People are thinking outside the box. We have time aplenty these days to think and to consider what we might like to take from ‘new normal’ when what we used to call normality resumes again. Some things about new normal feel more normal and more rational than old normal. Some things about old normal seem quite daft in the light of how we are coping and failing to cope in the challenges of the moment.
It seems a bit crazy now to have outsourced so much essential, life supporting equipment and drugs to a far distant country with such little regard for human rights and democratic values. It seems a bit obtuse to have missed the progressive embedding of that country in the economies of many other countries around the world and in global institutions, including the most relevant one at this time, the WHO. Even the absurdity of China becoming a member of the UN monitoring body for human rights is only now coming into open question. From our present vantage point, it also seems a bit improvident to be unprepared for ‘rainy day’ scenarios like pandemics and other natural disasters that can be counted on to happen because they have always happened throughout history. And this particular one was flagged. Time magazine’s cover story in May 2017 pointedly warned of the world’s unreadiness for the next pandemic.
Looking back at old normal now, we might ask why we, a small nation of less than five million people, support such an elaborate and costly panoply of state. We pay our president more than the president of France, to give one example, who is head of both the French state and the French government and presides over a population of some 67 million. Even though our president’s role is largely ceremonial, we also give him an allowance of several million to pay for a staff of 27. Would it not have made more sense to pay for 27 more front-line medical staff? We could have used them at this critical time but of course we could have used them before the pandemic struck too.
What about the plethora of quangos, many of which have overlapping briefs? Fine Gael promised to abolish or merge many of them back in 2012. Like a virus, they appear to have a self-replicating life of their own.Today, quangos define our political culture. They are a dilution of democracy. So too is the costly, choreographed Citizens’ Assembly which gives a facade of legitimacy to policies the political parties hesitated to put on their election manifestos. All that money could have been better spent. We can see that now or can we?
Leo Varadkar pointed out that the stringent measures taken to protect public health in this pandemic would cost and would cost dearly. There would be a payback that would demand further sacrifices from all of us. A payback on top of the payback we are already working through as a result of the financial crisis. The Taoiseach did not minimise the eventual cost of shoring up livelihoods and businesses, in so far as that is possible, during the period of shutdown.
Measures like the 350euro payment to displaced workers, subsidies to companies who can afford to pay 20% of wages to employees while their businesses are closed, rent freezes and mortgage moratoriums along with a temporary merging of public and private hospital care have given some people glittery ideas that sail right over the Taoiseach’s bleak warnings about a difficult financial day of reckoning.
On the contrary, they think that these emergency measures should be for keeps. First off the blocks were People Before Profit who urged the government to use the crisis to bring private hospitals ‘permanently’ under public control and ownership. Going one step further, Basic Income Ireland, urged the government to maintain the emergency payment after the crisis ‘as a universal, unconditional basic income’ for everyone between 18 and 65. President Michael D Higgins himself told Pat Kenny he supported the idea. So not only will there be no painful payback, there will be an ongoing bonanza of bounty that will be paid for by the notional super rich or/and posterity into the infinite future.
The concept is not regarded as daft at all by many broadcasters, commentators and leftist economists. The best known prophet of lottonomics is French economist, Thomas Piketty. He goes far beyond giving everyone a mere basic income. He wants everyone to ‘inherit’ a generous six figure gratuity from the public purse when they turn twenty five years old. This massive handout should be delivered without strings or conditions. It can be invested in education or enterprise or it can be burnt in a month in luxury travel or a killer wardrobe. Why not, he reasons? Rich kids have always had those choices.
What all these economic fantasists, who see themselves as visionaries not fantasists of course, miss is a grip on reality. The reality that is human nature, human motivation and human diversity. Strip away the two tier medical system and you have an immediate cash crunch. Many of those who prioritize health insurance are not rich. They very often make sacrifices to cover their monthly or weekly premium. Abolish the private route to healthcare and these people will become non-contributing recipients of the universal public system. Not the no-brainer the proposal sounds. Freeze rents and put a stay on evictions indefinitely and you will quickly find yourself in moral jeopardy. For one thing, the average Irish landlord is likely to be a private sector worker who opted for bricks and mortar instead of an uncertain pension scheme to fund or part fund retirement. He or she may have a heavy mortgage payment to support. Make the three month moratorium a full remission rather than a deferred payment. as Sinn Fein’s Eoin O Broin proposes, and it will be added to the small saver’s interest or deducted from his dividend sooner or later.
In the real world there are no free lunches. If you tax ‘billionaires out of existence’ as Piketty proposes, you abolish the tax base you need to pay for all the freebies. People don’t work and take risks to acquire great wealth in order to have it effectively confiscated from them. If they want to ‘give back’ they want to do it on their own terms. Bono is one of many examples of a super wealthy individual who has taken steps to minimize his band’s tax liability within the law. This week he and his band chose to give ten million to help Ireland’s fight against covid-19. Bill Gates is another example of a very rich man who likes to be the one who decides how and where his money is spent when he decides to give it away.
I doubt very much if the Gates and Hewson sons and daughters get Piketty inheritances without terms and conditions. Wealthy people with a modicum of sense do not dole out large sums they have worked hard to earn to their children to fritter away. Some children may have less control over their spending choices than others. Imagine how long they would stay in a country that taxed them ‘out of existence’ so that every youngster in the land could have a windfall at twenty five?
Entrepreneurs are not usually created by handouts. A compound of talent, backstory, luck and drive makes millionaires that in turn makes opportunities for others including the state. As documentary after documentary shows, most Lotto millionaires go bankrupt when they try to be the next Bill Gates. The mostly self mad entrepreneurs who constitute the 5% who pay over 50% of all income tax cannot be presumed on because they are the lead wealth creators of society. Put them together and you see how they are collectively the vortex around which our economy spins.
High taxation of hard earned money is just as much a disincentive for people at the lower end of the earning scale. If everyone starts with a universal payment of 350euro then the taxable threshold is presumably reached quite soon once a person starts to earn. If the basic universal income amounts to ‘sufficiency’ as its proponents including President Michael D Higgins thinks it should, then many among us might prefer to use our time creatively in the black or grey economics. Again, the reality of human nature which the ideological theorists seem to be completely blind to.
And all of this brave new world, lived on a one-sided balance sheet, will certainly not demand any curbing of the fore-mentioned profligacy of official Ireland and its retinue of quangos, assemblies and advisers. In fact, these will be more important than ever as the custodians and defenders of the new ethos. They will be the necessary bulwark between ‘populism’ prone democracy and ideological purity.
So if you are sitting at home, ruminating in the time-stalled world of lockdown on a sunny April afternoon, thinking of how new normal has both pluses and minuses, you need to think again. Others are thinking too and along very different and very discordant wavelengths to you, whichever track your freed-up thoughts are coasting.