Still Writing Out the Resistance: The Irish Times and the Household Charge

Critical Media Review on the Irish Times continued  de-politicisation of the household tax controversy.

In a previous article critical media review looked at the framing of the household charge controversy in the Irish Times and Irish Independent concluding that much of the coverage has  written out the anti household tax campaign. In doing so they have effectively written out political discussion and debate focusing on either technical issues or mistakes of the Government. Today in the Irish Times a rather bizarre piece completely omitting any political considerations continues this theme.  The piece begins with:

DESPITE BEING imposed by a Government with healthy polling figures, at a time when every Irish citizen is aware of the financial challenges facing the State, almost half of all Irish householders have avoided paying the €100 household charge to date.

A number of issues here: primarily the authors conceive of politics as the game of polling, and presumably if polls are up all is well in the world. Politics presumably does not go beyond this representation of representation and certainly should be kept off the streets. Secondly they seem to have a complete unawareness of the financial position of much of the Irish working and middle classes. At the same time they also omit the wider political implications of the boycott.Thirdly and  most incredibly the authors state:

Without any large-scale protests, a near majority quietly and almost peacefully failed to pay a tax. Even in the worst days of the 1980s, this level of tax avoidance was unthinkable.

We can only surmise that the (now slightly embarrassed?) authors wrote the article before last Saturday’s large demonstration at the Labour Party conference in Galway; a protest which ended with 1,000 protesters breaking through police lines. For  the first time in the Republic of Ireland pepper spray was used by the Police (cue media bias on protester violence here).

He obviously didn’t get the ‘no protests have happened’ memo

However they must have written the article since the large scale protest outside the Fine Gael conference, and the literally hundreds of local campaign meetings and protests involving tens of thousands over the last few months. The anti household tax campaign has been the biggest national political campaign in the Irish Republic for decades. This lack of political awareness is especially poor given that the article was written by academics specialising in regulation and governance in one of Ireland’s most prominent universities.

We can only  speculate that they are either political novices or have chosen to omit the campaign for ideological reasons. The fact that they use the term ‘tax avoidance‘ rather than the term ‘boycott‘ would certainly betray an ideological bent. However that is not to say it is impossible for one to be both ideologically bent and politically unaware at the same time.

The large scale protest that didn’t happen outside the FG conference

But the bizarre elements of the article only begins. The authors ask:

Why the massive failure to comply? Are we witnessing a disaffected public flexing its combined “muscle” in response to a Government imposing more and more austerity measures on the average family?

And answers:

Lessons from regulatory governance – the study of what makes people choose to follow or break rules – suggest otherwise.

And now begins the entire de-politicising of the entire issue. The authors offer a number of reasons why people have not paid, in doing so the authors offer absolutely no evidence of any kind, relying on what can only be described as pop-academic suggestions.  Firstly they tell us of an experiment by ‘behavioural’ economists:

 Seeing other people “get away with murder” can create a “coalition of the unwilling”. Behavioural economists have conducted experiments where individuals work together to win cash prizes. Participants could work together to build a bigger pot to divide, or free load on the work of others. In these simulated games they showed that most people are willing to go to great lengths to see cheaters punished – even to the point of giving up their own winnings just to make sure another person doesn’t get away with more than their share.

And then jump immediately to the conclusion:

People preferred to join those not paying the household charge than to see others get away without paying it.

Behavioural psychology is in itself quite controversial and in no way universally accepted but even leaving this aside; the idea that some individuals (most likely students)  taking part in simulated games to win cash prizes, somehow equates to people suffering in the fifth year of austerity measures, (while watching the wealthy being bailed out and become wealthier) is quite frankly ridiculous and has no scientific validity. They also betray an extremely narrow conception of why people don’t pay. It is not people acting collectively or even individually in protest (or  being unable to afford the charge)  but not paying  so as to ‘not see others got away with it’.  Collective solidarity seems to be anathema to this line of thinking.

Second, be transparent about your figures – but do it afterwards. Being told that you’re the last person on your street not to pay the charge is very powerful, but knowing you’re the first doesn’t rush you. Everyone knows there is strength in numbers, and the Government kept telling us how big those numbers were. If you are going to give constant updates about your figures, you had better hope they are on your side.

A certain hint of authoritarian and propagandistic thinking here. Surely not in the paper of record?

Third, social pressure matters. While many people pay their taxes because they think it is a patriotic duty or they wish to contribute to the State, others do so because of the social stigma attached to non-payment. The Revenue Commissioners figured this out a long time ago and started publishing lists of tax avoiders in newspapers.

Hearing your neighbours gossiping about your dirty laundry can be much more effective than a fine. By failing to make a strong case for why the charge was necessary, the Government failed to bring this social pressure to bear.

This is entirely consistent with the ‘dole scrounger’ line of thinking. Or better known as blaming the victim. The article certainly is starting to betray an authoritarian line now, which continues with:

Finally, a threat needs to be credible. When it was a week before the deadline and three out of four people hadn’t registered for the charge it was possible to believe that non-payers would not really be punished.

After writing an article dripping in bias they offer a little faux-objectivity:

Whether the household charge is a good idea or not  it’s clear that the Government really didn’t give it the best chance for success.

Finally they finish with their entire position and the reason for the article:

While it’s important that people are taxed at fair levels, the response to the household charge shows that it’s equally important that money is collected in a way that makes people confident that everyone will pay their fair share and if they don’t that they’ll be punished for it. To mistake technical weaknesses for mass revolt would also be an example of policy failure.

Let’s repeat that last line to make sure we get it:

 To mistake technical weaknesses for mass revolt would also be an example of policy failure.

Now repeat after me:  There is no opposition, there is no political resistance, there is no opposition, there is no political resistance, there is no opposition….

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2 thoughts on “Still Writing Out the Resistance: The Irish Times and the Household Charge

  1. A letter I wrote in reply to the IT piece but which wasn’t published –
    Sir
    Dan Hayden and Colin Scott (‘Why People Avoided Paying Household Charge’ 16th April) should get out of their academic ivory tower and talk to some real people if they want to answer the question as to why almost a million households have decided to put themselves in conflict with the government by refusing to register for and pay the household tax.

    Instead of presenting any real analysis of what is by any stretch of the imagination a massive rejection of government policy they start off by insulting those who decided not to register and go on to present a hotch-potch of half-baked theories which seem designed to do anything other than admit the truth – people made a conscious political decision not to pay.

    First the insult. “Even in the worst days of the 1980s,” they claim, “this level of tax avoidance was unthinkable.” As was evidenced from the Beef Tribunal, the tax amnesty of the early 1990s, the Ansbacher scandal and many other examples, tax evasion and avoidance was indeed rife in the 1980s. Not by ordinary workers however who throughout that decade paid inordinately high levels of taxation while many at the top of society adopted a ‘tax is for the little people’ attitude.

    30 years later the battle for taxation justice continues. While ordinary workers face, on top of income tax, Universal Social Charge, pension levies, increased levels of VAT etc etc figures from the Revenue Commissioners show that the number of high earners (€100,000+) in Irish society has increased since the onset of the recession while the effective tax rate they pay has fallen.

    In addition, Central Bank figures released in May 2011 show that in 2009 the number of people in Ireland with investable assets over $1 million increased by 10% to 18,100. The number of people with investable assets over $30 million increased by 18 to 181. These figures also showed that there is currently about €120 billion held in hard currency and bank deposits in the Irish economy.

    So those that have taken a stance on the issue of the household tax have done so not because they want to ‘avoid tax’ but because they are already paying more than their share of tax and because they object to being bled dry in the interest of paying the gambling debts of international financiers while the wealthy get off scot free. But messrs Hayden and Scott prefer to gratuitously insult people by referring to them as tax ‘avoiders’ attempting to associate compliant taxpayers with the tax criminals of Ansbacher and offshore accounts.

    Interestingly an extra 3% income tax on all those earning over €100million would bring in €540 million per annum – 3½ times what the household tax would raise if everybody paid it.

    But why let facts get in the way of the theory!

    And despite all the theorising in the article about ‘why’ people have ‘avoided paying the household tax’ the glaring truth cannot be faced up to. The one thing that I can agree with the authors on is the contention that ‘Everyone knows there is strength in numbers’. And people are organising in huge numbers to resist for exactly that reason.
    They have decided not to pay and they have decided to organise with their neighbours, families and workmates to ensure that the government is virtually powerless to impose this tax on a united people.

    It’s not because they can’t switch on their computers or don’t know their way to their council offices. People have made a conscious political decision not to pay. In doing so, they have discovered that there is indeed strength in numbers and that as a people we no longer have to accept the government’s and/or international finance’s austerity agenda.

    It probably doesn’t fit into the theory but the fact is that people are awakening to their sense of power. It will change the face of how politics in Ireland is done.

    Yours etc
    Gregor Kerr
    Dun Laoghaire
    Co. dublin

    • Sorry – paragraph 7 should of course read:-
      “Interestingly an extra 3% income tax on all those earning over €100,000 would bring in €540 million per annum – 3½ times what the household tax would raise if everybody paid it.

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