Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ireland's President Michael D Higgins says intellectual crisis is worse than economic crisis

Ireland's President
Michael D Higgins
I suspect I'm the only person in Ireland taking new President Michael D Higgins seriously. Truly. That's the only way I can explain why his comments yesterday have received so little attention.

Yesterday in a lengthy (and tedious) speech Higgins said: "There is now I believe an intellectual crisis that is far more serious than the economic one, the one which fills the papers; dominates the programmes in our media."

What utter tripe. I only wish Higgins had said this before last October's election because he would not be President now if he had. Oh no, during the campaign the media talked about Higgins as a poet, an academic, an activist, but they failed to press home the fact that he is also a pompous windbag.

Honestly, what planet is Higgins living on? Ireland is littered with the wreckage of a failed economy, of the effects of poor regulation and inept regulators, of a European Union that is anything but united, of a government that saddled us with public expenditures far in excess of what we can afford and Higgins thinks none of this is as serious as the need for academics to revisit the social theories of Max Weber.

{Read the whole thing for yourself, but have plenty of coffee at the ready. I told you it was tedious.}

I'm not disputing that Ireland has major issues and I welcome the input of intellectuals and academics on these issues. However, to imply that the anything that's going on in the halls of Irish academia is more important than the business failures, job losses, emigration and budget cuts in the real world is insulting to the rest of us plebeians, a.k.a. the citizens of Ireland.

I would bet that even some of those academics listening to Higgins yesterday were thinking to themselves, "Easy there Michael. All we do is argue among ourselves and then toss out occasional papers printed in journals. We don't really have any solutions. We're not going to create new businesses that will employ the jobless thousands."

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Higgins fancies himself as an intellectual. His speech is full of clues as to what he really believes should be done: people like him - thinkers - should be given a lot more authority to set down what is and what is not allowed in terms of economic policy, social policy and everywhere else that matters.

Higgins believes not only that the free market is irrational, but evil. It is sin. It must be avoided if possible, tightly controlled if not. He will tell us what we should want and when we should want it.

Higgins says the market has failed, but his model has failed too. His model was tried before and it produced a society and an economy that was great at producing chess players, but not washing machines; great at producing ballets, but not food; great at unaccountable bureaucracy, but terrible at change and freedom.

Yes, the market has wreaked havoc on Ireland, but much of that was thanks to the failure of our central planners in Dublin and Brussels. I see no reason to suppose that Higgins and his intellectual friends could do better. I'll take my chances with the market and freedom any day over Higgins' model society.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Michael Noonan doesn't get that emigration is a disaster for Ireland

Michael Noonan - Ireland's Minister for Finance
Ireland's Minister for Finance garnered a healthy heaping of headlines for himself last week when he decided to give his two cents on what is a very sensitive subject in Ireland: emigration. In answering a question from a reporter Noonan provided a handy soundbite for the press to hang him with when he said that there were a lot of families for whom emigration was a "free choice of lifestyle."

Frankly, I think Noonan's language was a bit clunky, but the gist of his full answer was not as insensitive as was portrayed by the media.

He cited his own family as an example of what he meant. Noonan said his three grown up children were living abroad, but this was a "free choice of lifestyle and what they wanted to do with their lives." He added that he didn't think "any of the three could be described as an emigrant."

I disagree with him on that last point. His children are emigrants even if they were not, as he admitted others have been, "driven abroad." Noonan noted the differences between his children's experiences and those thousands who have left Ireland recently after losing their jobs in a bloated construction sector. Most of those people have "absolutely no hope ... of being re-employed in the building industry again in Ireland."

Is that really all that insensitive? It's candid, but true too. Would it be better if he'd said that he hoped one day all of those people would be able to come back and find positions in construction even though he knows that cannot - and should not - happen? Of course not because that would be insulting to them and to all of us still living in Ireland.
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Although I don't accept that Noonan was being insensitive, I wouldn't have a problem with him even if he had been insensitive. I'm sick of sensitive politicians. I don't want them to 'feel my pain.'

The problem with what Noonan said is that emigration is a huge negative for Ireland, but he doesn't seem to understand that..

If emigration is a positive for the country then by all means let's hear Michael Noonan make the case. We won't hear anything of the kind, however, because emigration is a loser for the nation whether the people emigrating are "driven abroad" or not.

Noonan's comment about it being a "lifestyle" choice is ridiculous. It's been a "lifestyle choice" for decades. Even those who left in the 1950s left not because they were facing death by starvation, but because they couldn't face a lifetime of subsistence farming or life as one of the many urban poor. They knew there was a better life out there and they went to find it. That was the choice they made. Others made the opposite choice. It was a choice, a "lifestyle" choice if you like.

Every emigrant is a loss, a loss of someone with the spunk and ambition enough to strike out for a foreign land, with the desire for change that a belief that there can be something new and they can make that happen. These people are risk-takers, the same people who might open a new business if they saw sufficient light at the end of the tunnel. In Ireland today, as in the 1980s and the 1950s, the light at the end of the tunnel is too dim and too far away to keep these people here.

Noonan concluded his remarks with, "What we have to make sure is that our young people have the best possible education right up to third level so that when they go, they’re employed as young professionals in their country of destination rather than the kind of traditional image of Irish emigrants in the 1950s."

In other words, we should tax ourselves til it hurts to provide a first class education - "right up to third level" - for people who are then going to take all that expensive book learning and head overseas and enhance the economy of some other country.

What's the sense in that? Are we better off because we paid so much to prepare these people to be productive in some other nation's economy? Those who left in the 1950s were a big loss in terms of energy and ambition, but at least they weren't taking tens of thousands of dollars worth of education with them.

Here's an analogy. What if the New York Mets General Manager proclaimed himself satisfied that at least when Jose Reyes left for the Florida Marlins that he took with him the years of training and development the Mets had provided him? Now imagine if Reyes had left the Mets not after six years in the Major Leagues, but just as he was ready to begin his big league career, to begin helping his team win games. The GM would be fired for saying something so stupid, but that's essentially what Noonan said last week.

The Minister for Finance of a bankrupt nation doesn't recognize that losing people who have just completed years of expensive education, who are on the cusp of becoming productive citizens, is a disaster for the country.

Noonan didn't need to soothe our hurt feelings and he shouldn't have tried. That's not his job. What he should have done is demonstrate that he understood what emigration really means to Ireland. He should have expressed disappointment that the government has so far failed to find the means to entice those people to stay. He needed to show a determination to stem that flow immediately.

He didn't do so because he doesn't get it. To Noonan and to the governing classes generally, emigration is a safety valve, a means of getting the most disgruntled out of their hair. For that reason, history will go on repeating itself.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

When Steve Jobs and Apple first came to Ireland

Steve Jobs opened plant in Cork in 1980
December 23, 1980 and thousands of Irish people were facing the prospect of no electricity on Christmas Day. The basics of modern life - electricity, telephones, indoor plumbing - were still relatively new in Ireland then. Anyone describing the modern, telecommunications-dominated world of today would have sounded like a science-fiction writer, not a businessman about to open a new factory. Yet, Steve Jobs was in Ireland talking about the future.

My wife and I were going through boxes of my father-in-law's papers and pictures over the weekend. We found a treasure trove of genealogical tidbits such as dates of birth, marriage certificates, which provide lost maiden names, etc.

There were also a few old newspaper cuttings, which are always interesting. Airplane, The Blues Brothers, Brubaker and The Shining were among the movies playing that Christmas in Dublin.

There were a couple of news items that caught my eye.

Christmas, of course, was a focal point. An industrial dispute at the national electricity company threatened to leave many people in the west of Ireland with no electricity for Christmas. I don't know how that turned out. There was an article about a man spotted stealing a piece of buttered bread from the sparrows and feeding it to the ducks. They were simpler times.

There was a short item on a speech by Pope John Paul II, who was warning of the dangers that arise when political blocs "seek to assert their rights over small nations." Although he was alluding to his native Poland, Ireland in 2012 is being squeezed very hard by the political bloc that currently controls the European Union.

There was, however, one article that really stood out, that leaped off the page. An American company was opening a new factory in Cork and the the head of that company was saying some radical things. The company was Apple Computers and the man was Steven Jobs (or Stephen Jobs - the caption writer didn't agree with the journalist).
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You can sense journalist Dick Cross is skeptical where he writes that "Irish housewives could be throwing away cookery books and taking their recipes off the screens of mini computers" and doctors will similarly store and retrieve patient histories. Cross' skepticism is tempered when he notes that Jobs has become a "millionaire in just four years."

Cross wasn't the only non-believer in attendance at the opening or at least his report indicates he wasn't. "At the Holyhill, Cork, assembly plant there is no time clock to monitor the coming and going of the workers. Many experienced trade union people lifted their eyebrows in disbelief at the concept." Jobs trusted his employees, but that was clearly not the norm in Ireland in 1980.

Nothing earth-shattering in the report, but I couldn't help wondering what those tough union folks made of Jobs and Apple over the 30 years since the Cork plant opened. Did they regale people with stories of how they were there when it all started, how they could see it in his eyes that he and Apple were going to be wildly successful and that the people of Cork were on a winner from the start? Or did they admit that they thought he was a loon and that his way of doing business would never work in Ireland?

These days "Irish housewives" don't save recipes on their "minicomputers." They call them up from the web using their iPads. Irish doctors presumably store all sorts of patient data in computer databases, although based on what I heard from the Minister for Health this morning, our hospitals have a way to go on this yet.

I don't know if other people shared Jobs' vision back in 1980, but I bet there were very few in Ireland. Possibly none, although I bet those who were the first employees of Apple in Ireland were quick converts. I can well imagine that many who read that report simply thought to themselves that they'd be happy if they could get a reliable telephone and electricity supply. They probably didn't so much disbelieve Steve Jobs as assume he was actually from "a Galaxy Far Far Away" from Ireland.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

America's losing out to Canada, Australia on luring ambitious Irish people

Saskatchewan's Premier Brad Wall,
who wants Irish workers to
relocate to his Province.
The government of Saskatchewan is planning a mission to Ireland to recruit workers to come work in the central Canadian province. Saskatchewan isn't the only Canadian province interested in recruiting Irish workers either. Nova Scotia and a few others are also keen. Western Australia and other Australian states are of similar minds.

Canada and Australia are both actively seeking Irish workers.Given the high unemployment and dismal projections of years of economic stagnation, Irish people are responding. They're heading to both places in their tens of thousands. Definitely, Ireland's loss is Canada and Australia's gain.

When it comes to Irish immigration to America it's always about 'the undocumented' – campaigners pleading for clemency for those who have gone to live and work in America without the papers being in order. I'm not belittling that. There's real human suffering there. I wouldn't want to undermine the efforts of those hoping to ease the plight of the people caught in that legal limbo.

I suppose it's just that if I were in Washington meeting members of Congress I'd show them the Canadian and Australian recruiting campaigns and ask, "What is it those two countries see that we don't? Why are they making such an effort to entice Irish workers while we have erected almost insurmountable barriers to the same people?"

The fact we're talking about Canada and Australia is important. Those two countries are the two nations on Earth most like America in terms of population and attitude. What is it about the Irish that has the Canadians and the Australians so focused on recruiting them? I'll tell you: the Irish emigrants of 2012 are essentially the same people who flooded into America in the years leading up to WWI.

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I know that today's young Irish generation has had a different up-bringing to that of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. They've been raised in a different Ireland, had different experiences and have different political and religious views than those who went to America in the past. Yet, in many ways - especially those that matter to the United States of America - the young Irish of 2012 are the same decent, hard-working people who went to America seeking new opportunities in 1912.

Just as too often in the past, today's Ireland has nothing for a large proportion of the Irish people. Many of those people are not content to sit around waiting for something to happen. They want to make it happen for themselves even if it's outside Ireland. Those are the people heading to Canada and Australia.

What makes this generation of disenfranchised Irish different from those in the past is today's potential emigrants are very well educated. A large percentage have top-notch degrees. Also many have already had a brief taste of success, they've acquired the kind of skills that will benefit employers in a forward-looking economy. They're hungry and talented. And they have more confidence in themselves than those who've gone before. They're also more entrepreneurial.

These Irish people will be a real benefit to whichever country they move to. That many would love to go to the United States is beyond question, but they cannot. They are unwelcome. They won't worry about it too much, though, because if America doesn't want them someone else does.

The loss is America's more than it's these quality Irish people. Barring such people when they're in such demand elsewhere is so breathtakingly stupid it hurts.

Yes, of course, the American economy is down now and not really looking for new workers, but now is is the time to correct this so that when US companies are again looking for skilled workers the Irish are available to them.

Now is the time for America to prepare to compete with Australia and Canada. Irish emigrants have so much to offer America, but America has to want them, has to open the door to them. If not, they'll simply pass on by to the next-door neighbors who have the door opened and cake baked ready to welcome them.

{Photo from CTV.}