Monday, December 31, 2012

Cool Hibernia

The holidays have been a chance to catch up with some reading. One of the more interesting essays I've read is John Fanning's in the latest issue of the Dublin Review of Books. John worries that Ireland has lost its cool, explaining why in an essay on the origins of 'cool' itself as a cultural phenomenon in the United States (as part of the culture of African slaves brought to America).

John has written extensively on the subject of Ireland's image and brand before (see here, for example). Like many he laments the damage done to Ireland's image and reputation by the excesses of the Celtic Tiger. As to the task of 'restoring our cool' he looks to poets and philosophers for guidance, making much of our capacity for creativity and imagination, citing Richard Kearney:

Culturally and historically we have made a point for better or worse of occupying that territory called imagination ‑ this passion for the possible that imagination represents where you have to take a leap of faith is deeply rooted in the Irish psyche, that given our history and our set of choices in response to what seemed like a repetitive series of impossible obstacles, imagination became at once a mode of compensation.
Unfortunately I have no idea what this means. I'm not sure John does either. In fact, the essay is ultimately disappointing in that there is little beyond wishful thinking and platitudes in its conclusions and prescriptions (what few can be discerned). John seems somewhat fixated with ensuring that global surveys are used by the relevant authorities to continue to track Ireland's image. It isn't obvious to me what this has to do with restoring cool - even if that is a worthy ambition in itself (I'm not so sure).

The problem for prescriptions such as John's (and Richard Kearney's and the others cited in the essay) is that they fail dismally to understand the nature of the problem they are trying to 'solve'. It's a bigger problem than they realise. Simply put: Ireland is trapped on the other side of modernity, like the rest of the West. We are 'stranded in the present' in Peter Fritzsche's memorable phrase (quoted in Brad Gregory's magnificent book 'The Unintended Reformation' - also on the holiday reading list). Ireland, like the rest of Europe, no longer sees the past as a meaningful guide to the present and certainly not as a source of answers to the question of 'how shall we live'.

The result is that we have become just like everywhere else. Hence the decline in UK tourists visiting Ireland - what makes the Irish different to the British any more? The answer: practically nothing. What makes anywhere interesting - cool even - is that it is different. But the traditional sources of difference in Ireland - Catholicism, culture, nationalism, language - have faded away, or are almost gone. We're living in SkyTVland, only with euro rather than pounds. That's not a lot to get excited about, never mind hop on a plane to visit. The much lamented Irish psyche is now completely uprooted from Irish history; no wonder creativity and imagination are in such short supply.

If we want to restore Ireland's cool (though there might be worthier ambitions), then we need to preserve, restore and promote the things that make us different: religion, language, nationalism, and the deep sense of belonging and bonding that such elements provided in the past, in turn inspiring confidence in the future.

Though I suspect the authorities will be happier conducting a few surveys than facing up to that task. Can't say I blame them.




Friday, December 28, 2012

2020 Optimists

My company's latest report - Business 2020 - looks at the views of Irish businesses about life beyond the recession. The good news is that - despite these past few years - they're generally optimistic about the future...

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Man's Humanity to Man


The Christmas Truce of 1914 is a reminder of man's humanity in the midst of industrial scale inhumanity. But I wasn't aware of any similar story from the Second World War, until now. On this day, 69 years ago, an extraordinary act of chivalry took place above the skies of war torn Europe:
On December 20, 1943, the 379th Bomb Group (H) of the Eighth Bomber Command (U.S. Eighth Air Force) attacked Bremen, Germany. During that attack, Lt. Charles Brown from Weston, West Virginia, flying B-17F number 42-3167, witnessed an extraordinary act of chivalry by Franz Stiegler, the pilot of a Bf-109, who had taken off to attack him.  
As Brown guided his B-17, Ye Olde Pub, toward the target, an aircraft factory, it was buffeted by flak. "Suddenly," he later recounted, "the nose of the B-17 was mangled by flak. Then three of the four engines were damaged. The entire left stabilizer and left elevator were gone, ninety percent of the rudder was gone, and part of the top of the vertical stabilizer was gone. I quickly pulled out of formation so we wouldn't damage our other planes if we exploded... 
Brown's plane then plunged from 25,000 feet to 200 feet at which point he regained consciousness. Incredibly, Ye Olde Pub was flying straight and level directly over a German airfield. At that moment, Oberleutenant (1Lt) Franz Stiegler, who had been on the ground reloading his guns, spotted Brown's mortally wounded aircraft. He leaped into his Bf-109 and took off in pursuit. Eager to score a kill, Stiegler closed in from the rear to within ten feet of the B-17.  
As Stiegler described the encounter, "The B-17 was like a sieve. There was blood everywhere. I could see the crew trying to help their wounded. The tail gunner was slumped over his gun, his blood streaming down its barrel. Through the gaping hole in the fuselage, I could see crewmen working frantically to save a comrade whose leg was blown off. I thought to myself, 'How can I shoot something like that? It would be like shooting a man in a parachute.'... 
Stiegler then flew wingtip-to-wingtip with the crippled bomber, close enough for the two enemies to see each other clearly. The German pilot escorted the struggling B-17 to the North Sea. Then, to Brown's amazement, he saluted, put his plane into a crisp roll and flew away, allowing Brown to make it back to a British airfield.
ht Zero Hedge

Both Brown and Stiegler survived the war (Stiegler was one of only 1,200 out of 30,000 German pilots to do so). And even more remarkably, they met again...


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Constitutional Pride

Quote of the day from a fascinating talk delivered by Judge Gerard Hogan to the Constitutional Convention:
18. While, therefore, some of the criticisms of the Constitution’s more contentious clauses are all too well-founded, the criticisms directed at the bulk of the document generally are not. It appears to be another example of all-too typically Irish characteristics of negativity, lack of self-belief and lack of civic pride in our institutions and in our own achievements.
His explanation of the European origins of our constitution is a healthy antidote to the Anglocentric manner in which our Commentariat tend to view such matters.

Christian China

There are now more Christians in China (68.4 million) than in Germany, France, Spain or the UK. The big difference is that Chinese Christians make up just 5% of the population (and rising), while Christians make up over two thirds of the populations in Europe's biggest countries (and falling).

Mind you, if we filter the numbers by 'practicing' Christians, I suspect (as does Niall Ferguson) that there are more church-going Chinese than Europeans...

From a fascinating report by Pew Research:


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

North South Collide

There's an interesting discussion over at Slugger O'Toole about the prospects for a referendum on Irish unity following the recent 2011 census results for Northern Ireland. I speculated about this scenario a few years ago - and I didn't expect it to happen following the census results. I still don't.

For starts, a referendum would have to happen on both sides of the border, and I don't see much appetite for it on the southern side right now. Besides, there are a few other referenda ahead of it in the pipeline - I suspect we'll have referendum fatigue long before there's a referendum on the border.

Then there's the economy: as Brian Groom reminds us in today's FT ('ten cheerful things to say about Northern Ireland'), the unemployment rate in the South is twice that in the North. The gap isn't going to close any time soon.

One final thought - again as noted in my previous speculation - if a referendum does go ahead then another can't be held for seven years. Those in support of a referendum might bear this in mind - in case they get what they wish for...




Saturday, December 15, 2012

An Emotional Year End

More evidence for our SAD economy - my company's monthly tracker of the mood of the nation (which coincided with Budget 2013) shows a further decline in positive emotions, and a rise in negative ones:

Friday, December 14, 2012

Ponzinomics

Quote of the day from the Boston Consulting Group:
The second-biggest Ponzi scheme in recent history—organized by the New York hedge-fund manager Bernard Madoff—led to losses of approximately $20 billion in 2008. The biggest, however, is still ongoing: the Ponzi scheme of the developed economies. It is not simply that the developed world has borrowed significantly from future wealth to fund today’s consumption, leading to huge burdens for the next generation. It has also reduced the potential for future economic growth, making it more difficult for the next generation to deal with this legacy.
We'll be borrowing a billion euro a month next year as part of our 'austerity' programme here in Ireland. I hope all our migrating youth will come back to make the repayments...


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Youthful Ambitions

My company has just released some research on the ambitions and goals of Ireland's under 25s. And it's quite reassuring really.

The majority of under 25s expect to have started their career by the time they're 25, and to have bought a car. Their parents will be relieved to know most expect to have moved out by then as well...

More interesting in terms of social trends: almost half expect to be married by the time they're 30 years old, and the majority expect to be parents themselves by the time they're 35.

So the future of family life looks fairly secure for another generation. Assuming they haven't emigrated (1 in 3 by the time they're 35):




Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Usurious Barriers to Growth

Quote of the day from Megan McArdle (defending Ross Douthat):
We are facing an unprecedented transition, and it is going to be nasty.  All of our institutions are based around the expectation that the economy will be bigger in the future, not smaller... 
The problem with this is that our economic system revolves around a lot of debt.  Biblical and Islamic bans on "usury" (lending money at interest) strike most modern people as pretty silly.  But in the very-low-growth world of historical Palestine, they probably made a lot of sense.  These days, it's easily possible to borrow money at 5%, invest it in something productive, like an education or a car to get you to work, and end up with both parties better off: the lender gets their 5%, and the borrower has so much extra income that the 5% will not be much missed.  But at a time when economic growth was under 1% a year, this would have been extraordinarily dangerous behavior.  Many, maybe most people who borrowed money at interest, would end up dramatically worse off.  So the bible forbid it. 
In an era of economic growth, on the other hand, debt has become an integral planning tool for almost everyone.  I mean debt, broadly construed, not simply actual bonds and loan documents.  Social Security is a debt.  So are pensions, and Medicare.   And of course, savings accounts and and t-bills and municipal bonds are also debts.  They are all promises to pay folks later, out of future earnings.  And those are not per-capita promises; they are fixed.  If GDP shrinks, those promises become unpayable, which is what we've already seen it Greece.  
We face the same usurious barriers in Ireland of course.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Yuconomy

I've blogged before about The Intention Economy waiting for us in the future.

Well, we didn't have to wait very long:



More at Yumani.

ht PSFK

Anti-Fragile Currencies

The news from 2020, via Naked Capitalism:
Most agree the vision-shift began with the final collapse of the Eurozone in 2019, an event which had been forecast for some time. The surprise was that the unraveling had begun with Italy, instead of Greece as everyone had expected. It turned out to be the hot Italian blood that first reached a boiling point over the crippling cruelty of the long imposed austerity: the island of Sicily threatened secession and deadly street riots broke out in Rome, Naples and Milan—and then everywhere else. The government capitulated on September 12, 2018, declaring not only that pensions would be reinstated—with payments made in “the Italian national currency”—but also would be increased by 10%. It further declared a twelve month federal tax holiday: income and value-added taxes were put on hold for what was called the “National Transition.” 
The dire predictions of hyper-inflation never materialized. Instead, people went back to work picking up the garbage and debris that had piled up for months, working for Lira, rebuilding burned out buildings and repairing roads and utilities that hadn’t been maintained for over a year. What caught everyone by surprise, however, was a decision by the Italian Ministry of Finance about how to affect the transition from Euro to Lira: Why go to the expense and trouble of printing Liras again? they reasoned. Cell phones for some time had been capable of making credit and debit card transactions. Why not, the Ministry decided, dispense with cash Lira entirely, and issue to every Italian citizen a “Digital Lira Card” (DLC) which could be loaded with Lira at any ATM machine, and then debited by any vendor with a cell phone. Why not indeed?
This story is a great example of what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls 'antifragility'. As he puts it:
The European Union is a horrible, stupid project. The idea that unification would create an economy that could compete with China and be more like the United States is pure garbage. What ruined China, throughout history, is the top-down state. What made Europe great was the diversity: political and economic. Having the same currency, the euro, was a terrible idea. It encouraged everyone to borrow to the hilt.
Whether our currency union will eventually become a real monetary union remains to be seen. I wouldn't want to bet on it. But what I would bet on is the 'antifragile' value of having more than one currency in circulation. Just in case. Which is why Ireland needs the ePunt.

This was reinforced for me by David Halpern's presentation last week to the Irish Economics and Psychology Conference in Dublin. Halpern heads up the Behavioural Insights Team at No.10 Downing Street. In his talk he spoke about the economy of regard (first coined by Avner Offer), which refers to the observation that:
...what really makes a nation happy, once its basic needs are met, are the giant web of relationships that we have with family, friends, and fellow citizens. These relations usually take the form of long circles of gift-giving, which more or less even out in the end. We do these things for others not for money, but for regard - our regard for them, and theirs for us. 
The economy of regard... is much larger than the economy of monetary exchange. Indeed, quite a bit of what we work for and buy is to give to others out of regard. Happy nations have a healthy economy of regard. Since we work much harder and better at measuring the economy of monetary exchange than we do at measuring the economy of regard, the major wealth of nations is hidden.
Halpern describes the concept in detail in his recent book On the Hidden Wealth of Nations and proposes that complementary and alternative currencies will help unlock the potential value of this hidden wealth.

And we don't have to wait until 2020 to do it.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Selfish Meme

Ross Douthat observes that:
The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.
(ht Marginal Revolution)

Douthat seems to think that we just have to pull ourselves together and the retreat will be reversed. Wishful thinking, methinks. What he fails to recognise (though some commentators on his column and on Tyler Cowen's post do) is that the 'decadence' he describes is the result of a revolution in sexual economics which is not about to go into reverse any time soon. As Baumeister and Vhos note in their seminal essay:
The social trends suggest the continuing influence of a stable fact, namely the strong desire of young men for sexual activity. As the environment has shifted, men have simply adjusted their behavior to find the best means to achieve this same goal. Back in 1960, it was difficult to get sex without getting married or at least engaged, and so men married early. To be sure, this required more than being willing to bend the knee, declare love, and offer a ring. To qualify as marriage material, a man had to have a job or at least a strong prospect of one (such as based on an imminent college degree). The man’s overarching goal of getting sex thus motivated him to become a respectable stakeholder contributing to society. 
The fact that men became useful members of society as a result of their efforts to obtain sex is not trivial, and it may contain important clues as to the basic relationship between men and culture. Although this may be considered an unflattering characterization, and it cannot at present be considered a proven fact, we have found no evidence to contradict the basic general principle that men will do whatever is required in order to obtain sex, and perhaps not a great deal more. (One of us characterized this in a previous work as, “If women would stop sleeping with jerks, men would stop being jerks.”) If in order to obtain sex men must become pillars of the community, or lie, or amass riches by fair means or foul, or be romantic or funny, then many men will do precisely that. This puts the current sexual free-for-all on today’s college campuses in a somewhat less appealing light than it may at first seem. Giving young men easy access to abundant sexual satisfaction deprives society of one of its ways to motivate them to contribute valuable achievements to the culture.
Add to the sexual revolution the newly dominant religion of progressivism (which treats the past as evil and our ancestors as stupid), and the loss of the optimistic vision of politics and you begin to realise that the Selfish Meme is taking us in a scary new direction that leads not just to Douthat's 'exhaustion' but even to reversal and decline. 

A process that will, like Mark Twain's description of his own bankruptcy, proceed 'at first, very slowly, then, very quickly'. Nature has a way of weeding out unsuccessful memes as it does unsuccessful genes.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Give a Dog a Bone

From Citi's sweeping preview of what's in store for 2013 and beyond:
We have long argued that we consider the fiscal trajectories in Ireland and Portugal to be unsustainable, despite the fact that both countries have generally complied with the conditions of their existing troika programmes. In both cases, we expect extensions to their currently existing bail-out programmes on their expiry in late 2013 and 2014, respectively. Both countries grapple with the strongly contractionary effects of deleveraging by a highly indebted private (household and business) sector and of fiscal tightening. Of the two countries, Ireland is in a stronger position, as its economy is more competitive (with a current account surplus and the economy is not in recession), it has met fiscal targets and austerity fatigue is moderate. But despite years of austerity, Ireland’s fiscal deficit remains the highest in the EA (above 8% of GDP in headline terms and 7-8% of GDP in structural terms), growth is highly dependent on external demand, and contingent liabilities to the banking sector remain high. In the light of Ireland’s commendable performance in meeting programme targets so far, we expect that it will be allowed a restructuring of part of the €64bn of debt incurred through bank bail-outs (e.g. through maturity lengthening and coupon reductions on its outstanding promissory notes) in 2013 and that its full troika programme will be followed by a ‘conditionality lite’- type (ECCL) programme, similar to the case of Spain and Italy (including potential ECB OMT support). But unless and until Ireland restructures its bank recapitalisation costs or sovereign debt more broadly, the country's chances of regaining fiscal sustainability are low.
Which is why their medium term forecast for Ireland is, well, grim:


Still, they are expecting things to pick up generally from 2015 onwards...

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Saudi America

According to the International Energy Agency:
By around 2020, the United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer (overtaking Saudi Arabia until the mid-2020s) and starts to see the impact of new fuel-efficiency measures in transport. The result is a continued fall in US oil imports, to the extent that North America becomes a net oil exporter around 2030.
James Hamilton (and quite a few other people) isn't so sure:
My view is that with these new fields and new technology, we’ll see further increases in U.S. and world production of oil for the next several years. But, unlike many other economists, I do not expect that to continue for much beyond the next decade. We like to think that the reason we enjoy our high standard of living is because we have been so clever at figuring out how to use the world’s available resources. But we should not dismiss the possibility that there may also have been a nontrivial contribution of simply having been quite lucky to have found an incredibly valuable raw material that was relatively easy to obtain for about a century and a half. 
My view is that stagnant world oil production and doubling in the real price of oil over 2005-2010 put significant burdens on the oil-consuming economies. Optimists may expect the next century and a half to look like the last. But we should also consider the possibility that it will be only the next decade that looks like the last.
Either way, I don't expect it to cost me any less to fill up my car in the next few years. And probably a lot more...


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Polls Apart

My company's research for RTE Frontline/Irish Daily Mail points to some interesting differences between the Irish and British when it comes to welfare provision:


The British are turning increasingly negative about their welfare state - is it a legacy of Thatcher or a harbinger of how things will evolve here? Especially as we now outspend the British on social protection.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Post Code Bigots

I used to think postcodes for Ireland would be a good thing, but now I'm not so sure. They might turn us into post code bigots (we have a minor form of it in Dublin already). According to the latest Eurobarometer survey on discrimination in Europe we Irish are totally cool with differences, but only up to a point.

Would we support a gay, disabled, black female in her late seventies for president? Yeah sure, whatever. Would we support a candidate from Moyross? Well now, hold on there...


The SAD Economy

The latest issue of the Economic Recovery Index suggests that Ireland's economy is a victim of Seasonally Affective Disorder, or SAD for short. Of course, it could just be the state of the economy, full stop:



Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Doom

Chris Martenson's podcast interview with John Michael Greer is a classic. Greer currently serves as the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (they haven't gone away you know...)

His blog - The Archdruid Report - is a recent addition to my rss feed and a very entertaining and insightful read on life in the twilight of the American Empire.

Greer has some funny and insightful things to say about the near future in America, and some handy tips for how to prepare for life in an age of 'catabolic decline'.  For example:
 I would point out that one of the ways we can look at this is what an exciting time this is to be alive. What an astonishing opportunity we have to create – with our own lives, with our own choices – to literally shape the future ahead of us.  
So what I advise is that people start by looking at their own lives and saying okay, how is my life going to change as energy constraints continue to squeeze in, and then get ahead of the change instead of being dragged along behind it. Get ahead of it, give yourself some space, work through the learning curve picking up the skills you’re going to need. Do it now, so that by the time it’s necessary, you’re comfortable with it, you know what you’re doing. 
...You maybe started developing some tradable skills. You’ve got a little basement workshop where you’re doing something you can barter with your friends. You’re brewing beer in the basement, you know? That’s actually my number one suggestion for a lot of people – learn how to brew beer. If the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse knock on your door and you can offer each of them a cold one, they’re your friends.
I love the smell of hops in the morning...

You can read the full transcript at the bottom of the page here if you don't want to listen to it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

From Capitalism to Financialism

So that's what they mean by financialization:


From a fascinating report by Bain and Co. Some numbers:
We discovered that the relationship between the financial economy and the underlying real economy has reached a decisive turning point. The rate of growth of world output of goods and services has seen an extended slowdown over recent decades, while the volume of global financial assets has expanded at a rapid pace. By 2010, global capital had swollen to some $600 trillion, tripling over the past two decades. Today, total financial assets are nearly 10 times the value of the global output of all goods and services. 
...Moreover, as financial markets in China, India and other emerging economies continue to develop their own financial sectors, total global capital will expand by half again, to an estimated $900 trillion by 2020 (measured in prevailing 2010 prices and exchange rates). 
More on financialization here.



The Job Gap

Where will the jobs come from? That was the big question discussed with some friends last night. Unfortunately we didn't come up with any easy answers!

Starts-ups and entrepreneurs got a mention - especially in the IT/software sector. I was more sanguine - it'll take a lot of start-ups to make a big dent in our current unemployment levels. What's more, new research in the UK shows that entrepreneurs are more risk averse - not less - than the total population. Go figure.

John Mauldin makes the case for manufacturing in his latest newsletter - it's the only sector capable of absorbing the unskilled and the semi-skilled in large numbers. But I don't think it's about betting on the right sectors. An increase in consumer spending - and the resultant boost to demand for shops, restaurants and hotels - will do more to create jobs than delusional aspirations to become the next Silicon Valley. But that's a matter of economy policy, not employment policy.

The default solution in these conversations is: education. We need a better educated workforce. Which usually translates into more degrees. I'm not so sure. It's not working so well in the United States right now - take it away Peter:







Monday, November 19, 2012

Happy International Men's Day


That's today, in case you haven't heard (and you probably haven't).

Well done to the men of Trinidad and Tobago for getting it started, and to our mates in Australia for taking it global.

Here's a handy reminder why we need to show our solidarity with those trapped in the glass cellar.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Kingdom of Whatever

For some reason Alexis de Tocqueville keeps coming up in the post-election commentary in America. He is, as usual, relevant to all of us living in 21st century democracies. Here's James Kalb:
Tocqueville was concerned to secure the advantages of democracy and minimize its dangers, but his confidence in its approaching triumph was not matched by confidence it would endure... Tocqueville’s intelligence and insight did not bring him influence, and democracy and Western society have gone their way without reference to his warnings. The outcome has been a setting increasingly unfriendly to democracy. People have become more interested in comfort and security than self-rule, and a technological and globalized world seems too complicated—and problems such as terrorism, environmental degradation, and economic instability too pressing, far-reaching, and resistant to solution—for popular rule to appear workable. Under such conditions Russia and China can seem better symbols of things to come than the New England town meetings that so much struck Tocqueville when he visited.
The low turnout in the recent referendum in Ireland, and the lowest turnout ever in last week's UK police and crime commissioner elections are example of people becoming more interested in 'comfort and security than self-rule'. Though perhaps that's unfair to our fellow citizens. We are living through not so much a crisis of faith as a crisis of reason. Worse, we are now living in what Professor Brad Gregory calls the Kingdom of Whatever:
Modern Western political theory tries (or pretends) to steer clear of prescribing morality. Because our society divides so bitterly over matters of truth and ethics, modern lawmakers tend to enshrine individual privacy and autonomy. But in doing so, they diminish the life-giving social importance of religious faith. This legal “neutrality” isn’t so neutral. In feeding the sovereignty of the individual, our public leaders fuel consumer self-absorption, moral confusion, and—ultimately, as mediating institutions like the family and churches wither—the power of the state. The Reformation has led, by gradual, indirect, and never-intended steps, to what Gregory calls the “Kingdom of Whatever.” It’s a world of hyperpluralism, where meaning is self-invented by millions, and therefore society as a whole starves for meaning.
The people's romance with democracy is turning to dis-enchantment, as it did in the 1930s, and we know how dangerous that can be. We started with Tocqueville so let's end with a (quite remarkable) song in French, from Quebec:



ht The Thinking Housewife




Friday, November 16, 2012

The Good Old Days

... were smarter too, apparently:
"I would wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000 BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas, and a clear-sighted view of important issues. Furthermore, I would guess that he or she would be among the most emotionally stable of our friends and colleagues. I would also make this wager for the ancient inhabitants of Africa, Asia, India, or the Americas, of perhaps 2000–6000 years ago." Jerry Crabtree
Link to paper. And here's a contrarian view that says he's wrong (phew!).

ht The Reference Frame

But if reading's too much for you (ahem), this'll explain it:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Digital Optimism

Today sees the launch of a report by my company on digital trends and prospects in Ireland. The big message is that both consumers and businesses are optimistic about digital technology - it's the only thing that's got consistently 'better' (cheaper/faster/easier) these past five years.

The report was commissioned by UPC (their CEO Dana Strong is pictured at the launch) and is hosted here on their website - along with background information and a digital self-assessment tool. It's a good news story - hence, possibly, the optimism!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Great and the Small

Lawler channelling Toqueville:
Tocqueville makes a key distinction between SMALL and GREAT political parties.  Great parties are parties of high principle.  Their dominance on the political stage has the advantage of bringing great men into political life.  They have the disadvantage of rousing up animosity that readily leads to war.  So great parties make great men happy and most men miserable.  Lee and Lincoln were given by the Civil War challenges worthy of their great talents and ambitions, as was Washington by the Revolutionary War.  But these bloody conflicts were devastating for ordinary lives—for most people’s hopes and dreams. 
Democracies, however, hardly ever have great parties.  Most of the time our parties are coalitions of diverse interests and short on clear and divisive principle.  Politicians make petty appeals to ordinary selfishness, and people vote their interests.  The bad news is that great men are repulsed by the small stakes and contemptible motives of political life, and so they stay away from it.  The good news is that the outcomes of elections aren’t so important, and people aren’t roused up to take to the streets or grab their weapons.  The winning candidate and party is the one that most effectively builds a majority coalition of diverse interests, and the losing candidate and party end up acknowledging that, most of all, it got outhustled.
We should be grateful to live in an age (and a country) of little parties. For as Brecht put it:
Pity the land that needs heroes. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Is the Future Catholic?

Admittedly not a question you hear often these days. But it might be true in, of all places, England. Matthew Taylor has written about a fascinating shift on the political Left in England towards Catholic social teachings. He has even produced a radio programme/podcast on the subject as part of the BBC Analysis series (well worth plugging into your iTunes feed). According to Taylor:


Although its roots can be traced back not just to the Bible, but to the ideas of Aristotle, rediscovered in the 13th Century by St Thomas Aquinas, the modern expression of Catholic Social Teaching came in an encyclical - the highest form of papal teaching - titled Rerum Novarum and issued in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII. 
The Pope offered the "gift" of Catholic social thought to a troubled world. He called on the one hand for compassion for the poor and respect for the dignity of labour and, on the other hand, for respect for property and the family - all held together by the core idea of the common good. 
The encyclical can be seen as the Church both realigning itself towards the concerns of the urban working-class, but also seeking to find a path of reform as an alternative to the growing threat of revolutionary unrest. These origins offer one explanation for the current revival of interest in these ideas. For today too we live in a time of rapid change and social unrest.
Taylor - a former advisor to Tony Blair - is clearly intrigued, even if he's not entirely convinced. Partly because he has seen such fashions for 'new ideas' (especially among opposition parties) come and go; and partly because of the extreme wariness he notes on the part of the Catholic Church in England, who have historically been more used to being on the outside, intellectually speaking. Taylor, as Chief Executive of the RSA, is himself not shy about exploring and adopting new ideas. His recent annual lecture was a fascinating exploration of the need for hierarchy: an odd thing for a Left Liberal to argue for, but he's honest about the conclusions he has reached.

Perhaps that is part of the appeal of Catholic social teachings to the Left: it promises an antidote to corrosive individualism (e.g.: via teachings on solidarity), and to failing state centrism (e.g.: via teachings on subsidiarity). But it isn't just the Left who are open to Catholic social teachings, so also is the Republican Party in the United States. Even some Protestants are getting in on the act, recognising that the Reformation has gone too far - and that sola scriptura has landed us in a world of hedonistic nihilism: though that wasn't quite the plan.

But maybe Matthew Taylor is right to be cautious: political parties and politicians rarely stick to a set of principles or practices for very long. American Catholics voted much the same as everyone else in the recent election, and displayed many of the same gender and racial divides.

Here in Ireland, even though Catholics make up 84% of the Irish population according to the 2011 Census, I doubt that any political party will make Catholic social teachings an explicit part of their policy platform. Especially Labour, come to think of it...

Then again, Social Partnership was an Irish version of Catholic Corporatism: so we have adopted some related ideas in the past. Perhaps those looking for ideas to fill the gap left by Social Partnership's (welcome) demise might look across the water for inspiration?

  

The Real Crisis

Quote of the day from Ambrose Evans-Pritchard:
The youth jobless rate is 58pc in Greece, 54.2pc in Spain, 35.1pc in Italy, and 25.7pc in France. 
Labour economist and Nobel laureate Peter Diamond says the life trajectory of these young people will be damaged. There is almost nothing worse you can do to the productive potential of an economy - and therefore to debt ratios - than locking a great chunk of the future workforce out of the system during their formative years. 
“They have a debt problem and an unemployment crisis, but they think it is the other way round,” he said. 
The tragedy is that Europe is wasting its last chance to train a workforce for the 21st Century before its demographic crunch hits later this decade. EMU leaders - like the donkey generals of the trenches - are fighting the wrong war. They are crippling a generation. Budget deficits are coming down - though far less than assumed - but the skills deficit of the jobless army is going through the roof. It is the tyranny of the Maastricht Treaty.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Ponzi Pensions

What will your pension be worth when you retire? It's a question a lot of people are going to be asking themselves in the years and decades ahead. The short answer is: 'it depends'. Here are just a few things you'll have to consider:

1. Prospects for global economic growth (as one of the world's most open economies, our fortunes - and pension funds - are very much tied to everyone else's).

2. Future tax rates: there could will be a (very) big difference between the income your pension provides and what you actually receive, thanks to taxation.

3. Your contributions: an obvious one, but forecasting future contributions requires you to forecast future (after tax) income as well as the tax treatment of pension contributions (in the next Budget and every other Budget after that).

4. Pension fund levy: due to run for another two years, and - like all taxes - it'll keep on running and most likely, get bigger.

Oddly enough, none of the 'pension calculators' you can find on the web sites of pension providers invite you to answer these questions. Wisely perhaps: because the truth is nobody can answer them. However, kudos to the OECD for recently having a go at answering 1 above. They've produce a study on global growth prospects for the next fifty years. They reckon Ireland can look forward to annual growth of less than 2% per annum to 2060. Add in another couple of percent for inflation and 3-4% looks like the most optimistic assumption for pension fund growth in the long term:


But the report itself is full of heroic assumptions (necessary, of course, to say anything about the world in fifty years' time). However, the question I always ask of such long-term projections is: how likely would you have been to describe the world we live in today starting out fifty years' ago, say in 1960? And that's the problem with long-term forecasting - including pension forecasts. The boundaries of uncertainty increase exponentially the further out we seek to forecast.

Add to the mix the accumulating burden of unfunded public sector pension liabilities and the assumptions you'll have to make about future tax levels will likely need to be on the very high side. Here's Colm McCarthy on the pension ponzi scheme now strangling the country:
Defined-benefit schemes are strewn with temptation. The biggest temptations are to make unrealistic assumptions about investment returns and to negotiate fancy benefits unsupported by adequate contributions. Because the schemes are meant to last forever and will typically have enough cash to meet current payments to retirees, they can turn into Ponzi schemes where current contributions are eaten up, making these payments and the schemes become insolvent. Private companies competing in today's markets are not credible guarantors of long-term pension-fund liabilities. The defined-benefit model is broken and the individualisation of pension savings is the unavoidable alternative. 
In the public service, no funds are invested and the collective obligation falls on future generations of taxpayers, rather than on the unretired employees. 
The Reality Gap is going to get bigger before a new generation of politicians emerges who are prepared to close the gap. Though we don't have the luxury of waiting a generation to close it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

American Destiny

Whoever wins today will face challenges of historic proportions - via the Burning Platform:
The next Fourth Turning is due to begin shortly after the new millennium, midway through the Oh-Oh decade. Around the year 2005, a sudden spark will catalyze a Crisis mood. Remnants of the old social order will disintegrate. Political and economic trust will implode. Real hardship will beset the land, with severe distress that could involve questions of class, race, nation and empire. The very survival of the nation will feel at stake. Sometime before the year 2025, America will pass through a great gate in history, commensurate with the American Revolution, Civil War, and twin emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II.” Strauss and Howe in 1997
See here for more on the Generations of Men.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Reality Gap

The Financial Services Authority (FSA) in the UK has just announced that the future is on hold. Or at least postponed. The reason? From next year, pension projections have to be based on a more pessimistic view of the future:
The Financial Services Authority has confirmed that it will reduce the standard projection rates used to indicate investment returns and the impact of charges on these savings plans. Currently a pension statement will show the current value of your fund, and what it will be worth at your retirement date if it grows by 5pc, 7pc and 9pc a year. These figures are being reduced to 2pc, 5pc and 8pc after concerns that the current projection rates gave an unrealistic view of the potential investment growth.
The ongoing impact from the financial crisis has forced a rethink on growth prospects for pension funds and the wider economy. But they still expect things to get to normal, eventually. As explained in a background paper that informed the change to projection rates.

This is hugely important from an Irish perspective, not least because of the enormous overlap between the financial industries (including pensions) in both Ireland and the UK. We can expect similar changes to projections rates for Irish pensions, which is seriously bad news for the 70% of defined benefit pension schemes that are in deficit (to the tune of €10 billion in the biggest schemes alone, according to LCP Ireland). Lower projections means bigger contributions, or you'll be breaking the law as operated by The Pensions Board.

The problem, in a nutshell, is growth. Everything from Troika bailouts to the pensions of Cabinet Ministers is predicated on economic growth. Moreover, on growth rates closer to the FSA's old standards than to their new standards. But isn't going to happen. The realities of a balance sheet recession of epic proportions (especially in Ireland) combined with the prospects of very low growth rates over the long term, means that even the gold plated pensions of our public servants will prove unsustainable.

The reality gap - between what we want and what we get - will only get bigger. Expect more announcements from the FSA and others in the years ahead.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Reluctant and Truculent

I crossed over from France to Spain at the weekend, walking the first leg of the Camino de Santiago through the Pyrenees from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles. The guidebook told us there would be a simple stone sign telling us we had entered Spain from France. And there was, but it didn't mention Spain. Instead the stone sign - pictured - simply said Navarra/Nafarroa. We hadn't entered Spain, we had entered the autonomous community of Navarre, with the Spanish and Basque spellings there to remind us of its history and its neighbours.

I was surprised at first. Then it struck me that borders in Europe are fluid things, especially those involving mountain ranges and lines on maps. On both the Spanish and French sides of the border there are two and sometimes three languages on display in public spaces: reminding us again of differences and past disputes (often very bloody at that, according to the guidebook).

One thing all the different countries, regions and communities we crossed have in common is their currency: the euro. But the stone sign in the Pyrenees is a reminder of the power and continuity of differences rather than similarities. With countries like Finland openly discussing the idea of 'parallel currencies' - a new 'marrka' to operate alongside the euro - then we might begin to see money taking on some of the same characteristics as language in the eurozone. Something I've previously advocated we do in Ireland, by the way.

The ECB is taking note: they've just published a fascinating research paper on virtual currencies. This is wise because parallel currencies don't even have to be paper-based like in the past: they can run on smart cards, mobile phones and gaming platforms. The monetary mono-culture that is the eurozone will eventually go the way of other unions that tried to forge together the reluctant and the truculent. Unless we recognise the signposts: and allow for differences as well as similarities.


Monday, October 22, 2012

The Ventriloquist and The Dummy

Adam Curtis has made some of the most interesting and insightful documentaries in recent times. Even if some miss the point. When he isn't making documentaries he writes blog posts - and like his films, his blogs take the reader on a fascinating journey into a past that wasn't quite what it seemed.

His latest post on Britain's relationship with Colonel Gaddafi is the latest on the consequences (or what the CIA call blowback) from, Britain's intervention in Iraq and Britain's intervention in Bahrain. You get the drift.

Well worth the read/view.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Is Feminism Herstory?

It looks like 'Peak Feminism' has arrived sooner than I thought.   A survey in the UK by Netmums shows that only 1 in 7 young women describe themselves as feminist. The rate is twice as high for women in their fifties. Political feminism appears to have run its course as far as the younger generation of women are concerned.

This represents an interesting turning point. Women like Sarah Hoyt and Helen Smith are pointing out that political feminism has become an ideology intent on suppressing men, not achieving equality with them. Here's Hoyt:

The problem is that most of us don’t want to be equals.  And the reason for that is that most of us have been sold on the feminist creation myth of the great mother and the perfect society with men as the spoiler of paradise and the villain.  And most of us are stupid enough to buy it.  (Yes, I know men worshipped goddesses.  If you think that made the society feminist, you have birds in your brain and you probably also believe there’s some magical herbs that are as effective as the pill and have no bad side effects.  (No.  There aren’t.  There was a bush that had similar properties, but it went extinct in Roman times).  Societies that worshipped goddesses often demanded the most control over women and engaged in temple prostitution.  They also had a marked tendency to child sacrifice.  On the other hand, most societies worshipped both.) 
Also, most men are of course bigger than us.  Stronger. And there’s the whole historical inequity.  Just like the French peasants.  So we demand laws that favor us and more importantly we demand the blood of our enemies.  And we demand to be treated with a respect and a care that would have scared Victorian maidens.  We use the slightest thing as a weapon.  Because only when the oppressors are gone, will we be free. 
This was bad enough when it was the French peasantry.  But men are not some aliens dropped on the Earth from afar – they’re our fathers, brothers, sons and husbands.  They’re an integral part of what makes humans humans.  They’re not a monolithic group, just like women aren’t, but statistically they’re better abstract-and-visual thinkers and the people who are more likely to think outside the box, just like statistically we’re the socially-oriented people, more detail-specialized and better at cooperating. 
Society – a civilized society – needs both to survive and go forward. 
But women have been sold on males-as-the-boogeyman and therefore they see evil intention and coordination and conspiracy behind males’ being people.  Meet one abusive male, and you’ll go through life convinced that all men are like that.  Does anyone do the same when meeting an abusive woman?  I don’t know about you, but I’ve had bosses from hell in both genders.  So, why is only one accused of being “oppressive”? 
Because it’s the myth.  And it’s a myth the power-hungry people who took charge of the feminist movement (one that initially only wanted equality under the law) are happy to perpetuate.  It’s a myth every college, every entertainment gatekeeper cherishes.
Hoyt fears that the ideological pursuit of gender conflict - and the resultant glass cellar for men - will threaten the future of modern societies. She's right, of course. A political movement that started out to secure equal rights for women and men (the vote etc) has morphed into a movement that now wants to free women of responsibilities for the consequences of their actions (the collapse of the family in particular), with men (husbands, fathers, sons, and taxpayers) picking up the bill.

The worry is that Hoyt's warning is too late. The culture of narcissism that Charles Hugh Smith describes driving the world's economy to its doom is as much a consequence of third wave feminism as of financialization - though not that he sees it that way for now, anyway.

But perhaps a younger generation of women, no longer under the influence of the 'have it all/be what you want' solipsism of ageing feminist ideologues, will help pull us back from the brink.

Who knows, it might even happen sooner than you think.




Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Economic Singularity

Quote of the day from John Mauldin:
I think we can draw a rough parallel between a black hole and our current global economic situation. (For physicists this will be a very rough parallel indeed, but work with me, please.) An economic bubble of any type, but especially a debt bubble, can be thought of as an incipient black hole. When the bubble collapses in upon itself, it creates its own black hole with an event horizon beyond which all traditional economic modeling breaks down. Any economic theory that does not attempt to transcend the event horizon associated with excessive debt will be incapable of offering a viable solution to an economic crisis. Even worse, it is likely that any proposed solution will make the crisis more severe.
Well worth the read, and the free subscription.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Still Thriving

Gallup's latest poll of European sentiment once again begs the question: what kind of recession are we having in Ireland? The table below shows that a minority of Irish people are indeed 'suffering' at the moment, though not as many as are suffering in... Germany. Or the UK or France for that matter:


Indeed, just over half the population in Ireland are thriving, albeit down from 72% in 2008. Back then we had the third highest percentage of people thriving in Europe, but since we've fallen all the way down to... seventh highest.

We're a long way from the levels of misery in Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal. For now.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Give Peace A Chance

Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.
Gaius Cornelius Tacitus
So the EU has won the Nobel Peace Prize. Should we be worried? As Yves Smith notes, the Nobel Peace Prize is becoming something of a 'contra-indicator', given the experience of a previous winner:
Awarding Obama the prize before he’d done much of anything as President lead to a raft of jokes, such as a Saturday Night Live skit on how Obama had won the prize for not being Bush. 
That award turned out to be not merely a joke but a deep embarrassment as Obama failed to close Gitmo swiftly as promised, expanded the war in Afghanistan, instituted drone attacks in Pakistan, greatly increased the use of covert warfare, and has declared himself to be above the law, with the right to kill any US citizen designated a “suspected terrorist” without due process.
The peace we have known in most of Europe these past few generations has been a glorious (and exceptional) thing. But with the EU stress-testing our continent's peace to possible destruction in the coming years, Yves may well be proved right. So even might Tacitus. I sincerely hope not.

But in keeping with the spirit of the Nobel Prize Committee's new standard for evaluating contributions to peace I'd like to submit a candidate for 2013: marijuana - after all, it's been spreading peace for over 2,700 years...





Thursday, October 11, 2012

Back On The Road

... to serfdom, that is. Detlev Schlichter has seen the future:
So here is the future as I see it: central banks are now committed to printing unlimited amounts of fiat money to artificially prop up various asset prices forever and maintain illusions of stability. Governments will use their legislative and regulatory power to make sure that your bank, your insurance company and your pension fund keep funding the state, and will make it difficult for you to disengage from these institutions. Taxes will rise on trend, and it will be more and more difficult to keep your savings in cash or move them abroad. 
Now you may not consider yourself to be rich. You may not own or live in a house that Nick Clegg would consider a ‘mansion’. You may not want to ever bank in Switzerland or hold assets abroad. You may only have a small pension fund and not care much how many government bonds it holds. You may even be one those people who regularly stand in front of me in the line at Starbucks and pay for their semi-skinned, decaf latte with their credit or debit card, so you may not care about restrictions on using cash. But if you care about living in a free society you should be concerned. And I sure believe you should care about living in a functioning market economy. 
This will end badly.



Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Keep Taking the Blue Pill

"You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes". Morpheus
For fans of The Matrix (I'm one), this from Christopher Cole:
If financial markets are the mirror reflecting a vision of our economy third dimension markets measure the distortion in the reflection. If you are familiar with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave volatility is best understood as our collective trust in the shadows on the wall. In the 1985 work “Simulacra and Simulation” French philosopher Jean Baudrillard recalls the Borges fable about the cartographers of a great Empire who drew a map of its territories so detailed it was as vast as the Empire itself. According to Baudrillard as the actual Empire collapses the inhabitants begin to live their lives within the abstraction believing the map to be real (his work inspired the classic film "The Matrix" and the book is prominently displayed in one scene). The map is accepted as truth and people ignorantly live within a mechanism of their own design and the reality of the Empire is forgotten. This fable is a fitting allegory for our modern financial markets. 
...In the postmodern financial system markets are a self-fulfilling projection unto themselves while trending toward inevitable disequilibrium. While it may be natural to conclude that the real economy is slave to the shadow banking system this is not a correct interpretation of the Baudrillard philosophy. The higher concept is that our economy is the shadow banking system… the Empire is gone and we are living ignorantly within the abstraction. The Fed must support the shadow banking oligarchy because without it the abstraction would fail.
Or as FT Alphaville put it:
To get all Matrix on this, it’s like saying the market has a clear-cut choice to make. It can either continue to take the blue pill and fool itself into thinking everything is as it always was — despite the glitch in the Matrix that was 2008 — or dare to see the economic reality for what it is by taking the red pill. 
Naturally, the risk associated with taking the red pill is impossible to quantify — it could, after all, compromise our very understanding of economic reality. 
It’s understandable, in that context, that dishing out the blue pill seems so much more palatable to so many. 
As for Ireland - by opting out of the European financial transaction tax yesterday did we simply decide to pop another blue pill?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

When Ponzis Collapse

Quote of the day from Jeremy Warner commenting on Fabio Pammolli's research:
As is only too apparent, much of Europe is incapable of supporting its present pensions and healthcare promise. Herb Stein, one time economic adviser to President Nixon, famously remarked that if something cannot go on for ever, it will stop. 
In Europe, stopping is going to make the present outbreak of economic, social and political instability over deficit reduction look like a stroll in the park. We are only in the very early stages of Europe’s wider fiscal crisis. There is still much worse to come, regardless of whether the euro survives or not. 
It might be said in defence of the single currency that it has at least forced countries to make a start on the sort of structural reform that one way or another is bound to come. 
...Europe is set on a five to 10-year period of nil growth, falling living standards and brutally disappointed expectations. All that Europeans can look forward to once the present phase of austerity comes to an end is yet more austerity.
Puts the 'debate' about primary care centres in perspective.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Two for One

I'm still trying to figure out what happened in the 1960s - and how it continues to affect us.

Here's two quotes from two separate posts that shed some light:

From Patrick Deneen on Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind:
Bloom made an altogether different argument: American youth were increasingly raised to believe that nothing was True, that every belief was merely the expression of an opinion or preference. Americans were raised to be “cultural relativists,” with a default attitude of non-judgmentalism. Not only all other traditions but even one’s own (whatever that might be) were simply views that happened to be held by some people and could not be judged inferior or superior to any other. He bemoaned particularly the decline of household and community religious upbringing in which the worldviews of children were shaped by a comprehensive vision of the good and the true. 
...In retrospect, however, we can discern that opponents to Bloom’s book were not the first generation of “souls without longing,” but the last generation raised within households, traditions, and communities of the sort that Bloom described, and the last who were educated in the older belief that a curriculum guided the course of a human life.  
...Today we live in a different age, one that so worried Bloom—an age of indifference. Institutions of higher learning have almost completely abandoned even a residual belief that there are some books and authors that an educated person should encounter. A rousing defense of a curriculum in which female, African-American, Latino, and other authors should be represented has given way to a nearly thoroughgoing indifference to the content of our students’ curricula. Academia is committed to teaching “critical thinking” and willing to allow nearly any avenue in the training of that amorphous activity, but eschews any belief that the content of what is taught will or ought to influence how a person lives. 
Thus, not only is academia indifferent to whether our students become virtuous human beings (to use a word seldom to be found on today’s campuses), but it holds itself to be unconnected to their vices—thus there remains no self-examination over higher education’s role in producing the kinds of graduates who helped turn Wall Street into a high-stakes casino and our nation’s budget into a giant credit card. Today, in the name of choice, non-judgmentalism, and toleration, institutions prefer to offer the greatest possible expanse of options, in the implicit belief that every 18- to 22-year-old can responsibly fashion his or her own character unaided.
And this from James Kalb on how the elites born of the 1960s have abandoned values for expertise:
In the long run, pure expertise can’t even maintain itself as expertise. It requires good sense to function and develop intelligently, but good sense has a personal element that can’t be made entirely clear and explicit. As a result, an overemphasis on neutral expertise eventually leads to a kind of mindlessness. As the expertise industry grows, becomes more competitive and specialized, and absorbs more and more of our intellectual life, the productive middle ground of educated good sense disappears, and is replaced by minute details and tendentious theories. For that reason post-‘60s intellectuals are notably inferior to their predecessors. 
Ireland's academy - and our nation's elite - are, obviously, similarly affected.


Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Past Is Another Covenant

I own an original copy of the Ulster Covenant signed by William James Ward in The City Hall, Belfast, one hundred years ago this weekend. I also have the Ulster Women's Unionist Council version, signed by Ruby Kathleen Rhind in Fisherwick Church, Belfast on Ulster Day: 28th September 2012. Details of all the signatories, by the way, are available on an excellent website run by PRONI.

But as I've observed before, the language of the Ulster Covenant belongs not only to another era, but to another world view entirely, one imbued with Christianity and a sense of identity and belonging now almost alien to modern sensibilities. Fintan O'Toole, in today's Irish Times, has an excellent essay on the centenary of the Ulster Covenant, in which he notes our apparent inability to understand the motives and mindset of the 500,000 people who signed the Covenant:

But, I think, two broader cultural differences stand in the way of that understanding. They were present in 1912 and they haven’t gone away. One lies in the question of sacrifice – or, more particularly, who is to do the sacrificing. Both the Covenant and the Proclamation may evoke a religious, indeed obviously biblical, parallel. But they use two different parts of the Bible. The Covenant is Old Testament: it draws on the idea of God’s special pact with the Jews. The Proclamation is New Testament: not, admittedly, in proclaiming peace and love but in mobilising a parallel between the rebels and Jesus; the idea of a blood sacrifice to save the soul of a damned nation, the deliberate symbolism of Easter, Pearse’s upfront comparisons of himself to Christ and his mother to Mary. 
These differences are cultural. In crude terms, Protestants read the Old Testament and Catholics didn’t. But they also shaped the idea of what sacrifice entailed: the Old Testament resonance is collective, the New Testament one is individual. The Covenant uses the idea that an entire people is being sacrificed and is, in return, prepared to sacrifice itself in defiance. The Easter Rising drew on a much more individualised idea of sacrifice: as Jesus died for our sins, so would the elite group of leaders. This divide is still imprinted in cultural memory; the great image of sacrifice in Ulster Protestant memory is the massed ranks of anonymous members of the Ulster Division going over the top at the Somme; that in Irish Catholic memory is the lone leader – Pearse or Connolly – facing a firing squad.

Fintan ends with the thought that perhaps such conflicting, cultural attitudes may have disappeared by the 150th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant. That's the only duff note in the entire article in my opinion. For it seems obvious to me that the Christian world view (Old Testament/New Testament) - whether Calvinist or Catholic - and the attitudes that go with it is entirely irrelevant already to the daily lives, even the political allegiances, of the vast majority of people on both sides of the border. The Orange Tide, and its Catholic equivalent, have long since ebbed. The new covenant of liberal secularism is firmly entrenched on both sides of the border (as in most of the developed world) - and most have signed it, whether they know it or not.

The past is another covenant.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

We The Dreamers

The chart below is from a fascinating report by JWT Intelligence about American perceptions of The American Dream. Time to lose the definite article, 'cause it isn't the same dream any more:


More like a nightmare, depending on your point of view (and age group I suspect). But it does seem to confirm that America's is an increasingly narcissistic culture. Or maybe that should be solipsistic, depending on your gender of course...

Brace for Impact

My company's latest report on the spending, saving and borrowing intentions of Irish consumers is just out.  One of the questions we track - agreement with the statement 'I am more relaxed about spending money than I was a few months ago' - has fallen sharply. Details below (slides 12-14).

It looks to me like people are bracing for a tough budget and a very tough 2013. Though oddly enough, Irish Times and Irish Independent readers are more 'relaxed' about spending money than the total population. The power of the press?!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Scary Quote of the Day

From Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writing in the business pages of the Daily Telegraph about the unfolding secession crisis in Catalonia, Spain driven by the euro crisis and a sense that Catalonia is bearing an unfair share of Spain's austerity:
We are moving from the financial phase of this crisis to the full-blown political phase. It really is playing out like the 1930s. 
People sometimes ask when I became a pessimist. The answer is the summer of 1991 when I accompanied Serb troops into the Baroque city of Vukovar – shattered by howitzer shelling within a comfortable drive from Vienna, and strewn with the bodies of dead children – and watched 300 wounded prisoners taken from hospital. I assumed they were at last safe. We learned later that they were machine-gunned shortly afterwards at a collective farm nearby. 
The unthinkable was happening before my eyes, though it was small in scale compared to the slaughter of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, which I later covered at a trial in The Hague. 
When things go wrong, they really go wrong. Cuidado, Querida España
Though as a commentator on an article in the FT covering the same story points out, nobody seems to see the irony in one, relatively affluent jurisdiction in Spain complaining about bailing out it's more feckless neighbours.

Let's hope the complaints remain vocal only...





Tuesday, September 25, 2012

ET Text Home

This is for everyone (like me) who saw a stream of strange lights in the sky over Dublin last Friday night and wondered, for a moment, could it be...


Via BBC Future - I've selected the 'skeptical scenario', by the way.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Risk Fakers

Why do we fetishize entrepreneurship? I've nothing against people setting up their own businesses - it is one of the hallmarks of a free society after all - but I don't see it as the 'great white hope' for economic recovery in Ireland. And yet, if you just read the press release about the GEM 2011 study on entrepreneurship in Ireland, you would think Irish entrepreneurs are about to unleash another boom on an unsuspecting nation. I don't think so. A look at the actual figures in the report shows that there are as many business people discontinuing established businesses as starting up new ones:



The findings are based on a nationwide survey, by the way, so don't be fooled by those percentages to one decimal place: the margins of error are such that there is effectively no difference between the number of new firm entrepreneurs and those discontinuing existing businesses. The latter could even be higher...

I've been involved in a few start ups in my time, some have succeeded, more have failed. That's normal, I've got over it. But as I've observed before, entrepreneurs aren't heros - most of them are simply trying to survive and setting up their own business is often a sign they've run out of options. Not their first choice. Even the GEM report admits that:
The majority of entrepreneurs are setting up new businesses that are in low technology sectors, are not particularly innovative, have little or no aspiration for growth, and focus on the local or domestic market.
So not quite the next Google or Apple...

We're not alone in our obsession with entrepreneurs. The RSA in the UK recently published a somewhat giddy report on Generation Enterprise, explaining how young people were building a brave new economy on what it calls 'self-generated value' (SGV). All those new apps for iPhones and Facebook will sweep away the rust belt of failing industries and unleash hope for a brighter economic future. Yes, it's written in exactly that kind of breathless hyperbole. Very enjoyable... and very juvenile. 

Entrepreneurship will play a key part in our collective economic future, but it will be the entrepreneurship of 'System D'. That's the name for the shadow or informal economy that grows up through the cracks of a post-bubble age of excess (or failed state). And in fairness to the RSA, they have published another report recently on how to more effectively tap the growth potential of the informal economy. It's a somewhat more sensible - and useful - read than the other report. 

So my advice to anyone who wants to start up their own business in Ireland - and hasn't done so before - is: if you really have no other option to secure the financial well-being of your family then go ahead. And good luck...


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