Saturday, 21 February 2015

Water Charges: Double Taxation Or Just Plain Double Standards?

During the  trial of hotel magnate Leona Helmsley for tax evasion in 1989, her housekeeper told the Court of a conversation she'd had with her former boss, where she had commented: "You must pay a lot of taxes. We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes." This statement by Ms. Helmsley (known in her heyday as the "Queen of Mean") quickly came to enjoy the status of a cliche, summing up to many the contemptuous view that the wealthy elite had of the rest of society. In the world inhabited by Helmsley and her husband, there were people like themselves and the "little people", their wealth entitling them not just to greater purchasing power but more rights. Events of recent weeks make it hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a similar phenomenon at play on the "anti-austerity" left at the moment. Members of the movement show all the signs of living in a world which is divided into moral giants (themselves) and moral pygmies (the rest of us). If Leona Helmsley believed that only the (financially) little people pay taxes, then it would seem that the likes of Paul Murphy, Claire Daly and Ruth Coppinger believe that only the (morally) little people obey laws. "Obeying laws is for little people" - not a compelling campaign slogan to be sure, but an increasingly accurate statement of how the anti-water charges campaign is being conducted.

One thing has become increasingly clear in the last twelve months. Whatever the wisdom of establishing the Irish Water infrastructural monopoly in the first place, notwithstanding the numerous examples of incompetence, stupidity and cynicism that the government has manifested in the process of rolling out water charges and irrespective of whether you believe that there is a "right" to free water (and let's be clear, I don't), one fact is beginning to assume paramount importance above all of the others: the anti-water charges campaign has descended into an orgy of thuggery and malfeasance, whose occasionally valid observations about the lack of accountability of the political, administrative and security establishments cannot conceal the increasingly rotten culture that lies within the movement of "anything goes" protest untrammeled by recourse to ordinary legal and constitutional standards of behavioural probity. Set against a government which is showing all the signs of being one of the most arrogant and authoritarian in living memory, we have a coalition of forces whose behaviour in opposition raises chilling questions about the depths to which they might be prepared to descend when actually elected to government. 

In the last year, we have been treated to some fairly ominous spectacles by the "Right 2 Water" campaign and its satellites. During the local election campaign, we endured the gut-wrenching spectacle of Labour Councillor Martina Genocky being set upon by a mob of anti-water charges campaigners and driven out of a housing estate in Jobstown that she was trying to canvass. In November, a group of anti-water charges protestors led by far left TD Paul Murphy blockaded the Tanaiste Joan Burton in her car for more than two hours. Meanwhile, those without Garda escorts and security details or the six figure salaries that might compensate them for such indignities have been subjected to far worse acts of violence and intimidation that give a lie to the proposition that this movement represents the "common man" without fear or favour. In February last year, Irish Water employees attempting to instal meters reported being kneed in the head, pushed and knocked to the ground, followed to and from work and spied on by vans parked outside their homes. In August, Irish Water workers reported being spat at and stoned by local welcoming committees established by campaigners in Dublin. Most bizarre and disturbing is a report that has emerged this week of an Irish Water worker being bitten outside his own home in Limerick - this would make for entertaining satire (think rabid dogs and fear of water) but, in real life, it raises the discomfiting spectre of a political movement whose members behave (sometimes literally) like wild animals, so entranced are they by their ideology. 

On Thursday, the behaviour of protestors kicked into new legal territory, with five of their number jailed for contempt of court on account of their intimidation of employees of Irish water subcontractor GMC Sierra in Phibsboro and Stoneybatter. Meanwhile, in the same week, two People Before Profit Councillors (Tina MacVeigh and John Lyons) have been found to have spent more than €5,000 of Dublin City Council's money on printing leaflets for the anti-water charges campaign - a flagrant misappropriation for private purposes of public money of a type that the obnoxiously sanctimonious PBP representatives would no doubt condemn in the most lurid terms if alleged against an establishment party. What stories like these add up to is a highly pathological narrative of a fundamentally Leninist movement underpinned by Bolshevism's ingrained principle of "who, whom?" whereby the actions of revolutionaries and members of their favoured groups are measured according to an explicitly different yardstick to those outside the vanguard's storied ranks.

All of this leaves us with a striking irony. For a movement that is led by vulgar Marxists and whose theories represent a low grade dime-store variant of Lenin's frightful philosophy, it is strange to note that there is something fundamentally bourgeois about their behaviour and which (paradoxically) offends against vulgar Marxism's own egalitarian tenets. In defending their blatant contempt for laws, Right 2 Water and its minions paint their actions as mere civil disobedience. Even if one can accept that biting and kicking workmen can fit within such a benign definition, one has to marvel at the hypocrisy of a supposedly egalitarian movement hiding behind such an inherently bourgeois veil. After all, vulgar Marxism can only regard "civil disobedience" through the lens of social class, which would lead anyone who understands egalitarian dogma to conclude (perhaps, as a matter of fact, correctly) that the reason why the establishment has been so willing to accept a dichotomy between "civil disobedience" and conventional criminality is that it is a form of illegal behaviour in which the children of the well-to-do regularly engage themselves, leaving authorities less willing to stigmatise and prosecute it than crimes more likely to be committed by the lower orders. Sadly, all of this indicates that underneath the PC pseudo-Trotskyite glove lies a cruel Stalinist hand.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Dr. Varadkar's €9 Whine

Ireland is in the midst of a crisis. Our economy? No. Our debt addled public treasury? Not that either. A zombie banking system? Guess again. A perilous global geopolitical environment with wars raging at the eastern periphery of Europe and the western periphery of the Middle East? Come on, use your imagination! No, our crisis du jour is - you guessed it - drink. It seems we truly are back in Celtic Tiger Ireland now, with our politicians so complacent about real crises that they are inventing fictitious ones in order to increase their relevance. Since the day I became old enough to legally buy alcohol - quite a while back now, as my retreating hairline will attest - I've been hearing about Ireland's love affair with hooch and the supposedly cataclysmic effects it is having on our society. Typical of the establishment's breathless hysteria is the following screed of emotional blackmail from the Health Minister, Dr. Leo Varadkar:

"Most Irish adults drink too much and many drink dangerously...  This has an enormous impact on our society and economy through greater illness and higher health costs, public order and violent offences, road traffic collisions, injuries and absence from work."

By reason of this supposedly catastrophic social affliction, the Good Doctor now wishes to drastically restrict the advertising of alcohol and to increase the minimum price of a bottle of wine to roughly €9 and of a can of beer to roughly €2. So let's review. We are in the midst of an existential crisis brought about by our national addiction to grog. The fact that we have one of the highest average alcohol prices in Europe hasn't dulled our appetite for the devil's buttermilk, the fact that we already have amongst Europe's most restrictive opening hours regimes for pubs and clubs hasn't done the trick either, our antediluvian licensing laws that restrict the number of public houses have also failed to stem the tide of alcoholism and Dr. Varadkar has looked at these facts and concluded that, in contradiction of all the actual evidence, the real problem is not that nanny state policies have failed, but that they simply haven't been draconian enough. Sigh... And this is one of our cleverest politicians.  

The case for more regulation, taxation and control of alcohol is almost too vacuous for words... and that's before we even set ourselves to the task of analysing whether we indeed have a crisis at all. According to the OECD, Irish alcohol consumption runs at 11.6 litres of pure alcohol a year per capita. This compares to 12.6 litres in France, 11.7 litres in Germany, 15.1 litres in Russia and 17.8 litres in Belarus. These numbers give us no indication of crisis in Ireland. 

Another obvious crisis indicator is our average life expectancy. According to Eurostat, the average life expectancy in the EU in 2012 was 77.5 years and in the Eurozone, it weighed in at a slightly higher 78.7 years. If we had a public health crisis based upon our manic consumption of alcohol, we would expect to have a significantly lower life expectancy than our more sober peers. Sadly for the nanny-staters, the sums don't add up. Our life expectancy for 2012 was bang on the Eurozone average - 78.7 years.

Another place in which our national affliction would statistically manifest itself is in our crime rates. With our population of drunks roaming the streets, destructive behaviour such as assault and homicide should be endemically elevated. However, once again, there is no statistical basis behind believing that the crime spikes that would inevitably accompany a national alcohol binge have gone through the formality of actually occurring. The UN Survey of Crime Trends for the go-go Celtic Tiger year of 2006, when booze was in the news with monotonous consistency, showed that our rate of reported homicides was 1.2 per 100,000 of the population compared to 1.1 in England and Wales and 1.6 in Scotland. The equivalent measure for rapes was 8.5 per 100,000 compared to 17 in Scotland and 27.7 in England and Wales. For robberies, it was 56 per 100,000 compared to 48 in Scotland and 137 in England and Wales. For assaults, Ireland came in at 353 per 100,000 compared to 730 in England and Wales and 1,487 in Scotland.   

So all the evidence indicates that this is not a real crisis but a politicians' crisis - namely a contrived pseudo-emergency designed to sow panic and hysteria in order to convince a gullible public to hand more of the day-to-day control over their lives to the army of politicians, technocrats and bureaucrats. Groucho Marx once defined the art of politics as that of "looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it and then misapplying the wrong remedies." Looking at the state of politics today, it's hard not to conclude that Groucho was prescient, with the government inventing a crisis that doesn't exist and then applying a solution that is destined to fail.

Moreover, when the nanny state coincides with the equality agenda, we see the most pernicious new pattern of all emerging. When universal suffrage came in, the typical age of entry into the workforce was 13 and the voting age was 21, meaning that a voter was expected to have spent several years accumulating life experience before being entrusted with the franchise. It is scary to think that under (recently abandoned) government plans, the voting age at the next General Election would have been reduced to 16, a move which would have resulted in the franchise being extended to people who the law defines as children and most of whom would have never worked or paid income tax, a utility bill or a rental installment. I fear that it can only be a matter of time before this terrible idea is resurrected. Meanwhile, we see more and more government regulation and control of adult behaviour and activity and perhaps this represents the greatest crisis of all - the increasing tendency of the establishment to treat children like adults and adults like children. The history of authoritarian political systems teaches us that sagas like these never end well. Only time will tell how deep the rot in our political system is.

*Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that there was a plan to reduce the voting age to 16. This was incorrect. The coalition abandoned this proposed plan in January. The post has been amended to correct this error.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The Shallow Elitism of Tsipras and his Disciples

"You can't take more money out of the bank than you've put into it...".

Leonard James Callaghan
 (British Prime Minister 1976-79)

I submit the above quote as a reminder of a time when socialist politicians understood basic finance. Truly there can be no doubt that the hardscrabble lessons that "Lucky Jim" learned growing up in the slums of Portsmouth would be lost on his spiritual successors in today's lowest-common-denominator Keynesian left. Today, of course, Callaghan seems like a curio in a dusty antique shop, with his "nowt taken out" regional accent and humble origins sitting seamlessly atop a  modest standard-issue business suit, shirt and tie. The faces of today's left are Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Veroufakis, elite public servants with penchants for designer casuals and powerful motor cycles (BMWs in the case of Tsipras and Yamahas in that of Veroufakis), whose signature act of rebellion is to eschew the tyrannical necktie. Far from the "Mr. Smith goes to Washington" depiction they enjoy courtesy of the media, these two men embody the new elitism of shabby chic - clearly spending lavishly in order to resemble what someone who dressed cheaply might have looked like forty odd years ago. 

The contrast between the Syriza kingpins and their hapless predecessors could not be greater. The bespectacled business-suited Antonis Samaras looks like a middle ranking bank official. His foreign minister, the obese Evangelos Venizelos looks like nothing so much as an Athens taxi driver dressed-up for his daughter's wedding - his paunch an anachronistic reminder of the bygone days when access to calories connoted status. The handover was not really from one social class to another - both the incumbents (Samaras and Venizelos) and the arrivistes (Tsipras and Veroufakis) come directly from the elite pews of Greece's cosseted and perpetually angry public sector. The difference is generational. Tsipras and Veroufakis look like the sons of their predecessors, shedding the robes but retaining the conceits beneath them, all the while kicking dust in the eyes of their no longer fashionable fathers.  

The similarities are not skin deep. Their old bourgeois predecessors lavishly ran up one of the biggest public debt mountains ever seen and Tsipras (a town planner) and Veroufakis (an academic) enjoyed their own formative years at the trough and have greeted the Maitre D's arrival with the announcement that they won't pay for the a la carte meal - funny what passes for rebellion these days. The new establishment seems intent on reprising its predecessors' role behind a veil of nauseating piety, for underneath the petty externalities of a new broom lies the rancid odour of business as usual. Far from attacking the culture of governmental and professional excess that led Greece to become a public credit addicted basket case in the first place, Syriza now promises to reverse even the immeasurably modest reforms that have thus far been undertaken and far from introducing new reformist thinking to the thoroughly discredited halls of Greek administration, their trendy Bohemian Bourgeoisie image finds its counterpart in the same ignorant groupthink that plagues the western educated classes - the all pervasive belief in the free lunch and the conviction that the concept of a balance sheet is an ancient superstition in which only the unenlightened believe.

In this strange world, money that is borrowed does not have to be repaid. Creditors will always be endlessly tolerant of their debtors' excesses. Stiffed bondholders will forget their haircuts and enthusiastically sign up for another tranche of unproductive revenue-account sovereign debt. An economy, the pinnacle of whose industrial production consists of Retsina and olive oil, which accords hairdressers an early retirement age due to their exposure to chemicals and whose railway employees are paid so much that it would be cheaper to transport all of their passengers on taxis can simply borrow, spend and wait for the Gods of "aggregate demand" to deliver it an Arcadia. Underlying this whole vision is the belief that the "common man" is best served by allowing a vanguard of technocrats to perform magic tricks on a centralised economy based upon nothing more than sleight of hand.

Ireland has no Alexis Tsipras... yet. For all the talk, Mary Lou McDonald and Richard Boyd Barret lack the grey matter, Paul Murphy and Clare Daly lack the steady temperament and Gerry Adams has too much Semtex under his fingernails. The closest we have to a Tsipras or a Veroufakis is Fintan O'Toole in the Irish Times and (for now at least) he remains unelected. This week, he delivers the latest installment in his seven year campaign against "austerity". As an example of the delusions peculiar to intellectuals, he compares Germany to the Catholic Church of the 15th century and the Greeks to Galileo, using a selective history of pre-welfare state-era western debt default and the defaults of third world countries as a basis behind the proposition that a post-default world is one of  "higher income levels and growth, lower debt servicing burdens and lower government debt". This analysis, of course, is steeped in fantasy. First O'Toole ignores that the fact the defaults of third world countries underwritten by generous IMF backup are a very different proposition to the (unprecedented) vista of western countries (who fund the IMF) defaulting. Secondly, he ignores the fact that under his own beloved Keynesian doctrine, it should not be possible for governments to need to default in the first place - their spending being a "multiplier" of GDP. Thirdly, he ignores the currency meltdowns suffered by debt defaulters and the fact that countries which are forced to default need to destroy the purchase power of wages and salaries by allowing their currencies to fall to an exchange rate which permits their bedraggled workforces to recover through cheap labour exports.

No, there remains no genuine populism within our political system, no voice that posits an alternative to current policy that does not advocate a deeper immersion in elitist fantasy. Rather than leaders who don't wear ties, methinks we need leaders who (ties or no ties) enjoy a proper oxygen flow to their brains and sadly, that still seems like an illusive search.