Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Budget - Ireland Late to See the Big Picture

The two most famous budgets in Irish history are famous because of their detail. In yesterday’s budget, the detail didn’t matter at all.

Ernest Blythe took a shilling off the old age pension, a ten per cent reduction, in the late 1920s and was never forgiven for it. Blythe was a scholar and a patriot, but his name lives in infamy because of that one decision. John Bruton’s career was always haunted by a proposal to tax children’s shoes in 1982 in a budget that was never passed – the entire Government fell on that one detail.

And that’s the problem of Ireland in our history. There is no big picture economic thinking. We are eternally hung up on detail.

For the first eighty years of the state, there was no actual need for big picture thinking, because Ireland was so stony broke we didn’t have the loot to spend in the first place. The only time there was any money in the state was during the boom years, and where the big picture seemed to be: how quickly can we blow all this lovely dough?

Very quickly indeed, as it turns out. And that’s why the detail of the 2011 budget doesn’t matter. When the IMF arrived, we suddenly got to see the big picture for the fist time in our economic history.

When you’re being fed into the woodchipper, it doesn’t really matter whether you go in feet first of head first. It’s just a question of personal preference. You’re getting mulched either way.

We are now so broke that the only – the only – aim we have as a state is to get into a position where we can be indebted to the international bond markets rather than the ECB and the IMF. Everything else is window dressing. The money’s not there. It’s just not.

While the bailout rolls out and the state’s hands are effectively tied behind her back, it would be nice if we as a nation took the time to have a good think about who we are and who want to be. What we have, what we want and what we can afford. And if we could try, as the anniversary of 1916 looms, to give some vague impression that the dead generations from whom Ireland receives her old tradition of nationhood did not die in vain.

It’s gone beyond a question of toxic banks now. It’s a question of toxic states, a two-tier Europe or else a return to sterling and a much more resonant loss of sovereignty than all that old guff we heard from Pat Rabbitte and others in recent years.

The country is so deep in a hole we can barely see the top anymore, but claims that things can’t get worse are nonsense. Not only can they get worse, they’ve already been worse. And you don’t have to go back to Peig Sayers to find the evidence.

Why did the 1982 Government want to tax children’s shoes in the first place? Because they were concerned that women with small feet would buy children’s shoes, rather than women’s shoes, in order to save money.

Reader, when you can imagine the gossip columnists of the Sunday papers marching to the children’s section of Penny’s and then writing up a return to children’s t-bar sandals as a fashionista must-have, then you’ll know that all the icing is well gone from the cake. In the meantime, we take our medicine and hope to God that, as the IMF bailout runs its course, we’ll emerge wiser as well as older.