The late Roy Geary loved to tell the story of the following interaction with his wife when he was director of the Central Statistics Office. She complained to him about the ever rising cost of groceries. He responded that the latest statistics in regard to the Consumer Price Index showed that prices in real terms had not risen at all. She replied:
Roy, I’m not talking about statistics; I’m talking about FACTS.
Bridging the gap between perception, the reality as experienced by the individual and what the aggregate data are telling us is a challenge.
But in Ireland we face a more fundamental problem. Very few of our public representatives use facts to argue their case, and when they do use them, most relate them to the case of individual constituents, and hardly ever address the wider public interest.
A telling example of this is the recent controversy on the mandatory inspection of septic tanks, and the charge of €50 per unit for doing so. Such inspection is required by the European Union. If it’s not done, we’ll be fined a lump sum of €2.6 million, and then a daily charge of €26,000. So the financial costs of non-compliance for tax payers in general would be high.
The opposition to the inspection and the associated charge has focused almost exclusively on:
- Who would pay for the inspection
- The potential costs of repair or replacement in the event that the system is found to be defective
- The proposition that treatment and disposal of waste water from urban households is free, and therefore the inspection scheme is unfair and anti-rural.
What was missing completely was any consideration of the very considerable benefits that such an inspection regime would provide.
If your septic tank system is beginning to pond, it poses a direct health threat to your family – especially to young children, and the elderly. Diseases acquired from contact with contaminated water can cause gastrointestinal illness, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic, and wound infections. The conventional treatment to address E. Coli related contamination is chlorine. However cryptosporidium can occur, and is highly resistant to chlorine disinfection. Galway people know all about it; the outbreak which occurred in the water supply of Galway city in 2007 resulted in 90,000 people being left without a water supply for a 6 month period.
If leaks occur into groundwater or into ditches and streams, it risks damage to not only your family’s health, but that of neighbours and the wider community. And there is the economic impact. Property values are likely to reflect concerns about the quality of water supply. And if the water resource in the parish or region gets a bad reputation, then the economic and social life of the area is threatened. Why should anyone invest in areas where water quality is being allowed to degrade, or where ignorance about the efficiency and performance of septic tanks is enthusiastically embraced? The first step in preventing health and economic losses is to know whether there is a problem, its extent, and the remedial action needed.
Also missing was any interrogation by opponents of the data from County Cavan, which has already implemented an inspection scheme, and it didn’t bring the world to an end. Hats off to Stephen Collins, who brought this information to the table – I Times, January 7th, 2012. It seems strategically unwise to claim rural victimisation where the evidence does not support it . Many urban householders have had to pay very substantive levies to cover the costs of such infrastructure, and will through water and wastewater charges pay to maintain it. It would be foolish indeed to convert the now only semi-serious chant ‘come on the tax payers’ heard from Dublin’s GAA supporters when their county plays, into an ‘urban first’ movement.
I am greedy for facts.
So spoke Alfred Marshall, the leading economist of the Victorian era. In her fine book ‘Grand Pursuit – The Story Of Economic Genius’, Sylvia Nasar records how he expressed this passion.
He records manufacturing techniques and pay scales and layouts. He questions everyone, from the owner to the foremen, to the men on the shop floor….. He observes that most improvements in detail are made by the foremen of the several shops: & improvements on a very large scale are made by a man who does nothing else.
Nasar contrasts Marshall’s findings with those of Marx, whose description of the factory in Das Kapital lacks all detail, ‘not surprising given that Marx had never been inside a single one.’ The late Garret Fitzgerald shared Marshall’s passion for facts; in a world where emotion is favoured over evidence, this was seen by some as a defect.
We face serious challenges. Understanding the facts, and how the public interest is or is not served by the choices we face, is the critical first step towards protecting our economy, environment and social cohesion. And if you are looking for a place to invest, put Cavan on your short list..