Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Northern Composure

Back in the 1980s I worked on a project for BP looking at how to improve customer service across their network of petrol stations throughout the UK. The answer was simple, I explained, just figure out what your staff in Northern Ireland are doing and copy it! Sure enough, their customer satisfaction scores for their petrol stations in Northern Ireland, on every measure, were far ahead of those elsewhere in the UK. They didn't take me up on my suggestion, unfortunately...

My BP story came to mind reading a recent post on Slugger O'Toole about the revelation that six out of the ten happiest places in the UK are, in fact, in Northern Ireland. A revelation that was greeted elsewhere in the UK with the same non-plussed perplexity as that of my BP clients all those years ago. But having just spent a long weekend walking in the Mourne mountains (I took the photo on Sliabh Bearnagh yesterday) I can't say I'm all that surprised at the findings. Though I do admit to a possible bias on the matter...

Most Northerners (i.e.: the ones who don't feature in the news most evenings) are very friendly, helpful, open and genuinely interested in other people. That gets you a long way in the measurement of happiness stakes. Sure, the North still has its many problems (though not as existentially threatening as those facing the South); and history still looms large in terms of its political agenda (though more for the benefit of the politicians than the electorate, I suspect).

While the reaction to the happiness findings about Northern Ireland provoked the usual snark-fest of doubters and detractors (predictably of the 'sectarianism/religion/violence makes you happy' kind-of-thing), it seems most have missed the point. For starters, religion has less-and-less to do with conflict in the North: I doubt that many of the remaining protagonists could explain, for example, why St Patrick is associated with shamrock, let alone the nature of the Trinity (though in fairness, even Aquinas thought it beyond human reason to do so).

Instead, it seems to me that Northern Ireland is enjoying the social legacy of its (sometimes intense) Christian past, with rather more of the 'love thy neighbour' ethos to the fore than before - and more than in the rest of the UK for that matter. The legacy that Northern Ireland enjoys today is because of the social capital built up over generations by the God-fearing, Mass-going and Bible-reading believers of old.

Needless to say, that social capital is now being rapidly depleted - as it is throughout Western Europe - and perhaps the North simply has more to deplete than elsewhere, having arrived a little later at secular modernity. Whether Northern Ireland will continue to top the happiness charts for the UK in future seems to me mostly a function of how quickly its religio-social capital is depleted, assuming that the forces who might add to the capital are in retreat, just as they are south of the border.

Time will tell.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Slave Mentality

Why is the European Union breaking the promise it made to Ireland in June 2012?

Frederick Douglass understood why:
Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.
ht Doc Searls

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Cultivating Culture

I've been reading Anthony Esolen's translation of Dante's Inferno. He's a magnificent writer (Esolen, as well Dante). Much of his writing - and his talks - focuses on culture. Especially it's loss. Here he is recently on the problem with 'pluralism':
No culture is a straitjacket;  but all cultures, like all living things, must be coherent.  We can have a culture like that of the pagan Irish, whose great epic was the tale of a cattle raid;  we can have the British culture of shopkeepers that Napoleon sneered at;  but we cannot have both at once.  We can have a culture that allows men to challenge one another to a duel when they believe their honor has been besmirched;  we can have a culture in which the weakest among us may speak slander without fear of physical reprisal;  but we cannot have both at once.  The call for "pluralism" is a dodge, a way to excuse oneself from having to justify the single counter-cultural thing one wishes to promote.  Many people are "pluralistic" about marriage these days.  Not nearly so many are "pluralistic" about property, or revenge, or war — or education, or even unbridled speech.
Plenty more here. His talk on 'culture, what culture?' is magnificent, by the way: linking Jacobean comedy to our strange, 21st century obsessions.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Budget for Sloth

It's been a few days since Budget 2014 was announced, and the newspapers and airwaves have been full of detailed analyses and commentary. But if I had to sum up the Government's budget message in just two words, they would be:

don't bother

Don't bother saving: we'll take nearly half of the (pathetically low) interest you'll earn. Don't bother with a pension: we'll take a piece of your pension contributions every year, while increasing taxes on what you eventually receive. Don't bother providing for your family's health care: we'll make it even more expensive for you by reducing incentives to take out private health insurance, while providing a free medical card for your children even if you can afford to pay for their care yourself. Don't bother going for that promotion, pay rise or bonus, we'll tax you at the sharpest increasing income tax rate in Europe if you are single.

In fairness, it wasn't just Budget 2014 that majored on the 'don't bother' message. All the previous ones did too, along with several of those from the previous government. Sure, we have to balance the books:  borrowing €1 billion a month because we're spending more than we're taxing isn't exactly sustainable, especially when you are one of the most indebted countries in Europe. But a policy of 'don't bother' sure won't do it.

We need to change the incentives for people and businesses to invest, hire, save, provide for themselves and to innovate. There was precious little in the budget that met these criteria. And no, incentives for people who have been unemployed for 15 months (not 14 or 16 mind) to set up their own business - by which stage they have no capital, no network, no motivation and probably no ideas - is a mere fig leaf. Which is probably unfair to fig leaves...

As ever, Irish people in businesses and communities - managers and employees - will get on with the task of surviving and thriving despite the Government, not because of it. One initiative I'm a non-executive director of - Third Space - recently raised €15,000 via the Irish crowdfunding initiative Linked Finance in just a couple of weeks from over 100 private citizens keen to see a successful venture succeed further.

Despite everything, we are blessed in this country that there are still many good people out there who do bother...

Friday, October 18, 2013

Deeply Indebted

After the debt-ceiling debacle in Washington, Golem XIV sees the wood for the trees:
Actually I think the fight over the US debt ceiling is a proxy for who controls the world’s real reserve currency. And that currency is not the dollar. I suggest we would understand events more simply if we recognized that the world’s real reserve currency is debt - pure debt.  We should not be confused by the fact that debt, globally, is denominated in several forms. Much like the dollar comes in bills of ten and twenty,  so the debt currency comes in dollars, euros, Yen and Yuan. But they are not the currency itself they are just the different bills it comes in. 
...I think the real battle going on is between the financial players led by the global banks, assorted funds and Insurers, all of whom are very much addicted to fiat debt-money, and a dwindling cadre of politicians who still think central banks control the currencies and elected officials decide how much debt is enough.
Meanwhile in Ireland, we're on our way to €1 trillion in debt when our unfunded liabilities are included. All hail our new masters...

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Hard Numbers

The OECD's new report on Adult Skills around the world makes for fascinating reading. For example, Tyler Cowen notes for the UK that:
England is the only country in the developed world where the generation approaching retirement is more literate and numerate than the youngest adults...
That doesn't bode well.

Another one caught my attention - the ubiquitous gap between men and women around the world when it comes to numeracy skills. Notes the OECD:

On average across countries, the mean score on the numeracy scale is higher for men than for women by about 13 score points – for all surveyed countries (Figure 3.4 [N]). The difference is statistically significant in all but two countries, Poland and the Slovak Republic. The largest differences are found in Germany (17 points), the Netherlands (17 points) and Flanders (Belgium) (16 points).

Obviously it's all a plot by the patriarchy and shouldn't be confused with, you know, actual real differences between the sexes. On the other hand, when it comes to literacy skills the picture is less stark:

Proficiency differences in literacy are more mixed and rather small. On average across countries, there is a 2 score-point difference in favour of men. In ten countries, men have higher mean scores on the literacy scale than women, with the largest differences observed in Korea, the Netherlands, Germany and Flanders (Belgium) (5- to 6-point difference). But in over half of the countries surveyed there is no statistically significant difference between men and women on the literacy scale. In Poland, however, women have higher mean scores than men (6-point difference).
It's a fascinating report, and at 466 pages it'll pay to revisit it from time to time.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Ephemeral Recovery

"Thus post-Roman cities in Europe’s most recent round of dark ages could salvage stone from  temples, forums, and coliseums to raise walls against barbarian raiders, just as survivors of the collapse of industrial society will likely thank whatever deities they happen to worship that we dug so much metal out of the belly of the earth and piled it up on the surface in easily accessible ruins."

The photos are from Sandyford Industrial Estate, which I passed through last week. The quote is from the always quotable Archdruid Report. I was struck by the volume of empty, near-derelict buildings (or unfinished ones in the case of surrounding tower blocks), in the midst of south county Dublin - one of the more affluent ends of the country.

A lot of the empty buildings struck me as worth little more than their site value due to their age and condition.  Prospective owners might be better bulldozing them, salvaging what they can (though hopefully not to raise walls against barbarians). It might also mean that the reported increase in empty business properties is exaggerated,  since the figures include properties that may not be fit for occupation...

Sandyford tells us a lot about the shape of the recovery to come. It'll be a mix of shiny and successful alongside drab and failing, with the latter reminding the former that success is not guaranteed, and certainly not permanent. As the Roman slave whispered to every triumphant general: hominem te esse memento... memento mori!

As one of Europe's more financially stretched economies, it's going to be a while before we will be sending in the bulldozers, never-mind building BER A1-grade accomodation on the newly leveled sites. The bigger issue is whether there'll be enough growth to justify doing anything with the sites. Walker Smith has penned a series of challenging articles on The New World of Less - more here and here. His concern is how businesses will create the wealth and jobs to generate recovery. Or rather, won't create, depending on how you view the future. He's not the only one concerned.

In America, the recovery appears to be bypassing the under 30s population.  We urgently need to avoid the same scenario in Ireland if economic recovery is going to mean more than work for bulldozers.

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