Thursday 28 May 2009

Krugman on the Great Recession

"By most accounts, most projections say that the European Union is going to have a somewhat deeper recession this year than the United States. So in terms of macromanagement, they're actually doing a poor job, and there are various reasons for that: the European Central Bank is too conservative, Europeans have been too slow to do fiscal stimulus. But the human suffering is going to be much greater on this side of the Atlantic because Europeans don't lose their health care when they lose their jobs. They don't find themselves with essentially no support once their trivial unemployment check has fallen off. We have nothing underneath. When Americans lose their jobs, they fall into the abyss. That does not happen in other advanced countries, it does not happen, I want to say, in civilized countries.

And there are people who say we should not be worrying about things like universal health care in the crisis, we need to solve the crisis. But this is exactly the time when the importance of having a decent social safety net is driven home to everybody, which makes it a very good time to actually move ahead on these other things."

Paul Krugman, 2009 Nobel Laureate in Economics

Thursday 21 May 2009

Ireland and the Children: Slavery and Torture

Systemic torture and slavery of children by religious institutions; Callous indifference and collusion by the state; and a society silent and in denial. This is the essence of the recent Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse.

The Irish Times editorial strikes a poignant and thoughtful tone, and if you have time to read nothing else, give it a browse.

I am brought back to the story of poor Peter Tyrell, who spent seven years in the awful hell that was Letterfrack industrial school in the 1930s. Shortly after leaving Letterfrack, Tyrrell joined the British army and fought in the second World War. He was captured, but described the German prisoner-of-war camp as a tea party compared with Letterfrack. His experience in the school caused him irreparable damage as a human being. In the 60s he tried to speak out and made several attempts to raise the issue with the authorities in Ireland. But he was stone-walled.

In 1967, with no indication that anyone had taken his accounts of brutality and rape in Letterfrack seriously, Peter Tyrell committed suicide by setting himself on fire in London's Hampstead Heath. He was so badly burned that it took London police almost a year to identify his body. They traced the unburned corner of a postcard in his pocket to his friend Dr Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, himself a noted campaigner for reform in this area. Sheehy-Skeffington was able to confirm that he had indeed sent the postcard, and that the body was that of Peter Tyrell.

When Letterfrack finally closed in 1974, the Secretary of the Department of Education sent a glowing letter of profuse thanks and praise to the Christian Brothers. The Department, he said, was deeply appreciative of the great care given by generations of Brothers to the boys at the institution.

Below is an earlier post I made in response to a piece by Mary Raftery some years ago when she began to delve into the whole child abuse scandal.


Mary Raftery recently likened the dreadful experience of Peter Tyrell to that of Primo Levi . After hearing extracts from Tyrell's book on the radio the other night, I was struck by the aptness of Raftery's comparison

Both men, through no fault of their own, found themselves locked in a nightmare. They suffered appalling brutality and humiliation. They were stripped of their dignity and lived in sheer terror.

The comparison doesn't end there. In both cases society closed its eyes. The extraordinary way in which a combination of hatred and cowardice gave rise to collusion in Nazi Germany is well documented. But if it is true that ordinary Germans knew well about the horrors inside Dachau, here in Ireland ordinary people knew about places like Letterfrack. Worse still, they colluded in it. A garda would assist in rounding up boys for industrial schools. A farmer would hand over escapees that he found on his land. All in full knowledge of the cruel regimes to which the boys were being returned. Politicians rounded on anyone - and they were few - who dared to speak out. The Catholic Church, cruel and tyrannical, defended its regime with ferocity.

As Peter Tyrell sobbed after his brutal drubbings, he must have wondered what kind of people lived in the little cottages all around. He must have asked himself how a Mass-going community could allow an enclave of brutality in its midst. His heart must have been continually breaking as he wondered what he had done to deserve this cruelty.

Levi suffered a similar collapse in his faith in mankind. But at least he had the satisfaction of seeing the demise of the sick regime that was responsible for his suffering. Poor Peter Tyrell had been brave enough to raise his voice against the tyranny only to be shouted down.

In his quest for justice he met a stone wall, thick and steadfast like that of a church. We are still dismantling that wall and it is essential that we try to understand how it was built.

Thursday 14 May 2009

Pondering Political Reform

This is a response to a thought provoking article on political reform which appeared in the Irish Times. Dr Murphy raises a number of interesting points which have been missed by a series of previous commmentators on this subject over recent months. Notably, she brings up the subject of whether the Irish people have an appetite for serious poltical reform.

In all probability they don't. First, people have an affection for our current system, and they would be wary of proposals to push them from familiar territory. Second, while there is widespread anger at the way in which our political (and financial) leadership have contributed to our economic destruction, most of the anger is probably directed at individuals (bank execs or senior ministers) or parties (FF) or organisations (the banks, the regulator). Third, most voters have probably not given much thought to the question of how the quality of our government and leadership is a function of our political system and indeed our political culture. As Dr Murphy says in relation to some changes, such as the move from the current electoral system, even political scientists cannot agree on the likely consequences.

That the electorate does not pine for change, however, is not a reason for our political leaders to shy away from the subject. Perhaps if the subject can be opened up enough - by contributions such as that of Dr Murphy - then the debate could gather enough momentum to make its way onto what might be called the national agenda.

Dr Murphy points out that any significant change, whether it requires constitutional change or not, would have pros and cons that would have to be carefully weighed up. Yet I think it is fair to say that our political machinery has shown itself wanting for the complexities of twentieth century government. In that context I think it is time for a public debate on how the quality of our governance, the very effectiveness of our democracy, is hindered by the nature of our political system - from local to national in all its facets. In terms of effectiveness I am thinking about the quality of both executive decisions and legislation; transparency, responsiveness, and accountability; the ability to form and carry out effective long term strategies; the degree to which the system allows for sensible regional development; and so on.

I would agree with Dr Murphy that the Irish people hold dear the easy access which they have to their elected representatives (though for all its charm, I doubt if this has as much merit as we imagine). But having said that, there must be some formula for tiered government possible which can retain reasonably good access and yet allows sufficient distance for decisions that are in the national interest. And it should not be forgotten that direct access, without sufficent transparency and accountability can be more of a negative force than a positive one.

Dr Murphy's warning rings true that says certain reforms, such as a better scrutiny of legislation or improved executive accountability likely have down sides in terms of speed or simplicity. But that shouldn't daunt us. Speed isn't always of the essence, and it is hard to see how effective government in today's hideously convoluted world, would not itself be rather complex.

In short, I think the innards of our political machinery are badly worn and have evidently let us down badly. We need a refit in order to make the thing fit for purpose in the world of the twenteth century. The optimist in me believes that as a people we are ciapable of remaking our system to deliver better results. But after a moment's pause, as my thoughts drift from the mechanics and theory of change to the practical reality of political inertia, voter apathy, and party self-interest, my belief in the possibility of change dissolves.

Tuesday 12 May 2009

Lee the Candidate

No small amount of furore surrounded George Lee’s putting himself forward as a candidate in the forthcoming by-election. It made big news with his former employer for obvious reasons, not least that he gave them practically no notice. The story made headlines everywhere. Lee was talked about in canteens and snugs and both up and downmarket coffee shops. Sunday paper and Irish Times columnists weighed in. And of course the political blogosphere revved up with its spin on Lee’s sudden emergence.

The initial burst of excitment subsided, giving way to a more sober analysis which in turn is now giving way to less generous comment which is beginning to be laced with the Irish version of cynicism; that is to say, cynicisim with wee doses of begrudgery and ill wishes! (though I accept RTE should have a tighter rule book and Lee a better awareness of the ethical issues in the step between journalism and poltics)

When all is said and done I welcome Lee’s decision to contest a Dáil seat. The reason is simple and has nothing to do with how early Lee, with vetinary precision, diagnosed the ill health of our Celtic Tiger. Nor has it to do with his politics (After all he has joined Fine Gael!). Lee is unlikely to suggest any major change in the balance of power in Irish capitalism. He’s more likely to advocate more of the same model, just done better and with tigher ethical standards of governance.

So the reason I welcome Lee is neither politcs nor economics as such. I welcome Lee because what Irish politics desperately lacks is the ability to attract people who have seasoned experience and tested competence in diverse fields. Recall, we live in a country where, owing to parish allegiances and our peculiar political culture, people are elected for who they are, not what they know or how they are qaulified. Our ‘top three’, Cowen, Lenihan and Coughlan inherited their politcal dynasties. And in the two upcoming by-elections, one is being contested by the brother of our former Taoiseach and the other by the son of the former occupant. In other words, our political culture has a particular capacity for replicating the same genes over and over. (And I want to say, the two men involved have every right to run. And there are other candidates in the fold).

But I say Lee’s decision is positive if it can represent even a slight change in the profile of those who run for public office. Surely it would be for the better if we could see accountants, architects, business people, community activits, pyschologists, etc. etc. making their various expertise and experience available to help govern the country. Yes, we have lawyers, teachers, doctors, accountants, etc already, but the bulk of them are those who trained but came from a political background and entered politics early. I am talking about finding highly successful and talented people — from any field — and getting them to switch to take on elected office.

Back to Lee. The hype surrounding his announcement showed how truly unusual it is for a well known figure to enter the fray. And yet in terms of what he represents the whole thing was vastly overdone. Vincent Browne lamented that Lee has now tied his great talent in the chains of party dogma and his contribution to this country in consequence will be greatly diminished. What a load of rubbish!

First: Are we saying that George Lee’s early call on the Tiger tells us that he is some kind of one in a million guru whose wise, independent voice is now needed to guide us to safety? The truth is that almost everyone knew what Lee knew. And those who didn’t were willfully ignoring the reality. We had the OECD, ESRI, IMF, National Competitiveness Council and swathes of independent (?) economists studying our economy and giving us warnings and advice. (In fact, all Lee was doing was reading these reports and passing on the message - can no-one else be found to do that?).

Second, Browne implys that the best or wisest voices should be kept out of the political system (so they have no direct access to power). But locking out wisdom - as our political culture does — sits tightly among the chief causes of our political paralysis.

And that is why we need new voices, new talent, a wider net for drawing in seasoned experts from all walks of life, into the heart of our moribund political clique. but we need many more if they are to sweep into our system and blow it open.

Monday 4 May 2009

Cuckoo Call

When I was about four on my granny's farm, the cuckoo called.
What is that?
A wee bird.
And where is it?
My father pointed, and from low down I thought he pointed at the sliver of moon.

Ever since when I see the sliver of moon I hear the cuckoo call.