Dentists and state workers clean up in Ireland as rest of us suffer economic crisis

October 15, 2009, 8:52 AM

Last week I brought my two 16-year-old sons (twins) for their six monthly dental check-up. Amazingly, in view of all the tooth destroying garbage they eat, no fillings were necessary.

So apart from the careful visual check which took three or four minutes each, they had their teeth thoroughly cleaned with that high speed gizmo that dentists use which took another five or six minutes each, and they were done. Relief all round.

Total time in the chair was about 10 minutes each. The cost? €80. And that's €80 each, not for the two of them.

At that rate (even allowing for coffee breaks) our Dublin dentist is on well over €300 an hour or €2,000 a day, or €10,000 ($14,000) a week.

On the way out I tried to pay the receptionist with a credit card. Sorry, cash or check only, I was told, and I got the distinct impression that cash was much preferred. The helpful receptionist even told me where the nearest ATM was!

Now you may think this story is mildly shocking, but in fact there is nothing remarkable about an experience like this in Dublin. Our dentist is no different to all the other members of the elite here, the professionals (doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc.), the senior civil servants, the managers of state organizations, the executives in private business and so on.

They all exist in a sort of parallel Ireland, where no bust has happened and they can go on charging the same level of fees, salaries and expenses they did at the height of the boom.

This elite layer at the top of Irish society used to include architects and construction engineers and even tradesmen like plumbers and carpenters, all of whom used to charge crazy fees during the boom.

The property crash has put a stop to that group, of course, but the rest of the elite here are still behaving like the Celtic Tiger is still roaring. A recent survey showed that most doctors, dentists and lawyers have not dropped their fees in spite of endless government warnings that we all need to cut back to make Ireland competitive again.

This attitude is most evident in the state sector. In private industry, executives are sharing the pain with their ordinary workers, although a 10 percent pay cut is more bearable if you're earning €500,000 instead of €50,000!

But in the state sector, even though the state finances are in crisis because tax revenue has fallen through the floor, the change in pay (and attitude) is very slow in coming. The limo on call, plush hotel, good restaurants and lavish expenses are still the expectation of the elite who never worried before where the state money came from, and still don't.

This attitude has caused absolute fury among ordinary people here following several weeks of reports in the media about the way tax money is wasted by the state-paid elite.

This week we are seeing the first victim of the outrage. The ceann comhairle (speaker) of the Dail (Parliament), John "Limo" O'Donoghue, is being forced to resign because of his wild spending while on state business.

But it's not just him. Week after week, the media have been digging up unbelievable examples of splurging in the state sector.

Ironically, some of the worst examples have been among the senior people in FAS, the state organization set up to help retrain the unemployed. But politicians and senior civil servants in all areas (and a few top union officials as well) have been guilty of throwing around state money.

In the days when the economy was booming no one noticed this. But now that the bust has happened and ordinary people are struggling, the ongoing revelations about the higher ups in the state sector behaving like Arab princes have appalled every taxpayer here.

One example that emerged in the past few days shows how deeply rooted the problem is. We all expect overspending among the cowboys in Fianna Fail, but this one concerned Fianna Fail’s coalition partners the Green Party, which regards itself as morally superior to everyone else and believes wasting anything, including state money, is unacceptable.

The leader of the Greens, John Gormley, attended a conference in Wales recently and decided to reduce his carbon footprint by taking the ferry from Dublin to Holyhead in Wales before traveling on to the conference at the other end of Wales by car. So Gormley got the ferry and, because he is a government minister, the Irish Embassy in London organized a car to met him in Holyhead.

All of which sounds fine, except that the car was a chauffeur-driven limo that was hired in London and driven the 300 miles to Holyhead to meet the minister. The driver took Gormley to the conference and, two days later, back to Holyhead.

The limo trip cost the Irish taxpayer €2,200, and all those car miles in a big limo probably produced a lot of those carbon emissions that the Greens want us all to reduce.

When this emerged last week there were red faces all round. Gormley said he knew nothing about the travel arrangements. The booking was made by the Irish Embassy in London.

But why was a small car not hired in Holyhead, a busy ferry port? Why all those wasted miles for a big limo? Why?

Because the state-paid minion in the London Embassy who organized this could not be bothered trying to save money. He (or she) hired the limo from the usual place because it was the simplest thing to do, and no one cares about the cost anyway. It's state money and the state is a bottomless pit, right?

Like with my dentist there is nothing unusual in this story, because so many people on the state payroll here have been doing the same thing, lashing money around like we were as rich as Germany instead of a poor little island hanging off the edge of Europe. This culture of entitlement, of always ordering the best and never considering the cost, has become engrained among the elite here.

It was an embarrassing story for the Greens and it had particular relevance over the past few days because the Greens were holding a special conference last weekend to see if they would continue in government with Fianna Fail.

The Greens have just a few Dail deputies, but they hold the balance of power. The next election is not until 2012, and so much has changed since Bertie Ahern brought them into the coalition that they felt they needed a renewed mandate from their members.

So at the end of last week they negotiated a changed program for government with Fianna Fail, and the Green party members met at the weekend to approve that and the NAMA plan to rescue the Irish banks.

Leaving aside the absurdity of a few hundred members of the brown rice brigade deciding the future of the country, the "new program" they were voting on was naive and contradictory to the point of being dangerous. Needless to say they accepted it, because like Fianna Fail they know if there was an election now they would be annihilated.

The program actually contained very little of real substance. There are to be water charges at some point, some kind of carbon tax and some kind of limits on tax loopholes for the wealthy among other things. It's finger in the dyke stuff, vague and hopelessly inadequate in terms of the huge budgetary problems the country faces.

Even worse was the way the program avoided the core problem facing us -- the need to bridge the huge gap between state spending and tax revenue that has opened up here after the property collapse. We're spending over €55 billion and getting around €32 billion in tax, and the figures keep getting worse.

The shortfall has to be borrowed and that cannot continue or we really will go bust. And there are no easy answers.

One-third of all state spending goes on welfare payments and another one-third on pay for state workers, so there has to be major cuts in those areas if we are to start getting the budget back in line.

The money to keep us going in the meantime is coming from the European Central Bank, and we have agreed with the European Union to a program of cuts over the next three or four years - this year we have to cut a whopping €4 billion from state spending.

What did the Greens have to say about this? Nothing.

What did they have to say about the real hot potato, the necessity to cut state sector pay and pensions, which are very high by British and European standards? Nothing.

They did agree that the government must reduce the cost of the state services, but at the same time they promised to employ more, not fewer, state workers. Because they think education is important (don't we all) they promised to hire 500 extra school teachers and to dump the plan Fianna Fail was working on to reintroduce university fees.

They did this without making any proposals on teacher pay, even though the average teacher here earns 30 percent more than in Britain, and university staff in Ireland are among the highest paid in Europe.

How are the Greens going to plug the gap in the state finances? "We will stabilize the public finances through a combination of taxation and expenditure savings," they say. Which tells us nothing.

So at the very time when real leadership is needed here to get the population to face up to the tough choices ahead, the Greens give us waffle. They have no detailed proposals about the deep cuts we need to make to restore our competitiveness and protect jobs in the real - not state - economy.

At the very time when we need to wake up to reality and cut back on state spending before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) comes in, the Greens carry on as before. I wonder is our dentist a party member?

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