Saturday, 11 June 2011

MABS and the crisis

So the cousin's in trouble. He lost his job, couldn't meet the mortgage, got a loan from a moneylender, then a bigger loan. Now they're battering on the door looking for their money back.
"Look at all that expensive tech stuff you have," they say, peering over his shoulder. "You could sell that computer. What about those carpentry tools?"
"But I need them to run my life! I can't make a proper living without my tools, and the computer and internet connection get me customers!"
"Tough. Nobody forced you to borrow. Now it's time to pay us back."
This is the position Ireland is in with the IMF and the ECB: the moneylenders are peering past us into the hallway, looking for things we can sell to pay them back: our land (they want us to sell off the forest land that is 7% of the country's territory); our utilities (we already, disastrously, sold the phone company - now they want the electricity and gas, and even the water we drink, to be sold to private operators, greedy grinders for profit).
If the cousin came to you for advice, what would you suggest? Not selling the computer, I suspect. You'd take him to MABS, the money advice and budgeting service (not yet privatised itself...), and the MABS advisers would sit down with him and make out a budget plan to help him to order his money affairs.
They would tell him to talk to his lenders and make an arrangement to pay off his debts more slowly. The lenders will accept this, MABS would say, because they know it's more reliable.
Work is what is going to get you out of this problem, MABS would say. Take anything you can - a nixer painting the neighbour's house, a quick programming job setting up a database for your local school's scheduling of classes.
Grow your own vegetables: it won't get you an immediate result, but it will give you relaxing exercise, a way to think things through without being panicky, and then in the height of summer it will cut your food bills, and you can actually give something back to the friends who are helping you, with gifts of home-grown stuff.
If you have a skill, you can offer night classes to the same local schools and share your skill with others.
What MABS wouldn't say is "sell your tools to pay the moneylenders".
The European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund are also telling the government to cut wages at the bottom - to make our poorer people even poorer - but to maintain salaries at the top.
This is a disastrous plan for the country.
I loved the Celtic Tiger - oh, sure, the arrogance of a small country that has suddenly got rich was embarrassing, but that would have passed. But I spent the Tiger years doing interviews for business magazines, mostly talking to tech entrepreneurs.
I loved it when someone running a company said "My dad was a trucker, my mam cleaned houses. But when the free education came in I was able to stay in school, and I turned out to have a real gift for programming and management."
This is something that was seldom heard in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s or 1980s. Then, if your family was poor, you stayed poor. Because poverty smothers creativity. Poor people don't have the leisure or sense of relaxation - or the sense of ultimate possibility - that allows their children to dream, and to have the facilities to fulfil their dream.
I was in a suburb last night, an area that used to be dodgy when I was growing up. During the Tiger, it was gentrified, and the remains of this still show, in some beleaguered streets with gardens of penstemons and ceanothus and irises. But the sense of terror has returned. Turn a corner and the next street is filthy, with a group of teenagers jeering at the bus stop, a line of takeaways, and - I jumped to one side to avoid it - a syringe with blood clotted in the mouth lying on the street.
A wide division in salaries creates resentment and a dull anger that stops people working. "If that talentless swine is paid €300,000 a year and I'm paid €80 a shift, why should I bother working," people think. Even if they do work hard, out of pride in their trade, their simmering fury poisons the workplace.
(Even in the Celtic Tiger years, exploitation was rife, and not always at the bottom: for instance, one newspaper bare-facedly paid its casual sub-editors as "suppliers" to avoid PRSI and tax.)
In societies where incomes are relatively equal, there is not this resentment. You're valued for your skill rather than your earnings.
Ireland needs MABS thinking, but at the moment, the government is obeying the moneylenders' every instruction. If we look forward 20 years, what kind of country do we want?
The ECB and the IMF would like a privatised state run by capital for capital, with money as the motivator for all work.
I would prefer a country with relatively level salaries, where the bus driver takes enormous pride in his job, as does the surgeon and the childminder - and it's pride in the job itself, because the money is not an issue: because we all earn enough to live well.
Surely it's time for the government to take the MABS approach?

1 comment:

JJ Toner (euclid) said...

There was always this divide between rich and poor, the workers and the jobless, and the "professions" and the rest of us. Making employees work under contract is nothing new; it's been going on for years. You're right, of course, but MABS can only do so much. With mortgage arrears and 2 additional massive loans things are probably too far gone for MABS to offer any viable way forward.