So Ireland's back to exporting its best known natural resource – emigrants

Here’s my Comment is Free piece on being an Irish emigrant, which appeared on Guardian.co.uk last week. The same piece also appeared in that week’s Irish Post

Mourning can be a protracted business. In the past week, after years spent oscillating between low-level anger and outright denial, I finally graduated to acceptance: having left Ireland in 2003, I am an Irish emigrant.

And after recent events, it seems like going home is no longer an option.

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief have provided an unexpected leitmotif for Ireland’s economic collapse. But while public fury about the financial situation contrasted sharply with the government’s increasingly brazen disavowals, there has been a quiet, almost stoical, recognition that the country is once again stepping up production of its most celebrated natural resource: emigrants.

Forty thousand Irish people left last year; with joblessness running at over 13% another 100,000 are expected to join them before the end of the next.

Migration is an ingrained part of our national psyche. Almost every family carries traces of the instinct which, for two decades, lay in abeyance as the Celtic Tiger’s putative masters told their pups that they would never be forced to cross the Irish Sea or the Atlantic to make new lives for themselves beyond Ireland’s shores.

These hubristic promises have been revealed to be as empty, illusionary and downright dangerous as the ill-conceived bank guarantee, made in September 2008, which sounded a slow death knell for Ireland’s political and economic sovereignty ever since. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout has scarcely begun, but already Ireland’s citizens are abandoning ship.

What is there to stay put for? With its boarded-up main street, uninhabited ghost estates and derelict shopping centre, my hometown, in the midlands of Ireland, is hardly atypical. Here greed gave way to naked stupidity when developers started building houses in the boggy flood plain five years ago. Recently a gallows humour has replaced the air of despondency that marked the early days of the collapse.

The IMF and its apparatchiks hold little fear for residents of such places – what does austerity look like when your home is practically worthless, your job is gone and your children are likely to follow suit?

By even the most optimistic predictions, the Irish economy will take generations to recover. The government is once again turning to the safety valve of emigration: despite its protestations little or nothing is being done to encourage young, well-educated men and women to stay in Ireland.

Meanwhile the legions of Irish-born citizens already living in Sydney and Chicago, Edinburgh and Edmonton, have seen their daydreams of returning home dashed, probably forever.

I was glad to leave Ireland at the age of 22. The Celtic Tiger created a culture in which property prices replaced the weather as the preferred topic of the nation’s small talk, and the pursuit of money without ethics or obligation was not just acceptable but actively valorised from the very top of the social and political tree. Getting out was a relief.

Back then the word “emigrate” had been expunged from our vocabulary. Emigration was supposedly a thing of the past. I thought of myself not as an emigrant, but as an Irishman who just happened to be living somewhere else. How could I be one of John B Keane’s Many Young Men of Twenty when my leave-taking was not motivated by unemployment or lack of opportunities?

But late last Tuesday, as news bulletins on every channel reported live from Dublin and Brussels, I found my thoughts turning not to my country but to myself. The life I have made away from Ireland – first in New York, then Britain – is a comfortable one but it is also an emigrant’s. If I raise a family they will speak with a different accent to mine. The country whose passport I carry will not be my home.

The true cost of Ireland’s folly should be counted not in billions of euros but in the millions of Irish men and women who will forced to emigrate, to accept the reality that they too will never be able to go home.

Far from being finished, a new chapter has just been started in the age-old story of Irish emigration.

Time for a Default?

“There is no reason why Ireland should trigger an IMF or EU-type bailout”, Irish Minister of State for Europe, Dick Roche, told the Today program on BBC Radio 4 this morning. But despite such government protestations, the scale of Ireland’s sovereign debt crisis is such that it seems only a matter of when, not if, the country requests a bail out. Indeed it could happen as early as 5pm this evening.

But is a bail-out such a bad thing? Not if it leads to much needed debt restructuring – or even a full default – it isn’t.

Last week German chancellor Angela Merkel said that bondholders to troubled countries would need to share the pain. Remarkably Irish premier Brian Cowen called Merkel’s comments ‘‘not helpful’’ – but the reality is that Ireland should accept its debts cannot be repaid in full and take the opportunity to make a strong deal for debt restructuring from a position of at least reasonable strength.

And Britain should do the same.

Currently our banks are exposed to zero risk, as the state is using the tax payer to insure against any risk. This is a morally – and economically – wrong situation.

Why reward those who lent recklessly to our banks? Why cripple a country with generations worth of debt?

As more and more people lose their jobs, fall into arrears in their mortgages and begin to repudiate their personal debt the social stigma around defaulting on debts seems certain to change. Many of these bad loans were made in bad faith, and it is the huge cost of shoring up the financial markets – in the UK, Europe and around the world – that has provided the economic (if not the ideological) rationale for austerity.

So what’s the answer? Well fair debt restructuring would be a start, negotiating a reasonable pay off with creditors rather than maintaining the fallacy that all creditors will be paid off in full.

Indeed there is even a strong case to be made for – whisper it – repuditating sovereign debt completely. Look at Iceland, as Irish economist David McWilliams did in a newspaper column a few weeks back. Here our troubled Nordic neighbour defaulted on its debts, closed its banks, and allowed its currency to fall. The result? Lower bond rates than Ireland and a serious increase in quality of life for ordinary Icelanders.

Maybe the difference between Iceland and Ireland really is one letter and six months after all.

No Real Case for Continental Drift

This review of Peter Baldwin’s insight new book The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe are Alike appeared in The Sunday Business Post a few weeks back:

Last summer, US president Barack Obama announced plans to extend medical cover to more than 31 million uninsured Americans.

To judge by the reaction of certain sections of the US right, you would think the new president was intending to abolish private property and declare a dictatorship of the proletariat. ‘Socialist Medicine’ and ‘Death to Obama’ screamed fevered protesters in town halls across Middle America, some even brandishing posters of Obama sporting a Hitler moustache.

Over on this side of the Atlantic, the US ‘debate’ on healthcare reform seemed to confirm one of our deepest and most fondly held prejudices: that, on everything from social policy to gun control, America and Europe are poles apart. Where they say ‘tomayto’, we say ‘tomahto’.

But is the schism between the old world and the new world really so wide? Peter Baldwin thinks not. In The Narcissism of Minor Differences – a term coined by Sigmund Freud to account for the negative feelings individuals feel towards those they most resemble – the UCLA-based historian explicitly sets out to demonstrate ‘‘that the commonalities across this divide are greater than the differences’’.

The Narcissism of Minor Differences, the author acknowledges in his prefatory notes, is essentially ‘‘an essay in numbers’’. In it, Baldwin marshals reams of statistical data, most of it drawn from the last decade, into some 250 pages of dense, fact-laden prose, with almost every page illustrated by a bar chart.

These are separated into chapters with inspiring titles such as ‘The Economy’, ‘Civil Society’ and ‘Assimilation’, and there are even 50-plus pages of technical information and references at the back, just in case you want to try his calculations out at home.

Baldwin is one of the foremost experts on 20th century European history in the American academy, and among the stats, graphs and pithy one-liners are some genuinely surprising findings.

On climate change, the United States is often characterised as a nation of deniers and sceptics, but a higher percentage of Americans are very worried about the environment than any European nation bar the Portuguese (who, in case you were wondering, are also the most pessimistic people of any developed country).

Elsewhere, Baldwin shows how Sweden, that much vaunted bastion of fair-minded social democracy, has become a nation of malingerers, with women claiming on average 46 sick days per year and almost 20 per cent of the population registered as disabled (twice the US average).

Scandinavia and its putative ‘social model’ is Baldwin’s primary bete noire, followed closely by the Guardian and Will Hutton (many chapters feature anti-American quotes from the Observer columnist).

Baldwin’s writing is crisp, clipped and generally pleasing on the eye – excepting his occasional penchant for substituting impenetrable German sociological terms for plain English. Gargantuan amounts of information are synthesised concisely, often enlivened by a telling observation:

who, for instance, knew that a 10th-century depiction of Christ appears on every Danish passport? I certainly didn’t, and I’ve lived in North Jutland.

The United States is often accused of being ideologically opposed to the welfare state and failing to offer adequate social services to all its citizens.

However, as Baldwin shows, America is within the European range on all measures of social expenditure – thanks, in no small part, to the failings of our own governments.

Ireland ranks lowest on a whole raft of social indices: public spending on childcare; pensions as a percentage of earning income; total social spending per capita; and public social expenditure, both as a percentage of GDP and per capita. How much worse these figures will be in five years’ time scarcely bears contemplating.

America might not be as different from Europe as we are led – and indeed like – to believe. Nevertheless, the United States does have a higher crime rate, prison population and more murders per capita than any country in the developed world.

On income inequality, an area the US is often accused of lagging behind Europe in, lo and behold, it is: the discrepancy between the highest and the lowest earners in society is highest in America, closely followed by Britain. Similarly, the depth and strength of religious belief in the United States sets it apart from most European nations.

Baldwin is no American apologist: his ire is directed at both the US left and its right, which he acerbically describes as ‘‘intellectually of no consequence’’. If, at times, the straw men he knocks down are so thin as to be practically diaphanous ç the Guardian, an organ of the left intelligentsia with a readership hovering around the 300,000 mark, as the voice of the British people? Not unless you mistake Islington for England – overall the book is erudite, cogently argued and remarkably readable.

I’ll certainly think twice before making another glib remark about gun-totting, bible-bashing, hamburger eating Yanks. But, then again, I’ll possibly make it anyway. Human nature, as Freud knew all too well, is easier to understand than to change.