Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me…

There are a few banker cliches that I grew up with. I’m sure they’re not unique to the banking fraternity, but they were certainly retold at every Conference I attended. Lately, they’ve started reappearing, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

The first tale told is that the Director driving a BMW is displaying ambition, whereas the Director driving a Mercedes is displaying achievement. As infantile as this is, there are many who give this consideration when purchasing their cars. I’m a BMW guy, SAD!

As I heard this said again recently, I remembered another boast of the Mercedes man. As a young subordinate, I was “privileged” to drive to one of these Conference’s with one of these Directors. Sitting inside the brand new Mercedes E Class was like stepping inside an Apple Store long before the advent of the iPhone.

I must have looked impressed, because the Director told me that if I look at the features of the car (and there were many) that I’d see them in about ten years time on a Ford Mondeo. Technology, much like neoliberal economics, is a trickle down process.

The same can be said for Irish Politics. When Tony Blair swept to power in 1997, he became the first Tory leader of the British Labour Party. He ran on a promise that “things can only get better” and aimed his message at what he identified as “Mondeo Man”. Blair cleverly re-branded this move away from social democratic values to free market economic ones as “New Labour“.

The party replaced promises of delivering equality for the libertarian myth of equality of opportunity. They moved away from the idea of government delivering social justice, to a free market that would improve economic efficiency.

They spoke of hand ups, not hand outs. In essence they Out Toried the Tories. And Mondeo Man loved it. Under the New Tory Labour things did indeed, for a while, get better.

Without rehashing the disaster that became the “free market” financial crisis and the other lingering global aftershocks, we know now that the New Labour “third way” was used to build an economy based on Rent Seekers and very little innovation. Many historians are now pointing to the New Labour phenomenon as the birthplace of the Brexit phenomenon.

Much like the Mercedes features take years to filter down into the less salubrious car manufacturers, so to does political ideology. Particularly here in Ireland. Leo Varadkar has said he is not Right Wing, but had he been born in Britain he’d have been a Tory. Simon Coveney is Fine Gael is royalty.

Both men advocate that the free market will improve economic efficiency and therefore provide equality of opportunity down the line. This is despite all the recent economic data running contrary to this.

The Budget Projections for 2017 said that unemployment would fall to 7%, it’s down to 6.2%. Yet Income Tax is a few hundred million below expectations. The government are said to be perplexed.

Fine Gael are demanding that the Revenue Commissioners investigate this and get back to them, post-haste. But in truth there is no mystery. The income tax levels are behind because the real economy is growing on lower paid workers and the Gig Economy.

It’s important that we realise that New Politics is old New Labour. It’s crucial that we see that our candidates for Taoiseach are economically Tory Blairites. Only then can we have a honest conversation about the type of society we want to build.

Do we want to a fairer society, where everybody is afforded access to social justice, or do we want a country where a few drive new Mercedes and the rest sputter along in a 20 year old Ford Mondeo, that will never pass an NCT?

“Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz”

Tony Groves May 2017

The Numbers Game

When Herodotus wrote the story of the Persian invasion of Greece 480bc, it’s generally accepted that he used a little poetic license with the numbers. His story records an invading army of five million soldiers. Modern scholars reduce this figure to five hundred thousand and most believe the real figure was closer to two hundred thousand.

The question we should be asking isn’t was it five million or two hundred thousand. The real question is why was there such a vast difference between the story and the actual boots on the ground?

Some have speculated that this was because the Greeks weren’t very good at dealing with large numbers. It’s an interesting view, was there a numeracy issue in the cradle of democracy? Maybe, it’s true that the Greek word for countless, or innumerable, was the same word for ten thousand.

So anything beyond ten thousand was just said to be innumerable and whatever number suited their purpose might be applied. In the case of the invasion an exaggeration of Persian’s makes the Greek soldiers victory a thing of mythic proportions.

The reason for this little excursion down Herodotus way is to point out the old Greek Numeracy issues in modern day Ireland. We’ve had a Minister for Social Protection exaggerate Social Welfare fraud to be five hundred million, when the figure is actually closer to fifty million.

We’ve had a Minister for Housing tell us fifteen thousand houses were built, when the figure was closer to three thousand. We’ve seen Gardai overstate breathalyzer tests by one million.

We’ve had a Minister for Finance exaggerate his Fiscal Space. Not to mention the “Leprechaun Economics” of Corporate Tax Profits flying into Ireland in advance of the EU’s Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base Plan.

We’ve had Irish Water tell us 70% of people were paying, even though the money taken in amounted to less than 35% of peoples bills. We’ve had Irish Water Marches that were attended by tens of thousands, reported as a few thousand.

All of this would be funny, if it weren’t so serious. Nobody is condoning Welfare Fraud, but exaggerating a 1-2%  problem only demonises the most vulnerable in our society and deflects from the bigger issue of poor government management of the Welfare System.

Minister Coveney has gotten away with saying his exaggerated housing numbers by using the “It was like that when I got here”, Bart Simpson defense. Shortly we will have him claim to have achieved his promise to have no families homeless by the end of July.

But this will be another statistical fudge. Homeless families are to be but into Hubs and then reclassified out of the homeless statistics and into some sort of purgatorial nowhere zone.

The manipulation of Data, and the toleration of it by large swathes of the population and the media, is a blocker to us fixing underlying issues. Only by assessing the problem correctly can we make a plan fit for purpose.

Allowing Official Ireland play with numbers costs lives. People on trollies and people on our streets aren’t statistical tools for manipulation. They are your mother, your sister, your granny.

Those at the coal-face like Inner City Helping Homeless put faces on numbers. People like Lorcan Sirr point out that bad data leads to bad planning. The manipulation of Data in Ireland plays to the worst of our biases. It reinforces our, conscious or unconscious, view that people can be reclassified and therefore made statistically less than.

Herodotus exaggerated to make the Greeks glorious. This is not the sole fault of government. We, as a country, play with numbers to lessen crises and to pretend we are helping those worse off. Sure, it’s not our fault if they won’t help themselves, statistically speaking.

What’s the Irish for innumerable?

 

Tony Groves May 2017 abacus

The Real Rental Crisis

We have a Rental Crisis in this country. I’m not talking about the Daft.ie, Daft Rental Crisis, although that certainly is a Crisis. A small bedroom, as part of a house-share at €900 per month is a Crisis. But the Rent Crisis I’m referring to is caused by what economists call Rent-Seeking.

A Rent-Seeker is a person or entity that seeks to increase their share of wealth, without actually creating any wealth. Rent-Seekers look to use their wealth and influence to reduce economic efficiency in a way that will increase the value of their particular pot of gold. The best Rent-Seekers find ways to take something that used to be free and introduce a charge for it. Sound familiar?

It’s important to note that not all Rent-Seekers are Big Multinational Companies, Banks or Private Healthcare Companies; although many of these are. There are less obvious Rent-Seekers all around us.

Politically they tend to be Right Wing Capitalists who espouse Libertarian, Free Market Views. But ideologically they are Selectively Libertarian and are only interested in freeing up the market to their advantage. They tend to say nasty things about the Left and label anybody who talks of tackling inequality as “grasping, deluded, spiteful and envious”.

Many of them, like Leader in Waiting, Leo Varadkar tend to air their extreme Right Wing views by suggesting we privatise 20 Dublin Bus Routes, or suggest migrant workers should only receive 3 months dole as an incentive to leave. But he quickly glosses over his Far Right leanings by mentioning equality of opportunity in an Irish Independent puff piece.

Rent-Seekers are the ‘Haves’ in our Society. They have accumulated wealth without creating any. Generational Landlords and the like. Many of them sit in the Dail. How can you expect Rent-Seeking Politicians to seriously tackle the Rental Crisis they are benefiting from? Conflicts of Interest anyone?

registerparties

These fake free marketeers are, for the most part, liars. They are all for the free market when it comes to eroding public services. They are all for the free market, with incentives, when it comes to their particular fiefdoms. The Construction Industry Federation spends more money on lobbying than the Construction Industry those on building Lobbies.

Why? It’s quiet simple. If you need to invest one million euro in “incentive’s” in order to game the free market, but stand to make a billion euro from the rejig then why not! Think it’s a miracle we aren’t more corrupt? Have a read of the Tullock Paradox.

Think about it. 50% of Irish workers earn less than €30,000. By 2014 we had the highest percentage of Low Paid Workers in the OECD. Most workers have suffered wage stagnation for a decade. Yet there are 7,000 new Irish Millionaires in 2016. How does this happen? Rent-Seekers.

Rent-Seekers and or free market libertarians decry the Welfare State. They should celebrate it. Cormac Lucey, Chairman of the Hibernia Forum likes to use the above Gini Index to show inequality isn’t that bad. What he fails to mention is that  our spending on Welfare lifts the lower paid out of extreme poverty.

He neglects to say that the Welfare Bill is a bargain. A small price to pay in order to avoid things like a wealth tax, or a fair Corporation Tax. The Welfare bill keeps the pressure off the Rent-Seekers. If these state supports weren’t in place Paddy would really want to know who isn’t playing fair.

1.9 million people receive some payment from the Department of Social Protection, Pensioners, Carers, Job-seekers etc. This is down from 2.2 million in 2013. The total spend is €19 billion per year. In other words the same amount of money the EU Commission say Apple owe us in back taxes and interest. Yet Leo Varadkar launched a “hard-hitting” publicity campaign regarding Welfare Cheats!

Displaying IMG_1129.JPG

Ask a fake free market libertarian, their views on immigration. Watch them tell you that only markets should be free, people should be restricted because of a quirk of birthplace and some lines drawn on a map a few hundred years ago.

Ask a fake free market libertarian, their views on a wealth tax, or wealth redistribution. Watch them call you a Communist and insist that they gained their wealth via some sort of talent that makes them better than you or I.

A real Free Market Libertarian, Professor of Economics Bryan Caplan, advocates for the Free Market as a fair and just way for people to deal with each other. He advocates for a Free Market that includes the free movement of people. In his own words “the single greatest loss to the world right now is the talent trapped in poor countries, where they can only function at a small fraction of their potential productivity”.

Think of all that untapped potential, stuck because of people/corporations (who espouse equality of opportunity) are Rent-Seeking. Think of the wealth creation missed out upon because fake free market libertarians are busy rigging the system, domestically and globally, to grow their percentage share of the pie.

The fake free market libertarians are the like the new politics. They create and do nothing productive. They generate no new innovations and inhibit real entrepreneurial spirits. They limit competition in their fields.

They are Leo Varadkar, hinting at tax cuts for the wealthy, while punching down at the those on Social Welfare. They are Simon Coveney, worried about EU Water Fines, but unconcerned about EU Emissions Fines. They are Vertex Pharmaceutical, charging €159,000 per patient, per year for Orkambi. They are Irish Retail Banks with Mortgage Interest Rates 2.5% above the EU average. They are the Rent-Seekers.

But, yeah, equality of opportunity, am I right Right Wingers?

Tony Groves April 2017

Words Matter

Everything, as they say, has its place. Everything has its part to play. Everything matters. Except when it doesn’t matter. Not really.

Recently the Daily Mail got in “trouble” for the front page misogyny of its “Legs-it” headline. But it’s not that long ago that Matt Cooper was engaged in a little bit of casual misogyny in the Daily Mails Irish equivalent. He derided Mary Lou McDonald for her dress sense and said she was “every bit as dangerous as Donald Trump”. I don’t recall an other Irish newspapers calling for apologies in the same way as the UK papers did for Teresa May, do you?

So sometimes things matter and sometimes they don’t. What the qualifying criteria are for such things, I don’t know. There is a written language that we all can read, but none of us can really understand. That is to say, we understand the individual words, but they never actually add up to a meaningful sentence.

Our corporate, political and media landscape is awash with these phrases. I’ve bastardised some of my favourites below. They aren’t quiet oxymoron’s, but they are always taking us for morons.

Roots and branches are always reviewed. Failures are always systemic. Errors are always clerical. Exercises are always scoping. Pride is always resorted. And Noirin is always defiant.

Talks are always collapsing. Unions are always greedy. Management is always unreasonable. Efficiencies are always seeking. Brendan Ogle is always a Firebrand. Strikes are always wildcat. And Shane Ross is always missing.

Celebrity tweets are always hilarious. Twitter is always in meltdown. Trolls are always vicious. Chat is always snapping. Memes are always trending. And you always believe what you won’t believe happened next.

Rivals are always in the long grass. Knives are always out. Sources are always close to. Ministerial briefs are always getting handled. And Gerry is always denying he was ever a member of.

Plans are always strategic. Thinking is always blue sky. Jobs are always announced a few times. Corporation Tax Rates are always off the table. Brussels is always threatening fines. And Brian Hayes is always on your telly.

The centre must always be held. Politics must always be new. Polls must always be telling. The Left must always be Loony. The Right must always be Centrist. And Mick Martin is always the most popular leader, but not populist.

Crisis Talks are always crunching. Force is always excessive. Protesters are always like ISIS. Billions must always be wasted. Quango’s must always be re-branded. And Alan Kelly is always angry.

Immigration is always mass. Public Meetings are always Town halls. Citizens are always Assembling. Inquiries are always commissioned. And Paul Murphy is always the Posh Trot.

Speakers are always key. Doctors are always spinning. The recovery, like Enda, is always going. Bubbles are always bursting. Terry Prone is always paid. And Denis O’Brien is always REDACTED.

The middle is always squeezed. Vultures are always swooping. Confidence is always protected. NAMA is always defended. And Michael Noonan is always rebutting.

Events are always tragic. Tragedies are always avoidable. Funerals are always a who’s who of who’s? Eulogies are always heartbreaking. Oliver Callan is always spot on.

Migrants are always economic. Refugees are always a significant risk. Power is always having truth spoken to it. Appeals are always falling on deaf ears. Europe is always our friend. And RTE is always biased according to both sides of the debate.

Articles are always being triggered. Borders are always porous. Market contagion is always spreading. Europe is always our enemy. The Union is always breaking. And no deal is always better than a bad deal?

There’s hundreds more of these phrases. They fill empty air with empty words. None of them speak of real Accountability or actual Implementation. They are cloaking phrases. Used to cloak the unaccountable and a lack of effort.

But it’s not all bad. At least there’s always Sean Moncrieff, weekdays between 2 and 4, always asking interesting questions…

Tony Groves April 2014

The Boy Who Shouldn’t Be King

A long time ago, in a village far, far away a boy was creating havoc. He was lashing out at the villagers, calling them All Ireland Champion Whingers and telling fantastical tales of adventures that never happened. The villagers, fed up of the Boy Who Cried 2 Pints, sent the lad to bed with no supper.

But the boy was not to be stopped. Deciding to run away, he put on his fathers suit and climbed aboard a small boat to the mysterious island known as Dáiland. As well as people similar to those in the village the island of Dáiland was filled with malicious Beasts known as Politician’s. The boy, trying to find his place, spent years ducking and dodging them.

Slowly, he grew more confident. He recalled the tale of the Man With 2 Pints and how he’d tricked some of the villagers. So he began to tell even taller tales. Extravagant stories and preposterous claims were told to the Beasts over and over. He spoke to them of a place where everything was wonderful that he called Retrospective Recapitalisation Land.

He spun fables of his feats of daring-do; including one about how he faced down the Evil Hordes looking to carry away all the ATM’s in Dáiland. The boy convinced the Politicians to make him their king with promises of things he called Allowances and Unvouched Expenses.

As king, the boy ordered the Politician’s do to all sorts of wild and crazy things. He told them the more they break things the better the Recovery will be. The Political Beasts, so excited by the freedom of not having to tell the truth anymore, went stomping all over the island. Kicking Austerity Dust into the faces of the inhabitants and telling them it’s part of Keeping the Recovery Going.

The people, once they’d spat the Austerity Dust out of their mouths, weren’t pleased. They set about organising and challenging the Political Beasts. The Beasts, worried that their party might be cut short, turned on the boy king. But he was ready for them, he knew the best way to cover up a lie was to tell an even bigger lie.

So the boy king told the Beasts that he was following orders from a higher power, which he called “The Troika”. He said he’d gladly step aside and let one of the Beasts take over, but he warned them that The Troika eat Beasts for breakfast! Needless to say, the Beasts scurried back all over Dáiland and told the inhabitants of The Troika and how they’d better not make anymore trouble, for all their sake’s.

The boy king, so happy that he’s lies had gone unchallenged went back to partying. He even came up with a way to handle the occasional misstep. Whenever a Beast or an Islander would step out of line, the boy king would simply have them locked up in an Inquiry. And yet…

And yet the boy king felt incomplete. No amount of records set, achievements or accomplishments could fill the hollow in his heart. The boy king, if he had the ability to tell the truth, would have admitted that he would never truly be happy in the knowledge that a village far, far away is still missing its idiot.

 

Tony Groves March 2017

Any similarities to people living or dead are purely coincidental…

A War of Words

When the Irish Times published a glossary of Alt-Right terms my echo chamber lost its mind. When I spewed my badly punctuated thoughts on NAMA on these pages I was grammatically held bang to rights. Words, even in this text speak era, still hold value. Words still have power and given the Alt-Right got its own glossary, I thought I’d try my hand at doing a Chumocracy Glossary. I should probably start with Chumocracy.

Chumocracy: a system of governance run by and for the Arms of the State and their Chums. I’d love to say I crated this phrase, but I stole it from someone referring to the Tory Toff Infighting around the time of the Brexit campaign. Eamon Dunphy refers to it as Official Ireland, but I think Chumocracy has a more onomatopoeic flow.

Accountability: a situation where a Chumocracy member is forced to issue a statement of deep regret, or a statement refuting findings against them. Once complete the contrite individual can usually return to their snout to the trough or pull the chord on a golden parachute pension.

Pronespeak: a series of phrases that are seemingly benign, but are actually malignant tumours on the body politic .For example: “not aware of, or privy to” and the old chestnut “let me just be clear”. These phrases rarely mean what they say and quite often they mean the exact opposite.

Populism: a smear used by Chumocracy members to describe anybody outside their groupthink bubble. Frequently thrown at an individual who has the temerity to question the morality of putting free(rigged) market ideology ahead of social crises.

Complex Issue: a term used to explain away the fact that those in power have failed to do anything about a particular issue right up until six hours before it becomes an RTE Prime Time Special. Usually the nodding heads, not wanting to be seen to be stupid, nod along and accept this explanation. Sure haven’t the government agreed to set up a…

Commission of Inquiry: a method of placating public outcry against injustices that are (more often than not) within the remit of the State to address, but might result in embarrassment for a Chumocracy member; see Accountability.

Stability: the state of being out of your depth and screwing up at your job, while simultaneously claiming that you are a safe pair of hands. For example Alan Kelly and Simon Coveney brought Stability to homelessness crisis.

Political Correspondent: a name used for many Journalist’s who allow Politicians make false or misleading claims (like “I refute” and “I was unaware of”) and often use their own type of Pronespeak, like “a source close to X said” or “a senior party member told me”, thus removing Accountability (see above).

Advice of the Attorney General: a phrase which gives the user a form of diplomatic immunity against charges of idiocy; particularly useful when trying to turn a simple matter into a Complex Issue.

Speaking Truth to Power: a Leadership Skill of standing up to the EU Commission when defending the Apple Tax decision, while prostrating oneself in front of the EU Commission when talking about Irish Water.

Independent News & Media: see Pronespeak.

Communicorp: see above.

Mea Culpa: it means No Worries For The Rest Of Your Days.

Tony Groves March 2017 Image result for lies cartoon

 

 

Vultures, Eagles & Turkeys

There’s a famous (or should that be infamous) episode of barbarity carried out against the Roman Empire in 88bce, known as the Asiatic Vespers. The people of Asia Minor, fed up of Roman rules, Roman taxes and Roman hegemony, rose up violently. In just one day the Roman population across Asia Minor was slaughtered; it’s estimated between 80,000 – 150,000 people were killed. This was a scrupulously prepared and viciously executed plan.

The fallout of which led to a series of wars that would last decades and pile countless more bodies on to the fire. Nonetheless, the Asiatic Vespers stand as a ruthless warning from history. A government (Rome was still a Republic) that has lost its legitimacy, has lost its mandate to govern.

This week we’ve seen, for the first time in it’s history, the Public Accounts Committee have submitted findings supported by the Majority and not Unanimously. This is a significant break of protocol and not just because the disagreement was over the wording about Michael Noonan and his handling (or alleged mishandling) of the Project Eagle case.

It was significant because it was part of another underlying trend at the hypocritical heart of Irish Politics. A secret 11th Commandment, not included in the Bible; Thou shalt do as we say, but thou shalt not do as we do.

You see, we’ve been lectured for weeks, whether by Pat Kenny calling us thick, or Alan Kelly calling us Populists, or Simon Coveney saying something. I can never remember what Simon says…

Anyway, apparently we have to pay water charges or we risk EU fines. We had to have austerity because we all partied. We have to have accept families in hotels because the banks balance sheets are still vulnerable. So on and so forth.

In the financial world there are rules, lots of them and contrary to popular opinion these rules are overseen by a Regulator. Many of these rules are arbitrary, some are helpful and then there are a handful of ones that are plain old common sense. One such common sense rule relates to Financial Dealings with Politically Exposed Persons, or PEP’s.

In dealing with the EU Anti Money Laundering Directive there are different criteria, based on the individual/entity and the service provided. They roughly fall under three headings: Simplified Due Diligence, Standard Due Diligence and Enhanced Due Diligence. A voucher for a Macari’s Snack Box to the first person who correctly guesses which category Politicians fall into.

Michael Noonan made a bad judgement call in meeting Cerberus the day BEFORE the sale of Project Eagle. This sale has resulted in a loss to the state in the range of €220 million. I’m not going to rake over the coals of this toxic fire sale. You can do that here and here.

I am going to point out that a Department of Finance, that is doing it’s job, might look into the EU Anti Money Laundering Act. I’m going to guess that they’d discover that a meeting with the Minister for Finance is a meeting with a Politically Exposed Person. I’d then be fairly certain that they would see this same meeting is covered under the Enhanced Due Diligence Regulations. Finally, I’d hope they might realise that breaches (if discovered) of these regulations can be punished with sanctions and or fines. The fines can be of “up to €5 million in the case of natural persons, and fines of up to twice the amount of any profits gained or losses avoided.”

I’m a banker, so my sums aren’t great, but I reckon fines of up to twice the loss (as confirmed by the Comptroller & Auditor General) could amount to €440 million. Do I think a Department of Finance that has it’s head buried in the sand is looking into this? Probably not. Do I believe a Government that is busy trying to delegitimise even the wording of a mildly critical report into this debacle, is going to look for our money back? I’m not holding my breath.

It does make me think of the Asiatic Vespers and how fed up people were of hearing “Do as we say, don’t do as we do”. I’m fed up too.

 

Tony Groves