NAMASTE

We are just over the one hundred day mark into the reign of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the only substantial change is that the lack of substance is now communicated as a virtue. Of the core challenges facing the government, we can only say with certainty, that there are certain plans with less than certain outcomes.

There are also more kites floating around than on Dollymount Strand during a Kite Surfing Contest. One such kite, that flew from the Taoiseach’s lips, was the proposal to convert NAMA into a Housing Development Agency to help tackle the housing crisis. That this is considered new and innovative, as part of the new and innovative government, is disappointing.

This is, in fact, old news. NAMA has always had the ability to help in tackling the burden of homelessness. NAMA was created, on day one, with the powers to do just that.

Section 2 (iv) and (viii) of the NAMA Act state that the purposes of the establishment of NAMA are: to protect the interests of taxpayers and to contribute to the social and economic development of the state.

There it is in black and white. NAMA doesn’t need any new powers, it simply needs to be directed to carry out the task for which it was created. NAMA should already be working to “contribute to the social and economic development of the state”.

The kite of getting them to do so now is not new and innovative. The question, that sadly is not being asked, off this government is, Why Haven’t You Done This Already?

Fine Gael are in power since 2011, for them to not have even suggested this before can only be negligence and or an ideological choice. There is nothing new in putting markets before people. There is nothing innovative in falling asleep at the wheel.

The argument that they couldn’t have seen this crisis coming doesn’t hold up either. As early as 2013, the then Minister for Housing Jan O’Sullivan said:

“Homelessness is an affront to every value that we assign to the concept of citizenship. In a real republic there is an onus on us all to ensure that all citizens have a place they can call home”.

Sadly, there’s not much room for optimism. When Leo spoke of the NAMA possibility he was quickly shut down by his ‘handlers’ and further explorations were closed to questioning. NAMA are part, and have been part, of discussions on the housing crisis for years now. Foisting it on them now isn’t a solution. NAMA have shown no desire to enter the “contributing to the social development” stage of their remit.

Leo, who has a history of saying “it was like that when I got here”, needs to step away from the PR for a few hours. He has said funding isn’t an issue, great. Issue the funds Taoiseach.

Give the Local Authorities the responsibility to get on with building. Make the Department of Housing, and your good friend Minister Eoghan Murphy, responsible for removing roadblocks and expediting building.

Support the Non Governmental Organisations who are on the front line, taking the flack that six years of Fine Gael government has had a hand in creating. Make the Local Authorities, the Department and the Minister accountable. Do what Section 2 (viii) of the NAMA act says: contribute to the social development of the state; not just the social media side of things.  

 

Tony Groves

 

Opportunity Won’t Knock

There was an interesting development in how the Government have decided to handle (spin) the housing crisis this week. After a raw and at times brutal interview with a homeless Secondary School student named ‘Amanda’, the Minister for Housing, Eoghan Murphy, rather than feel ashamed decided he’d side with the poor girl. He said:

“The piece that was broadcast this morning on Morning Ireland is probably one of the most important contributions to this debate that we’ve heard in the past number of months,” he said.

“The bravery that they had this morning to come out and tell the country about their particular circumstance was very brave but very important for people to understand what these families are facing.”

The family tragedy compounded by a Minister who is calling this crisis a debate. The time for debating is long gone. It is time for action, real decisive action.

Campaigns like #MyNameIs have raised the consciousness of the general public and the sense that more must be done is palpable. In reality we have the means to take much more ambitious steps than the planned 23,000 social housing homes by 2021.

More importantly, even with this limited plan, who will be held accountable should this target not be met? Given that only 22 of the 1,500 promised by next year have been completed to date, can we believe in any new plan? Where is the accountability?

The lack of accountability in Ireland undermines many facets of our society. But to just focus on housing we can identify the problem quite quickly. Unlike many other European countries, including Belgium, France and the UK, housing is not a right in Ireland.

In Ireland, under the 1988 Housing Act, our citizens run into a verbal wall.

 

10.—(1) A housing authority may, subject to such regulations as may be made by the Minister under this section –

  1. make arrangements, including financial arrangements, with a body approved of by the Minister for the purposes of section 5 for the provision by that body of accommodation for a homeless person,
  2. provide a homeless person with such assistance, including financial assistance, as the authority consider appropriate, or
  3. rent accommodation, arrange lodgings or contribute to the cost of such accommodation or lodgings for a homeless person.

2. A request for accommodation may be made to a housing authority by or on behalf of a homeless person.
The blocker in the system is a small word that covers all manner of excuses. The word is ‘may’; as in the housing authority may or it may not do a,b,c or d.

It is not compulsory, and if it is not compulsory then there is no accountability. If there’s no accountability then there’s no repercussions for missing targets. Until may becomes must and the power to act become a duty to act then nothing will change.

This crisis didn’t sneak up on us either. It is the result of decades of bad planning and even worse policy making. We have gone, progressively since the 1970’s, from State provision to a combination of NGO and Market provision.  Both are failing – for different reasons.  The NGO solution is common – the UK for example has a similar situation, with the important distinction that the State in UK decanted housing stock progressively to the NGO’s, thereby providing a balance sheet base from which the NGO’s could leverage collateral to fund future housing stock.
The NGO model is endemic in Irish Social policy – the same approach applies in Health, Disability Services and in the past in areas such as industrial schools.  Whatever about its origins – a pauper State seeking access to property and services from institutions such as the Church, it now represents either an abdication of responsibility or, worse, an adherence to Victorian attitudes to relative poverty and provision, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  Without diverting from the current crisis, this needs to be reassessed in all areas of Social policy.

Given the intolerable crisis we have today – 8,160 people homeless and nearly 3,000 children – anything less than “The State Will Provide” response from the Government will not suffice. Even if we are to only do so on a temporary basis until the crisis has abated.

There’s nothing in EU Law that forbids a country from acting to protect its citizens. Therefore it follows that there is nothing in EU Law (including the Debt to GDP rules) that can prevent the government from raising money to build social housing. The “off balance sheet” argument is a red herring. They raised over €5bn to pay off the IMF. To not do the same for our citizens is an indictment of Right Wing slaves to the “free” market ideology. It is an indictment of us as a society and a country.

It is within our powers, as the 14th wealthiest country in the world, to build 10,000 social houses in the next 12-18 months. Any legislative roadblocks can and must be given the NAMA treatment. Exceptional times call for exceptional measures.

If we can create NAMA overnight, ignoring legislative processes, to stop a Bank crisis and we refuse to do the same for our citizens then any plans from the Third Emergency Housing Summit are only window dressing.

The pressure is on, Fine Gael are rattled by claims that their ideological blindness to the less well off in our country have exacerbated this crisis. Campaigns like #MyNameIs have embarrassed them and stung a Taoiseach obsessed with his image into action. This action must happen now and it must be on a scale that dwarfs the current 2021 plan.

Time is of the essence here. While things are bad they are about to get much worse. There’s 14,367 Buy To Let Mortgages at repossession stage. There is no incentive or reason for the Vulture Funds that own these properties to rent them to the social housing/homeless part of the market. This will be like throwing petrol on a bonfire unless our government turns “may” into Must.

We have the means, the finance is available and the solutions are simple:

Make the provision of housing a right, at least until the crisis has abated.

Use the NAMA exceptionalist model to protect the citizens.

Commit to building 10,000 social houses in the next 12-18 months.

Make the Departments accountable and have repercussions for failure.

Incentivise/Legislate that the Vultures make their properties available to the Social Housing schemes.

Deliver.
Fine Gael are 84 years old today. The Taoiseach used this occasion to remind people that he wants “to build a Republic of Opportunity”. Well Leo, it’s no good waiting for opportunity to knock when you don’t have a front door.
Tony Groves  

 

Pride In Prejudices

It’s been a tough year for the “liberal elite”. What with the Brexit vote, the Trump election and the death of many of our musical heroes. 2016 has not been a good year for those of us who hope for a more progressive and inclusive society.

Let me put on record that “liberal elite” is the dumbest smear I’ve ever heard. Seriously, I’ve been called Populist, Lefty Loony, Open Borders Lunatic and many more colourful and nasty things, but calling someone “elite” as a smear is the most (oxy)moronic thing yet.

“Hey you, you’re better informed than me, up yours!” is not really a put down. It’s more a declaration that the disenfranchised have decided that they reason for their disenfranchisement is self-important liberals. They have a very valid point, up to a point. Liberals are guilty in thinking that just because their own circle of influence (echo chamber) thinks the same as they do, then the rest of the world does to.

Liberals have championed change quicker than many people have wanted. Liberals have lost sight of getting buy in and THEN ushering in progressive changes. Liberals have exuded a sense of knowing what’s best and not taken time to consider the fears, real or imagined, by large parts of the population.

You might imagine the Trump election has obliterated that Liberal world view and sense of intellectual smugness . But you’d be wrong. Despite calling every major event/election wrong over the past year the Liberal Ideology, rather than look at its flaws, has decided to blame everyone else for being stupid.

Worse, they are still pretending they were right in their wrongs. Less than a week after the Trump victory, we are hearing “liberals” saying idiotic things like “Trump is moderating“, “He’s rolling back on his election promises” and only this morning I was told “He’s moving back toward the political middle ground”.

Pardon me for one second, but are you insane?

President Elect Trump, has appointed Steve Bannon, Anti-Semite and CEO of Breitbart (the thinking Klansman’s favourite new source) as his chief strategist. He has a Vice President elect in Mike Pence, who believes homosexuality can be cured with “conversion therapy. Trump is already looking to appoint a Conservative Judge to the Supreme Court, in order to repeal Roe vs Wade. Yet, our “Liberal Elite” are reassuring us (and perhaps more themselves) with assertions that the Trump Presidency won’t be that bad after all.

Huh?

Mike Pence thinks “evolution is a theory” and that the “fundamental truth” is “that God created the heavens and the Earth, the seas and all that’s in them.” Donald Trump thinks “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

Moderating modernity maybe…

As someone who has correctly been called a Liberal, but has constantly called out the effects of the The Age of Austerity on people, I accept how wrong I was. I was wrong in thinking Trump could not win. I underestimated the depths of anti-establishment feelings (even as someone who has anti-establishment sympathies myself) and listened too much to my own echo chamber of Liberal reassurance. If this acknowledgement of how wrong I was proves anything, it proves the Liberal Elite smear is a myth.

BUT, if the commentariat/media/social media/academia etc continue to normalise Trumps outrageous views and preach tolerance of his intolerance, then it also proves that echo chambers are more dangerous than ever imagined. Locked away in our comfort-zone bubbles, ignoring reality, is not helping create a world of inclusion. Sending a tweet is not activism. By the time we wake up to our shortcomings and peek outside, it might be too late to stop the march of illiberal immorality.

 

Tony Groves November 2016 Image result for planet of the apes

June -22nd- 2016: The UK will vote Remain 

November -8th- 2016: The US will vote Clinton

May 2018: There’s no way President Trump will fire those Nukes!

October 2028: I’m not doing what that monkey tells me!

What’s In A Name?

Something has been itching at me for a few weeks and I hadn’t been able to put it into words until now. Even now the best words aren’t my own, they belong to David Crosby (he of the Byrd’s and Crosby, Stills and Nash) when he told Marc Maron recently: “I have no respect for labels at all; because they are generally a way to not think about a thing”. Boom!

Labels are a lazy way for us to explain away, dismiss or belittle something that challenges our inherent biased world view. They are nothing more than a convenient way to reinforce confirmation biases and give the labeller a sense of superiority.

How often do you hear dehumanising labels such as “economic migrants”, “so called refugees”, “left wing loony” and “far right fascist”? These are some of the more common ones, but I’m sure we all hear and use some every day. My own personal weakness is to label “the centrists” as “I’m alright Jacks”.

It’s trite and lazy; many of the middle have valid concerns about the polarisation of politics and societal change. Just because I don’t share those fears, does not mean they are not real! An interesting thing happens when you stop using the comforting crutch of labels; a new self-awareness allows you to enter an open dialogue with those who you ideologically oppose.

I’ve read horrendous pieces this week, one that even put the word children in inverted commas, because the children in question were foreigners? We’ve seen refugees reclassified as “mobs” and “a plague of feral humans”. In echo’s of recent dark history we’ve heard calls for dental checks on Children from Calais. Never mind the economic fact that net migration always results in net growth for the country of resettlement.

 

img_7681img_7680img_7679

 

I’ve seen this weekend factions on the Left squabbling over whom has the highest of high moral ground over refusing or reusing the pay rises for politicians. This infighting feeds into the label of the Left as divisive and disorganised. He said, she said politics belongs in the school yard.

There are several labels bandied about on a daily basis, but there is one that is so ubiquitous, so pervasive as to be perverted that I must once more address. That of course is the much loved by the commentariat “Populist”.

I’ve written before about how whenever you read or hear Populist used, you should substitute in the word Democracy and see what effect this would have on the sentence. For example, consider when the Lame Duck Taoiseach enda kenny told the Super-duper World Economic Forum in Davos that “It’s very easy to lose all that hard-won gain and recovery by drifting towards a sense of populism (democracy) without clarity about what that might deliver”.

Now apart from enda trotting out his favourite buzzwords, recovery and clarity,  what he said is that all the indicators are that growth is back and that tinkering with the democratic blueprint now would put that at risk. In summary, democratic calls for change risk changing things.

But he has, not for the first time, missed the point entirely. He has mistaken Growth for Progress, or to simplify it, he has mistaken Economic Progress for Poverty Eradication.

What is actually happening is economic growth that is exacerbating poverty.This is not unique in history, in fact, it is a well documented, often repeated mistake of Government. Most famously it was exposed by Henry George’s Progress & Poverty.

At the end of the nineteenth century industrialisation had dramatically changed the face of America. New technologies were opening up new frontiers and global trade meant access to the best bits of the wider world. Wealth mushroomed and luxury items from foreign lands arrived in US ports several times a day. But, not unlike today, something counter-intuitive was also happening.  People were getting poorer.

You see, as George explains, the relationship between progress and poverty is not symbiotic, in fact it can be very parasitic. The three factors of production are Land, Labour and Capital.

The person with productive/valuable land (land here includes all forms of natural resources) is worth a fortune, the Labourers (wealth producers) get only a small fraction of what they produce and the owner can suppress the wages in line with the high demand for these jobs.

The labour works efficiently at the land/resource/company to where productivity increases. This drives demand that results in rent also increasing and thus actual wealth of the labour falls.

Think about it, a large employer, paying low Corporation Taxes, with its pick of the labour market, uses its natural resources/wealth/share of a market to garner higher productivity, that in turn leads to higher (low taxed) profits, higher rents for the workforce and lower standards of living for the wider community.

Most of the benefits (low taxation, free infrastructure and favourable enterprise deals) are done in order to help the land owner. These they use to raise higher profits while driving down wages in real terms. The inevitable next step is industrial unrest. Workers, finding themselves left behind, see the large profits, hear talk about economic “recovery” and naturally want some of this growth for themselves. It was true in the late nineteenth century and it is very true today.

What is more, the solutions offered back then are as simple and relevant as they are today. George maintained that all men and women of this earth are equal and should be allowed access to the “land”. He points out that it was not nobility or human superiority that gave land, but possession of land that gave humans nobility and a sense of superiority.

Now I know in a global market we cannot go around ripping up trade deals, grabbing natural resources from those who control them or forcing Multinational’s to distribute all of their stateless profits. But we can use the laws, taxation and legal, to decrease the gap over time. We can lessen taxes on productive industries that will agree to make strategic choices that mean labourers share in the successes.  We can incentivise production by taxing unused land/resources, eliminating speculators and thus creating more opportunity for more people to benefit.

Over time, such strategies will lead to land/resources changing hands more often. We’d have more people able to partake in new industries we haven’t even created yet. We would see a more motivated labour force, one that sees a more equal society. Wealth would still increase, but it would do so in such a way as to be of a wider benefit.

There’s no such thing as equality of opportunity, it’s a myth. But there can be such a thing as opportunity of achievement. Enda and the populist bashers are miles away from the types of policies that could lead us to this system. They’re still stuck in the loop of boom/bust and in trusting in trickle-down economics.

We are seeing advances in technology that will automate many jobs in the near future. We will need to have a real and serious debate on the basic income model within the next ten years. These ideas are not Populist, they are facts that have yet to materialise.

Besides, Populist is a just a disrespectful label, used as a way to not have to address democratic and economic realities. Today’s reality is that a Recovery is not a Recovery if the people are left behind and if thinking there’s a better way to build a better society labels me a populist, then so be it.

Anybody can call names. I’ve yet to hear a lazy commentator offer workable solutions. At least  populism comes with progressive ideas.At least populism gives pause to the growing inequality. At least populism is about inclusiveness.

A funny thing about Henry George and his late nineteenth century realignment cohorts, they were also labelled Populists. So I’m in good company.

 

Tony Groves October 2016 fullsizerender

Image stolen once more from the excellent @Feckthelottom

The Weakest Link

Sometimes I dream, that he is me,                                                                                                              You’ve got to see that’s how I dream to be                                                                                              I dream I move, I dream I groove                                                                                                                  Like Mike, if I could be like Mike!

Growing up, I played every type of sport. But Basketball was my true love. New Air Jordan’s were the best way to get me to do anything. Michael Jeffrey Jordan was the greatest athlete in the greatest sport and I was alive to witness his reign. With all due respect to the modern era superstars, in a sport built on superstars, MJ’s star still eclipses them all.

Basketball is a strong link sport. There are only 5 men vs 5 men on the court. One elite player can lift four average players easier than say on a football pitch of 11 vs 11. Lebron James won the NBA Championship last June, carrying his Cleveland Cavaliers team to a huge upset win against the Golden State Warriors.

The Warriors had just set the single biggest winning record in NBA history, 73 wins and just 9 losses. Their team chemistry was widely lauded as their main strength. Lebron was the best player on either team (and in the world) and by sheer force of will, beat (arguably) the best team ever assembled. Basketball is a Strong Link Sport.

In their book, The Numbers Game, Chris Anderson and David Sally explain how Football is a Weak Link Sport. With apologies to the Authors, I’d summarise it as: On a football team of 11 players, if your worst player is only 40% as good as your best player, he negates all the good play of the superstar. Say Messi dribbles the length of the pitch to score a fantastic goal, but Mascherano kicks into his own net!

I heard Graeme Souness call this the “find the dope” tactic. He means find the weakest link and exploit it. Football is a Weak Link Sport.

The government are flying budgetary kites at the moment. One of the kites soaring about is the “special tax deal to lure emigrants home”. The idea is that, because (as the Irish Tax Institute) we are currently paying “overly progressive” taxes, we need to entice “highly skilled and entrepreneurial” emigrants home with tax breaking sweeteners.

Who can possibly be against returning emigrants? Nobody

Who can possibly be against reversing the brain drain? Nobody

Who, without coming across as greedy, could argue this is a bad idea? No one…

…except maybe me?

Fine Gael is a Strong Link party. They are playing basketball. They consistently have policies that trumpet the “developing of world class and highly skilled jobs”, “policies that ensure market confidence” and “plans to attract and reward talent”. All of this makes for excellent soundbites, and the nodding dog media report it as evidence of innovative political action.

In reality, this means that those who are already ahead, get more opportunities to pull even further ahead. It means that instead of tackling inequality, lending a hand to the weakest link, we end up with stronger strong links. The growth of wealth inequality cannot be arrested or reversed by policies that reward Strong Links, while ignoring the Weak Links.

This ideological battle is the reason for the disintegration of the centre in politics and the main reason why we are seeing such a rise of extremes on both sides.

The best way to attract back emigrants is to make Ireland a place worth coming back to. It is by providing world class education, ensuring access to decent health care, having adequate and affordable housing and offering real value for those “overly progressive” taxes that we all have to pay.

So please, stop playing basketball. Stop cultivating the culture of Them vs Us. Focus on raising the standard of your weakest link and you will improve the team’s performance. Level the playing field and watch bit part players excel.

And our emigrants are not stupid. They are brave and intelligent. Build a country they want to be part of. If you build it……. they will come!

Tony Groves September 2016Image result for trickle down economics

 

The Age of Austerity

“You don’t qualify for braces unless you’ve more than two teeth missing” said the HSE dental nurse apologetically. She was friendly, efficient and the picture of dental professionalism; Professional Austerity.

Nothing said by the Dental Nurse seemed unreasonable when viewed through the prism of Austerity. Taking Medical Cards from Children with Disabilities, that’s just Childhood Austerity. Allowing Banks gouge Standard Variable Rate customers, that’s Austerity Transference.

Listening to mainstream media decry calls for change as “populism” and nodding our heads sagely, that’s nothing but the manifestation of Austerity Fatigue. Those championing the demise of popular democracy are either adherents to the Austerity doctrine, or hostages to it.

So when a Dental Nurse tells me my daughter doesn’t qualify for braces unless she has a mouth like Shane MacGowan, I don’t even flinch. I myself am suffering from Austerity Stockholm Syndrome.

Today we remember Copernicus as the man who proved the Earth was not the centre of the universe and that it revolved around the sun. As mundane as this piece of information is these days, in the sixteenth century this fact was revolutionary, not to mention heretical.

Copernicus died before his book (The Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs) was printed. He’d lived a happy and productive seventy years and is said to have seen the first printed copy of his work before passing away peacefully; an escape for the good Doctor.

Most of the vitriol was saved up for the Copernican follower Galileo. The beliefs and works of both men “explicitly contradict…the Holy Scripture” and as such, was an attack on the Holy Roman Church. The belief that the Earth was the centre of the universe was inextricably linked to the power of the doctrines of the age.

“The Lord set the earth on its foundations, it can never be moved”

Psalm 104:5

Galileo was tried by the Inquisition and found guilty of heresy. He lived the rest of his life under house arrest, undermined, discredited, marginalised and his works forbidden. When he died, aged seventy seven, he was refused burial within the Basilica of Santa Croce beside the graves of his family; the churches final humiliation of the great man.

When recanting his heretical and heliocentric beliefs as part of his punishment, Galileo was said to have concluded “And yet it moves”. And the earth kept moving, round and round the sun it went. As it spun on, the truth of Galileo’s works spread, his knowledge swept away the ideology of idiocy.

When we talk now of great men like Copernicus and Galileo, we guffaw at the simplicity and idiocy of those who tried so hard to suppress the truth. We demonise them as uncultured and unenlightened monsters. We shrug our shoulders and are grateful that we aren’t so ideologically blind. And yet I can’t help thinking…

In a few hundred years, when students sit and read the history of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, what will they make of it? I don’t pretend to be so smart as to know, but if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to hazard a guess.

I believe that, in the future, students will demonise us as uncultured and unenlightened for what we have done. They will read in horror how we put “market confidence” ahead of people lying on hospital trolleys. They will study how we accepted an erosion of human rights and basic living standards so we could return the Banks (who created the mess) to profit.

How can the history students, four hundred years hence, wrap their heads around the concept that, no matter what the societal meltdown or human suffering, the only treatment proscribed was austerity? I mean, how can they possibly understand that our leaders decided the only system that can prevent another Boom and Bust cycle is the same system that caused the last one?

I imagine that when they watch the film of events back, they’ll call us idiots for paying bondholders and letting the most vulnerable in society go hungry. I can almost hear them wonder how it could be that a “developed world” allowed Multinational Companies, Troika’s and Banks dictate the terms of cuts to be applied to people?

When they read the Book, they wont really comprehend the level of political incompetence that continued the march of inequality, in the name of Globalisation. They’ll have entire books about the globalisation of austerity and how, at every turn, the rights of Business out-trumped the rights of humans.

But when they’re finished learning about the past, they can close the book, shrug their shoulders and be grateful that they aren’t so ideologically blind. Meanwhile, we live it. “Free Trade” Austerity, like TTIP, keeps the Chumocracy recovery going.

And I leave the Dentist a little lessened by Austerity, again. So call me populist. Call me a dreamer. Call me a heretic. But I don’t want my life to be a paragraph in a book on a dark time in humanity. I want my book to have a happy ending. But it’s not looking good at the moment.

The book, you ask? Why it’s a best seller in 2416, it’s called The Age of Austerity.

 

 

Tony Groves May 2016  IMG_4679

 

Image courtesy of the brilliant @Feckthelottom