Following on from my post on charity and philanthropy the other day, and from the post earlier on the matter of what is fair and what is progressive, I want to take a look at the logic that operates behind both the One Per Cent Difference Campaign and the equation of fairness with progressivity.
The One Per Cent Difference Campaign says that everyone giving one per cent of their income –or their time- is everyone all giving the same. So someone in receipt of €14,500 a year giving €145 is the same as someone in receipt of €145,000 giving €1,450. But this equality only exists in terms of the percentage itself. It does not exist in terms of the material impact on the respective lives of the donors.
€145 could be three visits to the doctor, or a couple of weeks’ shopping: people on low incomes spend a far greater percentage of their income, and spend it on basic necessities. It is not the same thing to place real limits on your access to basic necessities as it is to forego money that you might otherwise spend on luxury items or invest in stocks and shares.
This calls to mind the Gospel story of the widow outside the temple. In it, many rich people arrived at the temple and ‘put in large sums’; the poor widow comes and puts in ‘two copper coins’. Mark reports that Jesus remarks that all the rich people have “contributed out of their abundance”, whereas the poor widow has contributed “out of her poverty”, putting in “everything she had, all she had to live on”.
When this story was taught to us at school, it was in terms of pointing out the superior form of giving that is giving out of necessity. Such an act, according to this interpretation, is considered more generous, more worthy. But that isn’t the point Mark is trying to get across at all. In fact, Mark quotes Jesus as singling out, prior the widow coming onto the scene, the
‘scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation’.
So when Jesus says that the “poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury”, he is not only referring to the impact of her immediate material contribution, but also the fact that the scribes have already devoured her house. Jesus is far too class conscious for charitable organisations to pay him any heed.
What is interesting about the One Per Cent Difference Campaign is that its logic is near identical to that used by the Department of Finance in a presentation that attempted to demonstrate why Ireland’s austerity measures had been ‘fair’, which it treats as a synonym of ‘progressive’.
The ‘fairness’ lies in the fact, we are told, that people earning –I use the word guardedly- €200,000 a year have been subject to a -13.9% change in net income, whereas those on €25,000 a year have only seen an -8.0% change. But whilst this might fit some sort of criteria of ‘progressivity’ within narrow parameters, it says nothing about the comparative impact on the lives of people within each category. In what way does a 13.9% cut in income to someone on €200,000 affect their means of meeting basic material needs? Short answer: it does not, not at all. Whereas the impact on someone on €25,000 a year is not just in terms of making them materially poorer, to the extent that they suffer experiences of deprivation and poverty in many cases, but it also renders them far more open to exploitation.
We can sum this situation up in biblical terms: when ‘scribes’ –highly paid economists at the Department of Finance, in the Troika, official and semi-official advisory bodies, to name one group- are allowed to present progressivity as fairness, they are devouring the houses of the poor.
What is more, the dominant economic discourse, which aims at a shift away from direct taxation toward indirect taxation whilst making noises about the ‘progressive’ tax system, masks the dismantling of public institutions that –however imperfectly and unevenly- guarantee social solidarity and maintain living standards for the majority. This dismantling is real and ongoing, as this graph based on predicted IMF data shows:
This destruction of the social wage –undertaken whilst profits are protected- is masked by the emphasis on charitable giving and on volunteer activities, on the protection of ‘the most vulnerable’, instead of guarantees of social rights enforced by the state. In short: charity not rights.
Why is this important? Because the annual budget pageantry is nearly upon us. In it, various civil society groups –prominent charities among them- will make their submissions, in which they will outline their alternatives to the anticipated government approach (within the parameters set by the Troika, of course) and in many cases try to reverse or prevent cuts in their statutory funding. Eminent figures from the charity world will cite the need to protect the ‘most vulnerable’. Unions will complain about the absence of ‘fairness’.
These submissions will make no difference, as ever, apart from conferring legitimate authority on the government to embark on its latest round of cuts.
However, even within such a narrow frame, there is still room for public discontent to undermine the government’s position –which will broadly mirror that of the Troika and the German government, no matter what the macho posturing of government ministers might suggest in the weeks ahead.
This is where the ‘progressive’ aspect to fiscal ‘correction’ comes in: as a propaganda weapon that marries lying about economics with the morality of charity. How can you oppose our budget when it is fairness itself! Our latest progressive budget is intended to protect the most vulnerable!
The Department of Finance is often portrayed by right-wing propaganda as the permanent government of faceless bureaucrats and unaccountable mandarins. Such propaganda is aimed at discrediting public institutions in the eyes of the public, in order for the logic of the private sector and the ‘entrepreneur’ to be given free rein.
Whilst it pays to be wise to this strategy, it is important to stress, as shown above, the Department of Finance is not some neutral entity operating as an instrument of the will of the people that simply does whatever the executive tells it. Rather, it shares an ideological world-view with finance sector bosses, privateers and charity-mongers, who are often one and the same.
The fact that it is quite happy to blur fairly standard economic distinctions, in order to launder a political programme of dispossession, means that the public proposal of solutions in strictly economic terms, which is what these budget submissions are all about, count for less than nothing.
The model being imposed on Irish society is for ever-growing swathes of society to contribute out of their increasing poverty to the increasing abundance of the few. It is a model that depends on hierarchies that cover their trail through appeals to charity and fairness.
Either the model is exposed for what it is, or its hold will be one of devastation.