Tuesday 27 December 2016


My Aged Father-in-Law Pat the Salt was born in 1925 and turned 66 and eligible for the Old Age Pension 25 years ago. He and his wife worked brutal long hours in the catering trade and shifted their caboodle every few years looking for work as one enterprise after another came to an end. As they got older, their accumulated experience didn't seem to count for much and certainly didn't count for more money at the end of the week. But it wasn't in them to give up and expect the Gum'ment to look after them. At one point during the recession of the 1980s after a few months between jobs, living on unemployment benefit, Pat up-stakes and went to England to look for work. When he returned six months later, he was told that this evidence of enterprise was going to result in a decrease in his dole because, by leaving the jurisdiction, his clock was zeroed. Whatever! When they finally reached the mystical, mythic age of 66, they could finally relax from the relentless round of looking for work and working and draw the Old Age Pension OAP. It was like Christmas . . . every week. They blessed St Patrick and The Man for this state of their affairs and were really grateful and appreciative of what they got. Every Wednesday night he would take out an envelope and address it as Pat's Entitlements, ready to receive the Pension the next morning at the Post Office. He didn't, however, have any sense of entitlement: just gratitude and certain sense of bemusement that someone was looking after them.

The Department of Social Protection DSP is what runs both the OAPension and the various schemes for allocating different amount of money to different categories of people who are #without but are not yet eligible for the pension. There is a bewildering array of schemes: Job Seeker's Allowance is not the same as Job Seeker's Benefit. You get different money either side of your 25th birthday. You can get a medical card to defray the costs of your medical expenses if you qualify under any one of a number of arcane rules. You may apply for Rent Supplement or Back to Education Allowance or a Carer's Allowance if your mum is real sick. It goes on and ever more specific and confusing and the Department employs a lot of people to make sure nobody gets an allowance to which they are not entitled. Needless to say, nobody is employed to make sure poor Joe Public gets his full whack. The 2017 budget allocation for DSP is just shy of €20,000,000,000 or about 37% of the total government spend. This dwarfs all the other departments, even the bottomless pit of Health which only clocks at €14bn = 26%. And I get a whack out of cost item #3 Education €9bn = 16%. These, the Big Three, take 4/5th of all the money to spend.

As an aside, you need to know how many of us are crowded into our Fair Republic. Here are the figures from the 2011 census. The total population has increased by about 0.2 million over the last 6 years but I'm guessing the proportions are the same.
0 - 14 years 979,590
teens 290,125
15 - 24 years 580,250
students 290,125
25 - 44 years 1,450,140
45 - 64 years 1,042,879
65 years + 535,393
adults 3,318,537
kids+teens 1,269,715
Total= 4.6 million [2011 remember]. I've arbitrarily split the weird grouping of 15-24 year-olds half&half into teens = still at school and 'students' at college and counted only this latter group as part of 'adults'. I'd like to believe that I am a productive member of society, earning my keep by educating students in science and assertiveness. But a number of our students are wasting everybody's time by scraping through exams and causing accidents in the lab; or worse, being on the books and getting a grant from the government but mitching off from class and drinking themselves to oblivion. If these, say, 20% of our students left, then my job would be redundant on a last-in, first-out basis and I'd have to work elsewhere to be a nett contributor to the tax-pot rather than, as now, a nett taker sucking at the government teat.

A radical idea has been in the air in the run up to Christmas, to streamline the desperately complex, and inherently unfair system of Entitlements. One proposal is to give every adult of working age €150 tax-free as of right whether you work, or care for your demented father, or write poetry, or run a soup kitchen or sit on your sofa watching box-sets and drinking tinnies until the cash runs out. On €150/week you can just about pay your share of the rent, and not starve. If you want to go to a concert, or a session in the boozer, or fly to Prague for the weekend then you have to get off your arse and find some work. For those of us on [just barely, me] €50K/yr, €150 isn't very much: €150 x 52 = €7,800 a year.  Multiply that by 3.3 million adults and you get €26 billion which is within a shout of what is allocated currently to the Department of Social Protection DSP. Here's the polemic and the costing for a model of Universal Basic Income UBI put forward by a group of Marxists called Social Justice Ireland. SJI's model a bit more complex than €150 each because they recognise that old people's expenses are greater mostly because of the meds and zimmer frames that keep them alive forever . . . so they get more: you cannot make the grey vote unhappy and expect to win an election.

There is much to like about this
  • Sacking all the Jobsworths at the DSP, so they can no longer tsk tsk at the inability of the dispossessed to manage their bennies. From their comfortable chair in a warm office, counting the time until they cash in for a generous pension, they will become redundant to see if they can do something positive for the economy or their fellow citizens.
  • My poor students can complete their assignments on time and turn up to 9 o'clock lectures because they no longer need to work 4 nights a week or all weekend to pay the rent.
  • My poetic daughter - yes I have one - can freeze in a garret holding her pen with fingerless gloves. She may be cold but at least she's not starving and can afford to buy a pot of ink each week.
  • My pal can look after his disabled mother without having to fill in forms in triplicate and prove that his mother is still alive at the end of each month.
I suggest that these changes, facilitated by UBI, may improve the social capital of the nation. More poetry, more science, more plays, more wood-craft for kids.  We can park the pervading weltanschauung of the Protestant Work Ethic that nobody deserves a hand-out and TNSTAAFL. In a way it is the ultimate in letting the market find its own level: folks will do what seems good to them rather than the state making a hames of deciding what everyone should do and dicking about with the tax-system to encourage people to do what The Man considers to be The Right Thing. The wisdom of the crowds may win out here and we get just enough poets, lawyers and engine-drivers and everyone approaches a life that enhances their true self. Take compulsory education now - after 12 years in school half my Yr 1 students don't know aNNything that is useful to them or which makes them productive members of society: can't bake a cake, butcher a hog, saw a plank in half, cut someone's hair or lawn, or change a diaper. The home educated young adults I know can do those things or find someone who can and barter their own skills against.

It is interesting that some of the most media-friendly proponents of UBI are Catholic priests [who have no time for black Protestants or their devilish  Work Ethic?] who are harking back to the radical doctrines of Liberation Theology from the end of the last century. We've met Fr Peter McVerry before; the other one to check out on the airwaves is Fr Sean Healy. Not everyone agrees with the ethos or the economics of this solution for dealing with poverty. But we're going to hell in a bucket with the current business model, so let's toss up some new ideas and see if any stick to the ceiling.

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