City’s increasing dominance of British economic life. This, in turn, makes it all the more striking how little knowledge most people have of what goes on in the City: what it is for, what it does, and how it affects everyday life for everybody else.”

What he was talking about was the sacrificing not only of industry, but of the social fabric of much of the UK to the interests of the financial capital concentrated in the City (on a side note, the historians A. Hopkins and P.J. Cain argue that this “gentlemanly capitalism” was the driving force behind British Imperialism).

The conclusion spoke volumes, and seems not entirely unprophetic (if that’s a word):

One of the few victories of the collective polity over the financial industries – though it’s not one much celebrated in the financial press – came in 1991. The House of Lords ruled that Hammersmith and Fulham didn’t have to pay the huge sums it had lost investing in swaps (a kind of derivative) because its participation in the activity had been illegal to start with. That ruling affected 130 councils which had done similar deals, almost always to get around Tory rate-capping, and cost the 75 banks involved an estimated £750 million. The City hated that but the principle established was an important one: these deals are not beyond the law. If our laws are not extended to control the new kinds of super-powerful, super-complex and potentially super-risky investment vehicles, they will one day cause a financial disaster of global-systemic proportions.
Still, let’s look on the bright side: at least City bonuses will be smaller this year.

In short, the lack of regulation would destroy the system, and risk economic devestation for us all.

And Lanchester is back. This time, in an article entitled Cityphobia Lanchester explains how the sale of debt lies at the bottom of all this, added to the fact that the bonus culture encouraged bankers to take risks without the prospect of personal responsibility

“If you are wondering how a total of $8,200,000,000 could be paid in bonuses over two years to the great minds whose company went bankrupt, well, what can I tell you? The bonus question is often seen as a tragicomic footnote to the business of banking, but it may be that it goes close to the heart of the problem of how we got to be in this place. Through history, the great fortunes have been made by people directly taking risks on their own account. Today, great fortunes are made by employees, doing nothing other than their jobs: jobs which, in the case of bankers, involve taking on risks, usually with other people’s borrowed money. To make more money, and earn more bonuses (which are usually 60 per cent of an investment banker’s pay), it’s simple: you just take on more risk. The upside is the upside, and the downside – well, it increasingly seems that for the bankers themselves, certainly in the case of Lehman New York, there isn’t one. This undermines the whole principle of ‘moral hazard’, which was the idea behind letting Lehman go under in the first place – the need for companies to face the consequences of their decisions. This principle obviously collapses if the individuals involved don’t face any consequences.”

So once again, he is repeating his message that regulation is the key. Having praised the British government’s actions (though interestingly, Cowen’s move doesn’t feature in his brief round-up of events) , he moves on to hint at what type of regulation he would like to see to avoid this happening again. “For a start, there must be a tight limit on the relationship between banks’ debt and their equity, and much greater transparency about the nature of banks’ ‘assets’.”

He then moves to what must be the key question for progressive people across the world:

So: a huge unregulated boom in which almost all the upside went directly into private hands, followed by a gigantic bust in which the losses were socialised. That is literally nobody’s idea of how the financial system is supposed to work. It is just as much an abomination to the free marketeer as it is to the social democrat or outright leftist. But the models and alternatives don’t seem to be forthcoming: there is an ideological and theoretical vacuum where the challenge from the left used to be. Capitalism no longer has a global antagonist, just at the moment when it has never needed one more – if only to clarify thinking and values, and to provide the chorus of jeering and Schadenfreude which at this moment is deeply appropriate. I would be providing it myself if I weren’t so frightened.

Shame that he is frightened, but I’m sure there is no lack of schadenfreude on this site. The point though about the virtual absence of an alternative is one that we find ourselves drawn back to again and again and again. Not just in Ireland, but internationally, although an interesting statement from the President of the GUE/NGL in the European Parliament was flagged up here.

Lanchester also draws attention to something that has not been discussed enough:

One thing which has been lacking in public discourse about the crisis is someone to point out that we did this to ourselves, because we allowed our governments to do it, and because we were greedy and stupid. It’s not just bankers who have been indulging in greed, short-termism and fantasy economics. In addition to our stretched mortgage borrowing, Britain has half of the total European credit-card debt. That is a horrible fact, and although it’s nice to reserve the blame for banks who made lending too easy, the great British public is just as much to blame. We grew obsessed with the price of our houses, felt richer than we should, borrowed money we didn’t have, spent it on tat, and now that the downturn has happened – as it was bound to do – we want someone else to blame. Well boo fucking hoo. Bankers are to blame, but we’re to blame too. That’s just as well, because we’re the ones who are going to have to pay.

He also ends on a somewhat discouraged note.

“What will, what must, die is the mystical belief in the power of the markets that has dominated political and economic discourse in most of the Western world for the last several decades. The markets have so manifestly, so flagrantly malfunctioned that we can’t go back to the idea of unfettered liberal capitalism as a talisman, template or magic wand. The unquestioned Cityphilia I wrote about earlier this year is gone, I hope for ever. Unfortunately, we have no current model of where to go from here, apart from a more heavily regulated form of growth-based liberal capitalism.”

And it is here where I think I shall most strongly part company with Lanchester. The fundamental fault is not with failed regulation. We – or our ancestors to be more precise – have heard all the stuff about never again and new regulations to ensure it can’t happen before, in the aftermath of the great crash of 1929, when the US financial sector was overhauled. The fundamental fault lies of course with the nature of capitalism, the boom and bust cycle, undoubtedly exacerbated by the leeway given to speculators in the banks. Even if we chain then up so tight that they cannot do this again, the cyclical nature of the real economy will lead to depression. And as history tells us, ways around regulation will be found, and the power of the banks will ensure that regulations are ignored by government, or relaxed by it. Until we face up to these facts, the regulations will remain sticking plasters. We all here agree that we can build an alternative. As to its precise details, suggestions on a postcard please….

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