Wednesday, April 01, 2009


A friend alerted me to The Ideas Campaign. It seems quite interesting, an effort to encourage people to produce ideas for improving the Irish economy. I remain a little skeptical - it is being run by a founder of the Sunday Business Post after all - but it seems interesting nonetheless. There are lots of good ideas already on there - many of which I'm sure some of us have thought of before, and on the other hand ones that it's amazing people have shared as they probably could make them happen themselves. So that's encouraging. You can submit up to 5 ideas. I interpreted this rather loosely and grouped a bunch of inter-related ideas under a few themes, which fitted with the categories you could choose to submit under: green/ecological business (although mine was broader than business-related); policy (mainly related to public policy); tax system (that wasn't a category so I put it under other); and the criminal justice system (also not a category). Here's a version of what I submitted. Be warned, it is pretty long.

1. Green/ecological business

Make Ireland the truly green island
. Invest in green technologies. We're already seeing Irish individuals, companies and researchers leading in developing fuel cells, wave energy and carbon consulting, as well as in timber frame housing, low-energy low-tech solar cell construction, ecological architecture, eco-village development, 'slow food' production, eco-tourism and many other areas. Encourage, offer grants and incentivise these and similar truly green initiatives. Enforce the building legislation on energy efficiency - it will save individuals and the country money in the immediate term and even more so in the longer term. Prioritise preservation - our natural environment and historical heritage are a considerable element of Ireland Inc's USP (unique selling point) and our ecological knowledge and innovation are additional areas where we can provide real added value. Encourage green technologies and establish Ireland as a training centre on these technologies. Support cycling, walking and other forms of green tourism. Become leaders in ecologically-sound waste disposal, thus removing landfill/incinerator problems. Become leaders in truly sustainable forestry and land management techniques. Increase and support organic, biodynamic and truly sustainable agriculture, horticulture and food production. Future-proof homes. Provide training and retraining in insulation, eco-construction, construction and installation of heat-pumps, solar cells and wood burners, bicycle and cycle-generator manufacture and repair, green roofing, low-energy construction, natural water treatment, rainwater harvesting and plumbing, et cetera to include the many other established and emerging green technologies. A vast area with vast potential for Ireland's land and people.

2. Policy

The job of policymakers is four fold (at least):

- Inspire confidence
- Manage expectations
- Apply evidence
- Lead by example

There are a number of policy-related and public service areas where the government could make major strides to inspire, apply what works and lead by example:

Establish national social service
. Start with a day where people do public service. A suitable day might be 16th March in 2010, as the day before the national holiday of St. Patrick's Day. Increase to a week in 2011 and then to some months or a year. Ideally establish a system of social service where people serve for a year or more, similar to the military service of other European countries but non-military in Ireland. People could work in schools, clinics, hospitals, forests, national parks, community projects etc. This could be done at age 18 or so, after school, and again at say age 40 (or during a later age range, depending on what made sense). This would boost the economy, provide input from both young and older people into these areas of work in the country, encourage people to go into these areas of work in the longer term, and get work done that's required in areas that are often under-resourced.

Creation of revolving national public service for government.
Being a TD should be made truly a role of public service. Over time, much greater numbers of the public should serve as TDs, as part of their public service, with appropriate pay at public service rates. At least two thirds of TDs should be selected in this way, for one or a maximum of two terms (say approximately 3 years, up to a maximum of 10 years). An additional benefit would be that the revolving corpus of TDs would have to decide on salaries that they themselves would be unlikely to benefit from. At the same time it would generate greater interest, accountability and knowledge about political public service, and bring in more people who otherwise might not engage in such service, with their perspectives, knowledge and skills. This would obviously be a radical overhaul of the current electoral system but would mean that TDs serve their country rather than their careers.

Start public works.
In terms of unemployment benefit and allowances, after a certain time (6 months? A year?) people would be required to work on public projects. People not in receipt of benefits would also have the choice to work on such projects. These should be both less skilled and highly skilled, allowing people to maintain their skills and also develop new ones. People should have aptitude and skills assessment to match them with project and also be allowed to choose projects to work on, however high skilled workers would also have to work some of the time on less skilled projects and those with lower skills would also be given opportunities for training and more highly skilled jobs, utilising FAS etc. Workers should also be encouraged to suggest and initiate projects for inclusion in the public works programme. These projects should be ones of national importance, held in high national esteem, and emphatically not pointless follies to occupy time and waste resources.

Save jobs first. Government, unions, and employers should work with companies to find other options rather than redundancies. Give employees the option to go part-time, instead of losing their jobs. Save the skills, experience, loyalty and company knowledge of employees, rather than firing them or closing a company entirely, with all its attendant losses. Workers are extremely valuable, and shouldn't be treated as the easiest element to cut when times are hard. Those wages are also the money that sustains the local economy and the tax base for government income. An employee who is fired will likely result in a cost of around 10,000 Euro per annum in unemployment benefits to be paid, thus increasing government spending, giving another major reason to retain staff, even part time. Every job saved should be seen as 10,000 Euro in government spending saved. Bonuses for management should be completely eliminated in any company where redundancies are made.

Reduce spending in the criminal justice system while protecting human rights. In tribunals, reduce lawyer's fees to the same as free legal aid. This falls into the category of public spending. Simultaneously, review amounts paid to judges, barristers, solicitors in public cases. Increase efficiency of case hearings. For efficiency and to reduce public spending, particularly avoid Gardai waiting around in court for days, paid (by the state) to do nothing. Cases where Gardai, in some cases multiple Gardai, are required to participate, should be priorities for streamlining. Where depositions can be accepted instead of court appearances, do so, rather than making people show up, wait around all day, possibly come back on multiple days if the case is adjourned, often merely to end up giving a statement that is accepted without cross-examination. Have Gardai on call in stations, giving evidence via video linkup/secure on-line video conferencing (easy and cheap or free to do), so that they can give evidence from the station and at least get on with some desk work while waiting.

Apply the evidence.
This is key. Policy must be based on what actually works and has been researched and shown to have the desired effects. Promote appropriate research. What is the average income in Ireland? What is the median salary? What's the distribution? How has this looked over the last year, last quarter, last 10 years? How's it going to go over the next 3 years? What's the average, median and distribution of incomes in the top quintile? The bottom quintile? The middle three quintiles? How does the top 5% compare to bottom 5%? Use these figures, and interrogate their worth and the appropriateness of other data, to determine realistic budget projections and other policies.

Based on actual incomes and distribution, limit top incomes nationally to between 3 and 10 times the lowest income in that company or industry, at least for 1 year. The CEO should not earn more than say 10 times the lowest paid worker in that company. This needs to include the many non-salary income items that senior staff get. Similarly a TD or Minister should not earn more than 10 times say an entry level worker in the public service such as a nurse, teacher or council worker. If not 10 times, a suitable ratio can be worked out based on current salaries, what the economy can sustain, what the industry can sustain, and what other countries in Europe and elsewhere pay (although as these inequalities have created such problems elsewhere as well, this last should be treated with caution).

Immediate 10% cut in TDs' entire remuneration.
This should include salaries, expenses, benefits in kind, allowances, outside-Dublin payments, committee attendance payments etc. This should also apply to any additional income for TDs eg Ministerial salary. Publication (if this is not already done) of entire remuneration and allowances/expenses of all TDs, on at least annual and possibly quarterly or bi-annual basis. Reduction of pension post-election defeat (as opposed to post-retirement). Removal of any additional payments to TDs once they are no longer TDs, eg partial payments following election defeat. This 10% cut should be in effect for one year, for review and possible expansion in future years. Review of increases to TDs over the past 10 years (again if hasn't already been done) and comparison to European and other national comparators. Comparison to total remuneration of other public servants e.g. nurses, teachers, Gardai, army, including by years of service, pension etc.

Remember the developing world.
Don't forget about the countries in even worse shape. The 'developing world', or 'majority world', often known as the Third World, is suffering and will continue to suffer badly from the global recession, as well as from climate change. But more than the global crisis worsening their situations, they are frequently already in serious trouble, often not having enough clean water, food, decent shelter, employment, healthcare and education, among other problems. These countries are also powerful in their own right, they produce a great deal and have a lot more to offer, including many solutions to their own and the world's problems. But if they are (further) neglected now by the richer countries what is hardship for us will mean death for millions of global citizens residing in these countries, and we cannot allow this to happen. We need to ensure that Ireland continues our overseas aid and development assistance to these countries, and that whatever policies we put in place to move out of this crisis do not worsen their situation. Instead we should work in partnership for mutual benefit.

Govern across government. Get cross-government and multi-party agreement on some of these policies, as was done for social partnership and earlier economic plans in the 1980s and 1990s, allowing policy to proceed no matter who was in government.

3. Tax system

Change the tax system. In this order - increase corporation tax by at least 1%; create higher tax band of approx 48% on a sliding basis rather than with a hard threshold, the more you earn the more you pay, so that there isn't a threshold effect; increase higher tax band by 2% to 43%. Finally, only if worth it and if it will generate significant income, increase lower tax band by 1%.

Improve tax collection.
Increase fines for tax evasion and eliminate amnesties, increase funding, support and powers of tax investigation teams, pursue tax cheats very pro-actively, publish names more extensively. Collect existing taxes more efficiently and on time, especially car tax. Ensure maximum interest on unpaid tax and fines are charged on all outstanding amounts. Make this a very public campaign and encourage people to condemn tax evasion. Publicly recognise and praise (and possibly have rewards) for those who pay their taxes and support the economy, which is largely the lower paid and middle income earners. Have all public service staff, including TDs, lead by example. Simultaneously encourage people to claim their tax credits and allowances, as has been promoted in recent years.

Tax corporations. Corporations are not basing their decisions to come here or to remain here mainly on the corporation tax rate, at least in terms of a difference of 1-2% in that rate. Instead they are leaving and deciding not to locate here based on a range of factors. Many of them have benefited from generous tax concessions, land allocations etc. In the short term to help the economy we need to get some of that money back. Corporation tax should be increased. As many tax loopholes as possible should be closed, and the other benefits reduced and extensively re-examined in the longer term. This is not solely for transnational and international corporations - Irish companies have to pay their taxes, not evade them through loopholes and legal-but-dubious accounting.

Eliminate double-accounting. Make it illegal for companies to keep two sets of books - one for tax and one for their investors. This is currently normal practice. Instead, make it illegal for companies to present different figures to their investors. Review at least the past 3 years of investor books for major corporations and calculate tax accordingly. When a company announces quarterly successes, or failures, ensure that their tax payments match these.

4. Criminal justice system

Reduce prison populations. It is essential that any reform of prisons or the wider criminal justice system adheres to the priorities of providing a humane, equitable, non-destructive, rehabilitative and effective justice system. A range of changes in this area can reduce public spending, free up resources and strengthen our most precious resource - our people.

Stop people going to prison for debt.
This is usually technically for contempt of court for failing to meet court order to make payments to creditors or failure to pay fines. Examine and if necessary research additional evidence of numbers and circumstances of people ending up in prison for debt. It appears that large proportions of women in prison in Ireland are there due to debt problems. Work with these people and with existing support structures such as MABS (Money and Budgeting Service) to reschedule debts and ensure payment. Creditors should share some responsibility. Explore possibilities for people to work off some or all of their debt through work, public service, community service etc.

Reduce the numbers of people in prison.
Increase community service possibilities for more crimes, and make this the first choice option rather than prison. Make fines the second choice, and make it more possible to work off fines through community service, rather than moving quickly to imprisonment if someone cannot pay. It costs the state a great deal of money to send and keep a person in prison, while simultaneously the potential productive work and earnings of that person are lost to the economy. While prison may be required and effective for some crimes, for others, particularly non-violent crimes, its effectiveness is questionable. Going to prison has a range of negative outcomes which also damage the citizen and the economy in the longer term, such as reducing the ex-convict's job prospects, exposing them to substance abuse and possible addiction while in prison, damaging their mental and physical health, relationship breakdown, travel restrictions etc. As well as causing undue suffering to the person who is or has been in prison, all of these create major costs to the economy and increase later state spending which could be avoided. At the same time the state has to devote funding for staffing, building, maintaining, overhauling and administering the criminal justice system, funding which could be made more efficient and effective.

Establish sentencing guidelines and increase equity. The prison system is also inequitable, with offenders from some classes and areas much more likely to end up with a custodial sentence for a given offence than someone from another, say middle class, area who has committed the same crime. Enforce sentencing standards, with a discretionary range, to increase equity and allow more predictable planning for prison and justice system expenditure. For example, if there are usually a number of burglaries in a year, within a rough range, and sentencing is fairly standardised, again ranging according to value stolen and other factors, then we should be able to provide a rough estimate range for future years of the amount of community service available, amount of fines, amount of people likely to go to prison etc, which could indicate what areas need additional attention and also where savings or income are likely to accrue. Sentence guidelines should not be rigid but should reduce the inequities in sentencing currently seen, while allowing more predictability for resource allocation and reducing the likelihood of resource pressure affecting sentencing.

* This is the name I've used for many years for the notion of collecting ideas. Ones I might use, ones I never will. A pot for ideas to go into; a spot for an idea to take root. Ideaspot.


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