Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Running Out of the Long Run

If there must be trouble, let it be in my days, that my child may have peace. Thomas Paine
One of the funnier moments in Budget 2017 was the stated intention by the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan to run a small budget surplus in 2019, with taxes projected to exceed expenditure. Yeah right. Given that Michael Noonan won't be the Minister for Finance in 2019 - and the Government probably won't be 'the Government' - then promising to be prudent in three years' time is straight out of the Augustinian playbook of delayed temperance.

But unfortunately it is par for the course, and not just in Ireland. One of the reasons people don't trust politicians (and we trust ours less in Ireland than they do in Saudi Arabia, never mind Singapore) is that they make promises they don't keep, and then they go to make even more promises. Which they don't keep. The strange thing is, however, I don't blame the politicians. Between news cycles and electoral cycles is well nigh impossible to make prudent decisions with long-run, positive consequences that nevertheless entail some short run sacrifice (or plain old temperance).

Of course they don't do much to help themselves, our politicians. Take the much heralded Citizens' Assembly. A supposedly representative selection of citizens from around the country will deliberate on a selection of topics that can best be described as 'random' (and certainly more random than the selection of people chosen and vetted for the Assembly). But its the things they won't debate that are the missed opportunities if the intention is to create a 'safe space' to discuss contentious issues without the inevitable political acrimony. And maybe come up with some useful ideas to boot. Issues they won't debate include:

- creating a new inter-generational contract on pensions (including the public sector)
- deciding what future we want for Ireland in Europe (including relations with the UK and NI)
- improving the quality of our governance and mitigating the short-termism that cripples it
- changing the social welfare and tax systems to be fairer to tax payers and to reward welfare recipients to take up employment
- creating a health service that delivers better outcomes for less money (okay, maybe not that one, way too hard!)

Instead we get some topics - such as the 8th Amendment and fixed term parliaments - that should be addressed by the Dáil; and other topics - such as an ageing population and tackling climate change - that are far too vague to lend themselves to any easy resolution or recommendations (not already available from multiple, expert sources).

We're running out of the long run in Ireland, having squandered the sacrifice of a deep recession by leaving all the institutions and practices in place that made it such a bad one in the first place. It's a pity that we seem bent on rushing towards the long run, one short run decision at a time. Maybe we could sub-contract our political thinking to Singapore?  Though perhaps on Saudi Arabia.

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