No use whining or talking about the GPO now

Fri, Nov 19, 2010, 00:00

When people can talk without irony of ‘Ireland Inc’, why should we complain about being put into examinership?

THERE’S AN engaging if somewhat postliterate e-mail going around the place on the subject of debt. Adjusted for syntax, punctuation and grammar, it goes something like this:

A rich American arrives in a village, walks into the only hotel, places a €100 note on the counter and asks to inspect the rooms with a view to deciding whether to stay the night.

The hotelier hands him a bunch of keys and, as the American disappears into the lift, runs next door to pay the €100 he owes the local butcher. The butcher runs across the road to pay the farmer to whom he owes €100. The farmer goes down to the pub to discharge the €100 debt he owes there. The publican gives the note to the local hooker, with whom he’s been doing some business, and she runs up to the hotel to settle the €100 bill she’s run up for rooms.

The American comes down after inspecting the rooms, which he found unsatisfactory. He returns to the desk, picks up the €100, walks out of the hotel and leaves town. The parable concludes: “No one produced anything, no one earned anything but the whole village is now out of debt and looking forward to the future with a lot more optimism”.

It’s a diverting hypothesis carrying some important truths. One is that insolvency is sometimes a technical problem, rather than, say, a means issue. Money is a technology, not a moral quantity. Economies move in mysterious ways and economists in general haven’t a clue how it all works.

Since we Irish long ago lost any sense of connection between what we do and what we feel entitled to earn, this story should enable us to feel hopeful about the prospects of the serendipitous nature of global economics eventually coming to our rescue. It worked before, so why not again? What we are suffering is not some absolute failure of resources or productive capacities. There has been no blight. All that has happened is that the global forces to which we committed most of our hopes have left us high and dry.

Due to the malfunctioning of the system, an imbalance of capital resources has built up on one side of the equation. A technical adjustment is necessary – that is all.

A persistent refrain of recent public conversation has been the “reputational damage” we face by virtue of having to be bailed-out by the EU and/or the IMF. Why? Was not European solidarity central to the argument for going into the euro zone in the first place – that our “partners” would give us a digout if we got into trouble? Why is loss of sovereignty now a problem when for 30 years sovereignty has been a “sacred cow” standing between us and progress?

There is nothing new or shocking about bailouts. General Motors, one of the world’s most iconic companies is now back on four wheels after last year getting a massive bailout from the US treasury. When people can talk without irony of “Ireland Inc”, why should we complain about being put into examinership?

It’s silly to talk about Ireland as a “delinquent state”, when “where we are” is the inevitable consequence of the kind of economy we chose to pursue.

Emerging from the mists of the 1950s, and finding ourselves with an undeveloped economy and no clue how to make it function, we decided to sell off our natural resources and bits of our sovereignty in return for folding stuff. Then we hit on the idea of offering Ireland to the multinational industrial sector as a cheap location in which to operate, no questions asked, which meant that our people could be provided with jobs without any expenditure of indigenous effort. Then we joined the euro and thought it no more than our due when Ireland was flooded with German money looking to turn a trick.

Surrendering all levers and mechanisms by which we might have continued to exercise control over our own collective destiny, we lay back and subjected ourselves to the whim of world capitalism.

Now the casino has collapsed on top of us, why should we be surprised, still less embarrassed? When you place your fortunes in the hands of transnational gamblers, you should expect to see stars every once in a while.

The point is this: we are not the masters of our own destiny and have not been for many years. That’s how we wanted it. It is a bit rich, if I may use that term in this rather inapposite context, for those who led the charge to have us give away everything true and useful about ourselves to now be whining about the loss of sovereignty.

When you have conditioned people for years to turn their backs on the past and think and speak only about “Ireland Inc”, it might be wiser and more edifying to say nothing about the GPO.

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