Ireland's prosperity trap

Maura Stephens
22 March 2006

A booming economy is no cause for complacency – now more than ever Ireland must look after its natural and material wealth, its citizens and its democracy, argues Maura Stephens.

Dan O'Brien's rebuttal to my column on Ireland's changing fortunes serves as a splendid example of just what it is about the country's prosperity that gives cause to lament.

His smug misrepresentation of my views demonstrates perfectly just one of the "hidden or disguised" problems I observed on my most recent trip there: smooth complacency amongst the "haves", who ignore the "have-nots" and disregard the facts that they themselves might someday be less well off and that successful societies have a collective obligation to offer all their members equal opportunities. Such are the acquisitive, inward-looking attitudes I have come across often in the United States, among people whose uncritical, nationalistic, and wilful ignorance has allowed their country to become feared and loathed in many parts of the world.

Maura Stephens is replying to "The most contented of nations" by Dan O'Brien of the EIU (17 March 2006), which disputed her own portrayal of Ireland:

"What is modern Ireland really like for the people who live there? This writer respectfully, if immodestly, suggests that his organisation offers the best insight…"

More on the Economist Intelligence Unit's Quality of Life index can be found here

This arrogant tone accompanies a litany of statistics from surveys published by Dan O'Brien's employer, the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The EIU studies ostensibly corroborate his view that prosperity in Ireland is better than prosperity elsewhere; of the 100 countries surveyed, he writes, Ireland scores highest on quality of life because it "enjoys the economic and political gifts of modernity (wealth, liberty, stability and security) while managing better than other countries to maintain the best of tradition (the civic virtues that glue communities together and the personal ones that make for strong, supportive families)".

That last bit sounds rather subjective to me. Even so, if as Dan O'Brien claims, the Irish are the most contented of peoples, you could have fooled a whole lot of them.

Consider the source of his claims of near-universal contentment amongst the prosperous Irish, these "Celtic Tigers". The EIU calls itself the "world leader in global business intelligence". According to its website, its client organisations are 31 percent industrial, 22 percent financial services, 20 percent government, 17 percent education, and 9 percent professional. Client individuals consist of senior executives and their staff — altogether a "wide audience of decision makers and opinion leaders". Among the EIU's latest reports was "CEO Briefing: Corporate priorities for 2006 and beyond", one of the few free reports available on its website. I wish I could have read recent issues of its other publications, costing between US $200 and $600 each, but even as a hard-working citizen of two quite prosperous countries, I do not have that kind of money to spare.

Economist John Perkins writes in his chilling book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (Penguin/Plume, 2005) about the clients of the "consulting company" for which he worked. They included primarily the US government (and other governments, to a much lesser extent) and huge corporations. John Perkins' job was to convince world leaders to "become part of a vast network that promotes US commercial interests". To that end, he admits that he and his colleagues cooked books and bilked developing nations and the majority of their people, all to further their gospel that "all economic growth benefits humankind" and that "those people who excel at stoking the fires of economic growth should be exalted and rewarded, while those born at the fringes are available for exploitation". Having spent many highly paid years as a self-described economic hit man, he concludes that "in many countries economic growth benefits only a small portion of the population", and "when we equate the gluttonous consumption of the earth's resources with a status approaching sainthood, when we teach our children to emulate people who live unbalanced lives, and when we define huge sections of the population as subservient to an elite minority, we ask for trouble. And we get it."

I am sure that the EIU is not like John Perkins' firm. But like Perkins' reports, EIU reports on Ireland do not appear to be created by analysts talking with the "common people" about what they think and how they feel about their spot atop economically indicated contentment meters. Rather, claims the EIU website breathlessly, the reports are drawn up by "one of the largest and most experienced country analysis teams in the world … To ensure that this expertise remains fresh and up to date, each country analyst focuses on two or three countries, and visits them regularly."

I respectfully suggest that Dan O'Brien might find it useful to spend a few weeks truly out and about in the country, rather than with other economists, government officials, and corporate tycoons. As I did, he might find food for thought in talking to Irish men, women and children in coffee shops, pubs, farms and schools; at local political meetings or in hospitals and clinics; at rugby, soccer, hurling, or football matches; outside churches or waiting in queue for government assistance; and in their homes.

Further, he might more carefully contemplate what exactly I was lamenting in my column. Not, as he mockingly asserts, the prosperity of the Irish people or the quaintness of their homes (or the advent of flush lavatories). On the contrary, I celebrate my family members' and friends' ability to live comfortable lives free from material want. However, I worry that many people in traditionally home-owning Ireland can no longer afford to buy a home, because housing prices have skyrocketed. I am concerned that the economy has been growing so fast it is unlikely to be able to sustain itself. I am saddened by the apparently unchecked ability of large real estate corporations to transform beautiful land and views into homogeneous, often hideous tract developments and shopping ghettoes. I'm horrified to witness an entrenched, intensifying anti-immigrant environment in the country that sent so many of its daughters and sons to find opportunity on other shores over several centuries.

I am also mindful of the calendar: for well over a decade Ireland has been offering incentives to foreign companies to base their headquarters and manufacturing plants there, and the well-educated Irish workforce will likely be priced out of their own market – much as the US workforce has been over the same period of time. Dan O'Brien may not number among his friends too many skilled workers, in what should be the peak earning years of their careers, unemployed and underemployed. I do. Perhaps similar exposure would dampen his enthusiasm for economic indicators a bit. Any half-adept student of history knows that economic booms do not last forever, and there is always a price to pay. Anyone remember the Asian Tiger?

Nevertheless, I have been heartened by the sight of wind farms in the northern and western counties. Mayo home builders gave me cause for optimism with their commitment to using natural and locally harvested stone and wood building products, sustainable energy technologies, state-of-the-art insulation and other innovative "green building" methods. I'm also pleased at the growth in religious free thinking, in the availability of all sorts of goods and services, and the expansion of the cuisine, among other developments.

Dan O'Brien's survey says that Ireland "is the fifth-oldest continuously functioning democracy in Europe and enjoys civil and political liberties which ... are not bettered anywhere in the world". I certainly agree that the Irish have a whole lot to lose. They also still have a whole lot to gain, not all of a financial nature.

I think they have the potential, among other things, to become one of the sustainable-development leaders of the western world; to help the European Union become strong and humane; to continue the peace-keeping work they performed so well in Lebanon during its civil war, and take a leadership role in peace and reconciliation projects in the Middle East, Iraq, and Iran; to find solutions to their own inflation woes and social ills; to foster a vibrant political culture with wide public engagement in civic affairs; and not least, to collaborate with all parties to forge a long-term, sustainable solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland (which they have recently abandoned, to their shame).

Most of all, I hope the Irish have the good sense not to become so complacent that they allow their culture to become like that of the worst of the United States – corporate-controlled, unquestioning, selfish, isolationist, and acquiescent. That would be the death not only of the unparalleled culture of Ireland, but also of its participatory democracy.

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