The Not So Good News

Language can be a lot like the Leaving Cert Geography lifecycle of a river. Words start out vibrant and energising; soon they’re meandering along corporate corridors and through bankers boardrooms only to slow to a crawl in the mouths of politicians. 
Around 2006 the word granularity came into the military lexicon. General David Petraeus, while discussing the situation then in Iraq, told the Armed Services Committee that “it is hard at this distance…to get the real granularity of what’s going on”. 

Two years later, as Irish Banks were preparing to close their doors, I was listening to a Chief Strategist explaining the “granularity of the crisis”. 

Sometime around 2013, I saw a tweet from a Fine Gael TD in response to the (even back then) housing crisis saying those calling for immediate action “needed to familiarise themselves with the granularity of the situation”. Granularity, like so many once militarily sexy words, had passed from the mouth of a 4 Star General to the tweet of a free market apologist.

Granularity used to mean the finer details, in political speak it was used as smug way of trying to sound clever. The granularity of the word had been ground away. It is waffle like this that results in the Taoiseach appointing his own Strategic Communications Unit. 

This “good news” department, as it has been dubbed, is to help the Taoiseach effectively communicate (dare I say propagandise) the workings and achievements of his government. It is telling that the rank and file members of Fine Gael aren’t uncomfortable with this new development. No one is questioning the value of the unit, nor the cost to the state. 

When members of Sinn Fein similarly stay on message they are routinely called a cult. When Fine Gael do it, crickets…

Nor does the language devolution stop with the politicians. In his weekly address the Taoiseach, first patting himself on the back for “taking more people out of homelessness this year than any year in the past”, then said the problem was that “more people BECOME homeless every week”. It’s as if these people simply decided to get up, leave their homes and start camping in the Phoenix Park. 

People don’t become homeless; they are MADE homeless. 

Imagine my disappointment then when the media then went on to parrot the “people become homeless” line. Across the airwaves our inability to address this national shame was sanitised away with the lie of the ‘accidental’ inference of a simple word like BECOME.

There are 14,367 Buy to Let Mortgages in arrears of over 720 days, these homes contain rent paying tenants who risk losing their homes through no fault of their own. The vulture funds are closing in for the kill on these loans and these families will be MADE homeless.    

I’m not sure how the “good news” unit will spin this, but one thing is for certain, another housing summit is not the answer. We’ll have had 3 emergency housing summits since 2014, 1 more and we get the 5th one for free.

The Taoiseach has said that he “believes communication is a virtue”. It is not. It is simply an exchange of information. Virtues are things like honesty, integrity and trustworthiness. There’s no virtue if the information you are exchanging is dishonest, unbelievable and untrustworthy.  

The “good news” unit isn’t about virtues. It’s about putting a verbiage plaster on an open wound. 

When you really get down to the finer details (the granularity), the purpose of the “good new” unit is to give the appearance of substance to plans made on foundations of sand and worn out words. 
Tony Groves

West World

There’s a myth that needs busting. It’s a seemingly innocent, widely held belief that is instrumental to the structure of not just Ireland, but most of what we call the Western World. The big lie is that a large portion of our economic and social stability stems from what we are always told is called the Centre. 
This comfort blanket lie is only centrist in so far as it is central to a collective and willful ignorance. It forms the basis of economic policy and the shrinking of social mobility. It is the foundation stone of neoliberalism, corporate pirateering and some of the worst aspects of human behaviour. 

The narrative is that the Centre has ensured relative peace and stability since the end of World War II. It is that Centrist economic policies, centrist work ethic and centrist governance has made the West rich.

In order for this to be true the the corollary is that the poor countries of the world have lefty loony economic policies, poor work ethics and corrupt governance. 

The proof for all of this, according to the centrist, is that the West has been generously pumping billions of dollars into these poor countries and still they lag behind in the United Nations Human Inequality Index.

The West, via the World Bank, boasts that, due to their assistance, the global poverty rate has decreased dramatically in the past three decades, from half the citizens in the developing world in 1981 to 21 percent in 2010, despite a 59 percent increase in the developing world population.

The centrists argue that it is western generosity in the shape of aid totalling $130 billion per year that has seen these developments. $130 billion, that’s a huge sum of money. To put it into context, it is almost as much as the entire profits of all the combined banks in North America for 2016. 

Even within Ireland, the centrist generosity is on full display. Ireland tops the OECD Income Inequality table, with a score of 0.58. But, the centrist will yell, that’s before transfers. And in fairness, once transfers are taken into account Ireland has a much more middling inequality ranking of 0.31. 

All of these stats ($130bn in Foreign Aid, 0.31 Inequality Ranking and slashing poverty by nearly 30%) are the reason every 2nd Op-Ed pukes up the line “the centre must hold”.

But it bloody well must not. The centre is a statistical mirage. The numbers aren’t real. They are paid for and used by (dare I say alt-centre) centrist ideology that is all about maintaining a parasitic existence. 

The trickle down economic policy of the centre is an economic disaster. If you look at all the new income generated by global GDP growth over the past few decades only 5% has gone to the poorest 60% of humanity. During the same period, the richest 8 people in the world have accumulated more wealth than the bottom 50% of the world’s population. 

That’s 8 people with more money than nearly 4,000,000,000. Based on the current rate of “trickle down” growth we will eradicate global poverty sometime in late 2217. 

The foreign aid of $130 billion is also never put into the context of net flows by the (alt)centrist. Why would they? To do so would only expose that, according to Global Financial Integrity and the Norwegian School of Economics, for every $1 in aid given to a poor country, we in the west remove $24 in cash outflows. 

That’s over $24 for the wealthy west and $1 for the poor box. A sweet deal for the grasping centrist.

Next we come to the centrist (World Bank supported) claim of slashing poverty. The figures themselves are undeniable; hundreds of millions of people have indeed been lifted above the poverty threshold. 

And that got me thinking of something an old Sales Manager of mine used to say,“What gets measured, gets done.” The ‘What’ is what matters and in the case of the World Bank the ‘What’ is a benchmark based on the number of people living on less than $1.25 per day.

That’s $1.25 per day to cover everything, light, heat, food etc. The ethical poverty line, based on figures from those poor countries, and not the World Bank, is $5 per day. Leaving aside the centrist $1.25 and going with the $5 required to actually move out of poverty, crushes the centrist claim of slashing global poverty.

In fact, it shows we are growing it. The $5 dollar benchmark leaves 60% of the world’s population in poverty. That’s an increase of 10%. The ‘What’ matters. 

Finally, to bring it back to our dinner tables, let’s look at Ireland and what our (alt)centre stats can tell us about inequality. Well, the obvious statistic is that by using transfers to reduce inequality from the highest down to average levels is very much the same as paying $130bn in foreign aid to strip out $1trn. 

A country that in 2008 had 16,000 millionaires and 1,600 people homeless, now has 91,000 millionaires and nearly 8,000 people homeless. These transfers are simply taking a few dollars from Peter to placate the hordes of Paul’s.

Ireland’s GDP growth is an EU leading 4.5%. Ireland has an at-risk-of-poverty rate of 16%. But, without these transfers (Department of Social Protection payments) the number shoots up to 51%.

That’s 51% of Irish people depend on some form of DSP payment to keep the lights on. A staggering figure that makes no sense in a country that is nearing full employment and heading the EU GDP growth rates. I don’t have the latest data for Ireland’s trickle down rate, but the homeless and vulnerable stats aren’t encouraging.   

To be centrist is to be pro status quo. To be pro status quo is to support a right wing economic structure that is failing the majority of people. Tolstoy once told Chekov that his writing would improve if he’d pick a point of view. The people who say they are centrist, by going with the right wing flow, have picked a point of view. 

I don’t think I’ve ever met a true centrist, but I’ve met plenty who think they are. Most are just cogs in the right wing wheel, happy to believe that they’ll leave the world in a better place than they found it. Heck, they even have the stats to prove it.

As Mark Twain might have said; lies, damned lies and I’m a centrist statistic.    
Tony Groves 

#MyNameIs

My name is Orla,Today was a great day. I went on a play date with my friend Lisa. Her house is like a mansion. She has her own bedroom and even has a tv in it!

She has a puppy called Ben. He’s a Cockapoo. She said that her dad told her that means he’s half dog and half poo. We played with him in the garden and I gave him some of my popcorn. He puked it up.

Lisa has an older brother. He’s the same age as mine. But he doesn’t have a wheelchair like Jack. He has his own room as well. Lisa says it’s like an evil lair, and that her brother spends all his time on Youtube looking at videos about ninjas and swords and fighting. But when I looked in it looked clean and he has one of them beds that are like bunkbeds but have a hang-out den on the ground part. I’d love one of those.

Lisa’s mom is brilliant. She even let us make our own pizzas. Mine was with ham and pineapple. The ham was lovely, but the pineapple was gross. Lisa had hers plain and then we had ice cream and apple crumble. 

We played Pie-Face and I won lots of times. Lisa wiped the cream up with her brothers Dublin jersey. I’d say he’ll go mad when he finds out. We had so much fun.

I wanted to show my mammy around when she came to collect me, but she said she was busy. I know she had time but she sometimes gets in a mood, even when there’s no reason to. Lisa’s mum wrapped up some apple crumble for me and my brother. 

When we got home Piotr had to help carry my brother upstairs cause the lift was broken again. Piotr is cool, he’s from Poland and always puts on this deep voice pretending to give out to me, but I can tell he doesn’t mean it.

Some of the other people in the hotel were there, but they didn’t help and Mam had to carry Jacks wheelchair up the stairs. I took the schoolbags and the milk. Because our room is small we have to keep Jacks wheelchair outside in a tiny room with the hotel cleaning stuff.

Mam was very tired but she still made us both her famous hot chocolate. Jack has cerebral palsy but he’s very clever and really strong. I’m always worried that he will grip his cup so strongly that it will smash. 

Because we only have two beds, I did my homework on mums and she helped Jack do his exercises on ours. Jack is so funny doing them. He always makes fart noises just to annoy Mam.

I hate homework, especially the Irish reading. But Mam is very good, she always tells me these little tricks that she used to do when she was a girl. She even helps me with projects. One time we went over to Aldi and Mam got a cardboard box and we made an aquarium for my project about the sea. I remember spilling blue paint on my bed and uniform. I had blue tracksuit bottoms for a month. Mam just said they were all the fashion!

There was one bad thing and that was when I asked if Lisa could come to the hotel for a play date. Mam went quiet and in that same mood that I said about earlier in Lisa’s house. But I really wanted to show Lisa the hotel so I kept asking. Mam kind of shouted at me a little and I began to cry and it upset Jack. He rolled off the bed a dragged himself into the bathroom. Jack hates it when anybody fights. 

I really hate when this happens, but sometimes I can’t help it. I don’t mean to be bad. I just want to bring my friends over and we wouldn’t even play in the room. We’d play chasing in the corridors or in the lobby, if Piotr is on. But not if the other cranky fella is. 

Mam was talking to Jack, so I got the apple crumble from her bag and Jack came out and we all had some. I could tell mam was still sad about what happened, so I told her that I wouldn’t ask anymore and said I was sorry. She said it was fine and that everything was okay. But I know it’s not. Not really.

After we go to bed I always hear her crying in the bathroom when she thinks I am asleep. It always gives me this pain in my stomach and I get cross at myself for making her sad. 

I don’t know what to do. But I just tell myself that tomorrow I will be better and that it will be okay then. 

My Name Is Orla…

  

Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me…

There are a few banker cliches that I grew up with. I’m sure they’re not unique to the banking fraternity, but they were certainly retold at every Conference I attended. Lately, they’ve started reappearing, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

The first tale told is that the Director driving a BMW is displaying ambition, whereas the Director driving a Mercedes is displaying achievement. As infantile as this is, there are many who give this consideration when purchasing their cars. I’m a BMW guy, SAD!

As I heard this said again recently, I remembered another boast of the Mercedes man. As a young subordinate, I was “privileged” to drive to one of these Conference’s with one of these Directors. Sitting inside the brand new Mercedes E Class was like stepping inside an Apple Store long before the advent of the iPhone.

I must have looked impressed, because the Director told me that if I look at the features of the car (and there were many) that I’d see them in about ten years time on a Ford Mondeo. Technology, much like neoliberal economics, is a trickle down process.

The same can be said for Irish Politics. When Tony Blair swept to power in 1997, he became the first Tory leader of the British Labour Party. He ran on a promise that “things can only get better” and aimed his message at what he identified as “Mondeo Man”. Blair cleverly re-branded this move away from social democratic values to free market economic ones as “New Labour“.

The party replaced promises of delivering equality for the libertarian myth of equality of opportunity. They moved away from the idea of government delivering social justice, to a free market that would improve economic efficiency.

They spoke of hand ups, not hand outs. In essence they Out Toried the Tories. And Mondeo Man loved it. Under the New Tory Labour things did indeed, for a while, get better.

Without rehashing the disaster that became the “free market” financial crisis and the other lingering global aftershocks, we know now that the New Labour “third way” was used to build an economy based on Rent Seekers and very little innovation. Many historians are now pointing to the New Labour phenomenon as the birthplace of the Brexit phenomenon.

Much like the Mercedes features take years to filter down into the less salubrious car manufacturers, so to does political ideology. Particularly here in Ireland. Leo Varadkar has said he is not Right Wing, but had he been born in Britain he’d have been a Tory. Simon Coveney is Fine Gael is royalty.

Both men advocate that the free market will improve economic efficiency and therefore provide equality of opportunity down the line. This is despite all the recent economic data running contrary to this.

The Budget Projections for 2017 said that unemployment would fall to 7%, it’s down to 6.2%. Yet Income Tax is a few hundred million below expectations. The government are said to be perplexed.

Fine Gael are demanding that the Revenue Commissioners investigate this and get back to them, post-haste. But in truth there is no mystery. The income tax levels are behind because the real economy is growing on lower paid workers and the Gig Economy.

It’s important that we realise that New Politics is old New Labour. It’s crucial that we see that our candidates for Taoiseach are economically Tory Blairites. Only then can we have a honest conversation about the type of society we want to build.

Do we want to a fairer society, where everybody is afforded access to social justice, or do we want a country where a few drive new Mercedes and the rest sputter along in a 20 year old Ford Mondeo, that will never pass an NCT?

“Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz”

Tony Groves May 2017

The Numbers Game

When Herodotus wrote the story of the Persian invasion of Greece 480bc, it’s generally accepted that he used a little poetic license with the numbers. His story records an invading army of five million soldiers. Modern scholars reduce this figure to five hundred thousand and most believe the real figure was closer to two hundred thousand.

The question we should be asking isn’t was it five million or two hundred thousand. The real question is why was there such a vast difference between the story and the actual boots on the ground?

Some have speculated that this was because the Greeks weren’t very good at dealing with large numbers. It’s an interesting view, was there a numeracy issue in the cradle of democracy? Maybe, it’s true that the Greek word for countless, or innumerable, was the same word for ten thousand.

So anything beyond ten thousand was just said to be innumerable and whatever number suited their purpose might be applied. In the case of the invasion an exaggeration of Persian’s makes the Greek soldiers victory a thing of mythic proportions.

The reason for this little excursion down Herodotus way is to point out the old Greek Numeracy issues in modern day Ireland. We’ve had a Minister for Social Protection exaggerate Social Welfare fraud to be five hundred million, when the figure is actually closer to fifty million.

We’ve had a Minister for Housing tell us fifteen thousand houses were built, when the figure was closer to three thousand. We’ve seen Gardai overstate breathalyzer tests by one million.

We’ve had a Minister for Finance exaggerate his Fiscal Space. Not to mention the “Leprechaun Economics” of Corporate Tax Profits flying into Ireland in advance of the EU’s Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base Plan.

We’ve had Irish Water tell us 70% of people were paying, even though the money taken in amounted to less than 35% of peoples bills. We’ve had Irish Water Marches that were attended by tens of thousands, reported as a few thousand.

All of this would be funny, if it weren’t so serious. Nobody is condoning Welfare Fraud, but exaggerating a 1-2%  problem only demonises the most vulnerable in our society and deflects from the bigger issue of poor government management of the Welfare System.

Minister Coveney has gotten away with saying his exaggerated housing numbers by using the “It was like that when I got here”, Bart Simpson defense. Shortly we will have him claim to have achieved his promise to have no families homeless by the end of July.

But this will be another statistical fudge. Homeless families are to be but into Hubs and then reclassified out of the homeless statistics and into some sort of purgatorial nowhere zone.

The manipulation of Data, and the toleration of it by large swathes of the population and the media, is a blocker to us fixing underlying issues. Only by assessing the problem correctly can we make a plan fit for purpose.

Allowing Official Ireland play with numbers costs lives. People on trollies and people on our streets aren’t statistical tools for manipulation. They are your mother, your sister, your granny.

Those at the coal-face like Inner City Helping Homeless put faces on numbers. People like Lorcan Sirr point out that bad data leads to bad planning. The manipulation of Data in Ireland plays to the worst of our biases. It reinforces our, conscious or unconscious, view that people can be reclassified and therefore made statistically less than.

Herodotus exaggerated to make the Greeks glorious. This is not the sole fault of government. We, as a country, play with numbers to lessen crises and to pretend we are helping those worse off. Sure, it’s not our fault if they won’t help themselves, statistically speaking.

What’s the Irish for innumerable?

 

Tony Groves May 2017 abacus