Sunday 23 October 2016

Miriam O'Callaghan: Ditch financial yo-yo dieting and embrace new politics

It's time for politicians to cast off certainty and go for openness, after all, there's nothing to lose

Miriam O'Callaghan

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

'Across Austerity Europe, financial 'thinspiration' was wreaking social desperation: children fed in soup kitchens, families warehoused in cheap hotels.' Photo: Central Bank in Dublin
'Across Austerity Europe, financial 'thinspiration' was wreaking social desperation: children fed in soup kitchens, families warehoused in cheap hotels.' Photo: Central Bank in Dublin

As a small girl, I was terrified of beach balls. Even now, they make my heart flip. Every summer, we'd go to Youghal or Owenahincha for our holidays and when we'd stop at Midleton or Clonakilty to buy our buckets and shovels, my mother would start: "No beach balls. Unless you want your father dead."

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She was reassuring, my mother. And she was an expert. She saw with her own eyes a father go out into the waves after "a strap of a daughter" who had gone out after a beach ball. You can guess the rest.

On the morning my father died, I thought about all the beach balls, all those years before, and how I had never bought one, even for my own children. I had made sure he would never be rolled, tossed or tumbled by the waves along Redbarn or Red Strand.

Of course, there was no other drowning either. Or if there was, my mother didn't witness it. But at the edge of the Atlantic, she had seen a strap. And the strap had a father. So wasn't it better, safer to admit an impediment of fear? After all, who could fathom the strangeness of the ocean, or the madness of love and belonging?

Political strategists admitted a similar fear in the election campaign. For three weeks, we were force-fed fear, our political breakfast, dinner and tea pureed by pollsters and marketers.

Fianna Fail opted to scare voters with the prospect of five more years of Labour and Fine Gael. Inadvertently, Sinn Fein frightened the living daylights out of middle Ireland by seeming to know their sums.

The Greens had global warming. Sadly, the end of humanity proved terrifying enough to see only two of them elected.

But people saw through the manufactured fear. Why would they settle for something fake and frivolous when they were already being devoured by the real thing?

Hanging onto a job, their home, wondering at what stage a bump becomes a lump, looking after elderly parents, or husbands or wives with dementia, or teenagers with anxiety?

The new government, of whatever shape, needs to ditch the fear, rid itself of certainty.

A few years ago, certainty told us feast, feast, feast on property - one-beds, two-beds, five-beds, eight-beds; snap up neighbours' gaffs, mini-mansions, townhouses, penthouses, beach-houses, madhouses, doghouses, outhouses, maisonettes in Kusadasi.

Certainty was right. If we demurred, we were deluded, unhinged even.

Descending from the trees of north Dublin, the-last-of-the-socialists advised us "to commit suicide".

But the government changed and certainty issued new instructions.

This time it was all fast, fast, fast And that was right too. All austerity, all pro-ana, the third-wave anorexia movement for those seeking economic, fiscal and deficit perfection. The European Central Bank version of the online acid powerhosed into our daughters' retinas: why be slim when you can be thin, why be thin when you can be skinny, why be skinny when you can look like an x-ray?

But hold your horses. This is not to trivialize anorexia. Any outrage could be reserved for the fact that there is a popular 'movement' promoting serious illness and possible death by emaciation, to our daughters and sons.

But across Austerity Europe, financial 'thinspiration' was wreaking social desperation: children fed in soup kitchens, families warehoused in cheap hotels.

In Ireland, the current housing crisis is set to become a catastrophe as, according to the Phoenix Project, 49,000 families reach the end of their mortgage arrangements with the banks, over the next 12 to 18 months.

Averaging three people per family, that's around 150,000 more men, women and children set to be evicted, many of them by the banks they bailed out. The new government should be prepared.

How is this happening? It's because right across Europe the mainstream political parties not so much succumbed to but were subjected to certainty.

And if such political delirium declared feasting and fasting to be not just interchangeable, but the same thing, it was not something to be identified, ridiculed or feared. On the contrary, it was something to be affirmed and acclaimed. Because with this virus of certainty, the instructions - themselves - had become immaterial. What mattered was the financial orthodoxy at their source.

Within the twin rocks of orthodoxy and certainty then, Nobel Prize-winning economists could be dismissed as cranks. Former Greek finance minister Varoufakis? He wasn't even an outcast. The crathur was more of a pity, wasn't he? As a friend, who is an actuary, puts it, the financial courtiers "pretended to control what they didn't understand".

But many of us have a different certainty and it is this:

That the central banks are pulling levers linked to nothing.

That we are left in our economic silo, awaiting our instructions. Only when they arrive we find they are for another time, or another model, or another people; they are incoherent, useless to us, for where and who we are now.

That the old memes are all dead.

That the elites and models we depended on - to get at least some of the things right - are not alone failing us, they are alienating us, disowning us, and doing so spectacularly: socialist France gripped by austerity depression; negative interest-rates in Switzerland; across the EU, personal pain that is mutilating, disfiguring; stock markets in the US and EU booming but economic growth stubbornly slow.

Even the ECB's Super Mario's whatever-it-takes big bazooka of quantitative easing is leaving eurozone inflation at minus 0.1 pc. It turns out that shunting money to the super-rich is deflationary, something we learned in the 1930s.

Was it "empires of greed" Sabina Higgins mentioned?

The European central bankers are having a fairytale moment. The Princess and the Pea. Above seven mattresses, one for every year of their inflationary endeavours, they say, at last, they are starting to feel the effects.

Across the water, George Osborne misses his deficit target in large part because workers didn't get their pay rises. At the same time, Janet Yellen, the economist who made history by being the first woman to head the US Federal Reserve, points out how even the famed Phillips curve is taking a battering. Usually when employment goes down, wages go up. But not anymore. There are too few pay rises for the many; too much hoarding of money by the few.

Even last week, Yellen was said to be 'surprisingly dovish', being chiefly concerned for the welfare of the working man and woman, given the unrelenting costs they are facing in housing, health and fuel. The overly strong dollar is complicating her Phillips curve difficulties.

The new government could follow suit by prioritising housing, homelessness, mortgages, mental health. If it does, it will abandon the certainty which was both the cost and the price of our economic survival, when in 2011, Fine Gael and Labour attempted to rescue a country already in freefall.

Across Europe, one by one, electorates have said no. "That is not our certainty. Our humanity can no longer be diminished by a particular financial orthodoxy. In our union of peoples it is we ourselves - not a currency - who are sovereign."

Unlike at the election, in the centenary commemorations we found ourselves, each other, our tribe. In the territory of the heart and imagination we found we could still contemplate the strangeness of the ocean, the madness of love and belonging. And we could do it with pride. Without fear. Or certainty.

In keeping with that discovery, perhaps the new government might elevate reflection overreaction?

They might even give us the debates that matter by fostering an intellectual and philosophical public life?

On the lack of such a life in Ireland, writer Desmond Fennell invoked Emerson, writing: "Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city and no one knows what is safe or where it will end."

Where could it end? We don't know. But the new government could begin again with candour, thought, trust in the people, a commitment to a just society.

And maybe, miraculously, they might show a bit of gra don Ghaeilge, so that after 14 years of learning the language at school, our best and brightest are not reduced to saying the Hail Mary, as they assert their Irishness on Europe's streets, trains and trams?

Why not? One hundred years after 1916, for the government and the people, there is nothing to lose.

Sunday Independent

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