Dec 2011

A very merry Chrimbo

Well, I’m about to do my annual festive good deed and call the Ethiopian Embassy in Dublin to tell them it’s Christmas (I’m not sure if they know). In the meantime, let me wish all of my readers a wonderful Yuletide. Whatever your feelings about the religious significance of the festival, midwinter has ever been a time to feast, be merry and look at pretty lights. And I hope you do. And in the words of Bill and Ted – who, frankly, got it right where so many wise men got it wrong – be excellent to each other.

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Dec 2011

Join up your thinking, Mr. McWilliams

Today I was reading an article (There is Another Way) on David McWilliams‘ website and I found myself mentally stumbling over a particular line. It’s about halfway through the piece… “economies grow because of the human capital of the societies”, he says.

Now, I like David McWilliams. He’s probably the most famous of Ireland’s celebrity economists, but don’t let that put you off. I certainly don’t agree with everything he has to say. And if, for example, we were to reduce things to the simplistic left/right dialectic that I generally try to avoid on this blog, then it’s safe to say that I’d be a good deal to the left of McWilliams. Beyond that, although he is one of the most vocal opponents of the current austerity orthodoxy, he still retains far too much of the dogma of mainstream free-market economic theory for my liking. Nonetheless, he was one of the very few economists to publicly warn of the financial crisis quite a while before it hit… a fact that – along with his likeable media persona – has garnered him the celebrity status he currently enjoys. He also organises the Kilkenomics Fesital which, although I’ve not been to it myself, sounds like a splendid idea (high-profile economists and well known stand-up comedians are invited to take part in performances, public interviews and conferences… a most appropriate combination of participants).

Earlier this year, at a conference called European Zeitgeist 2011, McWilliams was asked about the “bail-outs” that have been received by three (so far) EU members. His response succinctly sums up the sensible position on the subject…

However, regardless of his likeability and sensible views on the current financial crisis, David McWilliams still falls into the great trap that pretty much every economist of note succumbs to… to use the language of Systems Theory, he confuses the map with the territory. That is, he tends to see economic analysis as descriptive of the real world as opposed to merely being a model of it… and a flawed one at that. The distinction may be a subtle one, but it is massively important.

A couple of months ago, McWilliams hosted an online seminar (or “webinar” to use the parlance of our times) in which he gave a short lecture on the European crisis and then responded to questions from the disembodied audience. I put my question to him. Now, regular readers of this blog could probably guess what I asked with a fair degree of accuracy, but for the rest of you, it went something like this… “David, while acknowledging that the current financial and economic crisis is a real problem, what do you say to people who suggest it is but the tip of the iceberg; that a far more serious issue is that of resource depletion – in particular, but not limited to, peak oil – and that this will result in a near-term crisis that will make the current one look positively modest in comparison?”

To his credit (and my surprise), his response essentially acknowledged that there was a lot of truth in my suggestion and that the global economy may well experience very serious shocks as a result of resource depletion in the not too distant future. The reason for my surprise was not simply the fact that most economists fail to make that map / territory distinction and therefore completely forget that economics is no more than a conceptual model of a physical world and that economic laws and theories are only accurate insofar as they tally with the laws of physics. That they are essentially descriptions of past events and cease being at all relevant when the physical conditions of the world they describe change radically. No, I was also surprised because McWilliams makes little or no reference to the notion of resource depletion in anything he writes.

This is why I get frustrated when I read statements like “economies grow because of the human capital of the societies”. McWilliams is a very smart man and appears to acknowledge the near-term possibility of a radical change in the physical conditions within which human society – and therefore economics – must exist. The depletion of oil and other petroleum products is a complete game changer. And it makes statements such as the one about human capital completely redundant. While the statement may be (indeed, is) relevant in a world where the availability of cheap energy is a given, it is nonsense in a world of diminishing energy supply. In that world, economic growth is entirely dependent upon access to that diminishing supply of energy.

This is because an economy is – in very rough terms – the amount of work occurring within a society. Some would insist that should be restated as “the amount of productive work occurring within a society”, but that’s not the case because, in practice, many people are paid for unproductive work and that money is still part of the economy. But what is “work”? Well, a definition from a Business Studies course might claim that work is “paid employment at a job or a trade, occupation, or profession”. And that’s all well and good for passing your end of term exam, but if economies are built on physical systems (which in the final analysis, they are) then it’s really the physical definition of work that’s important. And while the most mathematical of definitions is the somewhat abstract “work is the product of a force times the distance through which it acts”, we only have to wander as far as the First Law of Thermodynamics to find work equated with energy. Indeed energy is defined as “the ability to do work”. Therefore, with decreasing energy resources comes decreasing work.

This is something that cannot be avoided and something we desperately need to start facing up to. Every available piece of data seems to point towards the fact that we have already passed peak oil (2006 seems to be the agreed year for a peak in conventional crude oil). Indeed, this is playing a not insignificant role in our current economic problems, and yet we are still at the very beginning of the resource depletion crisis. Each moment we continue to wilfully ignore this issue is a moment spent making the problem worse. Which is why people like David McWilliams; intelligent people with a public platform who are apparently aware of the looming crisis; should be talking about it. They should be shouting it from the rooftops until they’re hoarse.

What they shouldn’t be doing is insisting that despite the current downturn, despite the currency problems and despite the issue of unsustainable debt, the underlying structure of the world is the same as it ever was, and that a return to growth is just around the corner if we simply make better economic and financial decisions. Because ultimately that is what “economies grow because of the human capital of the societies” translates into. It is a statement that reflects a deep economic orthodoxy and that’s something we just can’t afford right now.

Disclaimer: I’m off down to Cork to spend the Yuletide with my family tomorrow but wanted to get this piece done while David McWilliams’ article was still relatively fresh. In truth it’s a bit of a haphazard blog entry. It’s a bit hurried and could definitely have done with gestating a while longer. But what can you do?

For those who don’t immediately see the link between oil depletion and a reduction in available energy, check out my most recent article on Peak Oil which may (or may not) explain things. See: Peak oil revisited (part 1).

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Dec 2011

Security (by Philip Challinor)

The War Against Terror has brought death, kidnap, rendition, torture and destruction to an already weary world. It has resulted in an ongoing erosion of civil liberties, human rights and the rule of law. It has also partly unleashed and partly revealed the moral vacuum at the heart of western society. The War Against Terror has done more damage to the notion of enlightened, liberal democracy than any terrorist could hope to have achieved. By fighting fire with fire we have merely succeeded in burning everyone. In my search for a silver lining – and it is a very narrow one indeed – I’m forced to fall back on that old cliché about harsh times providing inspiration for writers and artists.

Security (by Philip Challinor)It is The War Against Terror and consequent loss of civil liberties that form the heart of Philip Challinor’s 2010 novel, Security. It’s a story told with wit, skill and an unsettling dollop of resignation… a sense that humanity is more than willing to allow terrible things to happen if they’re scared enough, and sometimes just because they’re too lazy to do otherwise.

Readers of Security spend 24 hours with a mid-level bureaucrat – Anderson – working for National Consolidated Solutions, to whom the UK government have outsourced a number of security contracts. Any novel about the work of a bureaucrat is going to be leavened with a certain amount of existentialism, but Challinor chooses to downplay this aspect of Security by turning the inner world of his protagonist into an abstract mystery story… Just what is it that Anderson does? The central character suffers from that terrible and slightly paradoxical combination of boredom and stress that anyone who has ever done a job that didn’t interest them, yet found themselves with a petty tyrant as a boss will recognise. Partly because of this – and partly due to the nature of his company’s business – Anderson forces himself to plough through his daily routine by focussing purely on the mechanics of the task at hand. As a result, the bigger picture takes some time to come into focus and although the entire novel is steeped in a sinister atmosphere, it takes a while to work out exactly why.

All the same, there’s plenty of humour to be found within the pages of Security, but it is both bone dry and extremely dark, so don’t expect too many chuckles. And the inevitable existentialism of a bureaucrat’s story hasn’t been completely eradicated – despite the attempts of Anderson’s unconscious mind to roboticise himself. This existential aspect is most obvious in Anderson’s encounters with and thoughts about his family. We can only assume that these sterile relationships did not start out this way and are a direct result of the toll taken on his psyche by the job he performs. Perhaps.

Ultimately Challinor successfully avoids getting too bogged down either in the monotony of bureaucracy or the opaque family relationships of the protagonist. And he creates more than enough intrigue to prevent Anderson’s monotonous life turning into a monotonous novel. Like the great Leopold Bloom, while Anderson is a passive participant in his own life, his passivity does not weigh down the story he tells. Over the course of the (relatively short) novel Anderson’s conversations begin to reveal precisely what is going on around him – even if at some level he would rather they didn’t. And fittingly, his final significant conversation – with the wonderfully objectionable Eric Munt – reveals everything in the most explicit terms while also hinting at an even worse future to come.

Security, like Ken MacLeod’s excellent The Execution Channel, paints a bleak picture of a future that threatens to engulf us all should we allow it. A future that has already begun to creep backwards into the present (as the inmates of Guantanemo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the cells at Bagram Airbase or a dozen other places whose names we don’t know can attest to), and which must be resisted at all costs. The alternative, as illustrated by Anderson, is too chilling to contemplate outside the pages of a novel.

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Dec 2011

Speaking ill of the dead

A couple of days ago I awoke to discover that Christopher Hitchens had died. The news was initially conveyed to me by my twitter stream which was knee deep in tributes and impassioned insistences that we had lost “a great thinker”. There were other opinions scattered amongst the hagiography, but by and large they were in the minority. He was described as “the beau ideal of the public intellectual” by Vanity Fair magazine. And even those from whom one might expect a little balance seemed determined to speak no ill of the dead… a convention, incidentally, that Hitchens himself was unwilling to follow. Some of those who dared question the posthumous near-canonisation of the man have been accused of being “spiteful” or “insensitive”, apparently unaware of the insensitivity and spitefulness of the man they are defending. Read, for example, the views of Hitchens on Jerry Falwell – expressed live on CNN the day following Falwell’s death. I have no time for the loathsome Falwell, but the double-standards of some of those defending Hitchens is breath-taking to witness.

Christopher HitchensEven the normally fearless Billy Bragg sought to “add [his] voice to those who mourn the loss of Christopher Hitchens”. Bragg then went on to compare Hitchens favourably to George Orwell and express his admiration for the writer’s “compulsion to speak his mind”. About the worst thing he could find to say about him was that he “didn’t always agree with him”. I wonder if I were to spend the last decade of my life writing exultant articles in defence of cluster bombs and endless wars (in which young men are sent to kill and die overseas while I eat and drink myself slowly to death in luxury)… if I were to write a series of borderline racist articles about the followers of Islam and loudly champion the “clash of civilisations” like the most boorish of George Bush’s neoconservative cheerleaders… I wonder if I were to resort to calling women who dared to criticise the Bush administration’s foreign policy “sluts” and “fucking fat slags”… I wonder if the worst I would get from stalwarts of The Left would be “well, I didn’t always agree with him”?

I certainly hope not.

The fact of the matter is, Christopher Hitchens may have been a half-decent writer (and that’s as far as I’d go incidentally… “half-decent”) and he may well have been an engaging and witty conversationalist (I don’t know as I never met the man). He certainly didn’t pull any punches, and was willing to express his opinion even when it might land him in hot water. But you know what… attend any meeting of a neo-fascist organisation (the BNP, the KKK, or your local equivalent) and you’ll find plenty of people willing to express opinions that might land them in hot water. I’m obviously not suggesting Hitchens was a member or sympathiser of such groups; but if it’s just the willingness to express unpleasant opinions in public that earns you respect, why isn’t the press filled with columns lauding the greatness of “Racist Tram Woman”?

Incidentally, I should also make it clear that I do not wish cancer or death on anyone (well, there may be the occasional dictator or mass-murderer who I’d be happy to see die in a bizarre gardening accident). I feel no happiness or satisfaction at the death of Hitchens and I wish those who knew him comfort in their grief. I’m not saying “Yay! Hitchens is dead”, I’m saying “Hang on a second, now that he is dead, why are we forgetting about all the horrible things he said and supported?”

And I’m aware that many seem willing to give Hitchens a pass because of his position on religion. A position which I personally find simple-minded and as far from “the beau ideal of the public intellectual” as it is possible to get. Humanity does indeed need to re-evaluate our relationship with religion, but that the discussion appears to be happening between religious extremists and the narrow atheist fundamentalism of Hitchens, Dawkins and the rest is just depressing. I always thought the mark of a true intellectual was that they could appreciate the nuances in complex issues and could navigate controversial and difficult discussions without resorting to pathetic insults and nonsense generalisations. No?

Perhaps my view of intellectualism needs to be revised given the recent celebration of Hitchens. Perhaps modern intellectualism is to be found in the championing of repellent military tactics such as cluster munitions while denouncing your critics as fucking fat slags. Perhaps it is to be found in taking delight in war, mayhem and violent death (from a distance of course… if Orwell really was Hitchens’ hero, then why did he never take up a rifle and face down the Taliban in Helmand province himself?) Perhaps we get the intellectuals we deserve… and judging by our violent, crass and deeply narcissistic society, perhaps we don’t deserve much better than Hitchens.

Photo courtesy of The Independent

I had just about finished writing this piece when I encountered Glenn Greenwald’s article over at Salon.com which makes pretty much exactly the same points, uses many of the same examples and goes into rather more depth than my own piece. As a result I almost scrapped this piece and tweeted a link to Salon instead. But in the end I figured that it’s an opinion that’s worthy of repeating.

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Dec 2011

Hey Mister, can we have our drone back please?

Even as western capitalism teeters on the edge of an abyss of debt, tensions between the United States and Iran are increasing… threatening yet another international crisis. I’m pretty convinced that sometime during the next couple of years we will awaken one morning to the news of a “pre-emptive” Israeli strike on Iran. This will almost inevitably drag the United States into yet another war in the region. Which in turn will almost inevitably see British forces (and perhaps some Aussies and others) – even if only a token contingent – killing and dying in Asia once again. What it will do to a global economy already on life-support is anybody’s guess.

It’s a grim prospect and one that will – I’m almost certain – have a far worse outcome than either the Iraq or Afghanistan invasions. Israel’s involvement (and I can’t see them not being involved, given the escalating rhetoric on both sides) will make it a lot more messy than it would otherwise be, and Iran won’t be shocked or awed quite so easily as other recent targets of the US military. On top of that, the rise of political Islam (which I suggested would be a likely consequence of the Arab uprisings) is likely to shift the balance of power in the region and exacerbate any conflict; particularly one that involves Israel.

As I stressed in a piece on the North African revolutions, my problem with the rise of political Islam is nothing to do with Islam specifically and everything to do with the influence of any religious fundamentalism on the political landscape. From my perspective, given their access to massive military might, Israel (with their increasingly Orthodox approach to both domestic and foreign policy) and America (with the rise of the religious right) are far more worrying than any individual Islamic nation. But the ‘clash of civilisations’ that US neoconservatives appeared to relish so much during the Bush years could finally become a reality should Arabic nations that were once relatively secular (despite being brutal dictatorships) shift towards theocracy during a period of US / Israeli involvement in Iran.

It is against this worrying backdrop that one of the most farcical news stories of recent weeks has been playing out. The story began about eight days ago when the US military admitted that it had “lost a drone” over Iran. This alone caused me some degree of consternation. I appreciate that the official US position on Iran is that it’s a rogue state, actively developing Weapons of Mass Destruction, and guilty of destabilising the region. Yet by carrying out military incursions (whether manned or unmanned is surely academic) into Iranian airspace the United States is effectively acting like a rogue state and further destabilising the region. How can it not see this? I guess the big difference is that the US has already developed (and deployed) WMD rather than – allegedly – merely contemplating it.

US drone captured by IranIncidentally, can you imagine the US response if an unmanned Iranian military aircraft had crashed / been brought down while flying over Texas? Seems to me that in this instance, unlike with their decision to send warships through the Suez canal, the Iranians have been a model of restraint.

Still, despite the surely criminal actions of the US military (am I wrong in thinking that sending military aircraft into the airspace of a sovereign nation without prior clearance is a crime?) we were assured by defence analyst Loren Thompson that at least the drone would not be offering up any military secrets… “This is a high-flying unmanned aircraft that malfunctioned and then fell to earth. It’s likely to be broken up into hundreds of pieces”, said Loren.

A couple of days later, however, Iranian news media showed images of the drone. Far from being broken up into hundreds of pieces, the unmanned aircraft appeared in pristine condition. Moreover, claimed the Iranians, it didn’t malfunction but was in fact “hijacked” by their electronic-warfare experts who over-rode the control system and landed the drone intact. The United States is scornful of such a suggestion, but frankly the machine doesn’t look like it recently plummeted to the ground from high altitude… so until we have further evidence either way, I’m leaning towards the Iranian version of events.

I guess this possibility is giving the US military a bout of the heebie-jeebies… “if they can remotely over-ride our drones”, they’re probably wondering, “then what about our cruise missiles? Even worse!… what about the electronic systems on our manned aircraft? Just how safe are they?” I guess this new development has resulted in a lot of late nights at The Pentagon. People with job titles like “Deputy Assistant to the Director of Electronic Warfare” are producing lengthy reports, risk assessments and flow-charts. I wager that in the executive summary of one such report there appeared a statement along the lines of, “Of course, without access to the captured drone, we may never know precisely how – or even whether – the remote flight system was compromised”. And I suspect it was as result of such a statement that the truly farcical element of this story was born.

Ludicrously, the day after the Iranians had displayed the drone on TV, the United States government formally requested that the Iranians return the captured aircraft. It’s pretty unusual for me to actually laugh at something on the internet… lots of smiles but few proper laughs… and it’s even rarer for me to laugh at a story involving a US military incursion into Iran. But upon reading that headline – US asks Iran to return captured drone – laugh I most certainly did. The story gets even better when Hillary Clinton gets involved (and how often can you say that?)…

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that she did not think it likely that the drone would be returned.

I have to say that I rarely find myself in whole-hearted agreement with Mrs. Clinton, but on this issue we are definitely of one mind. She went on…

“We are very clearly making known our concerns. We submitted a formal request for the return of our lost equipment, as we would in any situation. Given Iran’s behaviour to date, we do not expect them to reply,” she said.

She said that despite numerous “provocations” from Iran, the US would continue to pursue a “diplomatic approach”.

I hate to perpetuate a lazy stereotype, but the Americans really don’t understand irony, do they?

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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Dec 2011

The Final Countdown?

I’ve been keeping a pretty close eye on the negotiations, tantrums, pratfalls and other shenanigans that go to make up European politics of late. My mind has been well and truly boggled by the cavalier fashion in which politicians from across the political spectrum (though mostly on the centre-right, for it is they who hold the balance of power in Europe these days) have relegated the interests of the people below the interests of financial institutions and other corporations.

Fractured EU FlagOf course, it has become part of the standard rhetoric of the left (and I’m just as guilty of it as anyone) to suggest that our political establishment has effectively ceased representing those who elected them and now focus exclusively upon representing the rich and powerful. It’s a line that’s gotten old through constant use. But rarely has this claim been so self-evidently true as during the past few months.

Now, there are those who would argue that there’s no reason why the interests of financial institutions and other corporations should necessarily conflict with those of the population at large. And I’m more than willing to concede that. There are all manner of hypothetical scenarios (and even a few historical ones) in which the interests of the rich and powerful complement the interests of the rest of us. However it is only the irredeemably partisan or the unfortunately half-witted who would claim our current situation qualifies as such a scenario.

We have allowed ourselves to be manoeuvred into a position where the very people we elect to represent our interests are gleefully handing our collective wealth over to the already super-rich. Where hospitals and schools are being closed in order to funnel public money into banks. Where croneyism and outright corruption have become the basic modus operandus of government. And where those who are already poverty-stricken – or in danger of becoming so – are expected to tighten their belts so that the wealthy may accumulate ever more obscene fortunes.

Both politics and finance are supposed to serve the wider population. We elect politicians to represent our interests directly. The financial institutions that make up modern Market Capitalism are, theoretically at least, permitted to exist by society in order to make the distribution of wealth an efficient process. Certainly there is nothing written into the rules of the Free Market system that says the wealth much be distributed equitably, but there should be a basic fairness to the system… one that, at the very least, allows the vast majority of people to live comfortably. If the Market does not achieve this aim then it is failing society as a whole and needs to be replaced with something else. After all, it’s supposed to be The People who ultimately call the shots and decide how society is structured. Not a handful of bond traders, political insiders and bankers.

Right now, however, we have arrived at a situation where politics and finance have united against the wider population. For several decades they have been united in self-interest and marginal cranks such as myself have been decrying this and warning against the inevitable tragedy that would result. However, at the same time, this unholy cabal was careful to provide a half-decent standard of living for the wider population (yes, yes, largely at the expense of the billions of poor in the so-called “developing” world, but I’m talking specifically about the people, governments and institutions of Europe). This staved off revolution and also effectively muted much of the criticism from the marginal cranks in the anti-capitalist brigade. It’s difficult to convince someone that they’re being screwed-over by the wealthy elite when they are flush with endorphins from their purchase of a 42-inch HD LED-backlit flat screen TV. We’re all monkeys after all, and easily distracted by shiny toys (me as much as anyone… a recent gift of an iPad2 has left me cooing and swiping the touch-screen like any other monkey – and I don’t even like Apple!)

But the past couple of years have seen the beginnings of a shift… we are leaving the world of Huxley and rejoining that of Orwell. No longer are the financial and political elites willing to share even the crumbs of the great wealth they are accumulating. They have become so self-assured in their positions of power that their rapacious appetites extend now even to those crumbs. Public services are slashed to the bone, yet increased taxation on the rich cannot even be considered. In nations without jobs, welfare benefits are cut and then grudgingly distributed, yet corporate tax rates are sacrosanct. The few remaining assets of a demoralised populace are flogged to ultra-rich investors at rock-bottom prices in order to pay off debts run up by those self-same ultra-rich investors.

David Cameron (British Prime Minister)Last Friday this wealth-grab by the powerful played out in an odd fashion in the theatre of European politics when David Cameron (the right-wing British Prime Minister) threw a strop and stormed out of negotiations supposedly designed to solve the European debt crisis and save the euro. Well, he “used his veto”, which amounts to the same thing in Brussels. His stated reason for this break with the rest of Europe was his desire to protect the City of London… in other words, the UK’s financial sector.

There was much that was odd about this whole process. Firstly, Cameron’s veto doesn’t really protect the City of London… I could write a whole post on why this is the case (and may yet do), but in reality he may actually have exposed The City to significant harm should the other 26 EU members draw up a treaty that covers financial services. It’s also worth pointing out that while about 10% of Britain’s GDP is generated by the financial sector, a whopping 40% is generated by exports to the EU… his veto doesn’t affect Britain’s position in the Common Market, but it may well foreshadow a serious strain in the relationship between the UK and Europe; a strain that places the 40% at risk despite doing little to protect the 10%. He was effectively attempting to place the interests of his City Chums ahead of the interests of the general populace and may simply have succeeded in shafting both.

Also, by playing to the rabid euro-sceptic wing of the Tory Party, he has driven a massive wedge down the middle of his coalition government which may or may not turn out to be a political disaster. Incidentally, every time I see that over-fed jubilant Tory MP call Cameron’s strategy a triumph for Britain’s “bulldog spirit” I can’t help but think, “yeah, you waddle around shitting where it’s inappropriate, only pausing briefly to lick your own balls… truly an appropriate image for the modern Tory”.

Increasing the oddness of the Cameron sulk, though, is the fact that the draft treaty on which he has turned his back is a right-wing financial-political-elite wet dream. What’s being proposed by the Franco-German alliance and eagerly lapped up by the rest of the nations involved is a terrible betrayal of the people of Europe. It runs the risk of legally restricting future national governments from adopting left-wing economic policies. It runs the risk of setting back the power of labour unions by a hundred years. It runs the risk of permanently transferring sovereignty from national populaces towards international financial institutions. And all the while it – bizarrely – completely fails to address the current European debt crisis or do anything to stabilise the euro.

Last week’s summit can be summarised as an attempt by the European elite to use the current crisis as cover for imposing a permanent state of austerity on the wider public without even trying to solve that crisis. It’s the kind of thing that Cameron should have eagerly embraced, but was too beholden to his own marginal cranks to do so. And by being the only nation outside the proposed treaty, Britain may end up being damaged as a whole, despite the treaty being a betrayal. It’s all very odd.

What Europe needs right now is a couple of socialist revolutions followed by mass nationalisations. I can only hope that the Irish government, for one, is quietly printing new banknotes and making plans – however provisional – to exit the common currency. I have my doubts they’re smart enough for that, but we may well find out in the coming months.

Cameron photo courtesy of TopNews

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Dec 2011

Brian Hayes and Budget 2011

Here in Ireland we have just been subjected to the latest in a line of “austerity budgets”. I thought I was beyond being astonished at how craven our government – in their willing complicity with the diktats of The Market – could be. How wrong I was. The brutal cynicism of the Fine Gael / Labour coalition has dropped even my jaw (personally I think the Labour Party should be forced to change their name under trades description legislation). It was a budget bordering on the wilfully evil.

There were savage cuts to disability benefits, child benefit, the winter fuel allowance, community employment schemes, the back-to-school allowance and much more… some of which will save a few million at most while making life unbearable for those already at breaking point. Despite the steadfast refusal to even discuss raising taxes on the wealthiest and the highest earners, we saw an enthusiastic embrace of VAT increases, a flat-tax household charge and other indirect taxes that will hit the most vulnerable hardest. And to add insult to injury, we were forced to endure the obscene spectacle of ministers earning a small fortune appearing on TV to tell us just how difficult it was for them to inflict such pain on the nation. How they’d done all they could do in order to ensure that the burden of austerity was being shared equally. Orwell’s observation that “some are more equal than others” may as well be the slogan for this government. Poor dears, in their ministerial cars, with their gilt-edged pensions, generous expense accounts and salaries of over 5 times the national average.

Brian Hayes (Fine Gael TD)Vincent Browne, one of the few remaining voices of sanity in Irish public life, perfectly illustrated this rank hypocrisy when he cornered Brian Hayes – a Fine Gael minister – on his show. The politician bristled with indignation when Browne suggested he was on a salary of €150,000… it was only €130,000 he protested. That’s still a “mega-salary” insisted Browne (quite rightly) and went on to wonder… “compared with the people you have afflicted in this budget, isn’t there something grotesque about you people sitting around and commiserating with yourselves about the hard decisions you have to take when all the pain of those hard decisions is on somebody else?” The blustering arrogance as Hayes tried to wriggle out of the question was cringe-inducing. “The pain is throughout our society”, he stated (almost as though he believed it). Browne rounded on him… “No it’s not! How is it on you? You get away scot-free!” Hayes eventually resorted to plaintively pointing out that the VAT increase would affect him too. He then tried to make the issue about just how sincere Vincent Browne’s outrage was… this contempt for the public is gut-churning, and I desperately hope that the people of Dublin South West consign him to the dustbin of history at the next election.

You can see the exchange here:

Alternatively you can watch the entire programme, for a limited time here, though that may not be available outside Ireland.

The assertion that a 2% VAT increase will affect someone on 130 grand in anything like the same way it will affect someone on welfare, or even someone on the average national wage… that “the pain” is truly being felt “throughout society”… indicates one of the following; (a) that Brian Hayes is an idiot, (b) that he’s utterly out of touch with reality, or (c) that he’s a bare-faced liar of the worst kind. I won’t say which one I think it is, but I will say that all of those are terrible traits for someone in a position of power. That he then tried to change the subject and discuss the attitude of the interviewer, the day on which such a devastating budget had been announced, just made him seem even more pathetic. I know I lambaste politicians on a regular basis, but Brian Hayes managed to plumb new depths last week. Though I suspect it won’t be long before someone from Labour or Fine Gael discovers yet deeper waters of iniquity in which to swim.

Photo courtesy of Politico.ie

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