The comedian Dave McSavage made a very telling point in a sketch recently about The Frontline, when he suggested that the Irish brain can’t really handle figures, only stories. This is a very astute observation, and something which was confirmed recently by Dan O’Brien when he pointed out that Irish people pay far more extra tax as a result of the VAT increase than they do with the Household Charge, yet the HC caused far more aggro.
The Irish unwillingness to look at the details of these issues was fine when we had loads of money, and indeed it was used by politicians to avoid awkward questions. But now we have no money, and it is vital from the government’s point of view that the public be made understand that. Yet the inertia that grasps Irish political parties in government, that fear of doing anything different, is preventing them from doing so. We get the usual spin from the government (there’s no shortage of those people in government), but we as voters recognise that for what it is, and discount it. But who in this government is responsible for actually educating the public about the reality we are in (as the BBC do here). Even now, there are still large numbers of people who believe that if we had not bailed out the banks, we would have no cutbacks.
Or take the whole issue of taxation. The rich are the only section of Irish society who pay more in taxes than they get back in services, yet the majority of voters don’t know that. The majority of public spending goes on public sector pay, not the government jet, yet the public gets obsessed about TDs Christmas cards. Most Irish people have no idea what proportion of their total gross income is paid in taxes, but I suspect they think it is higher than it actually is. In fact, I have met people who have a very odd definition of taxation, including the ESB, Bord Gais, and car insurance. I’ve even met one person who made a half-serious argument that paying his mortgage was a form of taxation, on the basis that A) the banks are state-owned, and B) if he did not house himself, the taxpayer would have to!
The lack of knowledge about these issues is impeding the government’s ability to do its job, and needs to be addressed by someone in government whose job is to assemble straight non-spun facts of economic reality, and put together a non-political campaign to get those facts out there.
If I were fact doctor for a day, I’d assemble a single chart showing the following simple facts:
1. Which income groups pay the most tax.
2. Which income groups get the most in state payments.
3. The total budget broken down into end-recipients of money.
4. How much tax we collect versus how much we spend.
5. A projection showing how a tax the rich policy would work in terms of what rates would raise how much, and what cutbacks it would reverse.
6. A breakdown of the costs of “populist” cuts (TDs pensions, government jet) as a percentage of the budget.
These are just a few ideas for starters, but you get the point. There are some people who will say that you can find this stuff on the web, and you can, but no one (except maybe for Ronan Lyons here) is actively seeking to put these facts in front of the general public in an easily digestible and sustained way, and that is hurting the climate of debate in the country.