FERGUS FINLAY: All those slash-and-burn experts are making me shout at the radio

IS it just me or has the whole world gone mad?

I can’t listen to the radio these days without shouting at it. I must look a sight in traffic – but I’ve noticed I’m by no means the only one. A lot of people seem to be talking back to their radios these days.

Take NAMA, for instance. The easiest way to start a row at a dinner party or in a pub is to use a sentence with the word NAMA in it. I know – I’ve been involved in a few of them.

We’re all going round using the language – how close a haircut will the banks get, what does long-term economic value mean?

I can’t get over the uneasy feeling that what NAMA means is that we’re all going to buy the bad debts off the banks – and for every €100 of them we’re going to pay €300 in the hope we might get €200 back some day. I keep wishing my bank manager would do it for me, but I reckon I have to dream on.

But now I’m fighting with the radio about NAMA. The other day, for instance, I heard someone ask about the possibility that the banks might be nationalised as part of the NAMA process.

Marian Finucane, because it was her programme, said “yes, but do we really want the Department of Finance running our banks?”

And there I was, shouting at the radio – “you all seem more than willing to let the Department of Finance run all the bad debts. What’s wrong with the good stuff?”

You can’t turn on the radio without some expert or other telling you they know the solution to all our problems. I thought Colm McCarthy had sort of done his stint when his “special ones” report came out, but just when I thought it was safe to tune in, there he was again.

The Government isn’t out of compassion, he was declaring. It’s out of money. There’s only two things it can do, he said. Cut public service pay. And cut social welfare.

Oh right, I found myself shouting at the poor old radio again. That’s easy then. Because I’ve noticed the compassion over the past year.

It’s hard to miss that compassion in some of the neighbourhoods I work in. It was really reflected in some of the more cheese-paring education cuts, for instance.

And a lot of families – and elderly people living alone – are really going to notice the compassion when they don’t get the Christmas payment on which they depend this year.

And then we have another gang of experts telling us how to reform the tax system. A tax on all your properties and on the water you drink, and more tax on the petrol you put in your car. More or less everything that moves is going to be taxed. But don’t worry your head about it because it’s all going to be “revenue neutral”.

What does that mean? It means that everything the Government takes with its left hand, it will give back with the right.

Like it always does, I find myself shouting. You noticed that last year, didn’t you? How the emergency levy on everyone’s tax was “revenue neutral”.

But when I stop shouting at the radio, it seems to me there’s a much more serious point here. This is all phoney.

Everyone – and I mean everyone – who has anything to do with public policy knows these reports simply aren’t capable of being implemented. Two things. If they were implemented overnight, they wouldn’t help the economy to recover – they’d beggar it.

We’re in a deep and intractable recession now. The way to turn that into a depression is to take the billions out of public spending that have been called for, introduce the new taxes that have been recommended and try to plough the lot into NAMA.

It’s like selling everything you have in the house and putting it all on a horse with three legs. The whole process wouldn’t just beggar the economy, it would beggar every family who lives here. It just simply can’t be done.

These reports might – just might – be a blueprint that could change cultures over a 10-year period. But anyone who is half serious about how public policy works knows you can’t make these changes overnight without devastating consequences.

So why are they happening? Why is the media full, day after day, of An Bord Snip and Commission on Taxation recommendations? It’s cover, that’s why. Someone, somewhere has decided that in order to pay for the resuscitation of the banking system, everyone who can be screwed will be screwed. The phrase “everyone who can”, by the way, refers to everyone who doesn’t have a powerful lobby to represent them.

The terms of reference of the Commission on Taxation referred to the sacredness of the 12.5% corporation tax rate. That tells you all you need to know. There is no doubt that if you were trying to construct a real, wide-ranging, revenue-neutral reform of the tax system you’d want at least to look at the contribution the corporate sector makes.

But that was off-limits, just as all forms of capital expenditure were off-limits for An Bord Snip (so it wasn’t entitled to ask, for instance, how many miles of motorway we need next year?).

What’s fair? What’s just? What would do untold damage? What are the things we can’t afford not to do? Who will be hurt? How long will it take to rebuild the things that are torn down?

These are the questions we need to be asking as part of this whole policy debate. But they’re the questions we’re not allowed to ask.

WE HAVE to accept, sight unseen, that extra taxes and fewer public services are our lot in life. Well, I can live with a reduced quality of life – but I know far too many people who are as close to the bone as they can possibly get right now. The questions I want to ask are really about them.

If we cut back on children’s medicine and on education; if we really insist that we can’t afford dignity for an elderly person any more; if we are absolutely determined to ensure that young people starting lives together will never again be able to afford a home – there’s one other question we need to ask: what in God’s name are we becoming?

Next time you hear the experts on the radio, shout that question at them. Next time you hear the economists who work for the banking system telling us there’s no alternative to NAMA, or the economists who work for the employers telling us there’s no alternative to public spending cuts – shout that question at them too.

We’ve really got to stop and think about what we’re in danger of becoming. Because the real risk is that we’ll go too far, hypnotised as we are by the expert consensus to cut and slash and burn.

And then, when we discover that too many people are really hurting, and that too much of the future has been mortgaged, there might be no going back.


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