Saturday, December 24, 2016

Becoming Human

“And this is the revelation: God is HUMAN … It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human.” Walter Wink

Via the Girardian Lectionary, inspired by the marvellous René Girard.

Happy Christmas.

Friday, December 16, 2016

It's All Fake News

“Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world?  Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy.  It was a disaster.  No one would accept the program.  Entire crops were lost. …The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was re-designed to this: the peak of your civilization.” Agent Smith, The Matrix
Someone once said about news stories that 'the issue is never the issue'. In other words, whatever you think the story is about, it's really about something else. That makes sense to me. The more I observe the bizarre twists and turns in story after story about Syria, Russian hacking, immigration and our very own housing crisis the more it becomes apparent that 'the issue isn't the issue'.

I'm not the only one, obviously. The 'surprise' of Brexit and then Trump is a sign that our primitive cerebrums are trying to wake up. Entire crops have been lost already... by the mainstream media as it struggles to convince us with fake news stories about fake news in our post-truth world.

But fewer and fewer will accept the program. It can only end in 'disaster'... just don't expect to read about it in the news.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Unmaking Money

I remember when I was a student at the LSE a lecturer talking, in hushed awe, about the Irish bank strikes in the 1970s and how a modern country somehow managed to get by without a banking system.

It seems to me we're witnessing something even more awe-inspiring  (though that might not capture the full horror of what is unfolding), as India runs an experiment in running a cash economy without any cash. Last week, November 9th, as the world was somewhat focussed on the election of Donal Trump as the next President of the United States, the Indian Government took advantage of the distraction to ban overnight the use of Rs500 ($7.50) and Rs1,000 ($15) banknotes. Banks and ATMs were closed as the Government replaced all the bank stocks of Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes with Rs100 notes. Apparently it's all to do with fighting terrorism: it alway is.

Except it seems they haven't supplied enough Rs100 and other notes: surprising that in a country renowned throughout the world for bureaucratic efficiency and streamlined administrative practices, not. The result - in an overwhelmingly cash based economy - is, shock horror, unfolding economic collapse. Who knew?

Maybe all those advocating the abolition of cash might want to learn some lessons fast, before it turns up in the economic text books as a case of 'how not to do things' in a modern (or modernising) economy.  Though  doing without banks might be an experiment worth rerunning...

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Closing of the Liberal Mind

"People who think their own opinions make them virtuous have the most closed minds of all." Peter Hitchens (in a despondent mood)
That's three out of three so far this year for me: I forecast there would be no Fianna Fail/Fine Gael coalition government; that the British would vote Leave; and that Donald Trump would be the next President of the United States (back in July as it happens). Only wish I'd placed an accumulator bet with Paddy Power...

So how did I do it? Was it some kind of Nate-Silveresque algorithm (though his own blew up alongside every other major pollster)? Or maybe I had my own private polls? Nope. My secret was (is) to try and see things as they are, not as I would like them to be. I know: not terribly special. In fact, as talents go it's one that was remarkably common when I was growing up. Though not so much these days it seems.

How did we end up in this state? One in which the mass media (or should that be the 'media en masse') has ended up a sad little echo chamber, virtue signalling its liberal credentials to one another even as, you know, reality moves on. Whose on the wrong side of history now?

What we have witnessed in 2016 is the acceleration of a phenomenon that has been gathering pace in recent decades. That phenomenon is the closing of the liberal, progressive, leftist mind, to the point that it no longer sees things as they are but only as they would like them to be. And despite their perennial rebellion they have failed to notice that THEY ARE THE ESTABLISHMENT; THE MAN; THE SYSTEM. And so they simply cannot comprehend it when the People reject the establishment by rejecting THEM.

Not all leftists have lost touch with reality, however.  Michael Moore - a reluctant Hillary supporter - intuited that Trump's election would be 'the biggest 'f**k you message ever recorded in human history'. And if you haven't seen the video, go see it now: it's right up there with Al Pacino's 'one more inch' pep talk in Any Given Sunday. I knew in my head Trump would win back in July, I knew in my heart he would win when I saw that video just a few weeks ago.

There's a bigger problem. I call it 'the closing of the Liberal mind'. Alastair Roberts calls it Liberal Obliviousness. Here he is on the liberal/progressive outlook during the election:
The troubling thing is the frequent unwillingness to attempt to believe better of their fellow Americans, to explore the possibility that perhaps many Trump voters are intelligent, well-meaning, and, yes, fearful people just like themselves, people who are actually opposed to misogyny and racism and only voted for Trump because they believed there was no other choice. The fact that such liberals seem to find it more reassuring to believe that an overwhelming multitude of their compatriots are irredeemably hateful and evil than it is for them to believe that a well-meaning and intelligent person might support an opposing candidate is immensely revealing. Perhaps it suggests that such people have more of an existential stake in the cocoons of ideological communities than they do in the world of social reality.
He continues:
While they flatter themselves that they are compassionate and open—they are standing for love!—their vicious vengefulness and hostility towards people, or the way that they sacrifice even the closest relationships on the altar of political and ideological differences, is truly terrifying. The other side isn’t just driven by different yet valid group concerns, or well-meaning but mistaken, or even compromised yet open to moral suasion. No, for so many they are evil and beyond redemption, a group that cannot be won over by reason, service, or love but can only be eradicated. 
Do read the whole thing.

What to do about it? How do we create a common dialogue based in reality rather than on psychological projection? Here in Ireland as well? Maybe it's self-correcting, a healthy backlash against Politically Correct doctrine that returns us to something more 'liberal' with a small 'l'. Successfully navigated such a turn might create a more 'inclusive' society, one which tolerates diversity of thought, not just diversity of religion, race or sexual orientation. We'll see. Like Bruce Charlton, I am filled 'with both hope and a dash of optimism' as we approach the end of 2016.

Though you'll have to wait a while longer for my 2017 forecasts.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Centenary Values

Below is the unedited text of my recent article in the Irish Times, part of their Centenary Conversations feature:

They say politics is downstream of culture, and culture is downstream of values. Politics changes on a daily basis; culture sometimes in a generation; while values change more slowly, if at all. In this centenary year we can observe these different patterns and pace of change in Irish society, and so reflect on where the stream of change might carry us in the future.

The commemorations and celebrations we have shared in 2016 have, as their touchstone, the 1916 Proclamation. Why? Its language is quite arcane and its subject matter somewhat dated: surely less than relevant to Ireland in 2016? Yet its words, and the wider discourse about 1916, has compelled us to think anew about our values and our culture, and even about our politics. Witness the enthusiasm with which thousands of children throughout the country composed their own proclamations on Proclamation Day earlier this year.

The power of this centenary year is ‘hidden in plain sight’ so to speak: it is a reminder of an extraordinary moment in time – ‘this supreme hour’ – which fused the past with the future, the dead generations with generations yet unborn. A moment when the course of history and the fate of destiny pivoted and took a different direction to that expected one hundred years ago in April 1916.

The ancient Greeks knew all about this. They had two concepts of time: chronos and kairos. The former – chronos – is what we usually mean by time, a single dimension linking the past to the present to the future. But kairos is different, it comes from an ancient Greek word meaning the right or opportune moment; a time in between, a moment in time when something special, something unexpected happens.

The 1916 Rising took place in kairos time – ‘she now seizes that moment’ – a fleeting intersection of opportunity and action. Yeats recognized kairos too in his immortal line ‘all changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born’. Right now, in this centenary year, some also sense a ‘moment’ to step back from the constant flow of chronos to once again adjust our course if we are unhappy with our future destiny as a nation. A chance to reconnect with kairos, even with beauty.

The centenary has captured our imagination in ways that were perhaps unexpected. There is a saying that ‘politicians campaign in poetry, but govern in prose’. Certainly the Rising was more poetry than prose – which is why the Proclamation still resonates with us a century later invoking, as it does, ‘the dead generations’, ‘cherishing all the children’, while calling us to our ‘august destiny’. Poetic indeed.

Yet much of contemporary politics appears ‘trapped’ in the present, and not just in Ireland. We had a general election at the beginning of this year in which 1916 barely featured beyond the usual bromides in speeches and press releases. It’s as if our politicians lack the capacity to reimage Ireland and the future by drawing inspiration from the past.

But, but… politics is downstream of culture, so it’s not surprising if our politicians are pre-occupied with the stuff of headlines, not proclamations. In a democracy we get the politicians we deserve. We have created a culture that values novelty over tradition and fashion over virtue, so we too are trapped in the present. We have become customers of the state, not citizens charged with our own sovereign destiny. We have forgotten, at least until now, our past and our duty to ‘give a vote’ to our ancestors, in G.K. Chesterton’s memorable phrase, to ‘the democracy of the dead’.

It comes back to values; it always does. Culture is downstream of values and one hundred years is enough time for values to change. But what are our values and how have they changed? Jonathan Haidt uses ‘moral foundation theory’ to distinguish between six distinct clusters of moral beliefs that shape our political and cultural values. To briefly summarize a substantial body of work, moral values can be said to cluster around: empathy, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Haidt finds that political liberals and progressives emphasize the first three clusters (empathy, fairness and liberty) almost exclusively; while social conservatives and traditionalists emphasize all six clusters, including loyalty, authority and sanctity. However, it is the moral virtues of loyalty, authority and sanctity that have been and remain the deepest sources of identity, purpose and meaning in societies and civilizations. Through them we ‘create’ tradition.

This leads to a genuine tension in a country like Ireland. Contemporary Irish politics – like the rest of Europe – is almost exclusively caste in the progressive mould, driving the current debate on issues such as inequality (fairness), repeal of the 8th amendment (liberty) and housing (empathy). But the centenary has also strengthened our sense of Irishness (loyalty), our connection with the men and women who founded the nation (authority), and our gratitude for their sacrifices (sanctity).

Post-2016 will we enter another general election with a different set of values and with different expectations? As always it depends: on events, on the economy and on the choice of policies and parties available to us. Look at what’s happening elsewhere: Brexit is all about values, not policies. Europe is entering kairos time: the confluence of Brexit, the fragmentation of the Eurozone and the refugee crisis are forcing a wider conversation about values, culture and destiny.

Richard Kearney recently observed in the pages of this paper that:

History is more than what has taken place and cannot be changed; it equally involves potential futures still dormant in the past.

There is something appealing, reassuring even about the idea of ‘potential futures’ waiting to be unearthed as we respond to the challenges of the present in preparation for the future. It suggests we don’t have to do it all on our own: our ancestors have our back. And we’ll need all the help we can get as we navigate our small nation through the turbulent times ahead.

The question, of course, is: who are ‘we’? As I stood with tens of thousands of others on the streets of Dublin on Easter Sunday, watching Capt Peter Kelleher read the Proclamation outside the GPO, there was a palpable sense of our nation coming together in a way we hadn’t for a very long time. Maybe this is our moment of kairos? Time will tell.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Speaking Truth to Disempowerment

"During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act." George Orwell 
Michael Moore is no George Orwell, but like Orwell he loves the working class, and not in some abstract socio-economic sense, but in his heart: the men, women and children he grew up with and whose suffering he has raged against over the years. 

Which is probably why only Michael Moore could produce and narrate the following:

The background music, by the way, is from Hans Zimmer's glorious soundtrack to the movie Inception.

Surely just a coincidence...?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Seeking Lehman

Every so often I discover writers/bloggers/analysts and find their writing so compelling that I end up 'bingeing' on their output for a time. Ben Hunt is one such a writer and also Chief Investment Strategist at Salient Partners.

Ben writes like Adam Curtis edits: sampling and savouring an eclectic mix of movies, novels and plays to form powerful and compelling insights into contemporary politics, economics and finance, with some investment guidance along the way. Though it's usually a lot clearer where Hunt is going with his narrative than where Curtis is going (sometimes even after the latter has been and gone).

A few examples - first up from a brilliant essay on Virtue Signaling:
Look, I get it. The Democratic candidate isn’t Clinton, it’s Clinton™. Having chosen (or more accurately, anointed) a profoundly hypocritical and opportunistic pragmatic candidate, Democratic mouthpieces are now in the uncomfortable position of manufacturing enthusiasm rather than channeling enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is something you can easily fake when you’re winning big. But when the game gets tight … when it looks like (gulp!) the game might go the other way … well, that’s when thoughts of self-preservation and virtue signaling start to creep into the most adamant Democratic partisan. In fact, particularly the most adamant Democratic partisans. They WANT to believe. But Clinton™ is just so hard to sell out FOR.
He's equally scathing about Trump by the way.

And one of his best, on Magical Thinking (you'll never think the same way about Central Bankers and eggs ever again):
It matters whether or not we call things by their proper names, because the words and the spells motivate human behavior like nothing else. It matters whether or not we sleepwalk our way through our own fin de siècle, because the really bad people and the really bad ideas that periodically wreck our world can’t be wished away. It matters whether or not we become courtiers ourselves, because the courtiers always fall the farthest. The problem with magical thinking run amok and its perpetuation of a fantasy world is that sooner or later the dream of the delusional king becomes a real world nightmare for real world people. It’s time to wake up.
Finally on The Narrative Machine:
I’ve written at some length about Brexit and the Narrative that emerged in its immediate aftermath, a Narrative that not only stopped the immediate sell-off in global risk assets in its tracks, but actually reversed the market decline and drove financial asset prices to new highs. To recap, I called Brexit a Bear Stearns event rather than a Lehman event, predicting that creators of Common Knowledge (what game theory calls Missionaries) would successfully characterize the event as an idiosyncratic fluke rather than a systemic risk, exactly as the collapse of Bear Stearns was portrayed in the spring of 2008. In other words, Brexit was NOT a Humpty Dumpty moment, where all the Fed’s horses and all the Fed’s men couldn’t put the egg shell back together again.

Do, as they say, read the whole thing.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Running Out of the Long Run

If there must be trouble, let it be in my days, that my child may have peace. Thomas Paine
One of the funnier moments in Budget 2017 was the stated intention by the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan to run a small budget surplus in 2019, with taxes projected to exceed expenditure. Yeah right. Given that Michael Noonan won't be the Minister for Finance in 2019 - and the Government probably won't be 'the Government' - then promising to be prudent in three years' time is straight out of the Augustinian playbook of delayed temperance.

But unfortunately it is par for the course, and not just in Ireland. One of the reasons people don't trust politicians (and we trust ours less in Ireland than they do in Saudi Arabia, never mind Singapore) is that they make promises they don't keep, and then they go to make even more promises. Which they don't keep. The strange thing is, however, I don't blame the politicians. Between news cycles and electoral cycles is well nigh impossible to make prudent decisions with long-run, positive consequences that nevertheless entail some short run sacrifice (or plain old temperance).

Of course they don't do much to help themselves, our politicians. Take the much heralded Citizens' Assembly. A supposedly representative selection of citizens from around the country will deliberate on a selection of topics that can best be described as 'random' (and certainly more random than the selection of people chosen and vetted for the Assembly). But its the things they won't debate that are the missed opportunities if the intention is to create a 'safe space' to discuss contentious issues without the inevitable political acrimony. And maybe come up with some useful ideas to boot. Issues they won't debate include:

- creating a new inter-generational contract on pensions (including the public sector)
- deciding what future we want for Ireland in Europe (including relations with the UK and NI)
- improving the quality of our governance and mitigating the short-termism that cripples it
- changing the social welfare and tax systems to be fairer to tax payers and to reward welfare recipients to take up employment
- creating a health service that delivers better outcomes for less money (okay, maybe not that one, way too hard!)

Instead we get some topics - such as the 8th Amendment and fixed term parliaments - that should be addressed by the Dáil; and other topics - such as an ageing population and tackling climate change - that are far too vague to lend themselves to any easy resolution or recommendations (not already available from multiple, expert sources).

We're running out of the long run in Ireland, having squandered the sacrifice of a deep recession by leaving all the institutions and practices in place that made it such a bad one in the first place. It's a pity that we seem bent on rushing towards the long run, one short run decision at a time. Maybe we could sub-contract our political thinking to Singapore?  Though perhaps on Saudi Arabia.

Monday, August 29, 2016

A Cash-Strapped Recovery?

I've holidayed in Ireland this summer, and one of the things that has struck me on my travels is the number of shuttered and boarded-up shops: even on the main streets of seemingly thriving towns and villages. What's going on? The latest retail sales data for July from the CSO has been heralded as further evidence of recovery and proof, if proof was needed, that things are getting better. 

But I'm not so sure: there are two stories in the Retail Sales Index report, the one we hear about and the one we don't. The one we hear about is real for sure: the value and volume of retail sales keep rising year-on-year, with some sectors rising a lot faster than others. But there's another story we don't hear so much about and the clue is in the name: the Index of retail sales is indexed against sales way back in 2005 - that's eleven years ago. The Index has been running above it's 2005 level for some time now, so recovery all done? Not quite, because 2005 wasn't the peak in retail sales: 2007/2008 was and we're nowhere near the peak yet, as the chart below shows (I've excluded motor sales as they are a capital purchase rather than a measure of current consumer spending, plus they have their own 'funding' in place these days from the car manufacturers themselves):

In fact, retail sales - excluding the motor trade - are still some 20% below their peak, and I very much doubt they'll ever get back to that peak again (due to online shopping, discounters, sterling etc and many other factors I won't go into now but I see playing out with clients every day).

And there's something else going on: there doesn't seem to be enough money in the economy to sustain anything like the level of spending in years gone by - it's as if we're living through a cash-strapped recovery. Look at the Central Bank's data for currency in circulation and M2 (a broad measure of money supply): the former has risen inexorably over the same period as the retail sales data (start of 2005 to mid-2016), but the latter has been fairly stagnant:

What could be driving this? The obvious culprit is debt repayment, and sure enough the amount of money Irish households owe by way of outstanding bank loans is now below the amount they have on deposit with the same banks:

But it isn't just households that have been on a 'debt detox' after the 'debt binge' of the Celtic Tiger era - sometime soon, if it hasn't happened already, Irish businesses will have more money on deposit than they owe in outstanding debt:

It's no wonder then that retail sales are still so far below their peak: households and businesses are hoarding billions on deposit that they might otherwise have spent or invested - but the scars of the crash are still hurting and nobody wants to go through that again.  Add to this the fact that the 'pillar' banks are equally risk averse and would prefer to lend only to people and businesses that don't actually need to borrow then no wonder progress is slow: 'tits on a bull' and all that.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Politics After Democracy

“How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings                         can cause or cure.” Samuel Johnson
What if the people voted to end democracy: would it be a democratic decision? We're witnessing a 'crisis of faith' in Ireland right now, and it'll probably get worse. It's a bigger story than 'the church in crisis' or 'the media in crisis', but it isn't getting the attention it deserves.

I've observed before that politics is sport for nerds, but the national interest in sport is looking a lot healthier. The latest Eurobarometer poll shows that Ireland is number six in the EU28 for our lack of interest in politics:

What's more, when we look at the results for Ireland in detail, we see that women, young people under 25, and the working class are the cohorts least interested in politics:

So what? The big 'So What?' is that there is growing evidence that younger generations in Europe and the United States are less and less enamoured with democracy, and aren't sure it's 'worth the effort' any more. A recent article by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk on The Democratic Disconnect drew on similar survey data and reached some very disturbing conclusions. Essentially they chart a strong growth in support for undemocratic political ideas (such as rule by the military) in many mature democracies, especially among the young.

They observe that:
Citizens of democracies are less and less content with their institutions; they are more and more willing to jettison institutions and norms that have traditionally been regarded as central components of democracy; and they are increasingly attracted to alternative regime forms. 
Far from showing that citizens have merely become more willing to criticize particular governments because their expectations of democracy have grown, this indicates a deep tension at the heart of contemporary politics: Even as democracy has come to be the only form of government widely viewed as legitimate, it has lost the trust of many citizens who no longer believe that democracy can deliver on their most pressing needs and preferences. The optimistic view that this decline in confidence merely represents a temporary downturn is no more than a pleasing assumption, based in part on a reluctance to call into question the vaunted stability of affluent democracies.
At the same time, 'politics is the new religion' in the sense that people are less and less tolerant of dissenting political ideas and choices in the same way previous generations were intolerant of dissenting religious preferences. What Michael Schulson calls The Moral Tribalism of Contemporary Politics.

Combine increasing scepticism about the efficacy of politics with a growing lack of interest in party politics and with a narrower and narrower definition of 'acceptable politics' and the stage is set for a very different type of politics. The type that doesn't see much point in people wasting time ticking boxes in booths every four years or so. There'll still be politics, of course, but there might not be democracy and I suspect a lot of people probably won't care...

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Puppies Win

I do a lot of work in the newspaper/media research space, and I found John Oliver's recent tour-de-force on the state of modern journalism to be, well, depressingly accurate (but in a very funny sort of way):

Over 3 million views since it went up on You Tube yesterday, so it has obviously struck a chord with more than just me.

But not everyone agrees with Oliver's analysis. David Chavern from the NAA thinks that:
People want, need and consume more hard news than they ever have. The core demand for the product isn't decreasing at all, and based upon that we will find our way to the far shore where the industry is thriving and growing once again. 
Which does sound worryingly like the sort of corporate speak Oliver has a go at in the video.  Still, I hope Chavern is right. I just hope that the shore doesn't prove further away than is possible to reach...

Monday, July 25, 2016


The election is now between the borderline personality Mommy and the arch-narcissist Daddy for the hearts and minds of a public sore beset by the initial spasms of economic and cultural collapse. James Howard Kunstler

And Daddy's going to win. Just over three months out from polling day on 8th November and I reckon Trump is on his way to a landslide. The latest CNN poll shows him ahead, but more than that it shows he's got momentum. On just about every measure in the survey, Clinton's numbers are going the wrong way, Trump's are going the right way. 

We can also see the same polarisation evident before Brexit: men are leaning strongly Trump, women are leaning strongly Clinton, and it's the same story for whites vs blacks, older vs younger, poorer vs richer:

A standout statistic for me from the poll is the percent of US voters who think each candidate is "running for president for the good of the country, not for personal gain". The percent for Clinton? 44%. The percent for Trump? 52%. Trump's number is rising, Clinton's is falling.

Clinton will get a boost from the Democratic Convention this week (though Kunstler's not so sure). But unless Trump goes full Nazi then I think he has it in the bag.

Just a pity Enda didn't have that round of golf with Trump when he last offered to visit us. Oh well, maybe his successor will be more welcoming to President Trump.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Our Nostalgic Future

I had the great pleasure of speaking again at the MacGill Summer School earlier this week. It's a wonderful event, quite unique in my experience, and well worth the trip to the Glenties if you ever feel the need for some intellectual stimulation in stunning surroundings. I spoke at the session on the Curse of Short-Term Thinking in Irish politics, text of my contribution below:

Nostalgic for the Future

The Nostalgia Gap

It’s always a pleasure to be back in Donegal, though as it happens I was here just two weeks ago on holiday a little further north in Dunfanaghy! My wife and I like hillwalking, and this time we discovered a new walk along the route of the old railway line between Creeslough and Falcarragh, skirting the shore of Lough Agher under the shadow of Muckish Mountain. A beautiful walk, like so many others in this county.

Of course, the people who built the Donegal railway network back in the 19th century probably weren’t thinking of hillwalkers at the time, nor indeed were the people who closed it in the early 20th century. Yet both took decisions that had long-term consequences, even if the decisions themselves were motivated by more short-term considerations. ‘twas ever thus, you might say.

But to be fair to those who closed the railways, it might have been asking too much to expect them to imagine and plan for a future in which walking has become Ireland’s favourite leisure time activity. Back then, walking was something to be avoided, which is why they built the roads and railways in the first place!

So perhaps we set the bar too high when we curse the short-termism of our politicians, investors, planners and other decision makers in Ireland. Or perhaps the ‘problem’ is less one of short-termism and instead one of imagination, or rather: the lack of it.

I want to suggest in this short paper that the only way to avoid the curse of short-termism is to change the way we think about the future. I would go further and suggest we can only do so by changing how we think about the past. Richard Kearney recently observed that:
History is more than what has taken place and cannot be changed; it equally involves potential futures still dormant in the past.
I like that idea of ‘potential futures’ waiting to be unearthed as we respond to the challenges of the present in preparation for the future. It suggests we don’t have to do it all on our own: our ancestors have our back!

But which ancestors? It struck me recently that one source of our collective short-termism is a lack of meaningful, purposeful connection to the past. And not just in Ireland. The American writer Yuval Levin thinks one reason for the growing polarisation and short-termism he sees in the United States is one of ‘conflicting nostalgias’. Those on the American left look back nostalgically to the era of Kennedy and Johnson in the 1960s, while those on the right look back nostalgically to the era of Reagan and the 1980s. As a result there is no longer a shared sense of the past as a guide to the future.

Mind you, I think we have an even bigger problem here in Ireland. We don’t have ‘conflicting nostalgias’ in our political discourse, instead we don’t have any nostalgia for our past whatsoever! It seems to me that none of our political parties – unlike most parties in the rest of the developed world – claims any meaningful connection to ‘the best of our past’. So they/we are cut off from a history full of ‘potential futures’ that we could draw on to guide our decision-making today.

If we don’t know where we are coming from then we don’t know where we are going. So it’s no wonder we make decisions based on short term thinking and near term extrapolation. Our lack of nostalgia is holding us back from a better future.

The Five Ds

But we’re here to talk about the future, not the past. So what are the major issues facing our country in the coming decades? And can we find resources in our past to guide us in our long-term planning for the future? There are five issues or themes that keep recurring in our work at Amárach with Irish businesses and government agencies. I call them the ‘5 Ds’, for reasons that will become clear, and they are as follows.

Take the first of the 5Ds, namely debt. This is a pressing issue right now, and one that won’t be resolved in just a few years or even in the lifetime of a government or two. We currently have one of the highest levels of personal debt in Europe and that legacy of debt will shape consumer and business behaviour, as well as our domestic growth prospects, for decades to come. We are not unique in this regard: most of the developed world is witnessing unprecedented levels of private and public debt, with levels rising constantly since the onset of the economic crisis back in 2008.
Debt must be repaid – or forgiven – before debtors are free to redirect their spending from loan repayments to shopping, saving and investment. But more than half of Irish adults say that debt repayment is still their number one financial priority, suggesting that consumer spending – a key driver of the Irish domestic economy – will grow slowly and fitfully in the next 5-15 years until debt exposure is reduced. And who can blame them? Remember: debt is a fact, wealth is an opinion.

Nevertheless, our debt burden is being slowly reducing, so perhaps this is a problem that will resolve itself over time? Perhaps, but there is a complicating factor, namely our second ‘D’ – deflation. In the past, the recent past at that, inflation was a big driver of economic growth and rising standards of living. It wasn’t explained that way at the time, but inflation – within reason – is everyone’s friend: it allows businesses to grow their revenues through price increases, consumers to increase their incomes through pay increases, and it allows governments to increase their tax take on the back of higher business revenues and consumer incomes. But what happens when general prices remain flat or start falling, as is happening in many developed countries at the moment? It becomes difficult, if not impossible for businesses to raise prices – indeed price cuts become the norm – while pay increases remain low or maybe non-existent and zero-hour contracts are pervasive. Meanwhile governments are forced to look elsewhere for sources of taxation. Even worse, fixed debts have to repaid out of flat or even falling revenues or incomes, exacerbating the downward pressure of debt on economic growth.

But deflation, like debt, is an economic problem that can be fixed, though not easily as Japan and other economies are finding out. A complicating factor is our third D – demography. The ageing of Ireland’s population is one of the few, ‘certain’ forces shaping our future. As the numbers and share of the older population increases inexorably in the coming decades then even in the absence of debt and deflation the economic impact will be significant. While an ageing population will undoubtedly open up new opportunities for businesses and entrepreneurs to develop new products and services, the macro-economic impact of an ageing population will nevertheless be negative. The simple reason is that older people spend less than younger people, and the things they buy are different to the things that traditionally drive economic activity. As a rule, the higher the share of 30 and 40-somethings in the population the more buoyant is consumer spending as they are the age groups most likely to form families, buy houses, additional cars, spend on education etc.

Okay, we can see demographic change coming, and the economic challenges of debt and deflation are here already, so should we simply leave it to the experts to resolve? Maybe not. Our fourth D is doubt. We doubt our leaders and politicians these days, and we doubt the media and the church. We doubt all the traditional sources of authority and leadership. Most of all we distrust the experts, and not just here in Ireland: just look at Brexit – a rebellion against the experts if ever there was one. This is real problem because in the absence of leaders whom we trust then making the case for long-term change will get harder rather than easier, even as it has never been more necessary to make the case convincingly and effectively.

Our final D – disruption – raises the ante even further in terms of responding to the challenges we face and providing the leadership that is necessary. We have already seen the disruptive effect of digital technologies on retailing and on our main streets. When was the last time you bought or rented a dvd? And we are only at the beginning, with some speculating that artificial intelligence via software and machines will replace a third or more of all jobs in the coming decades. While the net effect of digital disruption will likely be positive in the long run – more winners and losers, more creation than destruction – a net positive outcome isn’t inevitable, nor will everyone be a winner. Some will just be losers as disruption replaces their jobs and the businesses employing them disappear.

So there you have it: the 5 Ds of debt, deflation, demography, doubt and disruption, all forming an unprecedented set of long-term challenges for planners in Ireland and pretty well everywhere else for that matter.

The Promise of Long-Termism

There is an old Russian saying that a pessimist is a well-informed optimist, so my apologies if you are feeling a little gloomier than before I started talking! But I don’t think it’s a case of either/or: that you have to be an optimist or a pessimist. In fact, I am something of a short-run pessimist but a long-run optimist. Let me explain. The challenges posed by the 5Ds – and by other forces and trends I haven’t elaborated on today – are in a sense, problems of success. Debt and deflation are legacies of economic growth in the past, but we still have an economy that is several orders of magnitude bigger than at the time of the railway closures here in Donegal. Similarly our ageing population is testimony to our improving health and longevity. The levels of doubt and distrust in our society also reveal an independence of thinking by a much better educated population. And we have all benefited from the digital technologies we use to stay in touch with family and friends, to work more productively and to shop for more choice and convenience.

As problems of success go they all seem manageable, and also seem considerably less threatening than the problems our ancestors faced, whether 100 years ago in 1916 or those faced by more recent generations.

But this is not to underestimate the scale of the challenges we face. For one thing, it’s going to an awful lot more difficult for companies – especially indigenous Irish SMEs like mine – to generate profits in the face of disruption and deflation, never mind the downward pressures on consumer spending driven by debt and demography. Come to think of it, it won’t be a whole lot easier for larger, foreign-owned corporates to make profits either for that matter.

So why be optimistic about the promise of the long-term? I think that one of the greatest legacies of the 1916 centenary we have witnessed this year is the permission it gives us to discover a better future, dormant in our past.

We are no longer trapped in the present as a people, afraid of the past and of our history. If, through a type of ‘anticipatory nostalgia’, we can reconnect with our previous achievements as a nation and find a new, shared purpose that focuses our collective energies and decision making on a vision of the long-term wellbeing of our country and the people who live here, then we can overcome the short-term challenges we face without falling into the trap of short-termism.

I’d go further and suggest that we need to forge a new patriotism to overcome the doubt and distrust that threaten to pull us apart in the face of a ‘winner takes all’ economic future. A future in which the cake maybe isn’t getting bigger and so a larger slice for one means a smaller slice for others.

Some of the greatest achievements by the Irish people in the past one hundred years – in politics, business, sport and the arts – were driven by a gentle yet deeply held patriotism on the part of civil servants, politicians, business, religious and community leaders among others. We need to reconnect with that shared sense of patriotism, a sense of common purpose and of belonging, one that looks ahead as well as backwards. We need a shared sense of destiny. So let us be nostalgic for the times we faced great challenges and momentous decisions together, for the times we worked towards a better future for all.

We are all of us part of the same story, the same narrative connecting the Irish people past, present and future. The path ahead isn’t clear, nor is there only one way forward, no more than is there just one, inevitable future that awaits us. I am optimistic we have the resources and skills to shape our future, and I am optimistic we can forge a sense of purpose and patriotism for the decades ahead to create a country and communities in which all our citizens can flourish. We must start by imagining the long-term future we want to create.

And you should imagine it too.

Thank you.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Our Tribal Elite

We are experiencing on a massively universal scale a convulsive ingathering of people in their numberless grouping of kinds—tribal, racial, linguistic, religious, national. It is a great clustering into separatenesses that will, it is thought, improve, insure, or extend each group’s power or place, to keep it safe or safer from the power, threat, or hostility of others. This is obviously no new condition, only the latest and by far the most inclusive chapter of the old story in which after failing again to find how they can co-exist in sight of each other without tearing each other from limb to limb, Isaac and Ishmael clash and part in panic and retreat once more into their caves. Harold Isaacs, Idols of the Tribe
It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses. James Traub

Did Bob Geldof win the Brexit Referendum for Leave? His little antic on the Thames in the run up to the vote probably convinced a few hundred thousand Sun readers which side they were on. That's what happens when you're a member of the IYI elite (Taleb's label: Intellectual-Yet-Idiot). But as James Traub signals, the elite are beginning to realise that they belong to a tribe too, and maybe they should 'ingather' as well to protect themselves from those other, nasty tribes. Heck, even The Guardian is beginning to realise that 'elections are bad for democracy'. IYI indeed.

Of course this has all happened before. Harold Isaacs made the above observation back in 1975. My favourite Archdruid channels a different historian to explain what's going on, this time Arnold Toynbee:
Societies in decline, he pointed out, schism into two unequal parts: a dominant minority that monopolizes the political system and its payoffs, and an internal proletariat that carries most of the costs of the existing order of things and is denied access to most of its benefits. As the schism develops, the dominant minority loses track of the fundamental law of politics—the masses will only remain loyal to their leaders if the leaders remain loyal to them—and the internal proletariat responds by rejecting not only the dominant minority’s leadership but its values and ideals as well.
Toynbee famously once observed that 'civilizations die from suicide, not by murder'. It's a well established pattern apparently.

But probably the best analysis I have read recently about Brexit and all that is Damon Linker's superb analysis of how Brexit shattered progressives' dearest illusions. Here are a few choice quotes:
But what we've seen from a wide range of writers and analysts in the days since the Brexit vote is not necessarily worry. It is shock. Fury. Disgust. Despair. A faith has been shaken, illusions shattered, pieties punctured. This is what happens when a life-orienting system of belief gets smashed on the rocks of history. The name of that shattered system of belief? Progressivism.
And the it gets interesting:
The European Union may well be the purest and most ambitious experiment in progressivism ever attempted — a transnational economic and political entity founded entirely on the moral premises of humanitarian universalism, which is to say on the negation of particularistic attachments.  
...But what if progressivism isn't inevitable at all? What if people will always be inclined by nature to love their own — themselves, their families, their neighbors, members of their churches, their fellow citizens, their country — more than they love the placeless abstraction of "humanity"? In that case, the act of ignoring or even denigrating this love will have the effect of provoking its defensive wrath and ultimately making it stronger.
Please do read the whole thing.

As I said before, I think the biggest fallout from Brexit will be political not economic (the latter may even prove benign for the UK, though probably not for Ireland). But the political consequences could be very dire indeed if they amount to a 'coup d'etat' by Europe's IYI elite should they tire of the whole democracy thing. The retreat to the caves has begun.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Young, Male & Anti-Establishment

YouGov has released the results of their Brexit exit poll, weighted to the, ahem, actual result.

Not surprisingly, the generational divide by age stands out - which I noted previously and which led me to forecast a win for Leave at the start of June.

But a more surprising finding has also emerged from the exit poll: young British men were twice as likely to vote Leave as young British women, I've highlighted the results in red:

What's going on? Partly it is the often observed inclination for women to vote for the status quo more than men. That's not to say that women are more conservative than men, by the way. Whether the status quo is liberal/leftist/globalist (the current setting) or conservative/rightist/nationalist, women lean towards the status quo more than men, most of the time.

But I think there's more to it than that. I think young men in Britain, and elsewhere I suspect, have found themselves trapped in the glass cellar and have had enough. The fact that young men were twice as likely as young women to vote Leave is just one measure of their dissatisfaction (though the majority voted Remain it should be added).

Mike Carter's extraordinary article on the England that has been left behind paints a picture of the despair that many Britons, young and old, are experiencing in their daily lives. Just one line says it all:
What does it say about a town when even the charity shops are struggling?
The political party that channels the anti-establishment mood of so many young, British men will have an army of supporters and activists on its side. Better their dissatisfaction be channelled into democratic politics than the alternative...

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Forecasts Are Always Wrong

I always thought Brexit would create more political problems for Ireland and Europe than economic ones. All the forecasts of economic 'doom and gloom' that appear to accompany every change the Establishment disapproves of tend to turn out wrong.

Roger Bootle has noticed this as well and thinks Brexit will turn out to be the great escape:
I am afraid the consensus of economic experts has an extraordinary record of getting big practical issues horrendously wrong. The UK has just made a momentous decision that is bound to cause some dislocation. In 1931, the UK was forced off the Gold Standard. The economic establishment warned that this would be disastrous. Instead, it ushered in the fastest period of growth in our industrial history. In 1992 the establishment warned that we had to stay in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) or catastrophe would be unleashed. We were forced out and the economy blossomed. In the late 1990s we were warned by Uncle Tom Cobley and all that we must join the euro – or else. We didn’t – thank goodness – and we prospered. The weight of academic and establishment economists did not foresee “the death of inflation” or the financial crisis of 2008/9. A prolonged period of modesty from them would be appropriate.
That's not to say it will be an easy economic ride for Ireland - but what if Brexit turns out to be good not just for the British economy but for ours as well?

I think the reverse about the prospect of a President Trump, by the way. While the commentariat are focused on the politics (and the name calling), it's the economic impact of Trump in the White House that should concern us most. A President who wants to Make America Great Again will insist on all those 'tax shy' American companies we currently host on this fair island returning to their homeland - or else.

I'd suggest the next time Trump offers to visit us that our Taoiseach join him for a round of golf rather than indulging in leftist virtue signalling in the Dáil.  One forecast I am certain of: we'll need all the friends we can get in the turbulent years ahead.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Long Time Gone

Richard Fernandez channels the inevitable Titanic metaphor:
Countries don't usually walk out on a good thing without a reason just as passengers don't leave 50,000 ton ocean liners for wooden boats without motivation.
It has been fascinating to watch 'Remainers' (including their Irish counterparts) explain why more than 17 million Britons voted to leave the EU. Most of the explanations range from racism to educational attainment (or lack thereof) to old age (grandad's army) and back to racism again. Some have held their nose to lift the lid and look a little closer. Apparently the Leavers were motivated by nostalgia, nationalism and racism (but sure didn't we know that already?)

Yet as someone once said: the issue is never the issue. Brexit wasn't about immigration no more than the result of our recent general election was about water charges. What happened on 23rd June 2016 was that the bigger, more cohesive tribe won. All politics is tribal, repeat: ALL. The problem is - as I've noted before - not everyone realises they belong to a tribe: especially, it would seem, the Remainers.

The tribal bonds that matter most are those based on Identity. The Leavers focused on belonging, independence and cohesion. While the Remainers argued from the wrong end of the Persuasion Stack - promising the Great Euro Shopping Mall in the sky: which didn't cut it for some reason.

Europe has hit an iceberg, let's hope there are enough lifeboats.

Friday, June 24, 2016


As with most historic moments there's a tendency to view things as 'the end of the world as we know it'. But it isn't: the birds keep singing and the rain keeps raining.

But it's certainly the end of something - perhaps the end of globalisation as a political and not just economic force in human affairs for a generation or two. Certainly the forward march of the European Union has been halted. But again, it's too early to tell, as it is with most things Brexit-related right now.

One thing I expect future historians will wonder is why so many people were surprised by the outcome of yesterday's UK referendum?  The Pew Research Center recently published a poll showing attitudes towards the European Union from within and without the EU. I've extracted the data and summarised the trend (where data is available) between 2007 and 2016. Only one country has become more favourably disposed towards the EU in recent years: the United States of America. As for European countries? Not so much. I've ranked the results by 'net favourability' (% favourable minus % unfavourable), showing the country that is least favourably disposed first:

Attitudes towards the European Union
% Favourable % Unfavourable Net Favourable
2007 2016 2007 2016 2007 2016
Greece 27 71 -44
France 62 38 38 61 24 -23
UK 52 44 36 48 16 -4
Spain 80 47 15 49 65 -2
Germany 68 50 30 48 38 2
Netherlands 51 46 5
Sweden 59 54 37 44 22 10
Italy 78 58 13 39 65 19
Hungary 61 37 24
USA 47 53 22 27 25 26
Poland 83 72 11 22 72 50
Q. Please tell me if you have a very favorable, somwhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable opinion of the European Union?
Source: Pew Research Center

Not surprisingly, Greece is least favourably disposed towards the EU right now. But the big surprise is France - they are even less favourably disposed than the British (as I noted before). Nevertheless, the trend is quite stark: in every single EU country for which there is trend data the % unfavourably disposed towards the European Union has risen sharply in the past ten years.

There's no need to panic just yet, but there's no excuse for complacency either.

St. Crispin's Revenge

God bless the English, I didn't think they had it in them any more.

Today is a great day for patriots everywhere, though probably not so good for the markets. June 23rd 2016 will go down in history as England's Easter Monday 1916.

Mind you, Easter Tuesday, Wednesday etc didn't go so well in 1916. But what came afterwards was quite extraordinary.

St Crispin would be proud, and we needn't think ourselves accurs'd we were not there:

Tuesday, June 7, 2016


Whilst things have taken an interesting turn across the Irish Sea (Peter Hitchens speculates the UK may have an early general election and even a constitutional crisis if there's a narrow win for Leave), it's what's happening across the English Channel that may matter even more to Europe's future (and Ireland's, come to think of it).

Yet another fascinating poll from YouGov, this time across seven EU countries including the UK, reveals a depth of negativity, pessimism and anger in mainland Europe that certainly took me by surprise. While I had heard about the recent air traffic controllers strike in France (about as seasonal and as welcome as greenfly), I hadn't quite grasped the very, very polarised mood in that country. There's even talk of another French Revolution and civil war. Way worse than greenfly.

The YouGov numbers are shocking: more than half of French adults feel their financial situation has worsened in the past 12 months (26% a lot worse), and nearly as many expect the situation to worsen again in the next 12 months (21% a lot worse). No surprise then that 80% of French people don't approve of their government's record to date, but maybe more surprising is that the Swedish, Germans, Finns and Danes aren't that far behind in their disapproval ratings either.

As for Brexit, the majority of Europeans in the poll expect that if Britain leaves then other countries will follow:

But back to France, what is going on? I recently read Michel Houellebecq's novel Submission - set in France's near future, 2022 to be precise - which paints a fictional picture of a country, even an entire civilisation, undergoing seismic shifts as a result of economic, social, cultural and religion strife. The focus is on the interplay between Islam and Laicité (France is reckoned to have the largest Muslim population in Europe, though it refuses to capture information about religion in its censuses).

What is clever about Houellebecq's novel is that he portrays Islam not as a revolutionary or radical force but as a conservative, even reactionary force in French affairs. The main Muslim political leader - Ben Abbes - is portrayed as one who is able to lead the national debate in a direction that the mainstream parties, nor his opponent the radical Tariq Ramadan, dare lead it:
Unlike his sometime rival Tariq Ramadan, Ben Abbes had kept his distance from the anti-capitalist left. He understood that the pro-growth right had won the ‘war of ideas’, that young people today had become entrepreneurs, and that no one saw any alternative to the free market. But his real stroke of genius was to grasp that elections would no longer be about the economy, but about values, and that here, too, the right was about to win the ‘war of ideas’ without a fight. 
But Abbes takes the struggle for values in a new and different direction, as Houellebecq describes it:
Whereas Ramadan presented sharia as forward-looking, even revolutionary, Ben Abbes restored its reassuring, traditional value - with a perfume of exoticism that made it all the more attractive. When he campaigned on family values, traditional morality and, by extension, patriarchy, an avenue opened up to him that neither the conservatives nor the National Front could take without being called reactionaries or even fascists by the last of the soixante-huitards, those progressive mummified corpses - extinct in the wider world - who managed to hang on the citadels of the media, still cursing the evil of the times and the toxic atmosphere of the country. Only Ben Abbes was spared. The left, paralysed by his multi-cultural background, had never been able to fight him, or so much as mention his name.
France still has its soixante-huitards, of course, and no doubt they're active in the current discontent gripping the country. But the mood now gripping Europe - angry, anti-establishment and open to radical change - isn't confined to 'mummified corpses' and it certainly won't go away after the 23rd June.

It's going to be a long hot summer in Europe, though hopefully without the greenfly.

Monday, June 6, 2016


Today's poll results from YouGov are of historic importance. It looks like the British will vote to leave the EU later this month:

It's a huge poll - sample of 3,495 - and the detailed tables that accompany the article are fascinating (for those of us into that sort-of-thing). First of all, it isn't the British who will vote to leave, it's the English living outside of London. Moreover, I haven't seen such a stark generational divide in a set of opinion polls in a very long time: the majority of 18-25 year olds want to remain in the EU; the majority of those over 50 want to leave. Both men and women are more likely to vote Leave than Remain, but more women are undecided than men (not unusual at this stage in an election/referendum). So the women will be decisive (as they were in the Scottish Referendum).

Based on this poll - and the momentum evident in the Leave vote since YouGov's April poll, you'd have to say it looks like 'Brits Out' (sorry, couldn't resist it :)

Andrew Cadman, referencing Muhammad Ali's recent demise, compares the Remain's campaign to poor old George Forman:
One of the many famous moments of sporting history that the recently departed Muhammad “The Greatest” Ali was associated with was the “Rope-a-Dope” tactic, deployed against George Foreman during the “Rumble in the Jungle” bout in 1974. Foreman hammered Ali relentlessly for almost the entire fight. Ali stayed on the ropes absorbing the punishment, countering just enough to avoid a technical knockout. Everyone thought Ali was finished, and even his own corner, ignorant of his plans, despaired. Late in the fight, Ali stormed out and took the initiative against a shocked Foreman, who was by this time too exhausted to change tactics. 
Something similar seems to have happened with the EU referendum campaign. The tactics of the Remainers were plainly to bludgeon the Leavers on the economy, supplying a blizzard of statistics (mostly false) and a line-up of heavyweight international figures all singing from the Remain hymn sheet. By this time, it was supposed to be all over: a dazed and confused Leave campaign would be on the ropes, still standing in name only.
It's going to go all the way to 12 rounds, and boy is it going to be a thriller.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

What's the Story?

Brexit was getting a bit boring until recently: one dismal report after another forecasting doom and disaster should the UK vote to leave. And sure, as we all know, economic forecasts are never wrong...

But some, more recent analyses and commentaries on the debate have at least been more interesting. Take BrainJuicer's fascinating look at the 'stories' being told about the choices facing Britain right now. It provides a deep insight into the seven narratives shaping the debate about the future, illustrated below:

Their point? Both sides are focused on the wrong stories: and someone needs to grab hold of 'Quest' (a story that talks about how Britain will thrive in the 21st century by building a strong and fair economy), but neither side has. Do read the whole thing.

Some on the Leave side think it's too late, however. From a libertarian perspective (apparently there are a few left in Britain), we get the following observation about the real issues at stake (and that are being ignored in the debate):
The ultimate cause of all the problems we face is not a few Directives that may or may not exist about the curvature of bananas. It is that we no longer see ourselves as a distinctive people, able and willing to hold onto our ancestral homeland and our ancestral ways. Membership if the European Union is one symptom of this collective failure. So is multiculturalism. So is our cultural prostration before America. So is the degeneracy of our rulers, and the immiserisation of our working classes. These symptoms cannot be addressed before the cause is addressed.
Even some English Catholics are joining in the debate, with Alan Fimister citing St Augustine for why the EU has fallen victim to libido dominandi – the lust for dominion. Something one of the European Community's founders, Robert Schuman, once feared, warning that the European project of Christian Democracy, if it became anti-Christian, “would be a caricature which would sink into either tyranny or anarchy.”

But the question may be even more fundamental than that, namely: what does it takes to build and maintain a civilisation? There is an old English saying that 'politics is the art of marshalling hatreds'. Over at Farnham Street blog, the philosopher Joseph Tussman reminds us that every civilisation - and the political, social and economic institutions it spawns - must wrestle with five fundamental passions: Eros (Love), Indignation (Moral Righteousness), Curiosity, Acquisitiveness, and Pride. He observes:
Civilization requires the institutionalization of the necessary but dangerous passions. Any civilization is a particular way of doing so, achieving–growing into–its complex forms more or less by happy accident. To describe a culture is to map its institutions. To criticize or evaluate a culture is to judge the adequacy of its institutions in light of some conception of how the various passions can best be expressed or shaped or harnessed to serve a variety of human purposes.
So there's the real issue: is the European Union inevitably sinking into 'tyranny or anarchy' - in which the UK, and Ireland for that matter, would be better off out - or is it our continent's last remaining opportunity in an increasingly dangerous world to shape and harness our passions to serve 'better' human purposes?

I guess it depends on the story you tell.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Catching Up

The day job prevents me from writing (or reading) as much as I'd like. I use Pocket to file way interesting articles and blog posts I intend to read later. Right now I have over 300 'must read' items in my saved list. Ain't going to happen.

I suspect it's the same for everyone else: there has never been so much interesting, intelligent and relevant content to read... and so little time. Oh well, lucky I don't have to pay for it, sort of.

Scott Adams (currently my favourite political blogger, though he might not define himself that way) recently admitted in a podcast interview with Thor Holt (over at Write With Courage) that he hasn't read a book in the past couple of years: too busy writing them, as well as reading good content online.  He prefers non-fiction, like myself, so you're kind of spoilt for choice online these days. I listen to a lot of podcasts and rarely to the radio. Never has there been so much interesting, intelligent and relevant content to listen to... and so little time.

So where am I going with this? Nowhere really. Just adding my bit to the content mountain.

And here's a few from my Pocket list I actually have read recently, in no particular order:

Via The Reference Frame, on why the search for extraterrestrial life is a (left liberal) religion:
Not only these METI-ists believe that there must be lots of intelligent civilizations around. They also believe that these civilizations behave exactly as they "should" – pretty much like some idealized citizens of a politically correct country that some progressive want to bring to Earth in 2050. So these ETs will be interested in us, love us, know how to contact us and make us happy, and our contribution to initiate these kind interactions is exactly what these wise progressive anthropomorphic ETs need.
The probability that all these conditions are obeyed is basically infinitesimal. These assumptions represent a form of religion. It is a highly anthropomorphic religion – but at the same time, it is a religion mostly trusted by left-wingers. 
The clip from Mars Attacks! is a classic, by the way.

Robert Epstein, via Aeon, on why the 'brain is a computer/thought is software' analogy is so wrong, it's actually holding back neuroscience:
To understand even the basics of how the brain maintains the human intellect, we might need to know not just the current state of all 86 billion neurons and their 100 trillion interconnections, not just the varying strengths with which they are connected, and not just the states of more than 1,000 proteins that exist at each connection point, but how the moment-to-moment activity of the brain contributes to the integrity of the system. Add to this the uniqueness of each brain, brought about in part because of the uniqueness of each person’s life history, and Kandel’s prediction starts to sound overly optimistic. (In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, the neuroscientist Kenneth Miller suggested it will take ‘centuries’ just to figure out basic neuronal connectivity.)
Finally, Charles Hugh-Smith on the destabilising consequences of global financialisation:
In the global economy, trade is not conducted between equals; those with access to the unlimited credit of financialization can outbid domestic capital for assets, labor and political favours. The mobility and scale of capital give it outsized influence in small, credit-starved local markets. 
Mobile capital, with its essentially unlimited line of credit, can overwhelm the local political system, buying favors and cutting deals to limit costs and competition. Local elites are soon co-opted, and people starved for cash income are easily recruited as labor.
Local assets--priced for the local economy where credit and cash are both limited--are snapped up on the cheap by global capital, and sold for immense profits.
Sort of explains why the vulture funds that bought up distressed Irish assets are enjoying spectacular returns on their investment, even as the domestic economy struggles to achieve 2% growth let alone double-digit growth.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Stacking the Referendum

Brexit is shaping up to be a closer run thing than the Scottish Referendum. That said, I find it amazing how much the 'debate' is still cast in terms of 'better off/worse off' economic conjecture, when experience shows that most speculations about the positive (or negative) economic consequences of this decision or another are almost invariably wrong, often orders of magnitude wrong. So I take all the economic forecasts from both the In and the Out campaigns with a large pinch of salt. They simply serve the task of reassuring their own supporters that they have made the 'smarter' choice.

Anyway, I think the more interesting campaign is the one about Identity. As Scott Adams keeps reminding us in relation to Trump's campaign, arguments based on Reason are useless (though marginally less worse than arguments based on Definition) - here's the Persuasion Stack as he calls it:

Arguments based on Analogy are better, but arguments based on Identity are best. The Brexit campaign - when everyone finally tires of even more ludicrous prophecies of economic doom following Brexit (i.e.: persuasion by Reason) - will give way to one about Identity (as it already has in some quarters).

But the big question is which 'Identity'? In a polity as complex as the United Kingdom, you can very quickly fall back down the persuasion stack to Definition, and then you lose. But it is a tricky one. As I noted  before on the Brexit topic, Old England is dying, and may already be dead. I mourn its loss, funny enough.

There is though another Identity worth revisiting. Frank Ferudi sees an opportunity to reclaim Europe from the EU, opening up the vista of a 'Real Europeans want Out' kind of Identity campaign. But it may be too late: the referendum is less than two months away (June 23rd), so unless Boris Johnson goes full Trump (not beyond the bounds...) then the debate may just remain at the level of Reason.

But whatever the outcome (for the record: if I was English I'd vote Out, but being Irish it suits me better if they vote In) the issue of Identity will keep coming back into focus, and not just in England and not in a good way either. Glynn Harrison has a superb essay on The Modern Crisis of Identity over at the Jubilee Centre, which raises even bigger issues than Brexit.

As he observes in the context of Western Civilisation's headlong rush into 'Identity-fluidity' and some of the pathological consequences that follow:
Issues of identity are relevant to the quality of relationships and our ability to form co-operative communities. Durable relationships depend upon the capacity to anticipate the needs of the other and to respond in predictable ways. This is especially important in families where stability and predictability are fundamental to the healthy development of children. Community is undermined as well if individuals are constantly in flux. And where an individual’s sense of worth is constantly at stake, empathy towards others is reduced: few emotional resources remain available for others when so much care and attention needs to be expended upon oneself.
If Identity politics circles right back to Definition then we all lose - as we're witnessing in a growing number of European nations, and even back home here in Ireland.

The next two months will be very interesting: the next two years will be unprecedented.

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