Sunday 23 October 2016

On this, the most romantic of days, we remain locked in a tough-love boot camp

Published 14/02/2013 | 17:00

I HOPE that Valentine's card you signed with a row of kisses today was homemade because you can't afford a shop-bought one. And step away from those hothouse roses in the florist's – your budget won't stretch to them.

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Romance will have to be conjured up by gestures of affection as opposed to objects of affection. While that's not necessarily a negative – rampant consumerism never delivered true love – the reasons for this restraint aren't conducive to a happy Valentine's Day.

We're living in a tough love regime. Yesterday's Finance Bill detailing the new property tax was proof that Ireland's citizens remain locked up in tough-love boot camp.

So much for the all-singing, all-dancing promissory note deal. Strip out the razzle-dazzle and it's still hairshirts for everyone in the cheap seats.

Just to be clear – nobody expected a reversal of austerity policies, but we were entitled to hope debt restructuring might deliver some pain relief. A little give and take tends to work wonders in relationships.

No billets-doux from Michael Noonan in that Finance Bill, though. The ECB may have played cranky Cupid, finally spreading a little love in Ireland's direction, but the Government isn't about to share it. Instead, it is signalling its determination to keep to its draconian schedule of targets.

So, no trickle-down benefit from last week's monetary financing in disguise. Still that new property tax, still those new water charges, still under cosh.

The property tax was an obvious one to rethink under improved financial conditions. Not because there's anything wrong with the principle underpinning such a tax – virtually every western society has property tax or rates – but because it amounts to double taxation for many of those targeted.

Our boom-time stamp-duty levels were more onerous than anything set in other jurisdictions. A significant number of homeowners have paid excessive stamp-duty bills already, and ought to have been granted an exemption, except dispensations are thin on the ground. The property tax is not just punitive but unfair in their case.

Make no mistake, it will cause distress. Distress to elderly people with valuable homes on paper but limited income; distress to those in negative equity for whom their house is a burden taxed as an asset; and distress to the one in 10 homeowners in mortgage arrears with yet another bill threatening to submerge them.

Tough love advocates always argue that it's for the victim's own good: such an approach only appears to be stern – the long-term advantages validate it. But what about the harm done if it backfires?

The IMF now concedes that the impact of austerity is more severe than expected, with consumer spending harder hit than projected and unemployment reaching higher levels. IMF managing director Christine Lagarde has questioned whether austerity at all costs is the right strategy, following an analysis of 28 countries.

But the troika is composed of the ECB, EU and IMF, and the group as a whole remains infatuated with austerity. So onwards our leaders direct us, waving sticks without dangling carrots.

Yet austerity has flattened the domestic economy. This week alone it was confirmed 300 jobs are gone at HMV Ireland, in receivership, while another 92 staff have lost jobs at B&Q with the closure of stores in Athlone and Waterford.

Recently, a liquidator was appointed to the Blacktie formal-wear chain, which has 11 outlets, while 12 of the Pamela Scott shops are in examinership.

Month after month, people are being propelled towards the dole, joining more than 434,000 on the Live Register – and that 14.8pc unemployment rate would be starker if not for emigration.

Even the much-hyped retail sales figures for Christmas came in below expectations. December was down 0.1pc compared with November – no spending spree as December 25 approached – while the CSO recorded an annual decrease of 1pc.

All told, domestic demand is tanking. Yet the Government continues to advance with a property tax that may accelerate the decline.

Clearly, the ECB – cranky Cupid, which has a suspicion it's been taken for stupid Cupid – would become even tetchier if it believed Ireland was using the debt deal to abandon the path of prudence. But there has to be some respite for a coping class finding it ever tougher to live up to its name.

Granted, it makes sense to tackle the deficit. Our mountain of debt can't be managed without closing the deficit. However, there are other factors to consider, too, such as the need for economic growth.

Domestic demand is a component of economic growth and it's been pummelled by relentless austerity. Scrap the property tax, and consumer confidence could give the domestic economy a boost.

When facts change, and situations change, so should a government's plans: there is a sound economic reason to postpone the property tax. And let's not forget the need for mindfulness: recognition of a population stretched to the limits of its endurance, and beyond them in some cases.

This is no Valentine's Day for comparing love to a summer's day – it's a time to remind leaders that if you prick us, we bleed. We are flesh and blood people, not revenue generation units.

Irish Independent

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