Tuesday 25 June 2019

Colette Browne: 'Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is causing a storm in US politics - but will anyone in the Irish Government listen?'

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Photo: Getty Images
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

The success of a young Democratic congresswoman in the United States has taught us how politics can be done, but will anyone in this country listen?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez caused an earthquake in the Democratic party when she easily deposed veteran party rival Joe Crowley in New York's primary election last summer, setting her on course to become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

But, at just 29, and with her fame largely deriving from a huge social media following, some dismissed her as too vacuous, too idealistic and too naïve. Those opinions are rapidly changing.

It is now just over a month since Ocasio-Cortez took her seat in Congress and she has already single-handedly changed the entire debate on taxation in the United States, while also co-sponsoring a radical new plan to tackle climate change, the Green New Deal, which was published last week.

On taxation, Ocasio-Cortez has proposed a marginal rate of 70pc on earnings over $10m. The proposal was predictably met with derision and horror by members of the Republican Party - and some within the Democratic Party, who rely on wealthy donors to fund their election campaigns.

Imagine their surprise when it turned out her so-called radical idea met with widespread support among Americans, 70pc of whom endorse the policy. In fact, the American people went even further - 65pc want taxes on those earning $1m to increase.

Attempting to explain the surge in approval for Ocasio-Cortez's policy, which would almost double the marginal tax rate on the super-rich, Fox News presenter Charles Payne blamed the ideology of fairness. "The idea of fairness has been promoted in our schools for a long time, and we're starting to see kids who grew up with this notion of fairness above all. Now, they're becoming voting age, and they're bringing this ideology with them," he lamented.

Regrettably for Mr Payne, his theory doesn't explain why taxes at this rate, and even higher, were accepted as the norm between the 1950s and early 1980s, a so-called golden age for the middle-class in America.

Mr Payne, although patently ridiculous, was at least on the right track. People on average wages in America and across the world have seen their share of income stagnant in recent decades as a global elite gobble up most of the gains.

Internationally, the richest 1pc will own two-thirds of the world's wealth by 2030. In 2017, that 1pc netted 82pc of all the wealth created that year.

According to a report from Oxfam, the chief executives of the top five fashion brands in the world made in just four days what one of their garment workers in Bangladesh can hope to earn in a lifetime.

Ireland is not immune to this pervasive inequality. A 2015 CSO report found the top 20pc own 73pc of the country's wealth, higher than the eurozone average of 68pc, and own 90pc of all land by value.

The combined wealth of the top 10pc is nearly double that of the 60pc in the middle, while the bottom 20pc have nothing but debt.

While there is little political debate about income and wealth inequality in Ireland, frustration with the continued enrichment of a small elite is bubbling over.

It was one of the main features of the nurses' strike, with highly skilled professional workers increasingly unable to afford the high cost of living on their wages. When gardaí threatened to strike in 2016, the inability of young recruits to live on their income was also the main driving force.

Young people earning the average industrial wage no longer have any expectation of being able to own their home. For some, renting in Dublin has become an impossible dream.

Coupled with precarious jobs, low wage inflation, calamitous threats from climate change and the rise of extreme-right nationalism - the future doesn't look bright.

Cracks are already beginning to show. One study from the Fed Reserve Bank in America last year found millennials, born in the 1980s, had family wealth that was 34pc below what earlier generations enjoyed.

Given these huge disparities in wealth, where is the debate in this country on these big issues? Where are the attempts by politicians to engage young people, as Ocasio-Cortez has done?

Instead of fostering meaningful debate about issues that seriously affect large swathes of the population, Irish politics is almost entirely consumed with displays of amateur dramatics in the Dáil and petty point-scoring in current affairs programmes.

Controversies flare up, like the children's hospital currently and Brexit perennially, with politicians continually in reactive mode rather than trying to push innovative new ideas and shake up an antiquated political system.

Irish politicians need to ask themselves why people in this country know more about the tax and climate change proposals of a 29-year-old American Congresswoman than their own.

They can't keep doing politics the way it has been done for decades - ignoring a generation that has been sacrificed on the altar of 'greed is good' capitalism, which feels alienated by establishment politicians and which gets almost all of its news online.

If they are looking around for places to start, a report from the Comptroller and Auditor General last year, which found 83 of Ireland's wealthiest people pay income tax rates that are lower than those on the average industrial wage, would be a good opener.

How can a situation arise whereby those with assets of over $50m pay the same level of tax as those on just €36,500?

What is the political system going to do about it?

Very little it appears - meaning, if you are one of those workers who sees everything you earn over €35,300 being taxed at 40pc, it would be understandable if you were bitter.

Changes made to capital allowances on intellectual property in 2014, increasing it from 80pc to 100pc at an estimated cost to the Exchequer of up to €850m a year, also warrants some attention.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has now reversed the decision of his predecessor Michael Noonan, but not before companies claimed more than €64bn in tax relief in just two years, with figures for 2017 yet to be published.

Ireland, as a society, is not yet as unequal as America, but the knowledge a small elite coast by paying almost nothing, while others struggle to keep their heads above water, is not conducive to the maintenance of a cohesive society. It's time politicians acted to rebalance the scales, before it's too late.

Irish Independent

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