From Socialist Voice, February 2010

Falling into the trap of discussing statistics without politics

The current crisis of capitalism has heightened the discussion of statistics and comparisons about conditions in different countries. The availability of statistics with the development of the web makes them more readily available to all. We can call up UN reports, World Health Reports, ILO statistics and EU comparison data very quickly. National statistics are also easily accessed. Economists appearing on television and radio, and in the media generally, will quote figures from these reports and from financial data from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the central banks to justify their arguments.
     However, it is a mistake to rely for one’s arguments on these statistics without critically analysing the whole political environment that surrounds them.
     The most commonly used statistics at the moment are those surrounding the minimum wage and Ireland’s so-called lack of competitiveness. This is the stick used by globalisation economists to say that Irish workers are too well paid, or that the unemployed have higher social welfare.
     The statistics used are EU country comparisons. Firstly, this narrow analysis between EU countries is the stick used in different member-states to beat down the conditions in all states.
     Secondly, it doesn’t take into account the different supports that exist in each country in health, in housing, and in state service generally. Even the currency difference with Britain is rarely mentioned when Irish wages are being compared with those in Britain or in the North.
     I have yet to hear anyone on television mention, when making comparisons, that the prescription charge for drugs is nominal in Britain, whereas it is prohibitively expensive in Ireland. With regard to wage and social welfare rates, welfare supports other than the actual direct payment are higher in the whole package received by recipients in Britain, and the cost of housing is also much lower there, to mention but a few differences.
     Trade-union panellists have been slow to point out these differences when they get the rare opportunity to appear on television. The mantra that the economy is getting back on its feet, with the use of national data to show decreases in debt, belies the conditions that working people now find themselves living through. Comparisons of national debt and the economy’s gross domestic product and other national statistics are fraught with the same distortion of the real state of affairs.
     We are not alone in this attack on the people. The Greek and Spanish people are now being whiplashed by EU diktats, and the French working class are maligned for wanting conditions that they fought for throughout the twentieth century. Each country’s workers are being berated because they do not compare with the other. This race to the bottom not only in wages but in access to social services, leisure and retirement is a result of the EU Commission’s policy of globalisation in the interests of international capitalism.
     Instead of trying to justify this statistical comparison or that we should be concentrating on the political issues. Statistics are a very necessary and useful tool, but they must be used in conjunction with an overall political analysis; and agreeing to conduct an argument in the media that does not allow discussion of the bigger political picture is falling into a trap set by right-wing presenters and journalists.
     Recent current affairs programmes have concentrated on comparisons in narrow areas to the exclusion of what is really happening in our society. Such statistics are used in attacks on working people by the likes of the right-wing Russian-American economist Constantin Gurdgiev—much loved by the Government’s media department, RTE. This UCD and Trinity lecturer and former editor of Business and Finance is the most extreme neo-liberal economist in the country. He trained at Johns Hopkins University in the United States and is a member of the American Academy of Political Science, the American Economic Association, and the American Finance Association. He is also a consultant to Irish banks and brokers. He is a founder and director of the “Open Republic Institute” (and has the audacity to call it “Ireland’s only independent economic and social policy think-tank”) and edits its quarterly magazine, Open Republic.
     There couldn’t be a more anti-union economist in the country. His blog, “True Economics,” is another way of getting his message across, as if he doesn’t have enough ways already.
     These are the commentators that trade unionists are up against, and as their remit is to defend their members in specific situations, usually they are constrained in discussing the broader political issues; but it is time to fight back and broaden the discussion, or else decide that the presenter and format are so biased that appearing on a particular programme is to promote a negative outcome.
     Rather than being on the defensive about small differences in wage rates with workers in other countries, and justifying the present rates of pay, the argument should be based on the increasing superprofits of transnational corporations and on the increasing inequality of wealth accumulation by a small elite capitalist class around the world.
     The low rate of corporate tax and the grants and tax breaks given to transnationals is another area that is neglected in discussions of the cost of production and profitability.
     As long as countries such as Ireland depend on foreign capital, its workers will be subjected to economists advocating the lowering of wages and working conditions. International solidarity with workers in other countries who are fighting to maintain and improve their wages, working conditions and social services will benefit Irish workers.
     Looking to the European Union to solve the dire economic crisis is flying in the face of all the facts about what the European Union is about, and the direction it is taking in social policy.
     We certainly need statistics, but we must not fall into the trap of discussing only the few that suit Government policies and should insist on broadening the debate to include what is really happening to people everywhere for the benefit of the few.

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