The 'crisis of bigness'

Our third week back since the recess began for me with a question to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald, where I emphasised the need for greater State investment in early childhood care and education. “I realise that money is scarce and the Minister is constrained, but she will know that a report by the OECD in 2009 showed that we spend a lower percentage on the education of children under six than any other country in Europe. It is a fact of life that we have underestimated the importance of investment in children at the earliest stages. Even if the overall spend cannot change, we need to consider rebalancing spending with a view to greater investment in children in the early years. As the Minister admitted, all the research shows that such spending is the most productive of all. Every euro spent on children under six years of age saves the State €8 in the long term. That is dramatic. Surely it would be a great investment on the part of the State to spend more money on the early years.”

Aside from the social benefits, the one-year State support at present in the form of a free pre-school year is still just 15 hours a week. To add to that, parents are already in a difficult place financially, yet child care in Ireland is among the most expensive in Europe. We put the lowest funding into it of any country in Europe and the costs are among the highest. I should add that I find Minister Fitzgerald impressive and she is certainly interested in giving greater State support for early childhood education. It remains to be seen, however, if her enthusiasm will be matched by those in her government with money.

Next up was the Technical Group’s Private Member’s motion on the need for job creation. Here is an extract from my speech:

“I am fairly certain that the Minister understands that business requires investment and stimulus if it is to thrive, that is its nature. I have been in business for over 30 years and I know it is difficult to function without access to money. We all agree that the lack of jobs is a major problem. When I hear the Government say that one of its primary aims is to create jobs, I am glad to hear it. I cannot see how austerity will create jobs, and if we continue being dictated to by Europe, I do not think things will change much. We all know that unemployment causes huge social problems and that we get a poor economic return from it. There are problems with it right across the board. The Government’s initiative of reducing VAT for the catering industry gave it a big boost. I can tell the Minister that from having the wine bars. It has been a huge help in the past few months and it has really made a difference. That stimulus measure is to be welcomed because it is positive, but the general theme from the Government and the previous Government has been the opposite. Austerity is the opposite to stimulus and investment.

A fellow called Dave Kohlbeck asked to meet me recently. He has a company called Cleanair Products Limited. He initially worked for a multinational company so he has access to export markets. He is into anti-allergy bedding, which sounds unusual, but seemingly there is a good market for it. It helps with dust mite allergies, asthma and other sinus problems. He came up with a business plan. All he needed was a loan of €40,000 and he promised to employ six people in the first year and ten people within three years. He went to the credit union first, thinking it would be his best bet, and it was really impressed. It said that it really liked his business plan but the regulator has stopped it giving money to businesspeople for the moment. He told me that some credit unions are being allowed to do that but some are not. I do not understand that and I have not had a chance to look into it. Next, he went to AIB and Bank of Ireland, but they could not even tell him why they were refusing him. That will not be a shock to any of us, because we know the banks are more or less closed when it comes to lending to business. He went to the South-East Enterprise Platform Programme and the people there were positive and helpful, but they had no money to give him. All the avenues are closed to him. I do not know what he is going to do. He is putting the small amount of savings he had from his last job into trying to put his company on a level where he can look ahead and start to develop the business. He has invested his own money in it, but he needs the €40,000 to get it off the ground and make it work. I do not see how the country will recover if we do not help people like this guy, who is prepared to stick his neck out, be entrepreneurial and go for it. He is full of beans and really energetic. The State has to see that it is in its interests to give such people a leg up.

Unfortunately, many people are suffering because of the austerity they are experiencing, especially the less well off in society, who are certainly feeling the most pain. I understand the Government’s actions are being dictated very much by European policy, but it can make some decisions. Sadly, it has decided to accept lock, stock and barrel what the Europeans are throwing at us. I have always been pro-European, but I have been following what is happening in Europe very closely for the past few years and I am not so sure any more. Europe was a great thing for us, but I am not sure that will continue. I am not convinced it will survive in its current form because it has become so big and powerful - it has become problematic and unmanageable. Listening to what the Germans have to say, I think they are coming to the same conclusion.

I will read from a good article by Paul Kingsnorth in The Guardian on 25 September. He looks back on a book called ‘The Breakdown of Nations’ written 50 years ago by a fellow named Kohr:

Drawing from history, Kohr demonstrated that when people have too much power, under any system or none, they abuse it. The task, therefore, was to limit the amount of power that any individual, organisation or government could get its hands on. The solution to the world’s problems was not more unity but more division. The world should be broken up into small states, roughly equivalent in size and power, which would be able to limit the growth and thus domination of any one unit. Small states and small economies were more flexible, more able to weather economic storms, less capable of waging serious wars, and more accountable to their people. Not only that, but they were more creative...

Bigness, predicted Kohr, could only lead to more bigness, for “whatever outgrows certain limits begins to suffer from the irrepressible problem of unmanageable proportions”. Beyond those limits it was forced to accumulate more power in order to manage the power it already had. Growth would become cancerous and unstoppable, until there was only one possible endpoint: collapse.

We have now reached the point that Kohr warned about over half a century ago: the point where “instead of growth serving life, life must now serve growth, perverting the very purpose of existence”. Kohr’s “crisis of bigness” is upon us and, true to form, we are scrabbling to tackle it with more of the same: closer fiscal unions, tighter global governance ... more economic growth. Big, it seems, is as beautiful as ever to those who have the unenviable task of keeping the growth machine going.

This shouldn’t surprise us. It didn’t surprise Kohr, who, unlike some of his utopian critics, never confused a desire for radical change with the likelihood of it actually happening. Instead, his downbeat but refreshingly honest conclusion was that, like a dying star, the gigantist global system would in the end fall in on itself, and the whole cycle of growth would begin all over again.”