January 2, 2005

Rich Ireland leads to a stampede for status

Posted in Celtic Tiger · 4 comments ·
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What is your New Year resolution? Drink less? Exercise? Eat better food, more regularly and in smaller portions? Or are you going to take up swimming, yoga or Pilates?

Why not go for an extreme detox, with nothing but freshwater and asparagus passing your lips for a week or two?

Whatever your good intentions, it is highly likely they will be based on ingestion denial of some sort, and boil down to a resolve to put less of this or that in your mouth in 2005.

Contrast with our behaviour over Christmas. Food dominated. Cooking it, roasting it, baking it, grilling it, frying it, poaching it, blanching it, flamb�ing it, marinating it, braising it, saut�ing it, searing it, mashing it, whisking it, spit-roasting it, toasting it, coddling it, scrambling it, eating it, savouring it, tasting it, gobbling it, wolfing it, picking at it, and ultimately, of course, washing it down.

The Irish Christmas is about food.

There’s nothing new in this; Yuletide has always been about eating too much. But today it is different. Food has now ascended into pole position in the starting grid that defines social status in our New Ireland.

Social status is actually more important in a booming economy than in a stagnant one. Years ago, when Ireland was poor, everyone knew his place. Our rigid social infrastructure was preserved by a lack of credit.

Without the lubricant of easy credit, the system rusted into position, the cogs of social mobility seized up and the only way to move up was through patronage, favouritism, professional exclusivity or marriage. Rich Ireland was essentially a club.

Easy credit has blown that club apart.

Now that practically everyone has access to overdrafts, credit cards, remortgaging and loans, most us are richer than we could have ever imagined.

But this brings its own problems. Far from being a rich classless society, we are now a neurotically status-obsessed nation. It is not good enough to be rich ,we now have to be tasteful, so that the Brown Thomaser can look down on the Liffey Valleyer.

Christmas 2004 marked a high point, not only in terms of spending, but also in what was coveted and what was pass�.

One of the unforeseen consequences of having – or at least borrowing – loads of money is that, in the daily battle for status in a society, very subtle changes occur just under the surface that distinguish the really posh from the merely rich.

The greatest irony about Ireland’s recent economic liberation by credit is that it has made us into a sophisticated but insecure shopping nation, constantly looking over our shoulders at the purchases of others.

Certain things once coveted are now the sign of such vulgarity that the shopping �lite wouldn’t go near them.

For example, not too long ago owning a Merc was a sign of wealth, maybe even taste in some quarters. But today any auld Flash Harry can cruise in a Kompressor; there are more Mercs per head in Dublin than Frankfurt. So the status value of a Merc has fallen.

To set yourself apart from the crowd, possessions have been replaced by appreciations.

There is nothing new in this. History suggests that rapid social change has led to all sorts of affectations whereby the new sophisticates elevated themselves from the rest.

For example, in the 1750s the Irish merchant classes started building parlours in their houses. Parlours were rooms separate from the rest of the house where swanky guests were entertained or the genteel cultivated their delicate sensibilities with such skills as needlework, piano-playing and the like.

Craftsmen were employed to make intricate furniture for the parlour, where the genteel could showoff their good manners.

In a fascinating book, The Refining of America, Richard Busman notes: �Parlour people claimed to live on a higher plane than the coarse populace, excelling them in their inner beings.�

This malarkey was repeated in Ireland at the time, and if you go into any real Dublin Georgian house, the parlour is a central and distinct part of the original Georgian floorplan.

A telling detail in Dublin is that, in contrast to all other doors in the houses, the parlour doors are hung to open not against the wall but into the room, providing a screen for the occupants should they be suddenly startled.

This suggests that, in Dublin at least, the parlour was the scene of far more lurid carry-on than piano-playing. Nevertheless, the parlour person was a certain type.

The food snob is the parlour person of the early 21st century. A crucial aspect of food snobbery is that it is cultivated.

The virtue of learning has always been part of the snobbery process. It is not so easy to buy knowledge.

An appreciation of the authentic farming habits of Mediterranean tomato growers is something to which only the well-travelled, well read and ultimately well-heeled can aspire. So if one is a great lover of fashionable Italian food, an appreciation of Tuscany, its cooking, flavours and ambience is the next best thing to having a gaff just outside Siena.

Food snobbery can place you squarely in a rarefied class. If you are a lover of Italian food, then you are in the �Italiany, virginy oily, Tuscany’ tribe, with other like-minded members of the tribe.

This tribe is quite socially distinct from the vulgarians in McDonald’s, who are in the �Big Mac, Whopper burger and fries’ tribe. They may well be materially richer, but, in terms of status, their tribe remains, satisfyingly, way off the snob’s radar.

The existence of McDonald’s, and more importantly its popularity, is essential to the food snob in the same way that crowded council estates are a godsend for the suburban middle classes with their garage extensions, fitted carpets and begonias.

McDonald’s allows the food snob and his tribe to wallow in their own tastefulness.

Nowhere is that tastefulness more essential than at Christmas when the tribe is entertaining and being entertained.

The food snob has certain rules of thumb: turkey bad, goose good; Brussels sprouts bad, fennel good; Christmas pudding bad, souffl� good. The food snob goes into overdrive at Christmas, keeping scores and settling them.

This strange behaviour is a function of money. When banks are lending hand-over-fist, the social landscape changes rapidly.

This prompts the threatened, educated class to react swiftly. When they are outbid by their traditional lessers for status symbols such as houses and cars, an inaccessible tribal barrier must be thrown up.

They might not be able to afford a house in the area in which they were brought up, but they can still read the menu in a fancy restaurant without having to ask what a �timbale’ is.

One of the most intriguing aspects of economics is the social and tribal ramifications of economic change. Food obsession, its appreciation and related point-scoring is simply one small example of the social tremors rumbling away just below the surface of our society.

Over the coming years, if the economy continues to grow, this tribal behaviour will become much more commonplace as the really posh tribe tries to distinguish itself from the merely very rich tribe.

In the next few weeks, we will see a related affectation of the food snob. Dieting, self-discipline and denial are part of the same process that spawned the food snob.

The educated, discerning tribe that appreciates the hidden joys of fennel never gets fat. Fatness is one of the classic telltale signs that distinguish the classy from the rich. Posh people are rarely overweight, arrivistes typically are. So in the shifting tribal sands of the shopping nation, girth plays a crucial role, and the serious new year’s denials will come from the threatened educated class.

For those genteel punters who distinguish themselves by what goes into their mouths, fatness is the real giveaway.

So tomorrow, when you go to the gym for the first time in 2005, realise that the poor soul panting on the Stairmaster beside you is not just trying to shed pounds, he is also desperately trying to join a tribe.


  1. TTFN

    David

    2005 will be an interesting year for the Irish property
    market. Estate agents and lenders seem to have reached a
    consensus, that prices will increase by 10% this year.
    This forecast is in the context of unprecedented housing
    output expected again this year.
    By the end of the year therefore someone buying an average
    priced home now, can expect (according to these
    forecasts), a paper profit of €25,000 by year’s end.

    These projections are surprising however given the
    following facts;

    1. House prices fell outside Dublin in the last quarter of
    2004.

    2. Rental values continue to fall and void periods
    increase in the investment market, this situation is
    unlikely to improve, the government has announced funding
    for 30,000 affordable housing units to be built over the
    next five years.

    3. Wage growth is nowhere near the actual or projected
    growth in house prices.

    4. Property markets in countries with similar economies to
    our own have seen poorly performing markets since the
    summer of last year.

    UK
    Mortgage approvals have fallen by 40% to their lowest
    level in a decade, house price falls which were first
    reported in the summer of 2004 are continuing. The vast
    majority of independent commentators have stated that we
    are seeing the bursting of a speculative bubble in the UK
    market.

    US
    Housing markets which saw the greatest escalation in
    prices over the last few years in California, Nevada and
    the north east are showing signs of a sharp slowdown.
    With falls of up to 20% recorded in San Diego and Orange
    County.

    Australia
    Prices in the major cities have seen falls for over a
    year. Brisbane for instance has seen a fall of 15% in the
    last quarter. Again commentators are stating that a
    speculative real estate bubble has burst.

    5. Levels of personal debt continue to grow at record
    levels.

    6. Ireland’s competitive position is being eroded with
    business and employers organisations repeatedly warning of
    the economic consequences.

    7. Serious issues with the role out of vital
    infrastructural projects have again been identified as
    posing a risk to Ireland’s competitiveness. After twenty
    years the M50 for instance is yet to be completed,
    broadband coverage is the worst in Europe save for
    Greece. Time and cost overruns, nimbyism and parish pump
    politicking have conspired to narrow the vital arteries of
    development in an infrastructuraly challenged nation,
    which cannot afford the extravagance of long winded
    development lead times.

    8. Average property prices relative to average incomes are
    now the highest in the world, compared to other markets
    not driven in part by non domestic demand.

    9. The above may not be an issue as Irish lending
    institutions seem to be able to find applicants who are
    able to afford these high P/E ratios. However if we
    consider the well documented disaster myopia which gripped
    banks in Japan etc before previous real estate busts and
    the weak hand that passes for Irish regulation of
    lending, this extraordinary munificence by our banks is
    understandable.

    The global economy is entering a time of uncertainty. The
    debt driven consumer has forestalled, (to date) the
    economic day of reckoning which should have followed the
    dotcom bust, the last speculative mania. Emergency base
    rates in Europe and the US and hyper low cost production
    costs in China have staved off a recession or worse.
    However there is a finite amount of debt that can be
    carried by society. Early signs of retrenchment by
    consumers are now evident in the UK and US and Ireland is
    almost uniquely exposed to the vagaries of any change in
    the fickle economic wind.

    You will of course not read anything as bearish as the
    above in any Irish newspaper, I fully understand that
    whoever pays the piper names the tune. The censorship
    mentality that blighted Ireland for much of the last
    centaury is alive and well if you dare to blaspheme the
    new religion.

    10%?, whoever said “don’t believe everything you read in
    the papers” was right.

  2. Sean Doyle

    David,

    Did you know that French people cannot read the menus in the
    fashionable restaurants in ‘Temple Barre’? Our freindly food
    snob wouldn’t pass leaving cert french, but then neither
    would those people whom the food snob despise.

    There’s one food that will leave the most seasoned of food
    snob aghast, and that’s a great big yawn. No amount of
    colloquial-italian/french/thai terms describing pseudo
    italian/french/thai cuisine can counteract it!

  3. Paul Mc Carthy

    Check out Status Anxiety by Alain De Botton..it makes for
    some very interesting reading..his website is
    http://www.alaindebotton.com

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