“I love money. I love everything about it. I bought some pretty good stuff. Got me a $300 pair of socks. Got a fur sink. An electric dog polisher. A gasoline-powered turtleneck sweater. And, of course, I bought some dumb stuff, too.”
I NOTE that the comic actor Steve Martin didn’t include forking out a cool €1 million for a printer when he was listing his funny excesses for the above joke.
Then again, a $300 pair of socks is funny, a €1 million printer just leaves the audience scratching their heads, wondering if two or three rogue zeroes have been mistakenly added.
But when details emerged this week of Leinster House’s crazy price tag for their state-of-the-art gadget, the joke really was on us taxpayers.
Before we get into the whys and wherefores on how such a situation could arise, we need to have a closer look at money — my money, your money, the State’s money it takes from us, and how it is spent.
Because within that lies the moral of the story of the €1 million printer.
You see, in a nutshell, our politicians see money as the root of all goodness, as the answer to every national issue. If there’s a problem, throw money at it, and sure, job’s a good ’un.
In the build-up to the by-election in Cork North Central, just about every candidate displayed this trait.
Housing? More money.
Health? More money.
Anti-social behaviour and crime? More garda resources, QED, more money.
Locally, the constituency needs the long-awaited Northern Ring Road, the M20 Cork-Limerick motorway and a new hospital...
All of which will cost lots and lots of money.
It’s funny because, certainly on the national front, in areas such as health, housing and garda resources, a lot of our money is already being thrown at it, but the problem is this doesn’t appear to be making a difference.
I may be wrong, but I don’t recall hearing any by-election candidate explaining to voters that more money is not necessarily the solution; rather, we need to look into where the current pot goes, and how it is spent, and ask: Can we spend this better?
The same issue has arisen in the UK general election.
Boris Johnson unveiled a Tory manifesto — or should that be a bribe? — that hurled billions at every issue under the sun, including populist choices such as scrapping hospital car park fees and fixing potholes.
His Labour counterpart, Jeremy Corbyn, revealed a manifesto that was spend, spend, spend all the way. As an after-thought, his party then pledged to give €58billion compensation to all UK women born in the 1950s to correct a pension anomaly. Er, where was that money in your manifesto, Mr Corbyn was asked. Ah, sure, we’ll borrow that, was his reply.
Money, money, money, must be funny, in a rich man’s world, goes the song. It’s even funnier in the rich politician’s world, when it comes to throwing taxpayers’ cash around.
Which brings me back to that €1m Leinster House printer.
On Black Friday, I could have bought a perfectly fine printer for less than €100. OK, some of the mega office yolks can cost €1,000.
Oireachtas officials spent €808,000 on theirs.
For that kind of money, you’d want the printer to not only print and act as a photcopier, but to perhaps run a mid-sized Department too, say Defence or the Environment.
If a multi-national private company such as Apple or Google paid that kind of eye-watering sum for a piece of office equipment, you’d blink, even though it’s the kind of money Apple makes in ten minutes.
But it takes a certain sense of entitlement, a certain feeling of ‘Because we’re worth it’ for a public sector department to shell out that much money.
That’s not all.
To add a frisson of farce to proceedings — and, no, this still doesn’t qualify as ‘funny’ in any sense — the machine, when delivered, did not fit in the office earmarked for it.
What happened next?
If that was Apple or Google, perhaps a head or two would have rolled.
In the public sector, however, it appears you keep digging...
So Leinster House spent a further €236,000 of our money on structural works — tearing down walls and embedding steel — to ensure the office could take its expensive new gadget.
And there the farce ends... except, of course, this being taxpayers’ money, it doesn’t!
Here comes the very, very unfunny punchline.
The printer is still not being used, and is racking up a bill of thousands of euro every month in storage costs.
The Public Accounts Committee is now looking into the issue after expressing “serious concerns”, but it’s too late really as the money has all been spent.
Bizarrely, one excuse given for buying such an expensive printer was that the old ones were not environmentally friendly.
But, surely, in this day and age, with emails and iphones practically universal, there is no need to print out anything like the reams of paper that civil servant and politicians used to require? Isn’t there a case for actually scaling down paper and printing?
Notwithstanding that, this case at least provides us with a chance to reflect on how public funds are spent.
To return to the original point, the State rakes in a large sum of money from taxpayers and spends a heck of a lot of it on health, housing, etc.
Yet the answer to our failing health and housing systems is always simply to throw even more of our money at it, while presumably crossing your fingers and hoping it makes a difference. A case of hope winning out over bitter experience.
There is a fallacy that the State doesn’t spend enough on healthcare. Yet we are actually one of the biggest spenders on it in the western world.
Ireland spends €4,706 per head of population on healthcare, a third more than the average across 35 member countries of the OECD, and the seventh highest of any country.
There was a 10% increase in health expenditure in Ireland between 2011 and 2016, and the health spend hit to a record €17.4 billion in the recent budget.
We are throwing money at the problem, but it isn’t fixing it. Surely the logical conclusion is to address how we are spending it?
One issue appears to be soaring medical costs: any extra we give is merely feeding that monster. Extra money isn’t going to reduce the number of people on trolleys in hospitals, then, or reduce the queues for cataracts operations, it’s merely going in and out of the system hand over fist.
Why don’t politicians tell us this, instead of blandly demanding extra money to ‘fix’ healthcare?
Why is the joke always on us?