Category Archives: politics

Nation of knockers

No, this isn’t a post about mammary glands. I was listening to the Newstalk repeats last night when coming home with my colleague Stephen Garvey. The replay was Eamonn Keane’s show and most of the conversation centred around the new home of the UL president Professor Don Barry. I’m of the opinion that Eamonn is a windup merchant who makes some good points but isn’t interested in balanced reportage. It’s an opinion piece, like George Hook, Matt Cooper etc. This was no exception.

Why should any of us give a damn that the president of one of our universities is going to live in a state of the art modern home for the duration of his tenure? It’s owned by UL, it will be used by presidents of UL in the future and it was covered by a philanthropic donation. It is common in many of the best universities in Europe and the US that dean’s/presidents and in exceptional circumstances leading academic staff often occupy salubrious university owned accommodation. Such subsidies are a way of attracting and keeping top staff to occupy prestigious positions. UL have planned this for a while. Sure, I’ve had a salary cut that I’m angry about but that doesn’t mean I want everyone in Ireland to dwell on all the perceived injustices rather than getting on with creating world class universities with world class facilities.

To listen to the report you’d swear the UL president had been given a gift of 2 Million quid by the college and that there was something seedy about this rather banal transaction. It was even compared to FAS. This is patent nonsense. The high build costs are justified by the high quality of the construction and it’s planned longevity. The architecture won’t be to everybody’s taste but you can’t do anything good by pleasing everybody. Prof Barry is objectively doing an excellent job. You only have to see the quality of UL’s courses, the campus and the research in well chosen niches to understand it’s an excellent university. The debt of UL is minor and insignificant relative to the banks and the construction industry. Nobody’s kids are going to suffer because Don Barry was either paid a lot or lived in a nice house yet there’s a cult of lazy journalism looking for easy stories that sees such things hyped and dwelt upon. We actually need to spend more on our higher educational sector if we’re to become internationally credible, not less. Our spend on R&D is much smaller than Sweden, Korea or Finland as a % of GDP yet we want to brand ourselves as a knowledge economy. Lofty ambitions. Considering our small population we’re simply not doing enough to compete. We need to be positive and invest for the future. Some of this will involve recruiting academics for large salaries. Deal with it or we can all mope around, complaining the world is unfair and celebrating our mediocrity.

I have no involvement with UL and if I was concerned with sucking up to people in my blog then I’d have published a lot less posts.

Peace and Goodwill

A lasting memory I have of secondary school history lessons is the description of the 1914 Christmas truce during World War I. With subsequent study and a few pointers in the right direction from a friend of mine who’s a budding WWI historian I realised that my teacher had embellished the story somewhat. As, I suppose, history teachers in an all-male school are likely to do when dealing with a class of rowdy teenagers who are only pacified by talk of war.
This event has been romanticised and mythologised for 95 years. In spite of the debris the story has gathered with retelling the facts are inspirational. While retrenching for the new year push British and German soldiers on the front-line reduced their attacks until eventually a temporary truce was declared. What’s even more surprising is that the truce was preceded by gifts from either side including a chocolate cake which some German soldiers slipped into the British trenches. This was accompanied by a note suggesting a temporary ceasefire so the German troops “could celebrate their captain’s birthday”. The 1914 truce was repeated in 1915. The “Boy’s Own” story of the spontaneous football game between both sides is often recounted by football historians as demonstrating the power of sport to bring people together. I suppose somebody somewhere is busy writing a thesis about how the event shows how chocolate cake is a vital ingredient in building a lasting peace. I’m kidding but there’s no doubt that the event has proved culturally significant with experts, historians and clergy all suggesting differing and overlapping messages that we can take from the moments of kindness and sanity amidst one of mankind’s worst atrocities.

For me the most poignant aspect of the 2 Christmas day armistices was the opposition of many in the high command on British, French and German sides to the ceasefire and the orders to resume fighting or risk disciplinary action. In many respects, the spontaneous truces were based on a deepening sense of shared struggle between the opposing soldiers and their mutual distrust and disillusionment with their leaders who were safely ensconced in luxury around 30 miles behind the front line. Yeats put it extremely well in his 1919 poem – “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”

Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.

War and conflict are a constant in human history. Yet people fundamentally want peace. They want the dissipation of war, to go home to their loved ones and rebuild their lives. Perhaps, just perhaps, we don’t need war. That war is similar to an auto-immune disease where the body is tricked into attacking itself.

I’m sure some will disagree but in any war-like conflict I believe you can reduce the initiation of conflict to a policy decision, always accompanied by “heroic” rhetoric and justification. War is so abhorrent that it demands justification whether it’s by Kissinger’s or Obama’s. There’s nobody (especially not Nobel peace prize winners) who don’t comfort themselves with a “just war”. War is initiated by leaders at the cost of their followers. There is no just war, only a just defense of freedom.

For me, the best argument for pacifism and neutrality comes from a surprising but insightful source.

Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country. – Herman Goering (convicted war criminal)

Ring any bells? You can verify this as part of the actual transcript taken during the Nuremberg trials in 1946. See more here.
A detailed and eye-witness account of the armistice is available at the First World War Multimedia Archives.

While those reading this post are probably sitting at home in surroundings which are luxurious and, hopefully, peaceful there are many who will spend this Christmas in warzones fearing attack. Soldier or civilian, the gift they really want is peace. They trust their leaders to be just and wise. These are the gifts our leaders need most this Christmas time.

Knowledge Economy needs the 9’s

I quite like the movie the 9’s but this post has nothing really to do with that movie. It’s not a wide critique of the budget either. Although I do believe that there’s an emphasis on keeping banking lines of credit going that will prove unsustainable unless economic growth returns rapidly.
This post is to do with a knowledge economy. The problem with economies is that they’re made up of people. This is something that many commentators, journalists, politicians and, indeed, economists don’t seem to understand. That broad stroke economic measures occur in a social context.Beyond obvious financial effects, they affect lives, motivations, purpose and hence economic productivity.
Indeed severe economic measures of the kind we saw last Wednesday are similar to waging war. During Lenihan’s budget speech I was reminded of Sun Tzu’s Art of War and his description of the 5 factors that affect the outcome of a war.

These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.
The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger. (moral authority)
Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons. (future worldwide economic climate)
Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death. (our realistic financial context)
The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincererity, benevolence, courage and strictness. (the government)
By method and discipline are to be understood the marshaling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure. (society – including the public sector)
These five heads should be familiar to every general: he who knows them will be victorious; he who knows them not will fail.

The Chinese and Japanese still teach the Art of War in their business schools as they clearly understand that it’s a concise and highly insightful book about crisis management and leadership. It may be the best ever written. Consider that it references “moral law” in a time where the punishment for diobedience was swift execution.
In the 2010 budget Lenihan imposed a pay cut based on salaries within the public sector employees, across all grades. Apart from the cuts there was reference to investment priorities including science and technology. From his speech.

“Other key investment priorities in 2010 will include science, technology and innovation; promotion of environmental sustainability; implementation of green enterprise initiatives; housing and urban regeneration; the health sector; public transport and finishing the inter-urban motorways.”

This echoes the Taoiseach’s Smart Economy comments after the budget. “We need to settle the public finances with a view to developing a model for sustainable growth through the Smart Economy, going forward”
So you’d think that those in R&D in Ireland working on the so-called Smart Economy wouldn’t be attacked in the budget? Well you’d be wrong.
As the story points out that only R&D grants to foreign companies will be increased under the 2010 budget. Indeed when we take the cuts into account the overall investment in Science and Technology next year will be cut by 22 Million Euro. So we’re going to achieve the Smart Economy by spending less on Science and Technology than we have been spending, much less as a % of GDP than the Scandinavian countries, Israel, Korea and other genuinely smart economies? Thinking back to the 5 factors, the conditions on the earth suggest we won’t win this battle.
Heaven and Earth suggest that future savings required to pay billions of NAMA + national debt (same thing effectively!) interest next year will squeeze S&T funding more and lead to further cuts in our smart economy spending. We’re also helping to create a climate whereby the intellectual property smarts of the smart economy is more likely to be owned by foreign companies than indigenous ones. A dumb incentivisation programme is unlikely to produce a smart outcome.
So what about moral law and the commander? Well here comes the 9’s. By this I mean those on grade 9999 in the public sector. I’m one of these so I know a bit about this. Us 9’s negotiate our contract directly with our employer. Every contract researcher in a 3rd level university or research institute is on this grade. I’m not aware of any exceptions anyway.
Why do we negotiate our salaries directly? It’s because they’re based on project funding. The funding is approved by national organisations like Enterprise Ireland and European organisations like the EU’s 7th Framework Programme. Indeed as David McWilliam’s would probably point out I’m paid by German and French pensioners, mostly! We’re employed to work on specific projects. If the project ends and we don’t have future funding then our contracts aren’t renewed. This has happened to people I know. A fact of life which is dramatically different to our other PS counterparts.
So when considering the moral law it’s necessary to understand that an economic measure designed to cut the pay of public sector workers (again) will unfairly cut the pay of a group with the following characteristics:

  • No benchmarking
  • No increments
  • No bonuses
  • No over-time
  • The guarantee of weekend work without payment
  • No job security

The government has dispatched a memo through the dept of education in true jobsworthian fashion stating that legislation will be enacted to enable 9999 workers to have their terms of pay reduced without legal recourse. To be crude about this, we’re being screwed by association!
Perhaps we were all getting paid too much. I doubt it though as most researchers I know are paid less than their friends in industry and never got bonuses. Indeed, it’s a source of some annoyance to me that some friends who used to boast about their bonuses are leading the clamour for PS salaries to be reduced. The main reason why many of my colleagues have stayed or joined a research group is because there’s only 1 other tech employers in the Waterford area. ArcLabs and TSSG are a tech oasis in a region that successive governments have ignored. A high-tech economy won’t be built exclusively on call-centre jobs. What difference a University upgrade may have made, I don’t know…
Everyone recognises the need for Method and Discipline given our dire economic circumstances. Most PS workers I know are not suggesting PS reform wasn’t necessary but that its been done in a poor way. In a way that punishes the most dedicated as much as those who are less so. It’s reasonable in the current climate for my PS sector colleagues to work harder, get paid less for overtime, have less holidays and not get extra pay for doing tasks directly related to their job. Teachers getting paid for marking their own exams and supervising students are a particular irritation of mine but many of these payments were introduced in the context of extravagant expenditure and bonuses throughout Ireland. Let’s not demonise one group for being exuberant when everyone was.
That’s what’s been done however. Moral law should deliver unity of purpose. It further undermines moral authority when any measure is implemented through a strategy of division. Genuine and fair public sector reform was possible.This should have been tackled first and there’s much evidence to suggest that PS unions were willing to do so.
Back to the 9s. The 9s I know were deliberately conservative about their pay as overhead charges are our only way of building a buffer between us and the dole queue following the end of a research project. This isn’t a gravy train. Most 9s are paying a pension levy while some are not actually paying into the PS pension fund. Again the victims of an inequitable implementation of economic measures.
How are we contributing to the knowledge economy. Well, in Waterford alone the expertise and research helped sustain, at peak, another 60 tech jobs in campus companies on top of 150 research jobs, bringing millions of funding into Ireland and the South East region. When we started in research in 1996 there wasn’t any in the IoT sector.
There’s a lesson for the Innovation Task Force here too. Measures to incentivise innovation and growth MUST be sensitively implemented. Innovation, more than anything else, is historically produced by smart and driven individuals. It’s unlikely to be produced by disheartened individuals looking to emigrate and I now know plenty of those.
I addressed my concerns to the “commander”. Whatever bitching I’ve done about him I believe Lenihan to be an intelligent and courageous man who has found himself with a difficult brief in a party that must bear significant responsibility for the woes that have befallen Ireland Inc.
Therefore, I wrote the department of finance at the time of the pension levy explaining some of these concerns. The response was that our research jobs were attractive and we’d have to do our bit in these tough economic times. Actually, we don’t. We can follow the Irish tradition of leaving the country to find a better quality of life elsewhere. Our diaspora is an Irish social tragedy.
Whatever about the Economist magazine’s opinion on the austere budget I feel Sun Tzu would slash the smart economy claims to ribbons. The Smart Economy will only be achieved through smarter contextually-nuanced policies that are cognizant of his 5 simple rules. He who knows them not will fail…