Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Encountering economics, enough, and impunity with TASC

Just attended the first TASC Encounter, a conversation with Fintan O'Toole, interviewed by Mark Mortell, in front of around 60 people at the Royal Irish Academy. It was definitely interesting, making me feel encouraged, angry and depressed in about equal measure. It was no 'encuentro' such as happens in Chiapas and elsewhere, though presumably taking some inspiration from such encounters, but definitely an energising experience.

O'Toole wasn't afraid to say some provocative things on the record – almost his first words were “Bertie is Charlie's idiot bastard son”. A succinct judgement of Bertie Ahern's inheritance, and his at least partial endorsement, of Charlie Haughey's policies as Taoiseach. There was much to think about – O'Toole noted that two convicted fraudsters had both been elected in last year's Irish local election, which took place well after the financial and banking crises were in full swing. This included one who failed to get elected before he'd been convicted, and another who increased his majority after conviction. And this even as O'Toole observed that “convicted fraudster” is almost an oxymoron in Ireland.

He talked at some length about the culture of impunity in Ireland, how corruption used to be suspected, which gave a weak but clingable-to defence that we couldn't be sure, and now it and its perpetrators have been extensively exposed, for example in tribunals, and still nothing happens. People don't lose office, don't go to jail, don't even lose their money, and, perhaps most tellingly, remain part of the wealthy and respected 'inner circle'. This impunity has a corrosive and toxic effect on Irish society and individuals. One wonders, and some in the audience did, what it would take to make Irish people take action, or even to stand up and really voice dissent. He did point out that it was not a small cabal of the rulers, but the voters who continue to place these people in power, to support them, in some cases support them more strongly when their corruption has been clearly demonstrated. Thus do we get the leaders we deserve? As one woman from the audience pointed out, she doesn't get the leaders she deserves, it's the system that is faulty that means she has a “leader” like Michael Lowry forced on her. She said that she and others at the economic bottom of the ladder (if they're on the ladder at all) cannot do much to change the system, and are subject to what others decide or vote for.

O'Toole talked about the need for values, that formerly “morality was outsourced to the Catholic Church” and that we need to clearly articulate new values, alternative values, then outline what needs to be done to create and sustain a society based on those values. There is an absence of such voices, of that articulation. This is part of what TASC is trying to do, to do the hard work of examining what has happened, what is happening now, what alternatives look like, and what needs to be done to achieve them. O'Toole advocated for a society based on equality, which is a founding and central stance of TASC, and which would involve being explicit about equality being the goal, and then require working out what that looks like and requires in practice. He also noted that there is a debate in the UK, for example with groups of economists writing open letters to the paper supporting or criticising Gordon Brown's economic policy, and that people can then see that there are clear alternatives. In Ireland he referred to a “stultifying orthodoxy” where real alternatives are not seen or aired, instead the assumptions underlying policy – such as neo-liberal Chicago School economics being the only possible approach – are not even referred to, they are inherent, implicit and extremely powerful, without being acknowledged, and thus no alternative to them can be considered, they are not up for debate.

He mentioned the 'Irish model' being the idea that particularly US right wing economists espoused that what happened in Ireland could be replicated elsewhere, and giving, in his view, erroneous explanations of what had caused Ireland's boom. If the explanations of causal factors were wrong, then there was no model, and certainly not one that could be replicated. The neo-liberal explanation particularly left out, for example, circumstantial factors like that Ireland is an English-speaking country, non-Irish factors such as that there was a massive and long-term global economic boom in the 1990s which meant American companies had a lot of money to invest, state intervention such as the education which made our workforce so attractive, and factors such as social partnership, between government, employers, trade unions and other groups which he half-joked in the US would be considered Communism.

The lecture made me think of a number of things. Talking of explanations for the boom, he said “feminism is a factor in the Celtic Tiger – you don't hear that in the Irish model”. This had the effect that the workforce doubled, as married women went out to work. It was good to hear any reference at all made to gender relations as they relate to economics, it's so fundamental yet so rarely mentoined. Later I found myself wondering, as I have for years, why there is so little gender analysis of the financial crisis. Or climate change for that matter. The banking industry, including most of the CEOs and the traders of the financial institutions, who caused the financial crisis globally, the CEOs and most senior managers of the Irish banks which are in crisis and those involved in corruption in some of the banks, the construction developers, the majority of politicians – are all men. This is obvious yet is it rarely said.

Likewise it is the case that the majority of major industrialists over the past 200 years, from the Industrial Revolution onwards, the heads of most of the corporations, the leaders of almost all countries, the heads and senior management of most major contributors to climate change such as aviation, transport and manufacturing, most of the political and business leaders who have taken such little action, the majority of people in fact who are responsible for the leading causes of climate change, who have done the most to worsen it, who have the most power to alleviate it yet have done the least – these people are all men too. It happens that most of the wealthiest people on Earth, whose consumption is hugely environmentally destructive, are men. It could be said that it is primarily the actions and inactions of men, not women, that have caused climate change. Yet I don't think I've ever seen an analysis concluding 'climate change mainly caused by men'.

More pertinent to today's lecture, I've never seen a headline 'global economic crisis largely caused by men'. It's not that women would necessarily do any better, or would want to, and presumably they've played their parts equally to men as individual consumers, but in terms of who actually did what to cause the current global crisis, it was largely men. Not entirely men, but that is the reality - the key sectors and activities - finance, banking, politics - are all massively male dominated, both in Ireland and worldwide. Yet that's not something you hear. Who was to blame is debated, but it's not debated as 'which men were to blame'. I don't know if it matters, or was in any way significant, that most (not all) of the people who caused the global financial crisis were men, and that pretty much all the people involved in the Irish banking crisis were men, but it is a startling fact, and it is rarely said. Just worth thinking about.

Later in the lecture, I also found myself wondering if the Irish people, or a particular person, could sue, perhaps to the European court, to stop NAMA going into effect. There was so little debate, and O'Toole noted how important decisions were taken within a matter of hours, based on “pieces of paper floating around” (he used words to that effect), and that it appears that the majority of Irish people are against NAMA, yet their elected representatives almost unanimously voted to approve it. O'Toole observed that NAMA will be copperfastened in the next few months, and will shape Irish life for the next ten years at least. A depressing and serious thought. This made me wonder if we could stop it through legal action either through Irish or international courts. The very lack of debate and information, the way it was rushed through, raise the possibility that it wouldn't stand up to legal scrutiny of the process. It may even be unconstitutional. Who knows. Worth looking into.

O'Toole also mentioned the concept of enough – what would be enough money, enough wealth, that there could or should be limits set on that. That we need values based on this. That perpetual growth is impossible on a finite planet – a sustainability truism. Since at least 2002, I've been using the term “the economics of enough” to describe this and related ideas – what is enough in every sense, what would a system of enough look like, how can we sustain enough for everyone on the planet? It's not an original concept of course, being in some ways the basis of ecological sustainability, from which it formed, I just came up with the term “economics of enough” as a particular way to articulate and help think about it. It's particularly in contrast to classical economics, neo-liberal economics, and other forms that assume natural resources as endless and free inputs. I think there is now an Australian economist working on similar concepts, an Irish sociologist recently published a book on plenty that sounds like it takes a similar approach, and there are many others working on sustainability and permaculture, those embracing 'downshifting', and 'moving West' and in many other fields who strive to understand this very idea of 'enough'. I think we need an explicit and global endorsement and valuing of enough, an explicit rejection of the nonsense of infinite growth, and of course serious work to understand, outline and then achieve enough for everyone and for the planet as a whole.

So left that Encounter feeling reinvigorated, having recalled past ideas and generated new ones, and with plenty to think about, not to mention take action on. Will be checking TASC out again in future.


Post a Comment

<< Home