The Spectator ranks as one of the world’s oldest and most prominent political magazines, so I was pleased to see their web site featured a commentary on my “O’Sterity” article – and I recognised the writer, Alex Massie, from the National Review and the American Conservative. Unfortunately, Massie not only criticised my piece -- which I can handle -- but misunderstood it.
Part of the problem might be the kind of Irish we are thinking of: early on, Massie refers to a “brasher kind of Dublin 4 swell (UCD, naturally) who thought himself the business when buying a glass shoebox by the Docks for half a million or so only to find himself undone by events.” I think he’s referring to the skyscrapers built by the Dublin docks, and I work a few miles from UCD (University College of Dublin) and the wealthy Dublin 4 neighbourhood. But I’m didn’t talk to any investors in skyscrapers: I talked to rural neighbours and people who ride the bus with me – the kind of people who form the majority of the country.
None of the people I talked to expected the boom to last forever. For them the boom meant a decent job and new home, but they knew they were not receiving most of the bubble wealth, and the change from poverty to boom and back was more muted for them than for most market speculators.
Massie particularly cited the part where I said, “few people here saw the boom as normal or permanent. No leaders announced grandiose plans for a 21st-century Irish Age, or invested their new wealth in forming a global empire. As religious as Ireland has been, no one decided that Ireland was now the chosen nation of God.”
The Spectator columnist called this “just wrong” -- investors, he said, “did think the world had changed forever and so, more importantly, did Ireland's political class.” As evidence he quotes former Taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern that “the boom times are getting boomier.”
Booster quotes like this, though, are found in every market in every era. Of course some investors misjudged when the boom would end. Of course politicians reassured their constituents that happy days were here to stay. Of course the recession meant offices that will never be filled and homes that will never be finished. That’s pretty much the definition of a recession. No, my point is something else entirely.
Show me the Irish government’s hundreds of military bases around the world. Show me one. Show me the list of nations Ireland has invaded since the boom, or the massive military build-up. Show me the Irish who believe that Ireland represents the culmination of human history, and that all other nations in the world revolve around Ireland as side-kicks, enemies or recipients of aid. Show me the Irish politicos who wrote, as presidential advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski did of the USA, that Ireland must extend control over its “vassal states.” Show me the Irish who believe that God had destined their nation to rule the world, to be the focus of the battle between Good and Evil in the End Times.
For a human lifetime, since the 1930s, the US government has kept a wartime economy, spending more money on the military than the other 194 countries combined. A powerful military, of course, can be a good thing – I’m pleased my native government won against the Nazis in the 1940s, and outlasted the Soviet Union in the Cold War. But the US government continues to funnel much of its enormous native wealth into controlling foreign wealth, sending our people into conflict after conflict even as the home front gets poorer.
For a while, in the mid-20th century, this plan worked: the USA remained the world’s greatest power, its per capita wealth and consumption rising ever higher. The national infrastructure, building methods, urban design, agricultural systems and everyday culture of Americans were created for a world in which the public was safe, electricity and fuel were cheap and money was plentiful. Many Americans have a deeply rooted belief both in their nation’s role as the world’s centre and protector, and in the upward march of progress. A rapidly growing minority have adopted a new kind of nationalistic Christianity that sees American politics as a mystical battleground, and looks for scapegoats when reality does not match their role-playing game.
Massie misunderstood most of all when he wrote that “Kaller's conclusion, alas, is typical of a certain Anglo-American view of Ireland: our poverty is grim but Irish poverty is charming and somehow noble…”
No, no, no. I’m not saying that the Irish are somehow destined to be poor, or that poverty is cute when practiced here. The point of the article was that we all face an age of austerity now, and the Irish are better prepared than Americans because they practiced austerity recently. Much of the everyday life and culture around here is similar to any Midwest town, but subtle differences in attitude and infrastructure make the communities more resilient against a crash. The point was that Americans could adopt some of these same practices and stand more chance of weathering the coming decades.
I think I made clear that pre-boom Ireland had deep poverty and staggering repression – I would much rather have lived in the USA than in Ireland in 1960, and Ireland did well by bringing its country into the modern world. But now the lessons should go the other way: few Americans have experience with the austerity that older Irish people grew up with, and must rediscover from scratch the attitudes and personal habits that helped people here weather the harsh economic times.
My countrymen would do well to remember that the electricity, tap water, working toilets and plentiful food they have taken for granted for four generations are gifts, which require money and energy to maintain. They should learn from people in the Third World or in older eras who have lived without such things, and as Ireland is an educated, English-speaking, culturally similar land that was a Third-World country until recently, we find this country a convenient place to learn.