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John Waters champions the status quo…again April 30, 2010

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, European Politics, Irish Politics, Uncategorized.

JW is in fine fettle this morning about pensions. He’s decided to turn his rage once more on journalists… and sure why not?

And in doing so he asks a very good question and then… well, comprehensively blows it.

What gives highly paid journalists the right to accuse politicians of being far removed from normal income levels?  

Which would be good if that were what he were comparing. Except as we shall see, he’s not. He continues:

THIS HAS has been one of the most unedifying weeks in Irish political life for a long time, achieving its nadir on Tuesday, when Emmet Stagg was hauled before The People on Morning Ireland to explain why he had not given up his €56-a-week ministerial pension before he was compelled to do so.
Did Stagg think he had been “right” to take his €56-a-week pension until now? Did he think it was “right” a serving member of the Oireachtas should be paid a pension? Could he “understand” that people were angered because they thought a pension was something you got when you stopped working?

He doesn’t appear to understand the substance of the issue. Note that he’s talking about ‘highly paid’ journalists, but he’s contrasting that with politicians pensions.

This is becoming an altogether ugly little country, in which rage, envy and spite are increasingly the dominant chords. The day may dawn when we will look back on recent years and realise that, whatever about the recession and banking crisis, the mindless kow-towing to “public fury” is a phenomenon from which it will take much longer to recover.

That too is interesting. For a man who places, and not incorrectly, some emphasis on matters beyond the material he has a curious aversion to engaging in any sense with the inequities of the material.

Is it just a matter or punishing politicians – the nearest available ones – for the alleged sins of other politicians, or is there indeed a principle at stake? If a principle, what is it? That nobody should continue working while receiving a pension? That nobody should continue working for the State while receiving a State pension? In what sense does it matter whether the pension or other income comes from the State or otherwise? Does this mean broadcasters, when they retire from their roles as public prosecutors, will be prohibited from taking up weekend nixers on Lyric FM? Or perhaps the “principle” relates to double incomes? If so, there are many more lynchings to come. Soon it may be your turn or mine.

And here’s the thing. On one level I am in mild agreement with his initial point. What precisely is the fundamental principle at work here? Is it that MGQ is being paid a pension from the state while doing another job which – strictly speaking – isn’t an employment of this state? That can’t be it – surely?

Or is it that the pension is too big given that it comes from state monies, or that no-one should be able to draw down a pension before a certain age, say somewhere around 60+. A position that many of us on the left might find entirely reasonable

Ah, now. Then we move towards something tangible. Then indeed we might be talking about highly paid journalists being in no position to ‘accuse politicians of being far removed from normal income levels’.

But throughout the piece Waters confuses income with pensions.

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, who took a job on certain terms and conditions, bowed to an overnight income-reduction of 40 per cent. Stagg gave up his €56 a week. One by one, the guilty were forced to admit their sins. Terry Leyden, on being sentenced, tried to expand the discussion, but was told to shut up.

Note how he use the phrase ‘pension or other income’. Now granted a pension can operate as income (in which case one could argue strongly for significant taxation on it prior to a certain age, and probably at exemplary levels), but the vast majority of workers would tend to regard, given the realities of our working lives, pensions as being something quite distinct from ‘income’, something that arrives at the end of a working life, and in that sense it seems reasonable to position it within that conceptual framework. Indeed in all respects pensions are treated quite separately to other income by the state, employers and so on. You can have a wage, but there’s no guarantee at all of a pension. And so on. This may seem self-evident, but not to some… although in fairness it’s clear that Ministerial pensions are regarded by many of those who have them as income.

But let’s bring it back to his point about the media. Take pensions first, although he slides away from discussing them directly. It may well be true that many pensions in the media are equally and extravagantly gross. But, and if I’m incorrect here I’d be glad to be put right, my presumption would be that most of those receiving them would be unlikely to do so after a short – say five year – stint, like Ministers, and would be more likely to do so at a reasonable age, say post-55 or 60 or even 65? Indeed given the longevity of some of our broadcasters you’d wonder if that was even the case. But his main thrust is media ‘incomes’.

Now given that small point then isn’t there something remarkably wrong-headed about Waters critique? He’s comparing extravagant Ministerial pensions gifted at any age once one has had a term in office – however short, and God knows some of those in the Rainbow Coalition were barely there a wet weekend – with extravagant wages paid out to broadcasters. So let’s look at that last sentence and note the key word in it – extravagant (and that could be extended to the issue of extravagant wages for politicians and some higher mid to senior level in the public sector).

Given both are extravagant surely that is the ground that Waters should be fighting on. But curiously it’s not. And given that it’s extravagance I can think of one mechanism, a simple one really, which would, even if we were to put to one side the issue of paying people ‘income’ in the form of pensions taken when a short term job ends – which given the situation most workers face is abysmal, be quite effective in dealing with this issue. Let them keep their pensions at this ludicrously early point in their lives and let’s tax them at some point considerably higher than the current highest tax rate – which I believe is the current tax position for such benefits. And while we’re at it let’s increase the tax rate on the ‘highly paid journalists’ and all in the ‘highly paid’ bracket as well. Problem solved.

But not for Waters, because his solution is:

To avoid even the whiff of hypocrisy arising from the fulminations of journalists about the incomes of others, I propose we introduce a Standard Proletarian Wage (SPW) of €30,000 a year. All citizens, including journalists, would be free to opt for this, “gifting” the remainder of their salaries to the State. Everyone would be free to retain their existing incomes, but those who failed to sign up to the SPW would not be entitled to denounce others on the basis of their incomes or possessions.

Ain’t that droll? Remind me again what the average industrial wage is and how many people labour below it? Although perhaps that’s just my ‘rage, envy and spite’ talking.

Thing is you’ll notice that Waters doesn’t bother himself about the genesis of this particular escapade, that of the Bank of Ireland pensions. And sure why should he? Because if he did that might open up some tricky questions indeed as to the nature of remuneration in the private sector at the highest levels where a sort of winner takes all mentality has taken hold, a mentality which – lamentably – spread to areas in the public sector and… yes, even our beloved public broadcaster as well as time went on.

But Waters doesn’t do ideology, or rather he tends these days – unlike earlier in his career when he wuz good – to ignore ideology, to shy away from anything approaching ideological precepts. I’ll be the first to recognise that there are limitations and constraints to the latter, but sometimes those are useful in framing and shaping arguments.

It’s typically reactionary. Complain, he does, not about the substance, but about the rhetoric. Which leads us precisely nowhere.


1. Pope Epopt - April 30, 2010

Ach, leave the poor man alone. I suspect senility is setting in.

He has only two topics – father’s rights and knowing your place.

Although I wish the Irish Times was paying me to be it’s resident pub bore.


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