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Gene Kerrigan: New boss will be a lot like the old boss


Before we get down to business as usual, let's sincerely state some positive things about three people who've recently taken a hiding, Brian Cowen, Brian Lenihan and Micheal Martin. Their party will probably take another hiding at the polls next Friday, and deservedly so. And I've no problem whatever with kicking politicians when they're down. But it's just as important to understand why they did what they did.

It's true that Irish public life has been fouled by the personal financial carry-on of too many politicians and people in positions of power, but not every politician is on the take, they are not all -- or even very many -- personally corrupt.

At the end, what mattered most to Brian Cowen was that people acknowledged his personal integrity. "In every decision I took, as Taoiseach, I can honestly say the common good was my overriding concern." And I've never heard anything, on the record or off it, to even hint that Cowen was ever on the take. He was involved in one financial controversy, in 1994 -- something to do with shares -- and it was beyond doubt that he behaved entirely honourably in that matter.

In the midst of a staggering financial crisis, Brian Lenihan received a devastating diagnosis of a serious form of cancer. Most of us would have saved our strength for that fight, and hoarded the time we could spend doing pleasurable things. Lenihan stuck to his extraordinarily demanding job -- and that was a brave and admirable commitment to public service.

Since the Nineties, politicians -- already well paid -- plundered the public purse and set themselves up with salaries, conditions, pensions and expenses that are truly gross. It's beyond absurd, for instance, that the President receives around €300,000 a year, plus generous allowances and an obese pension. And that other politicians are similarly overpaid. This year, many of them are taking the money and running into early retirement.

Micheal Martin could have filled his pockets and pushed off. He didn't. He accepted his unwarranted severance payment, then changed his mind. Political opportunism? Maybe, but it would have been easy to spin a yarn. It might be political ambition that kept him in the game, but he relinquished the right to over-generous pension terms that will be somewhat reformed by the time he retires -- a decision with huge personal financial cost -- and I've no problem accepting he did that for public service reasons.

Now, for business as usual. How could three such people, who no doubt sincerely see themselves as patriots, do such terrible damage to the country? And why is Enda Kenny, a minor figure so far, stuffed with soundbite cliches but without a hint of personal corruption, about to do further damage?

Because they keep selling us fairy stories. From Lenihan's "we've turned the corner" to Kenny's "Let's Get Ireland Working", we've been given simplistic and misleading fairy tales, which conceal the greed, fear and dangerous politics in which our leaders are engaged.

This is, we're told, an Irish problem. "We all partied," Lenihan says. We've spent too much and created too little. The crisis is portrayed as stemming from some moral failing, the lazy Irish scrounging off the hard-working Germans. We're told that we're almost as lazy as the laziest of them all, the Greeks.

The Germans, as it happens, work 35.7 hours a week on average, according to the OECD. The Irish, 35.3. And the Greeks? They work 42.5 hours. German workers generate €38.70 per hour. And, according to The Wall Street Journal blog last week, "Irish workers are among the EU's most productive, generating €38.90/hour in 2009."

Now, there are lots of complicating factors -- technology, rates of unemployment, repatriation of profits, etc -- but the point is this crisis isn't about laziness or national stereotypes. It's about politics.

From 1945, having learned the lessons of the Great Depression, capitalism went through an era of sensible regulation. It led to a 35-year period of solid growth and high employment. In 1980, the era of deregulation began, led politically by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. This led to the casino capitalism that finally crashed in 2008. It produced enormous wealth for the few (and huge pay for politicians), and staggering amounts of structural debt -- the kind of debt that, once the bubble burst, can never be paid off.

Since 2008, the struggle has been about who pays, who profits. And to what extent the era of enormous wealth for the few, and the structural inequalities surrounding it, can be renewed and preserved.

Our own politicians see saving the banks as imperative. The banks must be, in Brian Lenihan's bizarre phrase, "restored to their former greatness". To this end, tens of billions of public money have been squandered. Seeing the banks at the point of collapse, due to the reckless gambling in which they and European banks indulged, Cowen and Lenihan gambled the sovereign existence of the State on the health of the banks -- and blew it.

The debacle has been complicated by the shakiness of the euro. The EU burden imposed on Irish citizens -- forced to borrow money to pay off banker gambling debts -- is just part of the disaster. Notions of "renegotiating" the interest rate forced on the Irish Exchequer are hardly worth the thought that goes into them. Yes, the interest rates are punitive, but in the greater scheme of things that's chicken feed.

In the face of an unprecedented debacle, new thinking is needed. New banks, new structures, new ways of doing things. Instead, the old austerity policies are dusted off. After a period of "internal revaluation", we're assured, the deficit will come down, growth will be created, jobs will flourish. Sure, the common herd must suffer, but the bankers and their wealthy clients will be restored to their "former greatness" and some day we'll all party again.

This isn't just bad politics, it isn't just morally questionable -- it doesn't bloody work. And after two years of austerity the deficit is hardly scratched, growth is anaemic, austerity depresses demand, unemployment remains high, emigration grows, debt compounds unmercifully, depositors take their money and run.

Yes, we need to kick out the Fianna Failers and their Green enablers. But neither Enda Kenny nor Eamon Gilmore has presented a vision that does more than tinker with the problem. The media has presented the crisis in the same terms as the politicians and the bankers -- one of overspending, the cure for which is austerity. Even the Left -- when pressed for ways of saving money -- answer in the terms forced on them by the political and media consensus, and they usually end up talking about taking money from the "pension reserve fund".

That was a credible response two years ago. Now, while we watched, those billions have been squandered on the banks.

Yes, there was hubris, and swaggering and boasting -- there was stupid gambling and pitiful regulation. When the bubble burst, there was panic and recklessness. All these things we can lay at the feet of the departing politicians. But as they shuffle off the stage, we hear the dreadful chirping from the new patriots stepping into their shoes, tightly grasping the same old dogmas, with the same inability to step outside the ideological box within which they feel comfortable.

"Meet the new boss, Same as the old boss. . ." What was the name of that old Pete Townshend song? Something about not getting fooled again?

Sunday Independent