Thursday 18 July 2019

The bullshit artists are still talking the talk

AENGUS FANNING

WE are now at the end of Week One of the official recession, and most of us still don't know the difference between GNP and GDP.

But, even in our ignorance, we hold the right to ask the perennial question: does anyone know anything?

The Government, and the Civil Service which controls it, really don't want any talk of crisis. They are no longer arrogant or complacent enough to talk of soft landings and corrections, but still they abhor anything that would frighten the horses or, more precisely, the public.

It didn't take an Einstein to foresee what was coming. For the past year and a half, all the economic indicators have been negative. They all pointed to an economic crash.

The property market hit the buffers two years ago. The financial world struck the rocks in August 2007. The effects of these two things have been spilling silently into the rest of the economy since then, and yet nobody in office seemed to want to know or even care about about was happening -- until last week.

The political and Civil Service mindset is light years away from that of those at the coalface, people who try to make, create or sell a few things in order to make a living.

To the official mind, Mahon and Lisbon mattered most in the past 18 months. It was not so much that they were a distraction from the real business, they were the real business.

The official-political axis, insulated from the commercial dogfight of common life elsewhere, not only showed no understanding of the concerns of those in the real world of bread and butter, they were contemptuous of their cries of foreboding.

The Mahon persecution of Bertie Ahern was a surreal sideshow, costing millions that, it is now plain, we cannot afford.

And many voters knew in their gut that the economic crisis was a more urgent issue than Lisbon. The Economist last week put it succinctly: "The claim that an expanded EU of 27 countries cannot function without Lisbon is simply not true," it said.

Even now, instead of accepting that all has changed utterly, and instead of acting boldly, the Government refuses to show leadership with a root-and-branch reforming Budget. They prefer to put a Band-Aid on the wounds of the badly hurt State finances.

The Government is cutting current spending, and sees no need for a Budget until the end of the year. "People might think there was a crisis if there was an emergency Budget," said one source.

What exactly is current spending, I asked an expert. "That's a good question. and it's not always clearly defined. But let's say if money was spent, and there was no sign of what it had been spent on about a year later, then it could be called current spending."

So, I reckon from that, if the Government was to build a house, it would not be current spending. But if it were to put up a tent, it would. Therefore, no tents or temporary things like that will be put up in the next year or two. Will that be enough to save us from disaster? Somehow, I doubt it.

It has been my opinion, for a few years now, that Celtic Tiger Ireland has spawned and allowed full expression to two particular types, who sometimes overlap; the piss artist and the bullshit artist. If you were to take them out of it, I sometimes wonder how many might be left to actually do something.

The Government, in my view, has no shortage of bullshit artists, whatever about piss artists.

Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan come readily to mind as belonging to the former category.

Like many babies of the Celtic Tiger, they know how to talk the talk, but they don't even want to know about walking the walk. There is nothing in that for them except blood, toil, tears and sweat.

In fact, I don't believe that they are really serious at all about taking on the public service, about cutting down its size, its pay and its pensions.

It is a wise ruler who knows how to assess advice by running it past the 'cui bono' test. Who really benefits from what is being offered to me, he should ask.

If you look at it that way, do you really believe that the Department of Finance will be pointing the Government in the direction of genuine root-and-branch reform?

Or will the civil servants be soothing worried politicians with talk of cycles and corrections, while their own jobs and pension are safe?

I was going to write "as safe as houses'', but that metaphor has been made redundant by the property disaster, a disaster partly self-inflicted.

When Brian Cowen rambles on about 'counter cyclical' strategy, what he says he means is that in good times we will have surpluses, in bad times, we will have deficits. This could be Peter Sellers' Chance the gardener at his gnomic best. So how does jargon like 'counter cyclical strategy' rate for talking the talk? Not far off world class, I would say.

The time ahead is going to be one of relentless attrition; the public mood will turn more rancorous as, every day, people's personal lives are struck by financial calamity, as the complacency of the 'phoney war' period is blown away (during which time many people have believed, as has always been the case, that it couldn't happen to them); when the Celtic Tiger of Bertie Ahern, Charlie McCreevy, and Bono will be but a nostalgic memory -- without the romantic solace of Glenn Miller's great music.

The Shackleton family motto 'Fortitudine Vincimus' -- by endurance we conquer -- might be as good as any lodestar for the Government in the years ahead. And Shackleton was lucky. Let's hope the Cowen-Lenihan-Coughlan troika is blessed with the same good luck. Because we'll all need it.

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