Irish Economy
George Orwell, bullshit and 2015 New Year resolution for Irish Government
By Michael Hennigan, Finfacts founder and editor
Dec 18, 2014 - 7:13 AM

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Wolfgang Schäuble, German finance minister, likely exchanging pleasantries about the official end of Ireland's international bailout on Sunday, Dec 15, 2013 at the Eurogroup meeting of Eurozone finance ministers, Brussels, Dec 09, 2013. There were however no gifts forthcoming for the Irish cargo cultists.

"In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. [ ] Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. [ ] The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. [ ] All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. [ ] But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought" - George Orwell, 1946.

When the majority of the output of the Irish Government's publicity machine is bullshit - exaggeration, distortions, the ignoring of challenges/ weaknesses in published reports, the misuse of distorted economic data, and a general disregard for the facts - then it's time to take George Orwell's advice and in 2015 try to restore public confidence with a respect for the truth.

In January 2014 there was some pertinent New Year advice for Enda Kenny, taoiseach (prime minister): "The shadowy world of spin doctoring and media manipulation is no longer a strategy that can ensure political survival. Nor is a strategy that protects political leaders from any form of meaningful public engagement on issues of importance.

Ducking and diving away from tough questions and refusing interviews can only get you so far.

While Enda Kenny will never be a man of the people, he does have an opportunity to set himself apart from the tainted reputation the Irish public now tends to paint all politicians with."

This advice came from Paul Allen, founder Paul Allen & Associates, a Dublin public relations firm.

A year after the December 2013 departure of the international bailout troika from their pro-consul role in Dublin, Kenny's government is in poor shape following the incompetent handling of a number of issues including the charging for water use and in common with the public distrust of traditional politics in other European countries, more bullshit is not the solution.

Bullshit

Prof John Kay wrote in his Financial Times column in 2005: "When George Orwell wrote his magisterial essay, on 'Politics and the English Language,' in 1946, public bullshit was political bullshit. There is still a lot of that about...But the worst abuses of the language now come from business people and management gurus."

Kay said that the most powerful enemy of bullshit is ridicule, and the most powerful ally of bullshit is the corporate conformity that makes such ridicule impossible.

In 2005 an almost two decades-old paper [pdf] by Harry G. Frankfurt (b. 1929), a renowned moral philosopher and emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton University, was published as a book with the title "On Bullshit."

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit," Prof Frankfurt began and argued that bullshit is a bigger enemy of the truth than lies while some bullshit is the truth.

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction [ ] Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit."

Bullshit pollutes a lot more than politics as Prof Kay noted.

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts,” Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, said in a 1966 talk to US high school science teachers.

Feynman's warning to be sceptical of experts was at a time before the proliferation of pundits in the modern media.

A study reported in Prof Philip Tetlock’s 2005 book 'Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?' showed that the average expert was found to be only slightly more accurate than a dart-throwing chimpanzee. Many experts would have done better if they had made random guesses. The Greek poet Archilochus had observed about 2,700 years ago: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Isaiah Berlin in his famous 1953 essay “The Fox and the Hedgehog” contrasted hedgehogs that “relate everything to a single, central vision” with foxes who “pursue many ends connected…if at all, only in some de facto way.” This was an illustration of specialists and generalists at work.

Chapter 1: Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? Philip E. Tetlock

Louis Menand, an author and Harvard academic, wrote in 'The New Yorker' in 2005: "Our system of expertise is completely inside out: it rewards bad judgments over good ones." In a review of Tetlock's book he wrote, "that people who make prediction their business - people who appear as experts on television, get quoted in newspaper articles, advise governments and businesses, and participate in punditry roundtables -  are no better than the rest of us. When they’re wrong, they’re rarely held accountable, and they rarely admit it, either. They insist that they were just off on timing, or blindsided by an improbable event, or almost right, or wrong for the right reasons. People who follow current events by reading the papers and newsmagazines regularly can guess what is likely to happen about as accurately as the specialists whom the papers quote."

Kenny and bullshit

Enda Kenny gave a national broadcast address in December 2011 on the economy and he said in a striking example of bullshit: "Let me say this to you all: you are not responsible for this crisis."

Aliens from Space were, or nefarious foreigners?

Finfacts noted in June 2014 that Ireland remained the top debtor (public + private) of the western world.

Two years before in June 2012 following a summit of European leaders, Kenny was responsible for the greatest bullshit of all when he claimed that there had been an agreement by Euro Area leaders to retrospectively mutualise Ireland's sovereign bailout of Irish banks that cost €64bn.

Enda Kenny, taoiseach (prime minister), claimed an EU agreement was "a seismic shift" in EU policy.

“What was deemed to be unachievable has now become a reality and that principle has been established and decided and agreed upon by the council, by the heads of government,” he said in a comment to the media in Brussels.

“This is a massive breakthrough for Ireland and it changes the game in terms of our bank debt,” Eamon Gilmore, then tánaiste (deputy prime minister), told RTÉ radio. “This deal will allow the country to recover much faster,” he said.

Michael Noonan, finance minister, said: “This [deal] takes this further in terms of policy and the intention now is to separate certain bank debt completely from the sovereign balance sheet.”

The Irish ministers, with good experience in spin, appeared to have believed that by claiming that an actual deal had been done, would put pressure on Germany.

None of them named an EU leader who had made the commitment.

One argument Irish leaders didn't make was that  after stripping out distortions from the multinational sector, including tax avoidance, Ireland is among the poor countries of the Euro Area:

German per capita standard of living highest in Europe; Ireland below EU and Euro Area average

The communiqué [pdf] of the June 29, 2012 European summit, reads:

We affirm that it is imperative to break the vicious circle between banks and sovereigns. The Commission will present Proposals on the basis of Article 127(6) for a single supervisory mechanism shortly. We ask the Council to consider these Proposals as a matter of urgency by the end of 2012. When an effective single supervisory mechanism is established, involving the ECB, for banks in the euro area the ESM could, following a regular decision, have the possibility to recapitalize banks directly. This would rely on appropriate conditionality, including compliance with state aid rules, which should be institution specific, sector-specific or economy-wide and would be formalised in a Memorandum of Understanding. The Eurogroup will examine the situation of the Irish financial sector with the view of further improving the sustainability of the well-performing adjustment programme. Similar cases will be treated equally."

There was no commitment about retrospective payments and nor was there a suggestion of an agreement that the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) rescue fund, would in future recapitalize banks.

A possibility is not a commitment or agreement.

The distortions in the national accounts - services exports of €45bn related to Double Irish tax schemes; overseas contract manufacturing; results of brass plate type operations with over 600,000 foreign staff etc. - provide fertile material for bullshit.

See the box in this article for more background on this issue.

Kenny and his ministers - Richard Bruton, enterprise minister, is the most perssitent bulshitter in the Government - have a choice of being honest with the people on both the good news and continuing challenges.

Don't just brag about the official unemployment rate when the broad rate is 21% including over 80,000 people in public schemes and 124,000 part-timers who are seeking  full-time work.

Analysis: Irish full-time employee numbers up 14,000 in year; Broad jobless rate at 21%

Irish Live Register + public scheme numbers in November at 451,000 - 21% of workforce

There is distrust of politicians for a reason and more lying and more bullshit is not the way to regain that lost trust.


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