Society plays against loaded dice: The market is luring us to catastrophe

Society plays against loaded dice: The market is luring us to catastrophe

Earlier this week, President Michael D Higgins launched a justified attack on neoliberal market fundamentalism, pointing out that the philosophy has led to “unbridled consumption, yawning inequality”, and the destruction of our natural world. 

He expressed a view that challenges, in the most fundamental way, the sterile conservatism and orthodoxy of our Government and others like it. He challenged so much of what Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s Government considers plausible despite growing and irrefutable evidence.

Within hours of Mr Higgins’s speech, the Central Bank’s deputy governor, Ed Sibley, hardly a Sendero Luminoso sleeper, pointed out that banks are charging many mortgage holders double the interest rate they need to be profitable. Addressing the Banking and Payments Federation Ireland (BPFI) conference, he forcefully rejected banks’ claims they were putting customers first. “Irish banks are determining that it’s profitable to lend at somewhere between 2.25% and 3% for new customers — but are continuing to charge 4.5% for existing customers,” he said. 

It as if we learned nothing from the tracker mortgages scandal and the banks’ visceral instinct to always take the bigger slice of the pie. Mr Sibley’s remarks underline how very unwise it was not to impose meaningful sanctions on the banks — not ones that could be passed on to customers — over that abuse of power. Without real sanctions, it seems, there will be no real reform. Remember, these are the banks campaigning to have pay ceilings removed, so ‘talented’ employees might be retained.

Within hours, these admonishments were bolstered from another source. Daft.ie showed record-breaking rents in Dublin. Rents in our capital are 41.5% higher than they were at the Celtic Tiger peak. Rents outside Dublin are following that unsustainable pattern. 

Noting a “remarkable phase of price growth”, Daft.ie found rents in Dublin have more than doubled since 2010. During that period, rents in Germany, France, and the UK increased by 18%, 19%, and 33%, respectively. Rents across the EU rose by 25%.

A great little country to do business in, indeed — but what an appalling, inequitable place to be a tenant or to try to buy a home. This uncomfortable, unsustainable reality is exacerbated by a blind commitment to market forces that has failed an entire generation. 

It is impossible, at this late stage, a decade after the housing crisis began, not to think that the homeless and those struggling against the tide to rent or buy a home are regarded as bit players, as unfortunate collateral damage, by an administration so long in power that it cannot disown the crisis. The timeline of that crisis began with a degree of patience which, in time, became a deepening scepticism. That has matured into a deepening anger.

This Government (as its predecessor did) has offered one half-cocked response after another to the housing crisis, while shirking the core issue — the unquestioning sanctity we afford property rights. The latest of these half-measures are proposed laws to stop local groups or environmental organisations using the courts to challenge plans for controversial developments. 

It is suggested that groups must be in existence for three years, have at least 100 signed-up members, be personally and substantially affected by a development, and able to shoulder potentially wipe-out costs, before they would be able to take a case. No matter how it is dressed up, this is an outrage, in a game where the dice is already loaded. It proposes that citizens be denied the protection of the courts, while developers might escape public oversight. It cannot stand. 

That this proposal surfaced just as the EU fined the State €5m, and €15,000 a day, because it did not comply with EU planning laws at a wind farm in Galway, is beyond ironic. Former taoiseach Brian Cowen warned that anger is not a policy, but, in the absence of policies that might rebalance the relationship between all citizens and the runaway market, it is an inevitability. Surely, we can do better?

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