Friday 19 December 2014

Dirty little secret is that those at the top feel no pain

It is notable that the higher up you go, the greater the enthusiasm for the politics of austerity, writes Gene Kerrigan

Published 29/09/2013 | 05:00

Taoiseach Enda Kenny attended the opening of Qualtrics' European headquarters in Dublin
Given the passion for austerity, you'd never imagine that Enda Kenny is paid more than British Prime Minister David Cameron

WHEN Enda Kenny spoke recently on RTE's Morning Ireland, he told the nation, "I feel the people's pain". A touching moment, as the Taoiseach reached out to those whose lives have been ravaged by this recession, and by his Government's policies. Perhaps he felt that his empathy might somehow comfort the afflicted – knowing that our leader shares their pain. But, of course, he doesn't share that pain.

From the comfortable surroundings of their annual "think-in", in Portlaoise, fresh-faced young Fine Gael TDs earnestly told the TV cameras they want to inflict "a little more pain" (this is a genuine quote) on the citizens, in order to create long term gain for the country.

From the comfortable surroundings of their annual "think-in", in Meath, jowly faced elderly Labour TDs told the TV cameras they'd like to inflict slightly less, but still quite a hefty amount of pain, on the citizens. For their own good.

From the comfortable surroundings of their annual "think-in", in Waterford, surly eyed Fianna Fail TDs suggested slight variations in the methods that might be used to inflict pain on the citizens.

Mind you, push a politician on this matter and they'll reel off the cuts they've personally taken in income. The comfortable classes, from judges to bank executives, can itemise each and every cut they've suffered. So, at every opportunity they stress that they feel the people's pain. But, of course, they don't feel that pain.

A confession: this recession has just about passed me by, so far. I have a job, with a comfortable wage. I'm not in debt. Not once since this recession began did I have to tot up the prices as I filled my supermarket basket – knowing that there would always be enough money to cover the daily needs.

Those of us who have jobs with comfortable wages have suffered income cuts, increased taxes and new levies and charges. We've cut back on holidays. We've considered replacing this or that and decided no – we'll get another year or two out of them. We have been inconvenienced, our aspirations have been trimmed – but we've never suffered the pain of refusing a child something they needed.

And we can only imagine – not feel – the hurt of those who did and do and will keep on feeling that pain.

The stories in the Living Section of today's Sunday Independent tell of how the politics of austerity inflict pain on some of the most vulnerable people in Ireland. Carers do what they do out of love, loyalty and a sense of duty. They save the State uncounted millions of euro. They don't seek to shift the burden to others, but they could do with a break from the State.

They are entitled to that break. They, and the unemployed, the low and medium paid, school kids and pensioners, the disabled – and many more – suffer damaging pain every week, their lives degraded, disrespected and destabilised. They are entitled to that break – not out of charity but from their status as citizens who have helped build this society.

Some of the thicker elements amongst us regard social welfare as a form of charity. They see themselves as martyrs, paying exorbitant taxes, money that's then sprinkled into the laps of layabouts who thrive on "handouts".

We all pay taxes. Every time we buy a comb or a battery, a chair or a ticket to a concert we're paying taxes. We work, pay income tax, lose jobs, get the dole for a while, work again. And every time we pay an income or transaction tax we're laying aside a small amount for those days when we will need what civilised societies call "social protection". Over a lifetime, you pay for what you get – but, with the politics of austerity, you don't always get what you've paid for.

The austerity fans weave legends of social welfare schemers who suck the life from the economy. There's a small proportion of freeloaders, always was and always will be, but the vast majority of us pay our way. The politicians whip up a frenzy about alleged benefit cheats – costing, on official estimates, €20m a year. And that includes mostly payments in error, as well as fraud. Money that should be recovered, but a pinprick. They'd need to defraud the State of that amount for 3,200 years to catch up with what the politicians gave away to the bankers.

Above those of us who have jobs and comfortable wages there are layers of those who know there's a recession only because they heard Brian Dobson mention something about it when they were waiting for the sports results to come on.

There are many storeys in the national house in which we dwell. When the flood comes, it's terror for those living in the basement, anguish for those on the ground floor. Above that, things are tolerable. The dirty little secret is that for many among us, austerity doesn't exist.

Given the passion for austerity, you'd never imagine that Enda Kenny is paid more than British Prime Minister David Cameron. Or that the TDs in Leinster House are paid more than the MPs in the House of Commons. Not to mention the tens of thousands of euro in expenses, to ensure that their lives run smoothly.

In the period 2002-2009, the top 10 per cent of earners took 35 per cent of the income.

In 2010, according to the Central Statistics Office, the lowest-earning 10 per cent took a 26 per cent cut in disposable income. Middle earners were cut by 12 per cent. The top earners got an 8 per cent increase. This isn't because they work harder.

Among the top 1 per cent, just over a quarter of their income comes from work, the rest comes from capital. Over the past 30 years there's been a shift, with a higher and higher income share going to capital – rents, shares and bonds – and an ever-decreasing amount going to labour.

This isn't just unfair, it's dangerous. In the Twenties, and in the years leading to 2008, gross income inequality was followed by a crash. As income is concentrated in fewer hands (and they invest in property), the real economy increasingly depends on borrowing, as the mass of people seek to make up for their smaller share of income. That's where we are now.

It would make sense to tax the vastly bloated incomes of the comfortable classes, but cutting the social protection of carers, the unemployed and the low paid – well, that's the easier choice. And it's notable that the higher up you go, the greater the enthusiasm for austerity – among the politicians, their pet academics and media cheerleaders, their wealthy patrons and their consultants.

Austerity is working – for some.

These people living in the penthouse, they look down upon the floods that soak the poorest, and they conclude that in the long run this rain is good for the soil. And, along with the Taoiseach, they send cheery greetings to those doing the suffering – take heart, we feel your pain.

Sunday Independent

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