What is the point of a politician?

30 04 2011

Three years on from the near collapse of global financial structures and the overwhelming narrative in current affairs today is the need to reduce the national deficit. To understand how this issue came to be the major political topic of our day you have to ask why have national deficits increased?

There are two answers to this question, the simple convenient one and the one that has a basis in economics. The nice simple message is that your nation has been living beyond its means, the public service can no longer be allowed waste taxpayers money on bloated inefficient services or giving money to those who don’t deserve it. To seriously discuss this theory you need to put your head into a particularly small cardboard box and work on the principle that a nation only has the ability to cut spending and no power to tax.

The real reason deficits have increased is the financial crisis has led to lower rates of economic growth. When an economy is growing, individuals and companies have higher incomes, the tax they pay is a percentage of this so if goes up its happy days for the government but if it goes down that tax income has to be sourced from somewhere else. For an example of this problem take the national accounts of Ireland. For years Ireland ran up large budgets surpluses as the economy boomed. The source of these healthy tax incomes were in large part from the construction industry which operated inside a textbook bubble. It burst and tax receipts fell through the floor, first as building sites fell quiet and then later as the rest of the economy began to starve without all that cash pouring out of the banks, into the construction industry and then making its way into hairdressers, restaurants and any other businesses cash registers.

These are the problems, what do our politicians propose we do? They tell us, they are too incompetent to manage public money. This is the most bizarre aspect of the current western political elites mindset. They have come to the conclusion that all the services governments are elected to provide to the people, are too complicated and unwieldy for mere politicians to run. They tell us, we as individuals are better equipped to ‘choose’ the right services for ourselves.

So that old perennial issue of privatisation is trumpeted as the solution. I will leave the merits of private versus public operation of services for another day, but from a politicians point of view it is the perfect sawdust to throw into the gap between their own ego and their lack of ideas. Let me explain, when politicians find their own vanity project, they will brag about the extent of their power and influence. Take the western intervention in Libya, the political rhetoric coming out of London, Paris and Washington is that of confident, assertive and principled politicians.

Handing over the responsibility of public services in effect means a politician can wash his hands of responsibility if bad news starts to seep out, however if good news happens to be the product of the scenario they can claim the credit for their ‘vision’, its a win win situation. Take the death of Jimmy Mubenga, in October 2010 the Angolan national was being deported from Britain. The Home Office in Britain contracts this work out to private security firms, in this case G4S. Jimmy Mubenga was escorted onto his flight at Heathrow and was then physically restrained by his escorts until he died after complaining that he could not breathe.

Jimmy Mubenga who died while in the custody of private company G4S

A scandal or a tragedy? It depends on who is responsible, if those escorting him were public servants then the politician at the top would have a duty to respond in some way. But this episode troubles nobody, apart from Mr Mubenga and his family. The Home Office can say this is an issue for the private company (but in more considered, sympathetic PR language), the private company can say they do not comment on individual cases but that they take their duty very seriously. Parliament, can say they will hold inquires which will take months to assemble and mean very little in end and the media is left in the middle of a circle of people all of whom point to the guy next to them.

Here lies the politicians very own get out jail free card, your hospital is unsafe and causing unnecessary deaths? You will have to speak with the private company or trust now running that hospital, the Minister for Health is no longer in charge. The grades at your independently set up school are well below average, thats an issue for the school board, the Minister for Education only looks after the Ministries stationary cupboard now.

If a politicians main aim now is to delegate their own responsibilities out, what is their purpose when this process is complete? Unless of course there is a mad and bad dictator ruling half of a major oil producing country. Your duly elected representatives suddenly find their power and principles, they were there all along, now off for some long overdue chest beating and legacy building.

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