Chris Johns: Self-loathing locks some of us into perpetual pessimism

Confidence is vital and there are lots of reasons to feel better about the future

Sections of the Irish commentariat resemble the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in the way they congratulate themselves for the hundreds of people that listen to them but fail to recognise the millions that are turned off by their never-ending complaints. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Sections of the Irish commentariat resemble the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in the way they congratulate themselves for the hundreds of people that listen to them but fail to recognise the millions that are turned off by their never-ending complaints. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

 

Michael Noonan claimed in Budget 2016 – three times by my count – that he had abolished “boom and bust”. It was probably the quickest budget promise in history to be broken: by any reasonable definition, Ireland is experiencing an economic boom. To be fair, that is a promise only half-broken: boom doesn’t necessarily imply bust. Either way, there is little that any minister for finance, present or future, will be able to do about the most likely source of any bust: just as our current boom is mostly being driven by external events, so is our economic outlook.

That said, it would be churlish to ignore the things that this government – and previous administrations – have done right. The inventor of those awful words “Celtic Tiger” recently expressed admiration for “one of the most flexible labour markets in the world”, for example. Our tax and welfare system does more than any other OECD country’s to reduce that most modern global scourge, income inequality. People are literally killing themselves in an effort to come and work here. But we prefer dark commentary to reflections on just how well we are doing.

Culture of begrudgery

We are self-aware enough to know that we do this. Up to a point anyway. Nowhere in the world is the word begrudgery used so often and with such venom during periods of self-reflection. In Ireland we have elevated self-loathing to an art form: part of our conventional media comforts itself with the notion that the internet is destroying its core business – and sinks deeper into a self-inflicted malaise with articles and programmes about how awful is modern Ireland. It never stops to wonder if the reason why readers and viewers go elsewhere has as much to do with endless negativity as it does with the existence of Google and social media.

Yes, there are plenty of problems, risks and bad policies. Housing is the latest word to be twinned with crisis. It’s mostly a Dublin issue, one shared by London and San Francisco. Context is everything: are these problems a symptom of economic success or failure? That so many vibrant cities around the world can’t build enough houses suggests the problem is intractable. Or, at least, very complicated. The list of things wrong is a long one: bad planning practices, “nimbyism” and geography all play a role. So does lack of imagination. But the one thing the gloom merchants always fail to recognise is that this is the way we choose to organise ourselves. It is not the fault of a malevolent, self-serving, incompetent elite.

The ongoing furore over the universal social charge (USC) is another case in point. The reason why we call it a “social” charge is very Scandinavian: it recognises we are all in this together, public services need to be paid for and the more you earn, the more you pay. Yet the “U” stands for “universally hated”. We can’t build Swedish-style public services by always claiming that somebody else has to pay for them. We don’t want Scandinavian taxes, so stop pretending that we do. That’s the choice we make. Get over it.

Merchants of complaint

Sections of the Irish commentariat resemble the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in more ways than one but, most of all, in the way they congratulate themselves for the hundreds of people that listen to them; they are thrilled by the small halls packed to capacity by the faithful. And they utterly fail to recognise the millions that are completely turned off by their never-ending complaints. Many of us wonder how these people get out of bed in the morning.

There are lots of things that could be done better. There is real suffering that needs to be alleviated. Let’s have a grown-up debate. It is staggering how little of the discussion about poverty and inequality ever recognises that the number one solution is a job.

Implying that we live in the worst of all possible worlds is silly and unhelpful. Confidence is vital and right now there are lots of reasons for us to be feeling a little better about the future. Criticism can be unnecessarily destructive and, these days, it often is. Try saying, out loud, “things are improving”. Michael Noonan hasn’t abolished boom.

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