Again we are subjected to Vincent Browne’s regular diatribe in the Irish Times about how income inequality in Ireland (which he believes is due to our uniquely corrupt society) is causing higher death rates among poorer sections of the populace.

This time he really insults our intelligence by poo-pooing the extent to which individuals should take any responsibility for our financial mess.  In a piece with the memorably daft headline  “Society is more corrupt than its scapegoats” he dispenses this piece of bull:  “…the problem is not of personal culpability or guilt, although there has been some of that. The problem is systemic and there is nobody around alone responsible for the system. It is a mindset, a cultural thing, an ideology.  The real corruption here is the nature of our society; it’s a systemic thing, not something particular to some individuals in politics or in banking or in property or whatever….”

So forget about assigning any blame to Bertie Ahern, or Seán Fitzpatrick, or Brian Cowen, or Patrick Neary.  We are all to blame.  We are all corrupt.  We are all sinners.  Everybody is at fault, so our problems are nobody’s fault.

I usually read VB’s columns in the Irish Times, and I do it  for the same reason that I often watch his late-night show on TV3: when he is in attack mode (and he usually is), it provides gruesome entertainment.  I feel a little bit like a spectator in a  ancient Roman arena where gladiators are savaging each other.   It is terrible stuff, and wrong in so many ways, but I can’t tear my eyes away from it.

It seems to me that the logical outcome of VB’s views on income inequality and life expectancy is that either (a) there must be no income inequality (I think that has been tried sufficiently in the last century and found to be spectacularly unsuccessful) and/or (b) that people with discretionary spending power must not be allowed to use it to improve their health and longevity and/or (c) private health facilities must not be available (and it must be made illegal to travel abroad to access same) and/or (d) it is corrupt for anybody who has benefited from good education or a middle-class upbringing to exercise self restraint as regards junk food, alcohol and drugs.

I can agree with him that our medical and social services leave a lot to be desired, and that to be poor in Ireland is considerably worse than being rich in Ireland (although not as bad as being poor in most other countries).    Yes, there are a number of countries where inequality in income levels is lower than in Ireland, but there are many more countries where it is higher.  And to blame the difference in life expectancy mainly on income inequality is a peculiar form of blindness.  For one thing, might both conditions not be a product of an individual’s personality or approach to life generally?  Or might the causal relationship not be the inverse of what VB is suggesting, i.e. that bad health tends to lead to lower incomes rather than the other way round?   It would be surprising if these considerations were not major influences on the statistical outcomes.

But it suits VB’s Weltanschauung to believe that everybody (presumably except himself) is corrupt or irredeemably capitalistic, just as he clings to his romantic, paternalistic view of less fortunate social classes – that they are being ground down by evil capitalists and politicians and are helpless in the face of inequity.  I don’t expect him to change his outlook, however; like most barristers, his views are stubbornly held and are impervious to reason.

Whenever I hear somebody described as a “well-known economist”, I think of the expression “celebrity chef”. Usually the latter is somebody who is too busy being a celebrity to devote sufficient energy to getting the chef bit right. The drug of fame and the lure of publicity seem often to eat away at the proper exercise of the very craft in which they made their name.  I am getting worried about certain economists for the very same reasons.

Last month I read an article headlined “Top 5 economic superheroes of the Irish bust”.  The introduction set the tone:

At some point in the last two years, economists became sexy. Tectonic shifts in the global economy turned these dusty denizens of academia into powerful celebrities. Here’s Ireland’s top 5….

You can probably have a good guess as to who the nominated dismal scientists were.  Most of them are very good at attracting media coverage, and they do seem to be quite prolific (incidentally, I hope the academic economists are not writing their articles and blogs when they are supposed to be doing their day job….).

But that’s not my point.  My point is that, in the case of economists, the old financial services health warning is emphatically true: “past performance is not a guide to future performance”.  So, for instance, the fact that David McWilliams or Morgan Kelly were correct in their doom-laden predictions on a few occasions in recent years does not in any way indicate that they will be more accurate in their current prognostications about future economic developments, as compared to a random selection of their economist peers.  That’s the nature of economics.

It’s worth quoting again the fact that in his speech at the 1974 Nobel Banquet, the (controversial) prize-winner Friedrich Hayek stated that if he had been consulted whether to establish a Nobel Prize in economics he would “have decidedly advised against it” primarily because “the Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess… This does not matter in the natural sciences. Here the influence exercised by an individual is chiefly an influence on his fellow experts; and they will soon cut him down to size if he exceeds his competence. But the influence of the economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally.”

So, just as one has reason to approach carefully the restaurants of celebrity chefs, one should treat with appropriate care the outpourings of our economists, no matter how well known (or perhaps especially if they are well-known).

Somehow, the following words written by Clive James  (about Auberon Waugh) spring to mind:  “….he was not one of those journalists who, lacking the means to make reasonable opinions interesting, must resort to unreasonable opinions in order to get the reader’s attention.”

I had occasion to visit The Coombe Maternity Hospital last Thursday.  The hospital was renamed The Coombe Women & Infants University Hospital in 2008.  According to its website, the reason for the name change is “to reflect the breadth, depth and complexity of clinical and academic activity on the hospital campus…..The Coombe Women & Infants University Hospital is one of the largest providers of women and infant’s healthcare in Europe. Last year, over 8,500 babies were born here. The hospital also provides the largest gynaecological service in the Republic of Ireland.”

I suppose it’s too much to expect that such a major and august institution would would have made arrangements for its car park and access routes to be clear of ice for its patients, staff and visitors.  In particular, most of the patients would be in various stages of pregnancy and icy conditions underfoot would be unwelcome, to put it at its mildest.  But there we were, two weeks into our big freeze, and you were taking your life into your hands to walk around the car park in the Coombe Hospital.  A sample photo illustrates this, I think.

At a time when every two-bit shopping centre makes an effort to clear ice and snow from its public areas, it’s disgraceful that our largest maternity hospital cannot organise for its car park to be similarly cleared.  Another example of public sector malaise and incompetence.

Who is the hospital chief executive?  How much does he/she earn?  Where are the maintenance staff for the past two weeks?  I do not believe that nobody had the time to organise a clear-up, so that pregnant women were not exposed to this unnecessary danger.  And I noticed that parking at the Coombe, for which visitors are normally charged, was suddenly available at no cost;  methinks there was a guilty conscience at play (or lawyers).  Instead of wasting time erecting signs about temporary free parking, or running off and consulting their lawyers, the Coombe employees and management should have got their shovels out and done the honest thing.

That’s Ireland in 2010: shoddy public sector standards, and nobody is responsible, nobody is accountable.

Today’s Irish Times has a vox pop with various people, including a woman whose wedding cost €70,000 in 2008.

As the Budget cuts hit the headlines, shoppers spare a moment to share their feelings …..  [A. M.], who is expecting her second child in January, is taking a rest on a bench in the Jervis shopping centre. “How will the cuts affect me? Where do I begin?” the former chef says wryly.    Two years ago, she had a €70,000 wedding at Carton House in Co Kildare, and [she] and her husband bought a house in Ringsend for €420,000. They remortgaged it soon after “to pay for new doors and windows”, and bought a new jeep, which then got hit with VRT.   Since then, her husband has lost his job as a high-reach crane driver, and neither of them has been working for over a year.

Wow, seventy grand.  That buys a lot of confetti.  I suspect that this barking mad couple will be among the people who will be looking for a debt write-off on their mortgage, to be funded by injecting more of taxpayers’ money into the banks and building societies.  I’ll be happy to play my part, won’t you?

Well done, Diarmuid Doyle.  Your comment piece in last Sunday’s Tribune was badly needed (although it was a bit unfair to pick on John McGuinness, one of the few FF TDs who recognises what a useless shower most of his fellow party members are). 

The piece was entitled “In Fianna Fáil the individual comes first, then the party, then the country…” and I hope you don’t mind if I quote extensively from it.

 …… Anything more than 30 seats for Fianna Fáil in the next election would be yet another blow to Ireland’s hopes of long-term recovery as it would raise the possibility of the party regrouping over the next 10 years, returning to power, and destroying us again.

Because that’s what Fianna Fáil does, that’s what Fianna Fáil is……… While Fianna Fáil was winning three elections in a row during the boom period, posing as the guardian of a modern, wealthy, thrusting Ireland, many people – this columnist included – were banging a silent drum, articulating a widely ignored message: Fianna Fáil almost destroyed Ireland in the 1980s and would finish the job if it wasn’t removed from power. We warned that Bertie Ahern was dodgy, that Charlie McCreevy was a feckless spendthrift, that Brian Cowen was an empty canvas on which others could write whatever plan they wished, and that Fianna Fáil backbenchers were a bunch of preening wideboys who couldn’t be trusted with an éclair never mind an economy.

But we were the spoilsports, we were told, the left-wing pinkos; we should have gone off somewhere and killed ourselves.

Fine Gael and Labour would have done the same things, I was told on the radio. They would have made the same mistakes had John Bruton been able to win the 1997 general election and keep Bertie Ahern from power. We’d be exactly where we are now, broken, hopeless, unsure whether we have reached the bottom or whether there is still a long way to fall.

There’s no way of ever proving or disproving that contention, of course, which is a pretty handy situation for the people articulating it. All you can say to them is that the economy was in decent shape when Bruton handed it over and that while people do go on sometimes about Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael being Tweedledum and Tweedledee – the great cliché of Irish politics – the personalities who make up both parties are entirely different. There is a reckless, risktaking, selfish, win-at-all-costs mentality in the Fianna Fáil DNA that simply isn’t there in Fine Gael, whose exuberant dullness would have been ideal in managing an economic boom. In Fianna Fáil, the individual TD comes first, then the party, then the country. The result over the last 13 years has been a bunch of individuals high on their own power and sense of self-importance, swaggering around Ireland and the world, hoovering up champagne and compliments in the Galway tent, making sure that their developer pals and financial providers were looked after. The result of that we see all around us.

This is no time for the blame game, we are often told these days. We must look ahead. The point, of course, is that looking ahead without identifying the culprits and making them pay would be an entirely short-sighted exercise. We can only confidently embrace the future if we come to terms with the past. The destruction of Fianna Fáil is part of that reckoning. With the IMF and others in charge of the country for the next few years, that’s what the February general election will be all about….

Well said.    Bringing those chancers to book must start with the ballot box.  But what continues to puzzle me is that about 1 in 5 voters will, it seems, vote for the very people who caused all of our problems.  My expectations about FF being adequately punished are tempered by these sample reports from the coverage of the 2009 local elections:

‘Stroke’ sweeps to victory in Loughrea

Fianna Fail member, Cllr Michael ‘Stroke’ Fahy swept the boards ….  with 2247 first preference votes, or 12.3 per cent of all votes cast.   Cllr Fahy was convicted of fraudulently benefiting from €7,055 from Galway County Council but has appealed the conviction, jail sentence and fine of €30,000.

Farmer sentenced to two years’ jail a surprise winner

A FARMER who was sentenced to two years in prison in 2002 for conspiring to steal a Department of Agriculture cheque worth over €20,000 pulled off one of the surprise victories of the election after he topped his local poll.   Michael Clarke, of Beltra, polled 1,408 first preferences in the Dromore area of Co Sligo, getting elected on the first count.   Mr Clarke (47), a former Fianna Fail candidate, said after his election that he had made mistakes in the past “and I acknowledge that”, but added that the “real jury of my peers” had now spoken.