Why is ‘there isn’t enough money’ always the answer?

INMO general secretary Phil Ni Sheaghdha, third left, at the announcement that nurses and midwives will go on strike for 24 hours on January 30. Should the dispute go unresolved, there will be further 24-hour strikes in February. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Why is it that whenever there’s a problem, a serious one requiring either money and seismic change, its solution seems next to impossible? Not only this, but when people table solutions, they’re ridiculed as ignoramuses or maligned as quacks, writes Joyce Fegan

Let’s take our nurses and midwives, who have voted by 95% to go on strike for the second time in 100 years.

A highly-educated nurse, who works in intensive care, posted her payslip to social media this week, to illustrate why she and her colleagues have voted to strike. Her name is Joanna Hickey. At the end of two weeks, she brings home €1,120.80 (net) to her partner and child.

The post was followed, a day later, by an article in this paper, by Phil Ní Sheaghdha, the general secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives’ Organisation (INMO). She called on the Government to act, in order to avert their planned strike.

The graffiti on the nation’s bathroom walls, Twitter, illustrated both the overriding support for nurses, and also the tired arguments of their opponents.

There is no money, the opponents say. Is there ever?

Across the Atlantic Ocean, America’s youngest ever congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is always tabling interesting ideas and alternatives to solve her country’s problems.

For example, she’s advocating for universal education. Her opponents scoff, telling her it’s “fantasy”. She’s reminded of her age and her experience in attempts to shame her back into her box. It is doubtful whether she ever inhabited one, so her opponents may well be wasting their time.

Ocasio, at a fresh 29, is quick with her words, and flips a Trump proposal to prove her point.

“For the wall’s $5.7bn, every child in America could have access to Universal Pre-K [preschool],” she said.

Yet when we propose the same money, we’re told universal education is a ‘fantasy’ and are asked ‘how are you going to pay for it’. Education is an investment in society that yield returns. Walls are waste.

Ocasio, a less than two-week-old congresswoman, comes in for global criticism for such an idealistic and ambitious proposal. Yet Trump can get away with shutting down his country’s government for 22 days, the longest in history, over the payment for a wall?

Back to this side of the Atlantic.

Anyone who has ever been to a funeral in Ireland, will hear how the nursing staff went “above and beyond” for their loved one. In fact, these nurses often seem to form part of the congregation. Anyone who has ever spent time in an Irish hospital, either giving birth or receiving treatment, will be intimately familiar with this “above and beyond” approach of our nursing staff.

These are people, who, while we complain about waiting lists and hospital trollies on Twitter, are working around these seemly impenetrable constraints to keep our health system ticking over.

The nurses’ strike is not the cause of the problem. They’re operating in a system that’s no longer fit for purpose, and in need of urgent change.

It’s a bit like our housing situation, where homelessness is on an upwards-trending curve, along with rents and house prices.

Just like the nurses’ opponents, people will say: “Well, you need money to build.”

Isn’t it easy to be an opponent? To shoot down ideas, with glib phrases and short sentences, never having to come up with a solution of your own?

But as the 26th president of the United States of America, Theodore Roosevelt, said: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.”

The credit, he said, is the person who is actually in the arena, who is sweaty and dirty, and who tries and inevitably fails, but then gets up and tries again.

This week, our own President Michael D Higgins was speaking to several thousand Irish students at the BT Young Scientists.

He reminded them that nothing is set in stone, that just because the world is headed down a certain path, it doesn’t mean that its course cannot be altered.

There “no inevitabilities”, either in social or economic policy, said the President.

But in order to talk solutions, one needs to be economically literate. And the lingo of economics isn’t one that is instantly accessible. Words such as fiscal and equity and phrases such as asset-utilisation ratio keep the area locked in a complexity that’s accessible only to an elite few.

When any lay person attempts to venture into its undergrowth to ask questions, to point out problems and to table solutions for things like public housing and public healthcare, the critics come crawling out with their “it’s not that simple” or “there isn’t enough money” rhetoric.

Ocasio-Cortez had another nifty reply for this kind of defeatist debate. She pointed out that while America Inc refuses to find money to pay for healthcare or tuition-free college, it was miraculously able to find $2trn to pay for tax cuts, and $210bn to cover their trade war.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Picture: AFP/Getty

She pointed out that while many attack and disempower ideas, by questioning how to finance them, no one ever asks those questions in relation to funding things such as warfare or space exploration.

To those who only want to critique, why not save the energy and reflect on solutions you could table instead?

To those brave enough to question our country’s problems and suggest solutions, know that you will be criticised anyway.

Lastly, to pessimists who believe that there are no solutions to our pressing problems, remember when it was a crime to be a man who loved a man, when drink-driving meant having that seventh pint, and when you left the supermarket with 12 plastic bags on every visit?

And if anyone asks “where you’ll get the money from” to pay the nurses or to build houses, suggest you put your heads together and find out.

Change is always possible, in spite of the critics.

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