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The “Alternative Budgets” are no real alternative at all

Alternative Budget season is a lot like listening to a group of your friends speculating about what they might do if they won €200m the Euromillions. In one corner, there’s Ivana, who’d give millions to dog charities. In the other, Mary Lou, who’d buy every homeless person a cup of tea and a sandwich. And then over in the other corner, bless them, are Richard and Paul, who never could quite do sums, and insist that they would buy everybody in the country a Caribbean Island, just like in the Lotto ads.

We’re going to get a lot of spending pledges, this week. And because Irish politics is Irish politics, a lot of those pledges will be the same as each other. True story: Last year, someone on twitter started a joke rumour that the Luas in Dublin was free for a day. The joke proved popular, and now making the Luas free – along with other public transport – is the agreed policy of almost the entire opposition. Long term strategic policy ideas are not what you get in alternative budgets: Telling everyone and their aunt that you’ll give them more money than the Government will is what these things are for.

Labour, for example, has a policy, announced yesterday, of just giving every student in the country €1000. This is a bribe, dressed up as a policy to address the cost of living, because Labour hopes that students will vote for it. The fact that pumping liquid cash into an overheating and inflationary economy is – and has ever been – a terrible idea doesn’t get a look in. But that’s nitpicking. Politicians buy votes, Cows eat grass, Bears poop in the woods. It’s what they do, and it is instinctive. Every modern politician delivers some form of bribe.

What’s more concerning – and telling – is the complete absence of any real alternative vision for how the country should be run, or governed, that might actually improve the prospects for Students or any other group who are being offered a bribe. Because €1000 is not a lot of money, though it may feel that way when you get it, if you are a student. Even those who make it last a few months will soon find that they are subject to the same economic and inflationary pressures that they were before the bribe was given. It’s the equivalent of giving a nicotine addict a lone cigarette and saying that you’ve helped his cost-of-living issues.

The problems in the Irish economy are structural: We do not have enough builders, for example. Scour the alternative budgets and you will not find any plan to get us more builders: You’ll get investments in house building, but those will not mean the work gets done faster. When you throw more money at a small number of building companies, they put up their prices, and nothing happens faster than it would have done anyway. That’s Irish house inflation, in a sentence.

But solving that problem means re-orientating much of what we understand modern society to be: Building, for some inescapable reason, is almost seen as a low-status job. No political party wants to be the one that tells strapping young fellows marching around DCU in their county colours, or their Leinster shirts, that they need to get off campus, and on to a building site. Meeting the state’s infrastructure needs is very much not a job for Ireland’s young people, who must instead be indulged in their desire to have the taxpayer pay for them to study accounting or linguistics or computer programming or some other technology of the future.

That is just one issue, and one example, of where the state acts against its own interests. There are many others. For example, it is taken as a settled ideological certainty that the state must “provide more childcare”. People before Profit have announced, for example, that they would “pay childcare workers €15 an hour”. But, at the same time, to qualify to earn €15 an hour, a person must have a childcare qualification.

So – let’s be clear about this – we are paying people to take expensive childcare courses, which require a level six qualification – for a job which will pay them €15 per hour. All because we have professionalised childcare to the point where you need a degree for it. And where it might be considered modern heresy to suggest that perhaps Garda vetting and some on-the-job training might be sufficient. I would wager that there are many thousands of people who might work in childcare, if the entry barriers to doing so were lower.

And of course, providing external childcare is the only option the state will subsidise: If you are a mum or a dad who wants to stay at home and look after your own kids, then the incentives are non-existent. Again, you won’t find any proposals to change that.

I could write similar examples all day, but we’re already at 800 words. The point is this: We are prisoners of a single, unshakeable, set of assumptions about the world, here in Ireland. No opposition party will challenge them. And faced with a very unpopular Government, the opposition is incapable of beating them by putting forward an alternative vision for doing things.

So instead, we get this grubby auction. Enjoy your weekends – I’ll be back to whinge more, as ever, on Monday.

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