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Some months ago I was listening to a discussion on radio. An economist was required in an atmosphere of good humour to admit that he might not be impartial, that he might have an interest, that his views might be conditioned by personal circumstances. The suspicion? Well, that was the source of the humour. He had to come clean on his relationship to Mary O’Rourke, the popular Fianna Fáil politician; he admitted to being her nephew! Perhaps this was going too far but it is generally commendable that people who take part in public discussion be open and explicit about possible determinants of their views. We consider it normal, for example, to ask a member of a TV studio audience who offers an opinion, if he or she is a member of a political party. There is however one, glaring, secretive exception.

The topic which dominates political discussion in Ireland today is incomes policy, how much people can be paid in these straitened times. This breaks down into two themes: reducing wages to competitive levels and reducing public sector pay to reflect a greatly reduced tax take.

Many of those targeted for pay cuts say that they cannot afford any further reduction in pay. Most of those talking in the media about policy enjoy salaries that are multiples of the average wage. Unlike party membership or having a political auntie, salary is kept secret or not considered a possible determinant of argument, a vested interest. There has always been a quiet and polite reluctance to divulge or discuss a person’s income, the matter being considered strictly private. The history of political communication, democratization and progress itself can be traced through issues being dragged out of the private realm into the light of politics. It is time that public debate took another intrusive step.

Consider how newspapers frequently place a person’s age in brackets or how TV identifies, describes and classifies a contributor with an informative caption under their picture. Now, consider a debate about pay in which contributors’ incomes appeared in brackets and in captions. If Josephine Bloggs, Economist with A, Professor of B, Economics Editor at C, Director of D or CEO of E, appeared to argue pay policy with her salary clearly shown, a more open, honest debate could take place.

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2 Comments

  1. Colum,

    That is an interesting suggestion. Of course us T.Ds have our salary and expenses published quite regularly following freedom of information requests although I think the Oireachtas should do it as a matter of course. There is one aspect to the media driven debate and that is they ask why don’t you volunteer a pay cut. Voluntary pay cuts don’t address the issue of too high salaries. They must be capped (a policy of the Labour Party in relation to public sector salaries). Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett of the Equality Trust (www.equalitytrust.org) are on the same page as you on this issue and had this letter published in the guardian last week to which I attach the link:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/nov/11/gap-between-rich-and-poor
    They are the authors of ‘The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better’

  2. One of my favourite quotes is Marx’s ‘The culture of any society is the culture of the ruling class’. This also extends to the idea of debate. If I might rephrase Marx ‘the parameters of any debate in society are the parameters of the ruling class’. It always amused me to hear More McDowell pontificate about how people should adjust their wage expectations when he was in a safe sinecure in a public funded University. It is slightly unfair to pick on him but he is a great example of the economist class


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