"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." -- Franklin D Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933
IF I were to sum up in one word the key, ever-present emotion in the country it would be 'fear'. Fear seems to have gripped us from the top down. Frozen us in place. Locked us into a shocked paralysis.
Fear and panic set in when uncertainty is allowed to thrive. For the past several months, that's been the reality. We the public have been left in the dark. Or worse, every now and then there's been a chink of light, we are told one bit of information, or someone -- usually Brian Lenihan -- tells us we've turned a corner and things are looking up. The next thing, we're told something quite different and we don't know who to trust or if there is anybody, anywhere supposedly in charge, in whom to vest the smallest bit of trust. It's not that we have no information. We have a superfluity of contradictory information. Like prisoners in a damp cell, we're driven mad by the drip, drip drip-feed of information on the extent of the crisis we face.
The confusion and the drip-feeding have brought us to the point where few of us know where we stand, what we should do or which aspect of the crisis we should concentrate on. Personal spending, for most, has ground to a halt. Even those with some disposable income are afraid to spend, in fear of an even worse doomsday.
The opposition parties are afraid to commit themselves to details on spending cuts and the Government seems to be acting like a victim when it comes to the markets. Will someone please take the lead? Cuts without investment in jobs are a waste of time. In this regard, Fine Gael is at least making the right noises, but like all of the other parties, it is awfully quiet when asked where the key cuts are to come from.
We all have to get used to a reduced standard of living. It's only human nature to want to hold on to what we have, but like the child's hand in the sweet jar, unless we let go of something we will remain stuck in the jar forever.
Mary Harney is probably the most courageous of our politicians at the moment. Last week, she bluntly pointed out that if 70 per cent of the health budget is pay, then the €1bn cuts required from the HSE will have to come out of frontline services. In layman's language, that means patients of all ages will suffer, and suffer badly. Harney's hands are tied; as long as the Croke Park deal remains in place then beds and services in hospitals will be hit along with home help and services for the elderly. And that's just the beginning of what's going to be inflicted on patients. That's the reality of what we're facing. Maybe it's time to question the relief with which the Croke Park deal was met when it happened and the reverence attached to it since. Maybe it's time to ask blunt questions about the entire concept. Can we really exempt a substantial section of the workforce from any further trimming when those in the private sector have no choice but to reduce labour costs? It seems to me everything needs to be on the table if we are to work our way out of this one.
To think that each and every one of us won't be affected by the necessary budgetary cuts is tantamount to living in cloud cuckoo land. Confused cloud cuckoo land. A few weeks ago, we knew €3bn had to come out. Then it went to €4.5bn. Now Michael Noonan says he was told it would be closer to €7bn. We need to be told the worst. We must be given a figure that sticks and that can't get any worse.
The reluctance, or worse still, the inability on the part of the Government or Department of Finance to tell the hard facts is a crucial problem feeding into the fear factor. It makes no sense for anybody in any political party to make a call for us all to be optimistic and to pull together in the context of that uncertainty and the fear. Fear prevents people from thinking outside the box, it prevents people from taking a chance on job creation, it prevents people from spending what little disposable income they may have.
There's a lot to be said for the head-on approach of George Osborne, Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer. The notion that the State can continue to maintain low income-tax levels for those who are on substantial incomes is not realistic anymore. Social welfare is another area that needs to be looked at. Can we really continue to pay welfare benefits to those who are non-resident?
What about child benefit payments? There is much talk about the cost of means testing for child benefit payment. If for example, more than 60 per cent of the home income is in the higher tax bracket, that to me would seem a fair enough assessment of wealth without the need for further complicated means testing.
That said, in any decent society, some areas should be sacrosanct, mainly the elderly. I know it is emotive to talk about people receiving medical cards when they have big pensions or many streams of income, but realistically how many old people now have the luxury of multi streams of income? If they do, they, like everybody else, will be caught in the tax net.
If ever there was a need for leadership it's now. Leadership in government. Leadership in the trade unions. Leadership in the private sector. We need to face the future without fear; to demonstrate the courage to convert retreat into advance.