Feb 2013

Comparative losses to Irish exchequer

Earlier this month, a chap called Andrew Fisher posted a diagram to Facebook demonstrating the relative losses to the UK treasury produced by tax evasion / avoidance and benefit fraud.

Rather shamelessly, I decided to nick the idea wholesale and use it to illustrate the same point in an Irish context. The Irish government, however, makes the exercise far more difficult than their UK counterparts. They do not publish any estimates of unclaimed social welfare entitlements. Nor do they publish any estimates of income lost through tax evasion / avoidance. However, they do publish estimates of social welfare fraud. This fact alone is extremely revealing and seems to answer the question… is our priority to balance the books? Or to demonise the poor?

However, an international organisation called the Tax Justice Network does publish a country-by-country estimate of revenue lost to tax evasion / avoidance. So that figure is available despite the best efforts of the Irish government to hide it from us. The amount saved in unclaimed payments, however, is not – to the best of my knowledge – available anywhere. If someone has a reliable source for this figure, then please do let me know in the comments.

So the next time you hear a government minister lambast welfare fraud, or see a tabloid headline shrieking about “benefit cheats”… well, the diagram speaks for itself.


Total social welfare budget: €19.797 billion
Estimate of “fraud and error”: 3.4%
(average of lower and upper estimates – 2.4% and 4.4%)
Proportion of “fraud and error” attributed to fraud: 31%
Proportion of “fraud and error” attributed to error: 69%

Tackling Social Welfare Fraud (an Irish government publication)

The estimate by the Tax Justice Network of amount lost in tax evasion / avoidance is reported in the Irish Examiner.

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Feb 2013

Oscar night on The Quiet Road

Welcome to my much-anticipated live-blog of tonight’s Oscar ceremony. Sadly, due to a scheduling conflict (who knew the Oscars were today!?) it was necessary to write the post last week. But thanks to the wonders of WordPress, it will be automatically published on Oscar night. So, in a sense, this is better than a live-blog as it’s actually ahead of its time. I also made sure to include at least 10% more than the minimum number of exclamation points mandated by the Academy.

And so to the red carpet where lovely celebrities wearing expensive clothes are smiling and having their picture taken. Wheee! What fun! Don’t they look lovely!

There’s whats-her-name! Sporting a beautiful full-length gown by that designer everyone’s talking about. And look who it is by her side… why it’s that famous actor in that film about things blowing up. Good for them! They look both rich and happy. Yay!

Because of its tremendous solemnity, death is the light in which great passions, both good and bad, become transparent, no longer limited by outward appearances.

Søren Kierkegaard

And there’s that guy off the telly. Doesn’t he look dashing in that tuxedo. And what rugged stubble he has. Good for him.

Ooooh… and that actress who always wears daring outfits is wearing a daring outfit. The skirt is split right to the thigh and the word “strapless” will feature prominently in the photo captions tomorrow. Good for her. And look who it is by her side… why it’s that famous actor in that film about things blowing up. Good for them! They look both rich and happy. Yay!

There’s a pop star. Wooo! A pop star.

Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.

Søren Kierkegaard

Ha ha ha! The famous actor made a mildly witty remark to one of the reporters holding a microphone in front of his face. Chortle.

Uh-oh, there’s Hollywood bad-boy whats-his-name! Wherever he goes, controversy is never far behind. Look! Look! He’s wearing brightly coloured unmatched socks… what did I tell you… controversy!

Winners and losers

Of course, everyone’s a winner tonight. There are no losers. Just being nominated… heck, just being invited… makes you a winner in the eyes of this live-blogger.

And now, here’s your host… that dude! Look at him! He’s funny. Gosh! Did he really say that!? Talk about edgy. Ha ha! It’s funny because it’s true! Zing!

People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.

Søren Kierkegaard

And now the Oscar for best use of hand-held cameras in a fight scene involving supporting actors… that woman from the telly pauses dramatically before opening the envelope. And the Oscar goes to… well, no surprises there. Anyone who saw that film was surely expecting it.

Oooh, a song. From a film. Lovely. Just lovely.

And now the Oscar for best explosion in a period drama. Impossible to call. Critics agree that all five explosions are amongst the best we’ve ever seen. And the Oscar goes to… well, I never! I know some people will say that’s sheer tokenism… positive discrimination at work… but I thought it was a worthy winner. And an explosion we’ll be seeing again and again for years to come.

Listen to the cry of a woman in labour at the hour of giving birth – look at the dying man’s struggle at his last extremity, and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended for enjoyment.

Søren Kierkegaard

And it’s another song. By a different singer. Oooh… and some dancers too. Lovely. Just lovely.

And now the Oscar for best cameo appearance by an animated parrot. And the Oscar goes to… well, well, well… that makes it three Oscars in five years. And you know what? It’s absolutely deserved. Well done.

Ouch! Did the host really say that!? Zing!

The mood turns a bit more serious now… a short black-and-white montage of all the much-loved Hollywood personalities who have put on weight this year. Accompanied by Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. There’s hardly a dry eye in the house.

If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe; but precisely because I cannot do this, I must believe.

Søren Kierkegaard

Not to worry though… everyone’s soon laughing again as the Oscar for best use of product placement in a romantic comedy features some truly hilarious moments. No surprises who wins though!

And now, one of the most highly anticipated moments of the night as the Academy awards the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in the Field of Science Fiction Costume Design. Ha ha! A funny anecdote from the actor with the stubble introducing the award. “This woman’s costumes in that 1964 classic were what inspired me to become an actor!!” You can almost hear the exclamation points! And there she is! Old yet sprightly. Well done her!

Zowie! Did the host really say that!? I bet he’ll get a telling-off in the tabloids tomorrow!

Once you label me you negate me.

Søren Kierkegaard

And now, the one we’ve all been waiting for… Best Film. For weeks now, absolutely everyone has been debating which film was the best. And now we’ll finally know! Lots of people will be pretty darn sheepish when they discover the film they said was the best turns out to not be the best. That actually, there was a better one than the one they said was the best. Though for some, this moment will be one of ecstatic vindication as they discover they were right all along. That the film they said was the best film, actually was the best film.

The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.

Søren Kierkegaard

And the winner is…


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Feb 2013

The UK Bedroom Tax

Here in Ireland the government is waging low-level war on the poor and vulnerable. Hiding behind the utterly false claim that their “hands are tied” by the conditions of the bailout, they inflict death by a thousand cuts on those least able to sustain those cuts. A few million off disability allowance here, a tax on child benefit there… a property tax here, a reduction in the rent allowance cap there… pretty soon the poor are even poorer and even those on middle incomes find themselves bled dry. Which in turn, of course, means the vast majority of people are spending less, with inevitable negative consequences for the local economy.

Meanwhile, Enda Kenny and Fine Gael along with the traitorous Labour sycophants who toe the right-wing neoliberal line (in return for a few years with their snouts in the trough) steadfastly refuse to impose any meaningful austerity on those who can actually afford to shoulder a greater share of the burden. Profitable corporations and high income individuals remain untouched by the vicious cuts imposed elsewhere. Ireland remains a wealthy country, but the wealth is all concentrated in the hands of a small minority who are not expected to contribute to the well-being of the rest. As much as I’d like to see genuine socialist policies enacted in Ireland, I don’t expect it to happen given how much the political spectrum has narrowed over the past few decades. I do expect a modicum of basic fairness though… but it seems even such a humble expectation is thwarted by craven politicians without an ounce of decency or honour among them.

And yet, despite this betrayal of the vulnerable by those entrusted with representing their interests, we Irish merely have to look to our nearest neighbour to see what happens when a low-level war on the poor turns into an outright assault. I genuinely don’t understand anyone who votes for the British Tory party. Seriously, I just don’t get it. Those who defend the Conservatives generally mutter something about “sound economic policies” or how “business friendly” they are. Or maybe they’ll use the phrase “the party of law and order” or mention “family values”. But all of this ignores the fact that choosing a Conservative government is choosing to be ruled (and the way they run the government definitely merits the word “ruled”) by a bunch of vicious bastards without a shred of compassion who appear to genuinely enjoy inflicting suffering upon those they consider “less deserving” than themselves (a category that includes damn near everyone in the country).

David Cameron’s party consists of a bunch of small-minded, nasty little shits. Every single one of them. And even if they did have “sound economic policies” (which incidentally… they don’t!) it wouldn’t compensate for them being small-minded, nasty little shits.
Small-minded nasty little shits
The latest wheeze being introduced by the Tories is the “bedroom tax”. Leastways, that’s how it’s now known. Essentially this slice of undisguised cruelty applies to anyone in designated social housing, or receiving rent allowance. If they have an unoccupied bedroom in their house, their social security is reduced by 14%. Two spare rooms results in a 25% reduction. These are people right on the very edge of poverty (hell, many of them are already over that edge). Cutting their social security benefits is likely to leave them either cold or hungry (probably both). It is quite deliberately inflicting extreme hardship on people whose lives are already pretty damn hard. Meanwhile the British government continues to spend more on their military than all but three other nations. They continue to allow large corporations evade tax and they reduce taxation on the wealthiest individuals… they even go so far as to heavily subsidise some of the most profitable companies in the country by offering them a large, free workforce (an utterly self-defeating strategy, incidentally, and one that’s about as far from “sound economic policies” as it’s possible to get).

Bedroom taxOf course, the bedroom tax will hit certain people disproportionately. People who require carers (i.e. those with disabilities or health issues) are likely to get the most vicious kicking. I guess the Tory Party (along with their obnoxious enablers, the Lib Dems) can at least claim to be an Equal Opportunity Bully. And while it’s completely understandable that organisations who represent carers and those with disabilities will campaign on behalf of their interests, it seems to me that this is a much wider issue of social justice. Of course it’ll be a good thing if the most vulnerable manage to win themselves an exemption, but it won’t be cause for celebration. It will merely be a further example of a right wing government successfully pitting one group of vulnerable people against another. Everyone in the UK should be angry about this tax being imposed on even one person; carer, disabled, ill, healthy, able-bodied, it doesn’t matter… this is a fundamentally evil policy and its imposition will make the UK a fundamentally less just place.

For a party that claims to be all about “small government”, it’s difficult to imagine anything more intrusive than a policy aimed at stipulating the number of rooms a person may have in their house based upon their economic circumstances. People who have perhaps lived for years in a house or flat with an extra room will now find themselves forced out of their homes (or go hungry… can’t say they don’t have a choice I suppose) by a government that insists it hates interfering in the lives of people. What they really mean, is they hate interfering in the lives of people who matter. In other words, the rich.

But if you’re poor; they’ll tell you what house you can live in, they’ll tell you what job you must do, they’ll take away your healthcare and force you into debt if you want an education. Small-minded, nasty little shits. And I’m sorry to say this… but if you vote for them, then so are you. There are no longer any excuses.

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Feb 2013


So I was checking twitter and glanced at the ‘Now Trending’ column. It being a European football night, most of the current trends were footie related, “Liverpool”, “Suarez”, “Zenit” and so on. But right at the top of the Irish trends was the hash tag #BieberToCrokePark. And it sparked a moment of extreme cognitive dissonance.

After a couple of seconds it became apparent that the tag was a manifestation of the demands of Irish Justin Bieber fans that the teen popstar play a concert at Croke Park – Ireland’s largest stadium and concert venue. However, Croke Park is also the location of the conference centre used by the government when negotiating with the public sector unions. This is why the terms and conditions under which public sector workers are employed are collectively known as “The Croke Park Agreement”.

And because The Croke Park Agreement is currently being renegotiated (recast for our Austere Age), it’s in the news almost constantly these days. Hardly a day goes by without a headline including the words “Croke Park Agreement”. Whether it’s Garda representatives walking out of negotiations and refusing to re-engage until pay cuts are taken off the table, or the Health Service Unions expressing “deep misgivings” about the Croke Park Agreement. If you don’t live in Ireland you’ve probably never heard the phrase. If you do live in Ireland, you hear it all the time.

Which is why the first thing that crossed my mind when I saw #BieberToCrokePark was “Whoa… will he be negotiating on behalf of the government or the unions?” The second thing that crossed my mind was “WHAT!!!??? What does that even mean?!” Thankfully though, the thought “hang on, it’s probably about him performing, isn’t it?” arrived just in time to prevent my brain from exploding.
Justin Bieber takes part in the Croke Park negotiations

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Feb 2013

The Anglo Promissory Notes

Still busy busy busy with work, but I’ve got just enough time to post a few thoughts here.

Today, over at On This Deity, my article on The Maastricht Treaty has come around again. I’m not sure whether it’s appropriate or entirely inappropriate that, on the anniversary of the treaty that probably did more for European political and economic integration than any other single act, the Irish government have passed the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation Bill 2013 (PDF).

supplicationThis Act of Parliament is being hailed by the government as a great success. And they expect it to lead to a deal with the ECB on the issue of the Promissory Notes. All of which probably sounds like gibberish if you’re not familiar with the Irish situation. So here’s a brief crash course:

In 2007 the Irish banking system began to creak. But everyone involved – bankers, regulators and the government – all insisted that nothing was wrong.

In 2008, the Irish banking system collapsed. The only thing that surprised me about this was the fact that lots of other people seemed surprised by it. The response of the Irish government was to issue a blanket Bank Guarantee. This was a massive mistake and I still believe the people responsible should be in prison. They’re not.

At the time Ireland had several banks, all of which were in serious trouble. The two main retail banks – Bank of Ireland and the Allied Irish Bank – were taken, in large part, into public ownership and the government is still propping them up. These are costing the Irish people quite a lot of money, but I can just about understand the argument in favour of the government’s course of action with these two banks, even if I think it’s wrong.

There was another bank, however, called Anglo-Irish Bank. This bank was responsible for massive loans to Irish property developers and – although we’re unlikely to ever get to the bottom of how this bank was mismanaged – the whiff of naked corruption coming from its direction is overpowering. Together with another failed financial institution (Irish Nationwide Bank) Anglo was renamed Irish Bank Resolution Corporation and effectively moth-balled. It ceased trading as a bank, but remained a trading corporation (or “zombie bank”, as it came to be known).

The reason for this was that the corporation owed upwards of €34 billion euros to European banks and investors who had pumped money – via Anglo-Irish Bank – into the Irish property market. Just so we’re clear; private investors and private financial institutions speculated on the Irish property bubble and when the bubble inevitably burst (as anyone with an IQ higher than that of a brain-damaged bumblebee knew it would), they demanded they suffer no losses as a result of their speculation. Instead, they exerted a huge amount of pressure on the Irish government to cover their losses. And – spineless gombeens, every last one of them – the Irish government acquiesced… transferring those gambling losses onto the shoulders of the Irish people.

This transfer was done using a mechanism called “Promissory notes”. In essence, our government promised to pay more than €3 billion to the zombie bank, on March 31st every year until 2023. The observant among you will note that €3.1 billion per year, every year between 2009 and 2023 comes to quite a bit more than the €34.7 billion owed by Anglo-Irish Bank. This is because the gamblers whose losses being covered by the Irish people are also demanding that we pay interest on their losses. You could make it up, but people would think you were high.

Anyway, this €3.1 billion per year is just for the Anglo mess. The Irish government is in all sorts of other financial and economic trouble without that particular millstone hanging around their neck. So ministers have been appearing on our screens for the past couple of years insisting that “a deal on the promissory notes” is just around the corner. It’s a hell of a big corner.

Because rushed, late-night decisions always turn out well

Last night, during a last-minute, rushed sitting of The Dáil (the Irish parliament) – in a move that eerily echoes the night of the blanket Bank Guarantee back in September 2008 – the zombie bank was finally wound up. Part of it was transferred to NAMA (the National Asset Management Agency), which was a structure set up to handle the bad debts of the banking industry after the collapse of 2008. And the promissory notes have disappeared for good.

CapitalismExcept they haven’t of course. The plan is to replace them with government-issued bonds. Perhaps 15 year bonds… perhaps 20 years… perhaps 30 years… who knows? Our government is awaiting instruction from the European Central Bank. Because heaven forbid the Irish people be permitted to have a say in the repayment terms for private debts they shouldered at the behest of the ECB.

As I say, this is being portrayed as a victory by our government. In reality it’s nothing more than the final step in the transformation of the private debt into sovereign debt. Up until now the mechanism of the promissory notes provided a barrier of sorts (albeit a very weak, almost invisible one) between the Anglo-Irish Bank losses and Irish sovereign debt. The Irish government – if it actually had any principles – could have cancelled those notes without triggering a sovereign default (though in all likelihood the markets would have reacted in much the same way as they would have done in the case of such a default). There would have been a short-term crisis, certainly, but this time next year the Irish people would have weathered that crisis and we’d have shrugged off €32 billion of debts we never incurred.

Of course, we’d still have billions of private debt on our books thanks to NAMA and the other banks, but that particular weight would have been lifted.

Instead, our government has basically mixed all that Anglo debt in with our other debt. It is ours now, and refusal to pay it would constitute a national default. Our finance minister, Michael Noonan, has managed to summon the awesome power of all twelve of his brain cells and sunk us even further into debt than we already were. As he did so, our glorious leader (Enda “The Irish People Went Mad Borrowing” Kenny) insisted that extending the terms of repayment represents some kind of triumph. I’m expecting to see a photo of him stepping off a plane waving an ECB document in the air. “Growth in our time” he’ll exclaim. And then trip down the stairs.

It strikes me that portraying a repayment extension as a victory is about as insidious as it gets. Ireland is like a man being forced to pay off someone else’s mortgage. “Look”, say the ECB, “we realise you’re having some problems paying this debt as fast as we’d like you to. So we’ve decided to let your kids help you pay it off once they’re old enough to work. Can’t say fairer than that!”

Except you can. Pretty much anything else you say would be fairer than that.

[The issuing of long-term bonds] is using posterity with the utmost cruelty; because it is leaving them the great work to do, and a debt upon their backs, from which they derive no advantage. Such a thought is unworthy a man of honor, and is the true characteristic of a narrow heart and a peddling politician.

Thomas Paine | Common Sense

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