Sunday, April 22, 2012

How a referendum can be anti-democratic

Winston Churchill is quoted as saying that 

…democracy is the worst form of government - except for all the others that have been tried.

And democracy can indeed be frustrating. It’s difficult sometimes to understand why the majority cannot see things your way and vote in the candidates that you think will serve us best in parliament. 

Referenda are, or at least should be, the ultimate item in the toolbox for the pursuit of true democracy. The Rolls Royce in the exercise of the right of every adult citizen of a country to have his or her say on the outcome of a proposal that will effect everybody. 

We are facing an important referendum in Ireland on May 31st next, on whether or not we will sign up to the European Union Fiscal Treaty provisions. 

While the idea of a referendum if attractive to anyone who is in favour of democracy, this one, and others in the past, have brought forward at least the suspicion that in practice such plebiscites can fall more than a little short of the democratic ideal. This has been discussed here before: Democracy and a referendum on fiscal union in Ireland. Here it was argued that as, on occasion, less than half the people who are eligible to vote in referenda actually do so, the majority are in fact saying they not want referenda at all and are happy to let others make these decisions. Unfortunately this can open the door for well organised groups that have separate agendas.

I now believe this situation has the potential to get even worse. The coming referendum is shaping up to be positively anti-democratic. This situation will arise because of two things: strong evidence from opinion polls that nearly half the voters are prepared to admit that they do not understand the treaty provisions, and the decision of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to instruct its members how to vote on the question. The admitted lack of understanding feeds into the idea that people are prepared to let others make the decision on their behalf - if not they would do whatever it takes to gain sufficient knowledge of the issues. The trade union involvement is more insidious. It suggests that, if enough of the people who vote are both trade union members and among those who do not understand the treaty provisions, the outcome could depend on the attitude to the treaty of policy makers in the trade union movement. 

The problem is that these people do not have a mandate from the public at large. They have not put themselves up for election in front of anyone other than their own members. To put it another way - what’s the difference between abrogating, in practice if not in theory, a national decision to the leaders of trade unions on the one hand, and allowing the democratically elected members of Dail Eireann to bring forward a result after a full and transparent debate on the matter in the parliament of the country, on the other? Could the answer have something to do with the subverting of democracy?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Censorship, science and religion

The recent news about the banning, by the Vatican, of commentary and opinion being published by a number of Catholic priests in Ireland initially invoked in your blogger the reaction that it was an internal matter for the Church, with which he wants nothing to do.

A moment’s reflection, of course, determined that the same church still impinges greatly on the lives even of those who would shun it completely, nowhere more than in the matter of the education of one’s children and eventual grandchildren. The Catholic Church still controls and manages over 90% of state funded primary schools in Ireland. Therefore citizens are often constrained to send their children to one of these schools as the only means of them getting a primary education, as was the case with our family when we lived in rural Ireland. You tend to take the view that it will be all right - sure everyone is in the same boat, and this is not exactly the middle ages.

But it wasn’t all right. Our daughter, who dearly loves her father, for all his faults, was made to suffer serious anguish in the belief that he was destined to hell because, as she was aware, he had decided that there was no god. Her mother seems to have eased her mind by getting her to agree that, even though Dad didn’t believe, he was still a good man, so he would avoid hell. The whole episode generates great anger, even now. Thinking about it, it’s lucky she wasn’t in a Lutheran school. Martin Luther taught that good works were not enough. The only way to he ‘saved’, for him, was to believe.

There are other reasons why religion in schools is pernicious. It has the capacity to undermine the teaching of scientific principles, for one. In the words of Richard Dawkins, in his book “The God Delusion”:

Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue”.

And how far away is the Catholic Church from fundamentalism when we are hearing that the Vatican has taken steps to curtail freedom of expression on the part of some of its priests? This has to mean that the same culture of repression will pervade the state schools that the Church manages. For someone who sees the ability to criticise and to bring forward new ideas as an essential part of living, this is bad news indeed.

Richard Dawkins’s book is well worth reading, for anyone. However, it is especially relevant to those priests that have been silenced by the Vatican. Dawkins is a world class intellectual. At the very least, priests, such as those who have been victims of Vatican authoritarianism, should be able to address the points he makes. It is available from, here

Friday, April 6, 2012

It might be economics, but it's not science

No sooner do I coin a well-received definition of economists, to wit: 

 “…the study of economics is not a science. Note that I did not write “exact science”.It is not a science at all. It is a set of beliefs that are held by individual practitioners and invoked under any and all conditions. Economists are Keynesians, Monetarists or follow the Austrian School in the same way as the devout adhere unquestionably to Mohammed or Christ or L.Ron Hubbard. Economists cannot agree among themselves on the right course of action under any given set of circumstances and they most certainly cannot predict what will happen in the future”. (See "Vincent Browne and the Euro) 

than a group of them comes along and seems to make every effort, in the pages of The Irish Times, to support my thesis.

An article in the paper of record on Friday 6th April and signed by no less than 43 academics, many in economics positions, is entitled “Austerity without growth a guarantee of stagnation”. It points out that a subset of the same group argued, two years ago, against spending cuts and tax rises as a means of dealing with the economic crisis on the grounds that it would kill growth and create high unemployment and debt. The current article seems to be claiming that this prediction has been proved correct, 24 months later. But two years is a mere blip in terms of the time required to create the economic conditions that would come close to being defined as normality.

“The evidence is clear”, they say, “contractionary fiscal policy does indeed restrict economic activity and employment”. This is an example of the kind of wooly thinking that's indulged in by those who have misappropriated scientific terminology. The statement is certainly reasonable, and one could even be persuaded to base policy upon it in certain circumstances. There is however no evidence, never mind clear evidence, in this opinion piece to support it.

The article is unscientific in that it never addresses other, feasible, hypotheses. For example, the proposition that taxes on high income groups actually reduce the tax take because they make it economically viable for the rich to simply remove themselves to another tax jurisdiction. Or that the EU / ECB / IMF solution to current woes - austerity now (but nothing like what the global financial markets would impose on countries like Greece and Ireland if they were to have a disordered sovereign default) to repair and consolidate Euro-zone peripheral economies so that the E-zone as a whole can prosper and grow in the future – might be the correct course of action.

The article could conceivably contain contradiction. At the start it is arguing against tax increases on low and average earners as the means of raising the funds for growth in infrastructure and other labour intensive projects. Less than 800 words later it’s calling for …”taxation targeting high-income groups, property assets, unproductive activity and passive income…”, “…stronger local taxation…”, “…the potential of social insurance and local taxation to broaden the tax base…” and claiming that “…PRSI [another form of taxation] can be expanded and combined with general taxation to provide free (sic) universal healthcare and earnings-related pensions”.  Many hold that all these measures simply trickle down as costs to middle and low earners through market forces.

Definitely not science. The scientific method has no room for ideology, for expediency or for plain, old fashioned, wishful thinking.