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...

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Quote of the Weekend

From Peter Boone and Simon Johnson's essay on why the crisis in Europe is ahead of us, not behind:
Those whom the gods would destroy, they first encourage to borrow cheaply.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Later Retirement

Two unsustainable trends for the price of one - this time from the UK. The chart shows a) the share of public sector contributors to occupational pension schemes as a proportion of all contributors; and b) the share of all members of schemes who are contributing (the rest are receiving pensions from the scheme)...

Somehow I don't think the picture is much different for Ireland.

ht Dick Stroud

Monday, September 17, 2012

QE for the People

There's a fascinating, wide ranging interview with Australian economist Steve Keen over at From Alpha to Omega, a podcast series produced by Irishman Tom O'Brien. The interview took place before Bernanke's decision to go for QE Infinity last week.

Steve had previously set out his thoughts on the need for Quantitative Easing for the Public on his blog earlier in the summer. As he rightly observes, QE - as practiced in the United States, UK and even the eurozone - is effectively a transfer of assets to the rich. Especially the ones who got us into this mess in the first place. Even the Tory-leaning Spectator magazine calls QE the ultimate subsidy to the rich.

Steve keeps pointing the finger at the problem that won't go away: debt. Especially private debt (the type that has always creates the biggest economic problems throughout history). One of his solutions (among many innovative ideas) is to give everybody in the country a lump sum of, say, €10,000 or equivalent - printed out of thin air the way you can with fiat currencies - which can only be used to pay off private debts. His idea is a bit more considered than that, but you can see what he means by QE for the public. Rather than for the banks.

Of course here in Ireland we have a big problem - two actually: 1) we're in the eurozone and so can't actually print as many euro as we wish; and 2) our level of private debt is spectacularly off-the-historical scale when it comes to the amount we owe. €10,000 ain't going to hack it...

Which means that in Ireland we will need two parallel solutions in place: 1) an alternative currency that can circulate in parallel to the euro and be used for real world economic activities (my earlier thoughts here, more to follow in another post); and 2) a debt jubilee whereby billions of euro in private debts are simply written off and we start again.

In the meantime, the bankers will keep getting their QE fixes...

 ht The Big Picture

Data Visualisation of the Day

In a word, awesome:

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Weekend Thought Experiment

Robert Gordon's essay on the West's restricted growth prospects (I reviewed it here) is now available in an ungated version. In it he conducts an interesting thought experiment - contrasting an older industrial revolution (IR2) with a more recent one (IR3) - to give us a better sense of the innovations that have really made a difference to our lives:
A thought experiment helps to illustrate the fundamental importance of the inventions of IR2 compared to the subset of IR3 inventions that have occurred since 2002. You are required to make a choice between option A and option B. With option A you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002. 
Option B is that you get everything invented inthe past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3am on a rainy night, your only toilet option isa wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse. Which option do you choose? 
I have posed this imaginary choice to several audiences in speeches, and the usual reaction is a guffaw, a chuckle, because the preference for option A is so obvious. The audience realises that it has been trapped into recognition that just one of the many late 19th century inventions is more important than the portable electronic devices of the past decade on which they have become so dependent.

Sort of puts the iPhone 5 in perspective.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Ignorance Is Bliss

And it's getting 'blisser'. Interest in science in Ireland is declining, and is already well below the EU average. That's according to today's Eurobarometer report on 'Robots':

Indeed, we can lay claim to the 'bronze medal' for scientific ignorance in Europe: we come third (after Portugal, then Malta) for the percentage of the population who are 'not at all interested' in science. And what's really worrying is that older Irish teenagers show about half the level of interest in science as their EU counterparts.

And no, it's not down to religious education...

Thursday, September 13, 2012

This Is Going To Take A While

Another reason why this recession is different: men are leaving the workforce like never before. In the United States the labour force participation rate is the lowest on record, as the chart below shows:

We have a similar situation in Ireland, especially for 20-24 year old men as the next chart shows:

This also means that the recovery will be different: there mightn't be one. At least not any time soon. Again in the United States there has been a significant jump in the percentage of Americans who consider themselves to belong to the lower or lower middle classes. The biggest jumps have been for men and for 18-29 year olds. On every indicator those who self identify as belonging to the lower classes are experiencing more hardship, face greater financial difficulties and are less optimistic about the future. I suspect something similar is happening to Irish youth, especially young men, as well.

Why does it matter for our recovery prospects? Simply put, men want jobs while women want the option of jobs. A recent Gallup survey illustrates the point: twice as many women as men would prefer - if they were free to do so - 'to stay at home and take care of the house and family', including 40% of women in employment:

Such a freely chosen option for women - especially those with young children - simply won't be available with men increasingly excluded from the workforce: already, there are 126 women for every 100 men in Irish universities and the ratio is getting worse.

Without men getting the jobs, earning the incomes and paying the taxes that will signal real economic growth then the recovery will be anaemic at best. Or postponed indefinitely.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Feminist Creationism

Creationism is alive and well in our universities. But don't worry, it isn't the DUP variety that should concern us, rather it is that variety unique to contemporary feminism. Academic feminists effectively deny the role of evolution, genes and DNA in gender differences. Gender is a social construct apparently, and to think otherwise is to do the Patriarchy's evil work.

But those of us living in the reality-based community are beginning to notice the glaring disconnect between feminist ideology and, well, reality. Despite more than half a century of dominating the social, political and economic agendas of the developed world, gender feminists are not happy with the way things are going. So now they want to go further - to rid the world of gender all together. The plan is set out in a fascinating paper by three academic feminists entitled A World Beyond Gender presented at the recent Real Utopias conference. The writers set out an agenda for ridding the world once and for all of gender in order to breakdown the continuing inequalities they attribute to gender's malignant influence. Among some of their (milder) ideas is the following for motherhood:
Cultural beliefs about motherhood itself (Hays 1998, Warner 2006) must also change. We
now have a society where women have fewer children than ever before and believe that each one needs intensive mothering.  As Macdonald (2011) argues, as long as women, even elite employed women, hold the ideological belief that every childhood moment must be intensively cultivated and controlled by mother herself, structural changes to create an earner-caregiver model for society are bound to fail. Visions of utopia must involve a view of nurturing that is collective and involves the whole village, and is not entirely individualist and private.
I recommend reading the whole paper, it's as bracing as a Calvinist sermon on the Last Judgement. Though reading the paper I couldn't help feeling that we are witnessing not the next wave of feminism, but rather are witnessing the age of what some are calling Peak Feminism, which I've noted myself before, and which will lead to a very different future to that envisaged by gender utopians.

Indeed, some academics are beginning to challenge the feminist creationists in their midst by pointing out that evolutionary psychology explains a great deal about the different ambitions, needs and behaviours of men and women. The theory of evolution itself is evolving (witness recent insights in relation to the role of epi-genetics), but it is unlikely that it will make the case for feminist creationism more credible - or for the DUP variety either, come to think of it.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Hobbesian Choice

George Weigel puts a philosophical spin on the forthcoming US presidential election - it isn't so much Romney vs Obama as Burke vs Hobbes:
For as the candidates have presented themselves to the country over the past months, and most recently at their conventions, it has become ever more clear that America will choose in 2012 between two paths into the future. Along one path, there is, finally, room for only the individual and the state [Hobbes]. Along the other path, the flourishing institutions of civil society empower individuals and contribute to real problem-solving [Burke]. In the former, the state defines responsibilities and awards benefits (and penalties). In the latter, individuals and free, voluntary associations assume responsibility and thereby thus make their contribution to the common good.
Burke is one of our least celebrated Irish heros, but that's probably because Irish politicians are all Hobbesians nowadays.

(By the way, I'm not convinced Romney is a Burkean either for that matter).

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Wisdom of Cowards

Okay, that's a bit unkind. More like 'the wisdom of CEOs and managing directors across Europe and Japan who think the euro can is about to be kicked over a cliff':

From a fascinating but scary study by Roland Berger.

But don't worry, a third of European businesses have already made contingency arrangements for the collapse of the euro. The other two thirds are crossing their fingers...

Sunday, September 2, 2012


Infographic of the weekend - via

The difference between the United Kingdom, Great Britain and England

by Twilko. Learn about data visualization software.

Quote of the Weekend

Via Chris Martenson's Peak Prosperity:
"If you’re rich you get a bailout. If you’re poor you get a handout. And if you’re middle class you get left out. " Keith Fitz-Gerald

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