Archive for December, 2009

The eye of the beholder

31 December, 2009 1 comment

Over the summer, I heard Tyler Cowen on EconTalk, the economics podcast with Russ Robert that I’d highly recommend. He was discussing his recent book, Create Your Own Economy, in which Cowen, who has recently realized that he is somewhat autistic, describes how society today is much more amenable to autism than times past, given the more common tendency to collect information online. He also finds many historic and even fictional people who he believes could be described as autistic. Two he mentioned were Adam Smith and Sherlock Holmes.

I had to smile to myself, because I had felt both could be gay. In the case of Smith, when I did a course on the History of Macroeconomic Thought, our lecturer, Prof. Antoin Murphy, took the time with each of the economists we studied, from William Petty to Henry Thornton, to give a brief biography. So I couldn’t but notice that in both his case and David Hume’s, they never married or seemed to have any relations with women, explained by saying that they were very close to their respective mothers. As I had before noticed Smith being cited by the Conservative Humanist Association, it was amusing to think that the man who most popularized the ideas of classical economic thought in the Enlightenment might be, like myself, a gay religious skeptic.

As to Holmes (also a rationalist skeptic), it had first occurred to me in my early teens, as I was towards the end of reading all sixty Holmes Adventures for the second time. In the fifty-fourth story, The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, Dr John Watson, Holmes’s housemate and chronicler,  is shot, and for a moment Holmes shows true compassion for his injured friend. It seemed to me to make sense as a romantic attachment, so that when I saw Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes later, it was not the first time I considered whether Holmes was gay. Of course, the normal reaction of close friends would probably be no different, but there was something in the way that he had not till that moment been anything other than wholly reserved about his feelings. He never seemed to care much either for Watson’s short-lived marriage (Robert Downey’s portrayal of this in Sherlock Holmes what prompted me to write this). There was Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia, referred to Holmes as The Woman, but the intrigue for him could well have been just admiration for her ability to outwit him.

Which is not to say that either Smith or Holmes is or is nor autistic or gay. But we all have a tendency to find such likenesses, particularly with those characters or figures we admire, and where there is little chance of falsification.

On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill

31 December, 2009 Leave a comment

In 1859, 150 years ago, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) published On Liberty, one of the finest expostulations of individual liberty in political philosophy. Mill was someone whose words in the years since his death have been expropriated by both socialists, who emphasize his ideas on collective ownership of firms, and by conservatives, who emphasize his suspicion of the state. While he does offer a lot to many political traditions, he should still be regarded primarily as a liberal, given his continual emphasis on the importance of the individual as a political and moral agent in society.

On Liberty is, of course, most famous for his delineation in Chapter One of the role of society in restricting the actions of individuals, with what has become known as the harm principle:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.

His words have since been appealed to in opposition to laws regulating private actions and speech. Read in context of the work as a whole, it is clear that Mill was cautious not just of the arms of the state itself, but also of society in general, which in the later Victorian era had become exceptionally moralistic. It had taken on a very middle-class puritan outlook, and he was critical of this attitude of social conservatives even when they did not specifically manage to get the point of legislating against what they determined as vice. He strongly defends freedom of opinion and expression, but his justification is more on the usefulness of alternative points of view in challenging received opinion than on the simple right of the individual. In his defence of freedom of practice and custom, he asks his English reader to consider their position in another society with different customs and taboos, which it would surely be wrong to compel them to follow.

Mill was no armchair philosopher. From early in his life he showed his deep concern for society through his actions. Richard Reeves, in his biography Victorian Firebrand, describes how at the age of 17 he found the corpse of a newborn infant, and from then realized how important education on birth control would be to the lives of the working classes. He distributed literature on birth control, contravening laws on obscenity and spent two nights in jail. At the same time, he strongly believed that parents, and not the state had a deep responsibility for the children they had borne. In Chapter Five of On Liberty, he believed that the state should require a certain standard of education, but that it should be “fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent”. While he did accept that the state should pay for the education of the children of those who could not pay for it, his beliefs that parents should be responsible for providing for their offspring were such that he argued that beyond those who could not provide for them should not have the right to bear children, something few who have a followed him could stomach, following the ideas of Rev. Thomas Malthus (1766–1834). While still on the subject of education, he anticipated Milton Friedman’s school vouchers in arguing against a state school system, saying that “a general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another”.

His own family and personal life was interesting. He was subject to a harsh educational regime by his father, the philosopher James Mill (1773–1836). In his Autobiography, he recounts beginning to read Latin at eight, and Greek at an earlier age, and reading many of the classic works in the original language at that age. He asserts his belief that any child subject to such an education at that age could learn as he did, in line with idea of the blank slate, where the capacity of our minds are not determined at birth, something I would highly doubt. He never got a chance to try such methods with any child of his own, being in a long-term relationship with a married woman. He met Harriet Taylor in 1830, married since 1826 to John Taylor. Harriet and John Stuart soon fell in love, but her husband remained alive till 1849, John Stuart and Harriet marrying in 1851, when she was beyond child-bearing age.

Mill also served a term in parliament from 1865 to 1868, and was an active voice, speaking strongly in favour of the Union in the American Civil War, in defence of the life of condemned Fenians, and on suffrage reform. His greatest parliamentary legacy was the beginning of the campaign for political equality for women. He moved an amendment in 1867 in a debate on the Reform Bill to change the word ‘man’ to ‘person’. He viewed the position of women in most households as an anomaly akin to slavery, “not felt to jar with modern civilization, any more than domestic slavery among the Greeks had jarred with their notion of themselves as free people”. He was critical of the Reform League for the aim of manhood, rather than universal, suffrage.

He had ideas on voting reform that received very little popularity, specifically the idea that votes should be given in according to the degree of education. Every ordinary unskilled labourer would get one vote, a skilled labourer would have two, and so on, so that lawyers, doctors, clergymen and artists would get five or six. Proposed when those at the bottom end of the scale had no vote at all, this was better than nothing, but was unlikely to appeal to many. He also opposed the secret ballot, believing that people should be able to account for their votes.

He also voted against the abolition of the death penalty, arguing “what else but effeminacy is it to be so much more shocked by taking a man’s life than by depriving him of all that makes life valuable”, and was an advocate of compulsory military service, so that there could be an army called at any time if necessary, without a permanent force, believing the latter more likely to be oppressive.

In economic terms, Mill was clearly a classical economist. He opposed progressive taxation, “to tax larger incomes at a higher percentage than the smaller is to lay a tax on industry and economy and to impose a penalty of people for having worked harder and saved more than their neighbours” and he criticized the paternalistic nature of factory legislation, creating “in the minds of labouring people the persuasion that it is the business of others to take care of their condition”. In his later years, however, he supported the rise of the working classes, believing that they should seek to own the sources of labour collectively, through cooperatives. Given changing times he lived in, it is difficult for any contemporary political tradition to claim his views wholesale, though with this mix, he fits most closely with the Liberal Democrats, as one would expect. He has served as one of the great influences for those across the political spectrum, and his ideas remain a yardstick by which people seek to justify their political actions.

Living a lie

29 December, 2009 Leave a comment

On a night out before Christmas, someone from my class who had read this blog asked what I made of Gareth Thomas coming out. I could make very little of it really. Obviously, it is a good thing for young gay men and boys, particularly in Wales, that someone people look up to, in a sport with no other openly gay players, has now said that he is gay. But he meant very little to me. I hadn’t heard of him till this was news, and even writing this, I had to check that I had his name right. In primary school, a lack of interest in sport was something that often separated me from every other boy in the class, and I’m not going to become interested now just because one of the players is gay.

Something about the story, though, did re-occur to me. Talking about it, people worked on the assumption that he had denied his sexuality, hidden it from himself or others. Unlike Dónal Óg Cusack, the Cork hurler who came out earlier this year, Thomas had been married, according to Wikipedia, to his childhood sweetheart. One commentary I read assumed that without the institution of the closet, this could all have been avoided. No one can be sure about this particular marriage, but I’m not sure if we can be certain of that. There are degrees of obviousness to individuals, and not necessarily determined by societal pressure. It’s quite possible to be in a perfectly tolerant society, with no disadvantage to being known to be gay, but for someone to come out late enough, having allowed others to work on the assumption that they were straight, without personal dishonesty.

Suppose forty or fifty years down the line, if practically no Western liberal democracy had any prohibition on gay couples marrying, if it was perfectly normal in society’s eyes to be gay, there would be boys (girls too, of course, but it’s easier for me from my point of view to refer to boys) who at a young age would realize that they’re gay, and that would be grand. But there could still be those who think they might be gay, but then notice some girl and feel attracted to her. This could go on for many years, and with every girl he liked, and could imagine forming a relationship with, probably with only the immediate short-term in mind, it could feel real. He might go out with a girl for a while, with quite a genuine feeling of attraction, a pattern reinforced by the greater number of girls than gay men in most groups of people, before eventually realizing that in the long-term, he would rather be with boys.  Even after that point, he might still feel the occasional attraction towards girls, but be less likely to act on that.

Alfred Kinsey, after years of interviews, devised a simple scale, with 0 as heterosexual and 6 as homosexual. Most of the population are at 0, with a varying distribution at other points. In a future society unprejudiced on this point, we could assume that most 5s and 6es would always be known to be gay. The 4s would probably still be a little slower to settle down as gay. And there would still be those 3s, people who are genuinely bisexual. There is not a simple binary distinction between those who are gay and straight.

I think people would implicitly appreciate this subtlety, that with no societal pressure, it would not be a case of someone lying to himself or others if it was late enough that he came out.

Consider two late nineteenth/early twentieth-century writers. E. M. Forster (1879–1970) was unmarried, and was probably never likely to marry. Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), on the other hand, was married with two children before he met Robert Ross and became actively gay. Presumably before that point, Wilde had noticed his attraction to the male form, but had not felt it so overriding that he would not marry. Of course societal attitudes, but it made more of a difference in some people’s case than others.

And so today, between the clear closet of earlier times, and an ideal unprejudiced future, and in many circumstances closer to the latter, we should not presume that all those who are gay are equally so, and those who come out later than others are necessarily living a lie.

Capitalism and Christmas

23 December, 2009 Leave a comment

Here’s a nice article from Onkar Ghate of the Ayn Rand Institute in a head-to-head on the meaning of Christmas. Though Miss Rand herself was not known to be particularly warm, perhaps this shows how the Christmas spirit brings out the best in all of us.

This focus on earthly joy is the actual source of the emotion most commonly identified with Christmas: goodwill. When you genuinely feel good about your own life and when you’re allowed to acknowledge and celebrate that joy, you come to wish the same happiness for others. It is those who despise their own lives who lash out at and make life miserable for the rest of us. …

Christmas as we know it, with its twinkling lights, flying reindeer, and dancing snowmen, is largely a creation of 19th-century America. One of the most un-Christian periods in Western history, it was a time of worldly invention, industrialization, and profit. Only such an era would think of a holiday dominated by commercialism and joy and sense the connection between the two.

Though I think anyone writing on this side of the Atlantic would have to give due credit to Charles Dickens, who so popularized the merriment of the season.

The Decline of American Liberalism, by Arthur A. Ekirch

22 December, 2009 Leave a comment

This book, written in 1955, recounts the history of the United States from the perspective of the declining importance and success in politics of the liberal tradition as expounded by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Prof. Arthur Ekirch (1915-2000) praises the liberalism of eighteenth century political thought, and how the American Revolution was clearly a liberal one, where Washington did not become a Caesar, a Cromwell or a Napoleon. The American revolutionaries were conscious of the need to avoid replacing the military rule from Britain with a domestic equivalent.

Prof. Ekirch sees the decline of American liberalism beginning effectively from the end of the Revolution, with a brief life under the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. Throughout the book, he holds agrarian Jeffersonian liberalism as the ideal. He quotes Jefferson, in a sentiment that typifies the principles and attitude of the book,

Government should not only be prohibited from interfering with the rights of individuals and from creating a large bureaucratic class who could live at public expense … The greatest of all dangers to democratic freedom and equality was the use of political power by an aristocracy, a bureaucracy, a mercantile oligarchy, a pressure group, or any other minority interest in order to increase their wealth or to obtain the privilege of living parasitically on other men’s labor.

He chastises attempts by the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, to aid business in the early years of the new state. The book, however, should not bee seen as a diatribe by a pseudo-libertarian small government conservative, as gives more space to a criticism of the Alien and Sedition Acts instituted by President John Adams’ administration in 1798, and heavily attacked by Jefferson. Then Jefferson’s own two terms show the difficulties even true liberals have in governing true to their principles, particularly in light of the nationalism provoked by the continuing Napoleonic wars in Europe.

Ekirch believed there was promise in President Andrew Jackson following in the Jeffersonian tradition, but this was ultimately confined to the sphere of economics. “Retaining only its economic program, the Democratic party of Jackson worked out an alliance among southern slaveholders, western expansionists, and the urban and immigrant masses of the North. National unity was thus preserved at the price of liberal values”. Then followed the single greatest example of the decline of American liberalism, in the perpetutation of the practice of slavery, and the extent to which the country had to go to end it. In the case of the Civil War, while Ekirch does give voice to pacifists, he does not write against it, as he does other wars. He does, however, lament the illiberal practices by the government during the time of the war, such as conscription, arbitrary arrest and the seizure of property.

Ekirch’s argument really takes hold recounting the years after the Civil War, when with nationalism the scope of the government grew significantly, and with it the possibility of patronage and favours. He recounts the corruption of the Republican Party in the postwar years. He is also of critical of the Reconstruction policy, “based on force and military occupation of the former Confederacy, was the opposite of liberal”. But there are times when a liberal needs to use coercion, and had they ensured that there would be a democratic society based on liberal values, then I think it would have been justified. The real fault was that the policy of Reconstruction was often times triumphalist and not being directed on liberal ends.

He is strongly critical of the Populist movement, who began in years from 1887 to institute segregation laws in railroad travel and the beginning of the Jim Crow Laws. As poor white activists sought greater political power, they used this to assert a higher place in society than the black population. This time also saw the rise of protectionism, with the Morrill Act from 1862. The Republican Party, as the party of big business, were all too happy subsidize and protect the business and trade of their supporters. During the same period, the native American population lost their separate nation status, with an act of 1871 stipulating that no more treaties be made between Indians and the Federal government.

For much of the late nineteenth-century years, the Republicans were more likely to interfere in the economy, with the Democrats taking a classical liberal approach. This saw a break when President Gover Cleveland, hitherto known as a liberal, used Federal forces to break the Pullman Strike in 1894, led by Eugene Debs against private railroads. The criticism of Theodore Roosevelt’s nationalist outlook is interesting as he was frequently cited by Sen. John McCain last year as his favourite president. In a speech on praising state education, Roosevelt said that “the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable”, as McCain spoke of patriotism and the virtue in serving a purpose higher than oneself.

Liberals saw hope in the election of Woodrow Wilson in1912, but were to be disappointed by his eventual entry into the First World War. He initially received the support of many liberals, for his entry into the War, but when this did occur, there was a growing resentment at the illiberal policies of the war at home, particularly in terms of conscription and censorship. The description of these years again brought to mind recent years, with a war ostensibly fought on liberal grounds leading the government in an illiberal direction. Similarly the reluctance of Republicans to criticize Democrats for entering a war was to reoccur when LBJ started the Vietnam War.

Ekirch shows a particular respect for Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party, who was imprisoned in 1919 for his opposition to the draft during the war. President Wilson proved particularly vindictive in his case, and it took the election of a Republican president, Warren G. Harding, to commute his sentence and invite him to the White House.

President Harding’s return to normalcy was not to see any revival of liberalism, as the 1920s were to witness a rise in anti-immigrant feeling; a resurgence of racism manifested in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan; a constitutional prohibition of alcohol; laws on sexual vice; the prohibition of narcotic drugs (which of all these, is the one to remain to this day); censorship of books and film; and the increase in the brutality of police techniques. There was not even the trade-off for a classical liberal of free trade, as the GOP returned to its old policy of higher protective tariffs.

He sees Franklin D. Roosevelt’s victory over Herbert Hoover as inevitable given the circumstances, but condemns the way the New Deal created institutional framework to the advantage of big business. Ekirch is critical of the way the US prepared for and fought the war. Here he is speaking as a pacifist; as a European pleased on balance with the outcome of the Second World War, I cannot go as far as he does. But he is right to condemn the treatment of Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were citizens, sent to government detention centres, and of conscientious objectors (of which, the author’s biography at the end reveals, he was one, sent for two years to a public service camp).

The ten years between the end of the War and writing his book provided ample further material to account for the declining force of liberal ideals in government, with the way the Cold War was being fought and national loyalty required. Spending on security continued to be high, the Secretary of State was for the first time a former professional soldier, and freedom of speech and association was curtailed for communists. There was some good, however, in the righting of the ancient wrong by the beginning of granting political liberty to the black population. Still, government exercised greater control over education, with laws to fire teachers who would not swear an oath of loyalty to the nation. Sen. Robert Taft was particularly adamant in his opposition to this practice, and Ekirch is critical of liberals for leaving this role to a conservative.

Ekirch’s work here is certainly thorough, cataloguing the encroaching role of the state in all the time since the United States’ independence. He is to be commended for truly taking a universal approach to liberalism, not confining it simply to a single issue such as the economy or war policy, and also for seeing those as different in other aspects as Eugene Debs and Robert Taft as intellectual allies depending on the cause. My one criticism is that he does not give enough room for a discussion of the movement for racial equality, and of the racism of politicians such as Woodrow Wilson. I would certainly recommend it, though it is difficult to come across, as it was a book I had to order in from the Independent Institute in California.

Conformity is Rebellion: Rage consumers did what they were told

22 December, 2009 Leave a comment

So Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name Of became this year’s UK No. #1 Single. I listened to this song on YouTube for the first time on Friday night. For those few of you who have not had the fine pleasure of hearing this before, it ends with a repeated refrain of “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”. A standard anti-man type of song then. So to get at the man of manufactured pop music, a Facebook campaign started, ultimately successful, to try to beat Joe McElderry, winner of the X-Factor from getting the #1 spot. Thousands of people did what their friends and a Facebook group told them, and bought this Rage Against the Machine song.

I’m not writing here against Rage Against the Machine. I heard their song in isolation, didn’t think it was great, but have no particular objection to it. My taste in music is conservative enough, between The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, ABBA and R.E.M., but I do occasionally listen to punk or metal, like The Clash, Metallica or the Sex Pistols. It’s the campaign here I wasn’t impressed by. It’s been pointed out many times, but both songs were owned by Sony, so whether or not the campaign was covertly orchestrated by them to try to get the top two slots, it achieved as much.

I’m quite a fan of individualism, just not the collectivist sort. If people had bought the X-Factor winner in the past few years just because it was the thing to do, this was no less the case for those who bought Rage Against the Machine this year. There was nothing rebellious in this act, or at least nothing positive. Ideally the charts should reflect the music people want to hear, not the destructive pleasure people get out of something else not topping a chart.

Some people may not like it, but pop music is popular. Millions tuned in week after week to see who was in or out of the X-Factor, with nearly 10 million watching the final. Even if you have no interest in the X-Factor, as I mostly had, why is it considered sophisticated to deride others’ pleasure? Those who bought The Climb did not necessarily mean to suggest it was great music. They enjoyed it on the night, wanted to hear it a few more times, maybe it was they wanted to tell their friends they had it. Whatever it was, it was probably not a mass attempt to get the X-Factor song as the Christmas #1. They bought The Climb because they genuinely wanted to hear it, not because they were told to.

Surely an anti-groupthink attitude towards the X-Factor would be to ignore it completely, to simply not care whether it or anything else reached the #1, and to dismiss such charts as just a flash in the pan.

As I’m writing about music, here’s a song the Pet Shop Boys released earlier this year that I’ve come back to listen to a few times in the past week.

I hate communists

9 December, 2009 Leave a comment

I can get like this at times.

Categories: Politics Tags: , ,

Don’t blame liberal economics

8 December, 2009 Leave a comment

Mahatma Gandhi’s reported response when asked what he thought of Western Civilization was to say “I think it would be a good idea”. That is often my thought when considering capitalism and globalization in the world today. Too often commentators conflate a pro-business approach with a pro-market approach. A system that allows businesses and banks to play around with other people’s money, but then helps them out when things get rough is not true capitalism. Neither is a system that encourages businesses and banks to invest in a particular industry, allowing the economy to concentrate where it would not otherwise do so.

I heard Fintan O’Toole recently blaming the situation we are in on neo-liberal economics. I will probably read his Ship of Fools when it’s available from the library to be able to judge his analysis of the causes of our current situation properly, and while much of it will probably be valid, I don’t believe this is a fully accurate description of our economic situation in recent years. Low taxation and low regulation are not enough to qualify an economic system as liberal (or neo-liberal, if one prefers). The implicit guarantee to the banks, which became official in September 2008, was one sign that the banks were not working in a free market, as was the cosy relationship between bankers, regulators, politicians and property developers. In an economy such as ours, the careful regulation we lacked would have been entirely consistent with a liberal approach to the market. A few other features show that this was a populist, rather than liberal, approach to the economy:

  • The very structure of social partnership, with the unions and employers, in the form of ICTU and IBEC, was geared towards pleasing certain troublesome sectors of the economy, privileging those who were represented at those talks, rather than the majority of workers who are not in those represented unions. This led to significant pay increases in public sector pay, to the point where Ireland has one of the most highly paid public and civil services in Europe. When the government had the tax revenue, it was happy to pay off unions rather than endure public sector strikes.

  • We had a bloated semi-state sector, highlighted in the case of FÁS by Shane Ross, where the government was willing to spend money propping up it and other similar bodies. The boards of these companies had the usual suspects, with ICTU and IBEC well represented.

  • Social partnership also led to policies such as the minimum wage, which was not an issue during the boom years, but it now seems foolish to have any such disincentive to employment. While only 2-3% of workers are on the minimum wage, it affects competitiveness at the low end of the scale, and with the economy where it is, employers forced to pay workers at this price will either find other ways to lower their labour costs that would affect their workers’ welfare, or be more likely to let them go. It could also hurt the prospects of those seeking small employment at low skills level at the current time.

  • There was a considerable emphasis on taking people out of the tax net entirely, so that nearly half of the working population pay no income tax. This makes people as citizens less responsive to quality in public services, and seems overly progressive.

  • While we had budget surpluses in some of our years, this was then used to win votes with more government spending in the form of welfare or public sector payments rather than tackling the national debt. Charlie McCreevy’s response was “I have it, so I’ll spend it”. Not a classical liberal approach.

  • We had a universality principle with certain welfare payments. This predated the recent years, and in the case of the third-level fees being paid by the taxpayer was a decision made by the Labour Party just before the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat coalition. But it was continued with measures such as the medical card for all over 70. Most economic liberals acknowledge a role for the state in providing for welfare, but it should not be for those who can provide for themselves, and should be structured in such a way that there is no disincentive to working more.

  • Perhaps the biggest and most pernicious instance of a populist rather than liberal policy was the support given to the property market. We should have experienced a recession in 2001/02 after the natural rise in house prices and property development that came with our prosperity waned. This we did, but it was then countered by tax breaks and incentives to development and mortgage interest relief to the public that continued long after it made sense for our economy. It suited the government, for many reasons, but in part because it was relying on stamp duty as a source of government revenue, and also because of the popularity of this artificial boom.

We need reform in this country, and I hope some of these measures are addressed in tomorrow’s budget. But the electorate also needs to realize some of the populist causes of our current situation.

The Bankers, by Shane Ross

7 December, 2009 Leave a comment

A few weeks ago now, I read Shane Ross‘s recent book, The Bankers, which I would recommend to anyone curious as to why the banking and financial crisis was so much worse here than in most countries.

Problems arose because both government and the banks were happy with a situation with only nominal financial, and the implicit assumption that they would help each other out if needed. While the regulators were supposedly independent, Sen. Ross shows how the cosy the relationship was between them and bankers. He opens with what he dubs the bankers’ last supper in Novemer 2008, to mark the retirement of the chairman of the Financial Regulator, Brian Patterson, where many of the major figures of Irish banking gathered. The event was hosted by Pat Farrell, president of the Irish Banking Federation, who also happened to be a former Fianna Fáil general secretary. Here we had a perfect case of the culture of the time, where bankers, those were supposed to regulate them, and actors in the political process mixed freely without any presumption of conflict.

Fianna Fáil doesn’t come out well in the book. In a chapter linking the triumvirate of bankers, developers and Fianna Fáil, Ross shows how entrenched property developers were as part of the party’s establishment in recent years. In the run-up to the 2007 general election, Bertie Ahern addressed the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, and one of those on the guestlist for the Irish delegation was property developer Sean Dunne. Dunne has had a long-standing relationship with Fianna Fáil, and his personal assistant, Anto Kelly, was a campaign manager for former Minister and Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue.

Or the Bailey brothers. Michael Bailey was famously reported by James Gogarty in the Planning Tribunal as answering “Will we, fuck” when asked if they would get a receipt for the payments they made in 1989 to Ray Burke. Justice Feargus Flood concluded in his interim report of the Planning Tribunal in 2002 that this payment had in fact occurred. To Fianna Fáil, that made little difference. They were as welcome as ever to the party tent at the Galway races, and that year Tom Bailey took time off work to canvass for the party in Roscommon. To Brian Cowen’s credit, the party tent in Galway has since been closed.

It was, of course, because they were in power that Fianna Fáil received such support from developers, but particularly because of the tax breaks for construction, which the Department of Finance had not even properly costed. These incentives artificially extended the boom years, and according to John Fitz Gerald of the ESRI, made a hard landing more likely, which had since proved to be the case. Similarly, warnings from UCD economist Morgan Kelly were also ignored, who showed that the trend in property bubbles in every economy since 1970 would predict anything other than a soft landing. I don’t mean to be partisan here, to isolate criticism of Fianna Fáil, but this is how it was. One might wonder if Fianna Fáil were more corrupt because they were in power more, or in power more because of their underhandedness and corruption. There are instances of the same with Fine Gael, who during their short stint in government from 1994 to 1997 had no difficulty finding builders to donate to clear their loan, and AIB and Ansbacher cleared a loan of £200,000 of Dr Garret FitzGerald which he had lost on shares.

Though it is what I took most from it, this book is not fundamentally about this corruption from the political side of things, but it does show how bankers managed to have such a free hand. The political process supported a system propping up their cronies in the banks and regulators. It is not a surprising statistic, given how used we have become over the past year to such facts, but John Hurley, Governor of the Irish Central Bank till a few months ago, earned more in 2008 than Ben Bernanke, Governor of the US Federal Reserve, who still has the power to set interest rates. Though not set by the public sector, the pay of the top Irish bankers is equally worthy of scrutiny. To take as an example, Brian Goggin, former Chief Executive of Bank of Ireland was paid €4 mn in 2007 and €3 mn in 2008, high even relative to his equivalent in the more successful Lloyds TSB or Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary. There is no reason to believe that the shareholders of the bank had to pay Goggin such a sum for fear that he would be snatched by a firm outside the country. Because this salary was possible with the cosy cartel of the banks supported by the taxpayer with an implicit guarantee from the government, which became real from last year, this is very much our concern.

With the government happy to see the steady trickle of revenue from stamp duty, they did little to discourage the 100% mortgages that have now left householders across the country in negative equity. We had a system of regulation that noticed none of the backdealing and switching of loans that was taking place, such that until October 2008, no bank was fined, while the Regulators found reason to fine The Irish Times and Phoenix €10,000 and €5,000 respectively. It was also a system that saw at times directors of AIB and Bank of Ireland on the board of the Central Bank.

I could go on. I’ve picked here only a selection of the facts that make it little wonder that the system went as it did. Ross does see a measure of hope because of our fortune of having Brian Lenihan, rather than one of the other members of the cabinet, as Minister for Finance. He rightly praises the departure he has made in recent appointments, such as choosing Prof. Patrick Honohan, an outsider to the old banker/regulator circles, to succeed Hurley as Governor of the Central Bank. Lenihan’s main obstacle to fiscal rectitude are his cabinet colleagues, all too eager to criticize the findings of the McCarthy Report. But Ross is strongly critical of NAMA, describing it as a bailout for the bankers.

My only minor criticism is the extent to which Ross involves himself in the analysis. As a journalist and Senator, he has been a voice in this period. While he does acknowledge (on p. 162) that he did not have the foresight to realize the perils of holding cash in Irish banks, in mentioning that our rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in June 2008 was part of the reason, as well as our bank guarantee, that we had lost favour in Europe, he does not mention his own advocacy of a No vote on that occasion. This is a minor quibble, and one of this nature is bound to occur in a commentary from someone so vocal. It is clearly well researched (and as a matter of full disclosure, I should add that I was working with Shane Ross while the finishing touches were being put on it), and stands as an entertaining, well paced and informative account of what went wrong with this sector of the Irish economy.

Budget votes – January 1982 and December 2009

6 December, 2009 Leave a comment

While I should have been reading about the power of veto players in the political process for a class tomorrow, I found myself drawn to the vote on the budget in 1981, the last occasion on which a minority government fell because of the votes of independents in the vote on the budget.

As of yesterday, when former Progressive Democrat TD Noel Grealish announced that he was no longer supporting the government, they were officially left with minority support in the Dáil. After the 2007 election, Bertie Ahern was considered quite clever in putting together a level of support that would make it very difficult for the government to fall, being nominated as Taoiseach by a vote of 89 (77 Fianna Fáil, 6 Greens, 2 Progressive Democrats, Beverly Flynn, Jackie Healy-Rae, Michael Lowry and Finian McGrath) to 76 (51 Fine Gael, 20 Labour, 4 Sinn Féin and Tony Gregory).

Now there are just 81 TDs under the government whip, 72 Fianna Fáil, 6 Greens, Mary Harney, Jackie Healy-Rae and Michael Lowry, leaving 82 in the opposition, 52 Fine Gael, 20 Labour, 4 Sinn Féin and 7 Independents. There are a few categories of Independents: Maureen O’Sullivan succeeded to the seat of the deceased Tony Gregory, and like him will oppose the government; Finian McGrath initially supported the government, but withdrew his support after the budget last year; Joe Behan was elected as a member of Fianna Fáil in 2007, but left the party after the education cuts in October 2008; Sligo-North Leitrim TDs Eamon Scanlan and Jimmy Devins resigned the Fianna Fáil whip in August in opposition to cuts at Sligo General Hospital; former Minister Jim McDaid lost the Fianna Fáil whip in November 2008 when he abstained from a vote on the cervical cancer programme, and announced this week that he was no longer supporting the government; and Grealish, as mentioned above, no longer feels bound by the deal made with the Progressive Democrats after the 2007 election as of the formal dissolution of the party last month. Fianna Fáil are also down one seat since Pat The Cope Gallagher vacated his seat when elected as an MEP in June. See Elections Ireland for the succession of diminishing support for the government in the Dáil.

Back in 1981, after the election on 11 June, a minority Fine Gael-Labour government was elected. They had 65 and 15 seats respectively, and the support of Jim Kemmy, a former Labour member who had left to form the Democratic Socialist party in 1972. Garret FitzGerald was opposed in the nomination for Taoiseach only by the 78 Fianna Fáil members, with Niall Blaney (Independent Fianna Fáil), Noël Browne (Socialist Labour), Seán Dublin Bay Rockall Loftus (Independent) and Joe Sherlock (Sinn Féin The Workers’ Party) abstaining (two H-Block prisoners, Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew were also elected).

This was always going to be a difficult government to maintain, and when it came to the vote on the John Bruton’s budget in January 1982, with controversial measures like a tax on children’s shoes, it received the support of the 80 government TDs, as well as Noël Browne. Voting against were 77 from Fianna Fáil, Charlie McCreevy (who had lost the FF whip after calling a vote of confidence in Charles Haughey’s leadership), Joe Sherlock, Jim Kemmy and Seán Dublin Bay Rockall Loftus, a total of 82. Garret FitzGerald declared immediately after the vote that he would seek a dissolution, and on 18 February, the country went to the polls, with a short-lived minority Fianna Fáil government to follow.

How likely are we to see such as an occurrence on Wednesday? Though it is a possibility, I would be surprised if it did not pass. It will nevertheless be interesting to see which of these independents will vote against it or abstain. I expect it to be supported by the 81 government TDs, as well as Devins and Scanlon. Having supported previous government budgetary measures, they will probably maintain that it is on matters of health policy alone that they disagree with the government. This will give them their 83.

There are 79 who can be counted on to vote against: the 76 opposition party TDs, as well as Behan, O’Sullivan and McGrath. So it’s a question then of whether Jim McDaid and Noel Grealish will vote in favour, against, or abstain. My guess is that they’ll abstain. In that way, they would send a clear signal to the government that they don’t want to be cut off entirely, but that their support will have to be won.

That the Catholic Church hindered social progress in Ireland

5 December, 2009 Leave a comment

This debate in the Hist was on 18 November, so before the publication of the Dublin Diocesan Report eight days later. Nevertheless, I think this showed the inadequacy of a student debating society as a forum in addressing certain issues of relevance in modern society. There are motions where one side or other is not sustainable. Sometimes this might be because of a debate on whether Russia is a threat to the West, which we held in early 2008. Many of the ordinary members of the Hist on that occasion had reason to believe the proposition, and put good cases from what they had researched. Then Sir Roderic Lyne, a former British Ambassador to Russia, spoke on the opposition, and it was clear given his unquestionable expert opinion, as well as that of former Irish Times correspondent Seamus Martin and retired Political Science Professor Ron Hill, that the case lay on the opposition.

But I mean particularly when even before the debate, those on one side know that the other is fundamentally right, and can only put their case by finding a nuanced argument, or focusing on particular points. Of course, in a competitive debating context, in its various formats, this is entirely appropriate. It serves a very good purpose in training the mind to think about subjects from different approaches. And I would not propose either that a one-sided motion is never appropriate for chamber debates, where the emphasis is truly on trying to convince the audience of a stance, and giving people the opportunity to voice their opinions. I would hold that in general, speeches in the chamber should be sincere, and that both the speaker and the audience benefit when this is the case. But I have on rare occasions myself during my many years in the Hist argued against my sincere belief, in order to capture a particular nuance, or to challenge myself to put a case. And at times when there is a somewhat imbalanced debate, it is reasonable for the Correspondence Secretary to ask good speakers to speak on the side contrary to their sincere belief to facilitate other speakers.

On this occasion, however, there was simply no contest as to which side was in the right. Despite one of the guests being the artist Cllr. Mannix Flynn, who had been through the industrial school system, the debate from student speakers’ point of view ended up focusing on issues like divorce, contraception and homosexuality. It was on issues such as these that there was at least a plausible case that Roman Catholic Church was merely in line with the mood of the time, though even then one has to ignore how much a part of that system they were, and the influence they had. I spent time myself on the question of illegitimacy, and how their stance truly affected people’s lives, but I can’t claim to have been satisfied with my speech given the enormity of the Catholic Church’s crimes and harms as we see them now. The debate put those professed Roman Catholics among us in an impossible situation, and I feel that they more than others should really be the ones to find the case for the proposition, as other than those directly harmed, it is practising Catholics more than those like myself who have been more affected.

I found this blog post difficult to write, to be able to convey the feeling properly, which is why it is here now that bit after the debate itself. I think it is only on the rarest of occasions that such a situation arises, and someone who appreciates the difficulty in selecting relevant and debatable motions, I do not mean to be critical. But there are some statements that cannot be debated.

Charlie Flanagan on the Civil Partnership Bill

4 December, 2009 Leave a comment

Last night, I went to gallery of the Dáil to listen to the opening stages of the Civil Partnership Bill. I heard speeches from Dermot Ahern, Charlie Flanagan, Brendan Howlin, Ciaran Cuffe, Paul Gogarty and Catherine Byrne. Though my own partisanship must in some way blur my judgement, of those I was most impressed with the speech of Charlie Flanagan, Fine Gael Spokesman on Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

He brought the personal impact of this bill through much more than others in his speech. He spoke of the change in Irish society that this bill represents, and how it will improve the lives of many gay couples. He also highlighted the recent report by GLEN, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, on the prejudice still felt by gay and lesbian people. He claimed that the desire of gay couples to marry was an indication of the strength of the institution. He also highlighted a particular failing of the Bill in not making provision for the children of gay couples. His speech showed that this must be only the first step towards resolving the question of equality for gay couples and their families. I was proud to be a member of the party as I listened to his speech, key pieces of which I’ve extracted below.

On behalf of the Fine Gael party, I am proud to welcome this Bill this evening. … In the Ireland of the past, homosexuality was not tolerated to such an extent that it was a criminal offence to engage in homosexual activity. … It is to the credit of Members of the Oireachtas, particularly Senator David Norris and others, that they played a key role in having that law removed from the Statute Book. The Ireland of the past was undoubtedly an extraordinarily difficult place for gay and lesbian citizens. There was virtually no understanding of difference. The way the churches treated homosexuality as a “sin” and a “choice” must have led to painful turmoil for gay people in this country. Thankfully, we have made great strides as a nation and we now live in a more tolerant era, characterised more by reason and science than by bigotry, superstition and fear. This Bill will help us move to a place where tolerance, diversity and inclusivity are more than mere buzz-words, but are characteristics that define our corpus of family law. …

The Fine Gael Party has long had a proud tradition of promoting social justice. My party’s seminal equality and social justice policy, The Just Society, which was launched in the 1960s, has guided our social policies in the years since then. I am proud that it was a Fine Gael-led Government that in the 1980s introduced significant legislation to improve the legal position of women as well as introducing remedies for abuses such as domestic violence. It was a Fine Gael-led Government that introduced divorce. In doing so, we were not seeking to undermine marriage but to give a legal remedy to those whose marriages had broken down and who were left stranded in a legal limbo. …

Read more…

The Civil Partnership Bill is inadequate

3 December, 2009 1 comment

The Dáil is today beginning debate on the Civil Partnership Bill, which would allow gay couples to register their partnerships. This is, I suppose, better than nothing, but it is not good enough. There would have been a time when this would have been acceptable, but not now in 2009, where mindsets and appreciation of the issues have changed.

Many years ago, as I recounted in a debate recently, gay people weren’t calling for marriage. They had found themselves cast off and rejected from society, and felt no choice but to create their own community. With the outbreak of the AIDS virus, people in general could no longer ignore the fact that many of their family, friends and colleagues were gay, and gay people themselves felt a desire to be integrated and accepted in the community as much as anyone else. This is a stylised version of events, but it was particularly in the last twenty years that the campaign for true equality took off.

True equality demands the right of gay couples to marry. If the state is to acknowledge the relationships of couples, it should not discriminate on the basis of the sex of the two partners. By acknowledging that gay couples merit recognition, but only in the form of civil partnership, the state is stating that they believe the love between a man and a woman is superior to that between two men or two women.

So what do we hear from those who oppose marriage equality? They claim that civil partnership grants all the rights of marriage, so what more would we want. Even if it did, the discrimination would exist in the refusal to grant the word, and particularly because of the constitutional recognition of marriage. What’s more, the Bill grants no recognition to the children of gay couples. There are cases now, more pertinent in the case of lesbian couples, where a child from a previous relationship is being raised by a couple. If the natural mother were to die, the surviving mother would have no legal rights to the child.

There has been the claim particularly promoted in recent years that marriage is not about couples at all, it is about children. Children are a natural part of the relationship between a man and a woman, but people generally don’t marry for children. I don’t mean in the case of unmarried mothers, where the father is still very much part of the family. In such cases, I believe marriage should be promoted, or at least not disincentivized, by the state. I mean that in cases where there are no children, a couple who do get married do so primarily for love, while they might look forward to raising children. This is obviously the case for those who for medical reasons can’t have children of their own, or particularly elderly couples. Even those who see marriage’s primary function to provide for children, acknowledge these exceptions, so why cannot they simply extend that privilege to gay couples? Those considering the welfare of children should also give a moment’s thought to the many gay children, for whom the normalization of gay relationships would lessen their adolescent anxiety, that they could have the same hopes for married family life as others, and reduce the likelihood of their being bullied in school.

Over time, new rights are discovered to exist as natural rights. Nothing in law and society is set in stone, and our views of social norms change slowly in line with evidence over time. The fact that Éamon de Valera had only the marriage between a man and a woman in mind when he wrote Article 41 of the Constitution of Ireland is not how law should be judged. A nice example of how law changed from what those who drafted it had in mind is how the Supreme Court of the United States decided in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 by 9-0 to desegregate schools on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment, ending the farce of separate but equal, despite the fact that those who drafted that Amendment in 1868 would clearly not have anticipated such a ruling. On the issue of marriage equality, the scientific understanding of homosexuality has changed over the past century, with the consensus now that it is a normal and immutable condition, however rare, rather than a psychiatric condition as a result of childhood experiences, as expostulated by Sigmund Freud. Now, as gay couples desire the comfort, stability, recognition and security of marriage as much as many others, there is no compelling reason it should not be granted.

If nowhere in the world was marriage between gay couples in place, it would still be no justification for not legislating for it here. But given that Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Spain and Sweden have dropped any requirement that a married couple be of opposite sex, the Irish government should ask why the situation here is so different. Religious views should not be considered when drafting legislation in a republic, but it’s nice to be able to point to Catholic Belgium and Catholic Spain in that list. And of course, it was the most heavily Irish part of the United States, Massachusetts, that gay couples first received marriage rights.

In 2006, Anne Colley, a solicitor and former Progressive Democrat TD, delivered a report (pdf) to the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Michael McDowell, on the best way to tackle discrimination for same-sex couples, and she found that only way to deal with question fairly would be to grant gay couple full and equal rights to marry. To Minister McDowell’s discredit, he sidelined the report, proposing only domestic partnership, which would grant no more recognition to gay couples than two siblings, and perhaps even two friends, who were living together in a financially dependent situation. It was from then, in part as a disappointed party member, that I realized how important it was that there should be full rights to marry.

Now we are presented with this bill. I believe it is only a matter of time before full marriage rights are achieved, there will only be so long this country can hold out, but I would far rather that happened today than several years from now. For my own part, I presume without thinking that I will get married, especially seeing how much it is taken for granted in the aforementioned countries and certain US states. I certainly have no desire for civil partnership. But there are many gay couples far older than me, for whom any benefit or recognition would be a great peace of mind. For this reason, I hope the Bill passes, in as strong a form as possible. But equally, I am glad to see the many gay activists protesting against the deficiencies of the bill. And from its enactment, it will hopefully be only a matter of time before it is clear that there is really no natural difference in fact between the love of any two people, and that the discrimination lessened but emphasized in this Bill will end.


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