Wednesday 21 January 2009

Pay Your Way

When it comes to the current financial crisis, does it ever occur to you that the suits (pantsuits included) don’t really know what’s going on? Talk about multi-billion dollar leaps in the dark – each backed by battalions of experts who assure us that if we stop to consider we will consign ourselves to eons of recession, depression, you name it.

And then you take a glance at the minutes of the Federal Reserve Board and find that those particular economic mullahs were gob-smacked when the whole financial system was going to hell in a basket in the last months. Some of them weren’t even sure that we’ve been in a recession for well over a year. They should have consulted anyone who makes ends meet on a paycheck or, even worse, a fixed income.

Something has to be done to get the country back on track again. But is giving everyone a government handout the best solution? Not that I’m going to refuse the proposed $1000 tax rebate, but I won’t be spending it on a new iPod. No, I’ll be saving it for the day of reckoning that’s already roaring down the Pike.

Of course we should invest in the infrastructure of the country – “shovel-ready” projects or not. That’s Keynesian economics at its best. And it shouldn’t just stop there. Investing in education and health care is no longer a choice but a necessity.

But I worry about the hole we’re digging – the trillions that must one day be repaid and the effect it will have on the national psyche if we just pass on this debt to future generations.

Government – long scorned and eviscerated - is finally sexy again and every master of the universe from Detroit to Wall Street is standing in line with his hand out. But government doesn’t come cheaply. It can eventually only give out what is taken in and we cannot borrow indefinitely.

And just supposing this new stimulus doesn’t work? Then what? Shouldn’t we reconsider the “trickle down” handouts of this stimulus? For eight years, we’ve cut taxes while fighting two wars and look where it got us. By the way, thanks for everything, President Bush: two and a half million jobs lost in 2008, over a trillion of a deficit, not to mention the shattered lives of millions in your Iraq misadventure.

The country is crying out for leadership and here’s wishing President Obama the very best. Personally, I don’t share his faith in his economic advisers, Summers, Geithner, Rubin, et al, because each has in the past favored either financial deregulation or indiscriminately cutting taxes – or both.

Maybe I’m just old fashioned but I believe in paying my way. With that in mind, here are a couple of short-term solutions that would have lasting social and economic reverberations.

How about we pay for whatever war is fought on our watch and not charge it to our Chinese credit card? I’m not so sure we’d be in such a hurry to support President Karzai and our opium-running Afghan allies if it came out of our paychecks every week.

Paul Krugman’s idea of a small federal charge on each stock exchange transaction is definitely worth a shot. It would raise billions annually and limit both speculation and our daily rollercoaster Dow rides.

And even though it will hurt many of us – now that gas is cheap, slap on a federal tax of a dollar per gallon. The money raised could go directly to rebuilding the infrastructure and improving mass transportation, while lessening our dependence on petro-dictatorships. Hey, might even improve the air and save a polar bear or two.

Ideas like these call for self-sacrifice but it’s small potatoes compared to what was given up in World War Two. Then again, the Greatest Generation had a core belief – pay your way. Might be an idea whose time has come round again.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

The Cruiser

Whatever ones opinion of Conor Cruise O’Brien – and few are neutral – there can be little doubt that he changed the face of modern Ireland.

He is, perhaps, best known in the US for his virulent hostility to Sinn Fein and Irish Republicanism but that was just a part of the man. He was a scholar, diplomat, educator, politician, author, memoirist and general agent of change. He may also have been just slightly off his rocker.

For it’s hard to reconcile the man who brought so much intellectual heft to the Irish Labor Party when elected to Dail Eireann in 1969 with the pathetic UK Unionist Party member of his later years. But that was the “Cruiser,” iconoclastic, often brilliant, but with a streak of arrogance that often led to his own undoing.

I suppose, to be charitable, he wished to transform Ireland – which he considered a priest-ridden backwater with an unhealthy regard for its nationalist history - into a modern pluralistic society attuned socially and politically to the UK. In some ways he was successful.

In 1973 as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs he introduced Section 31which basically enforced censorship of the media by banning members of Sinn Féin and the Provisional Irish Republican Army from giving their points of view on Irish radio or television. Many feel that this draconian measure effectively delayed the peace process; it also had an unintended cultural consequence. In an effort to negate pro-republican sentiment, all songs of a nationalist nature were banned from the Irish airwaves. Although many protested, few foresaw the consequences of O’Brien’s move.

I did not grow up in a particularly musical household yet I know hundreds of Irish folk songs – a large percentage of them political. It wasn’t that I sat down and learned these “rebel songs,” they were just part of the culture. Even as late as the 80’s when television already dominated Irish cultural life, people still sang at social gatherings and everyone had at least one party-piece.
Radio cemented this multitude of songs into a coherent cultural whole. So, for instance, if you knew a snatch of “The Boys of Wexford” or even Dominic Behan’s wonderful “Patriot Game,” then over the course of time, you were likely to hear these songs on Irish radio and gradually absorb the other verses.

Cruiser’s Section 31 ended that. The youth of Wexford today wouldn’t know PJ McCall’s ballad about the 1798 Rebellion from a hole in the wall. Ironically, “Patriot Game” which actually questions Republicanism - and was Bob Dylan’s inspiration for “God on our Side” – has suffered the same fate.

Of late, RTE has made some strides in redressing this trend but the damage was done over a thirty-year period and is probably irreversible. It’s not that you can’t find the old songs – they are still available on reissued CDs, in faded songbooks and online; while Celtic rock and punk bands have been known to shake the dust off many an old rebel anthem. But the fact remains that a couple of generations have missed out on a rich resource that many of us once took for granted.

Ireland was always defined by its oral culture. We passed our history and our heroes down through the ages by way of song. Some of these musical statements may have been one-sided, and often simplistic, but they were ineffably ours – a gift from those who came before.

Section 31, alas, is one more proof that censorship has a deleterious effect on society. Despite all Conor Cruise O’Brien’s scholarship and educational accomplishments, in the end he will be seen as a very talented, but flawed, Irishman who dealt a deathblow to a vital part of our cultural heritage.