Now that you’ve splurged, given, received, admired, gushed, drunk, gorged and financed it all on the “never never”, let’s take stock. Will 2007 be a good or bad year? What will determine success or failure and, most importantly, will we continue on the path which we have trodden since 2000 – the one of ever-increasing debt, higher house prices, more immigration and more congestion? In short, will the affluent trajectory which has catapulted modern Ireland forward continue? Will the election be won on the simple slogan “it’s the economy, stupid” or will some other imperative grab us?
This time of the year is a usual one for reflection. What’s it all about? Have we got it right? Are we missing the big picture?
Many have argued – from both the Right and the Left – that a country like Ireland might just be reaching the point where more breakneck economic growth does not increase our happiness or quality of life. On the Left, commentators contend that we have lost something, our families are being destroyed by overworking, overeating and stress – all caused by the voracious demands of the corporate economy, the traditional Right agree, but see a different culprit.
They see the breakdown in the family and associated stress rooted in the moral permissiveness that affluence affords. Positions have been turned on their heads.
The Church speaks the language of Marx, while former Marxists – writing in the Press – extol the primacy of old-fashioned Catholic “back to basics” campaigns. So where do we go from here? Well the main thing that will affect the economy next year is the price of money. The Irish economy is in fact two beasts. The first is the multinational economy which is impervious to domestic trends. The only home-grown factor that impacts on it is whether there are enough graduates to fill positions and at what price. The key here is narrow competitiveness.
There are big problems in this regard, as we are not producing enough engineers in Ireland any more. If you visit Intel in Leixlip for example, it resembles the United Nations with small colonies of Indians, Italians and Israelis, as well as Chinese, Filipino and the ubiquitous, Eastern Europeans.
Our ability in this sphere is supply-driven. Can we supply the inputs of labour and keep the tax system advantageous? For these companies, the main factor in shaping 2007 is global demand. This seems to be fine. The only problem is whether the dollar falls significantly. In the past few months, the unsustainability of the US’s imbalance – both the trade and budget deficits – have become apparent.
A rapidly falling dollar would be bad news for us – although at this stage, Ireland is so much part of corporate America’s supply-chain that it is difficult to see an immediate threat to the multinational sector.
For your job and well-being, the big issue is domestic spending. This is the stuff we are all at and is dependent mainly on the rate of interest. We have broken the link long ago between income and spending; today the only thing that determines Irish spending is the availability of credit. If interest rates rise and the housing market weakens further, the game is up. This again looks unlikely in 2007.
The main reason is that Germany, although recovering, is not going to see a spending splurge and as a consequence, the European Central Bank, is unlikely to increase the cost of mortgages aggressively. But park that thought for a while because we still have to analyse why so many people feel empty in this time of plenty.
Why are so many people, from different ends of the ideological spectrum, asking questions about the limits of economic growth? Why will the election be fought on quality of life issues? The answer is simple – inflated expectations. We do not – nor should we – accept the idea that Ireland is catching up. We have appalling public services and they are getting worse by any international yardstick. This (rightly) angers us. Why – when the government has a huge budget surplus – should we have the worst road system in Europe? Why are the trains so filthy and second rate? Why are the schools overcrowded? Why does it cost 15 times the average wage to get a house and even when you gets this roof over your head, why are you out in the sticks, a four hour round-trip from your job?
However, there is another deep-seated and more psychological reason why economic growth is failing to make us happy. It is a question of infantilism. The more we have the more we want. And what we want, we don’t need. Other people’s possessions are making us envious and other’s achievements are making us jealous.
How did this happen? If you look at the way your children behave at Christmas, you get an idea of what is happening to the adult population. Children want all their presents now, they want the biggest and the best.
If they don’t get everything, they freak. They lose interest in minutes and want the next thing. Today’s Irish adults are behaving in the same way. No house is good enough, no kitchen sophisticated enough, no holiday exotic enough, no sex orgasmic enough – frankly, we have not grown up. At some stage between 1997 and 2007 our emotional growth rate has become stunted. We became obsessed with what others have. Instead of growing up, we reverted back to infancy. Ireland’s adult population is behaving like babies. If you doubt this, watch the scramble for 07 registrations in the next few days. This is the adult equivalent of Sylvanians for seven year olds at Christmas.
So rather than making us happy, copious cash is making many people insecure.
With precious little spiritual activity out there and no national binding project like, for example, the resurrection of the nation and independence, we are experiencing a form of stunted growth. Yes we are happy, but only momentarily until the next yearning comes on us, until the next “lack” of something manifests itself.
This is not just happening in Ireland, but is occurring all over the English-speaking world.
WE have simply forgotten to grow-up and are caught somewhere between permanent infantilism and adolescence – one second overwhelmingly egocentric, the next desperately wanting to belong. This is this psychological challenge for Ireland over the coming decade – and economics is not up to the job. This is a political challenge and what better year to ask the questions then this election year, 2007.
Dear Reader, I am taking a few months off to bury myself away researching and writing a new book. The column will return later in 2007. Happy New Year.