Peter Mair, who died recently, was a leading political scientist, well known in Ireland and Europe. The Irish Times last Saturday published an edited version of his recent address to the MacGill Summer School. Part of it dealt with the Irish electorate’s attitude to the State and with our dysfunctional voting system.

The problem here is that we don’t respect our State. We have never respected our State. We have never had a sense of belonging for our State. If anything we have viewed the State as the enemy, as an oppressor, as something not to be trusted but to be taken advantage of.

That’s the culture of the cute hoors, the strokes, you get away with it and getting away with it against the State is getting away with something which is not us and doesn’t belong to us but belongs somewhere out there and it is not ours . . . We have in Ireland an electoral system that you might call amoral localism – which is that you do anything you can to benefit your locality and your constituency and your district, and your TD will do anything he can to benefit your locality and your district and your constituency and, in a sense, damn everything else…..

We have been so busy as citizens in ensuring the representation of our own interests and those of our constituencies that we have lost sight of the broader, collective interest, we have lost sight of that a long time ago. We exert great control over our TDs [but] have never sought to exert any control over our governments.

And the result is a huge vacuum in terms of responsibility and in terms of authority right at the centre of the stage of government. As citizens, we never held our governments accountable for their policies – we are too busy holding our TDs accountable for their local activities.

Mair said the first change that was needed is a change in our electoral system (which of course is one of my hobby horses).

From my point of view there are at least three things which should be done. These are small things and relatively easy to do but if you look across Europe, maybe important things to do.

The first is we need to reform our electoral system. What sort of electoral system we get instead is more open to question but we need to get away from this multiseat constituency competition which ensures great representation of Irish voters but also leads to amoral localism and this aggregates our voices. Michael D Higgins once said that Irish politics disaggregates the poor – it doesn’t just disaggregate the poor, it disaggregates everybody except the special interests.

I’m not sure that I agree that changing our electoral system is a small thing and relatively easy to do: firstly, turkeys are not accustomed to voting for Christmas so the present incumbents are likely to oppose change in a system which has worked well for them; and secondly, when alternative systems are proposed we find that they are shot down as not being perfectly suited to Irish conditions – as Voltaire supposedly said, “the best is the enemy of the good”.

I have posted on this subject a number of times, for instance here and here.  Good to see that the late Peter Mair was of the same mind.

This short paper (Smart Taxes: An Open Invitation to Join the Pigou Club) is worth reading for its discussion of Pigovian taxes, of gasoline taxes (in a USA context), and generally of “topics about which there is a large gap between the beliefs of economists and those of the general public”. It’s written by an economist whom I have mentioned previously, Gregory Mankiw.

As the financial world goes into meltdown mode, the following extract from Mankiw’s paper struck me as an encapsulation of where it all went  wrong for free-market democracies in most of the western world.

In a democracy, of course, economic policy is set not by economists but by the general public. One of my favorite books of recent years is Bryan Caplan’s treatise The Myth of the Rational Voter, subtitled Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. The answer Caplan offers is that voters are worse than ignorant about basic economic principles of good policy. Ignorance, at least, would have the virtue of being random and so perhaps would average out to zero in a large population. Instead of being merely ignorant, voters hold onto systematically mistaken beliefs. And politicians, whose main job is to get elected, mold those mistaken beliefs into bad public policy. To quote Caplan, “What happens if fully rational politicians compete for the support of irrational voters–specifically, voters with irrational beliefs about the effects of various policies? It is a recipe for mendacity.”

Of course, while admitting that free-market democracies are having it tough, it must also be emphasised that alternative systems work even less well, at least in anything other than the short term – as the USSR found out, and as China undoubtedly will in the near future.  That’s why it’s distressing to find commentators wobbling in their support for free-market solutions.  See, for instance, the Telegraph’s Charles  Moore who wrote a recent article* headlined “I’m starting to think that the Left might actually be right”.  Just the bathwater, please, not the baby too.

Not surprisingly, there’s no easy solution to this crisis of economics and politics. But any long-term fix must include a much more rigorous teaching of the basic principles of economics to all citizens. We allow all those of a certain age to vote for whatever government they want, yet we fail to educate those voters properly about the economic consequences of so doing. We should not then be surprised when (as Caplan noted) rational politicians compete for the support of irrational voters with ultimately calamitous policies.

*Although one is tempted to have some sympathy with Moore’s views on banks: “…. when the banks that look after our money take it away, lose it and then, because of government guarantee, are not punished themselves, something much worse happens. It turns out – as the Left always claims – that a system purporting to advance the many has been perverted in order to enrich the few. The global banking system is an adventure playground for the participants,  complete with spongy, health-and-safety approved flooring so that they bounce when they fall off. The role of the rest of us is simply to pay.”

So can senior bank bondholders be singled out for “burning”?  Many general election candidates are playing hairy-man politics and insisting that the new government should do just that, with or without EU/IMF agreement, while of course not touching depositors at all.

Meanwhile, in Denmark, Amerganbanken has gone bust, and depositors with assets over €100,000 (the amount guaranteed by the national deposit protection scheme) suffered a haircut alongside senior creditors, despite the bank being taken over by the state agency responsble for failed banks.

Just what are the legal arguments as to whether or not depositors can be treated differently from senior bondholders?  Does it depend on the wording of the individual bonds, or do all bonds conform to a standard set of terms and conditions?  Or is the issue governed by general legal principles which an Irish court would have to determine?  Why has nobody issued clarification on these questions?

So should somebody with (say) €200,000 on deposit with AIB be worried?  Life is never risk-free, so the question people are asking is whether the interest rate they are getting with an Irish bank is sufficiently high to compensate for default risk, when compared to the rate offered by a safer (?) non-Irish bank, or an Irish subsidiary/branch of a foreign bank.

Can somebody of an expert and trustworthy nature please throw some light on the exact position?  That is to say, can senior bank bondholders legally be singled out for “burning” without depositors having to share the pain?   Until then, I am staying away from Irish banks.

Vote for Eric!

3 February, 2011

I see from this morning’s paper that at least one candidate in the general election has had the good sense (?) to adopt my somewhat unusual political manifesto, which I set out in a post last September (link), and which I repeat here:

  1. I will not put purely local constituency interests before national interests.
  2. I will not help you to jump a queue for spurious reasons.
  3. I will not help you get something to which you are not in principle entitled.
  4. I will not hold “clinics” – here are my contact details – please make an appointment to see me, or send me an email,  if it’s important.
  5. If you want assistance on a purely local government matter, well here’s a list of all the local government representatives.  Don’t bother me about it…..
  6. I will not support any Government measure which will increase expenditure significantly, unless it is clear where the extra taxation will come from.
  7. I will not claim for reimbursement of any unvouched expenses.
  8. I will publish online all the expenses I have claimed.
  9. I will not go to your funeral (or that of any member of your family) unless I actually know and like you.
  10. I will not perform the opening ceremony for your shop/pub/hairdressing business/laundry/….
  11. If you break the law, I will not plead with the Minister, or with officialdom, for clemency
  12. I will not accept additional payment for serving on any Oireachtas committee.
  13. I will spend almost all my available time on legislative and parliamentary matters.

 According to The Irish Times,

Eric Coyle-Higgins, an Independent candidate in Kildare North, has made a bold election pledge.   “I promise never to attend a funeral, save where the deceased was personally known to me.”   But that’s not his only electoral promise by any means. He also pledges “never to call to constituents’ doors seeking their votes” or to hold traditional party clinics.   He continues: “I promise never to accept so much as a single cent in travel expenses . . . or to pursue the interests of Kildare North with indifference to the overall national interests . . . or to otherwise engage in political gombeenism”.

Well done, Eric.  That’s putting it up to the voters, who keep screaming that crap politicians get elected to Dáil Éireann, but who insist on electing those same crap politicians because “they are good for the constituency”. 

It should be interesting to watch –  I just wish I had a vote in Kildare North.  But I’m not holding my breath: I fear local gombeenism will continue to triumph over national issues, because it will take a change to our electoral system to make any appreciable difference.

Sarah Carey has a useful piece in today’s Irish Times.  She deals with (and comes out against) the suggestion that emigrants should (even if they don’t pay Irish taxes) have a vote in Irish elections. I find it incredible that votes for emigrants is being seriously suggested, given that (a) the Irish diaspora is very large relative to the size of the resident population and (b) non-residents wouldn’t have to live with the fiscal consequences of decisions made by the politicians they would help to elect – a basic unfairness.

Votes for non-tax-paying emigrants is another example of woolly thinking by the chattering classes, based on sentiment rather than practical reality.    If we are going to make changes to our electoral laws, then we should instead focus our energies on changing our system to one that will help reduce the impact of clientelism and parish pump politics – such as the one suggested recently by former Attorney-General John Rogers.

An extract from Sarah Carey’s article:

There has to be a mechanism whereby those who vote have to consider the personal consequences of that vote. Living here means you have to live with your decision. Sadly, you have to live with other people’s decisions too but that’s another day’s work.

I like too the guiding principle of “no taxation without representation”. It’s not reasonable that people who don’t pay taxes to the State should be allowed to have a say in how those taxes are collected and distributed. Those living in Ireland, no matter how poor, will pay tax, directly or indirectly.

If we are to change this system and insist that citizenship and not residency is the basis of the franchise, the right to vote must come with some corresponding obligations. Paying tax is the obvious choice.

We know of course that in the American War of Independence, the rallying cry “no taxation without representation” helped to bind together the insurgent forces.  However, thinking about the words quoted above, I wonder did the sub-editors mistakenly amend what I suspect Sarah intended to write in the second paragraph.  If she had written “no representation without taxation”  instead of “no taxation without representation”, it would have made more sense!

In passing, I note that a wicked friend of mine opposed the election of Mary McAleese as President of the Republic of Ireland: his reasoning was that the principle of “no representation without taxation” should apply and, as Mrs McAleese was tax-resident in a “different jurisdiction” (ie the United Kingdom), she should not be our most exalted representative.

Mary Hanafin, supposedly one of the front-runners in any battle to take over leadership of Fianna Fáil, has revealed in comments to the Irish Times not only that she is unsuited to a leadership role,  but also the dismal state of our national politics.

Ms Hanafin said she had taught in Blackrock for 17 years and had a very strong base there.  In her 13 years as a TD she had “absolutely worked every day of it, with every group, every school, every community, every church fair, every everything. I mean, this has been my life”.

These revealing remarks again demonstrate that we are electing messenger boys/girls to Dáil Éireann, who love the feeling of power that being a TD entails, but have no guiding principles as to what should be done with that power.  Have you any idea, dear reader, what Ms Hanafin stands for politically, other than getting elected and helping her party retain power? 

I am more than ever convinced that our current electoral system is unfit for purpose, in that it produces TDs who are good at local stroke-pulling to win votes, but have little grasp of vital macro issues.  The standard of debate in Dáil Éireann is as a result execrable, and it is futile to expect such politicians to carry out their role as legislators with any degree of competence or any degree of independence from the Executive.  It is not stretching things too far to say that the genesis of our recent economic collapse lies in our persistent unwillingness or inability to elect serious, intelligent politicians.

In the same Irish Times article, fearing she may have given the game away, Ms Hanafin tries to recover ground with her parting comments, which seem to contradict her above assertion of parish-pump primacy:

“The next election is about the future of the country and the economy.    It’s not about the Dún Laoghaire baths or the 46A [bus],” Ms Hanafin said.

Too late, Mary.

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.