Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

The following sentence taken from a recent opinion piece by Michael Moriarty in the Irish Times caught my attention and has since continued to play on my mind: “It is the cumulative weight of the thousands of decisions made by each of us ordinary citizens that is the tide that drives the direction of this country.” Here, Moriarty was trying to argue the reasons for his staying in Ireland (Which he admits is made easier by being in full-time employment). His article raised an important question; namely, to what extent do we as citizens influence the direction of this country? On the same day, and along the same lines, Sarah Carey questioned the extent to which individual citizens are to blame for the current crisis: “Yes; there was hype, both politically and by the property-porn writers in newspapers. Yes, there were financial institutions willing to lend people multiples of their income and yes, the State delighted in collecting the taxes. But whose signature is on the mortgage application?” This line of thought goes deep into questions of free-will and the degree to which we choose our own future under the weight of the prevailing zeitgeist. Can it truly be expected that a majority of couples or individuals raising a family, and in what they hoped would be long-term employment, would not have sought what was presented as the security of buying a property instead of renting? Was government policy not skewed towards home ownership over renting? Can it be believed that we, as a collective body, or as individuals, could have shouted ‘stop’?

Indeed, throughout the boom there was many who cried foul. The community groups and residents associations who objected to rezonings and continuous rounds of creative destruction were labeled ‘nay-sayers’ and NIMBY’s because they were against ‘progress’. It is worth reminding ourselves that much of the boom-time construction which now litters our landscape was labeled as ‘sustainable development’, because the construction of mixed-use developments was what sustainability was all about! It is therefore reassuring to read Mary Corcoran’s recent post. Bringing people together to decide our future can only be a step in the right direction. In the long-run it may allow us to decide what form our society should take and attempt to retrofit and develop a built environment that reflects such aspirations.

Creating a society which is influenced by us all will take more than the cumulative weight of our individual actions, but the conscious decision to engage collectively. Such an approach requires the support of a government that understands its impact when making decisions and recognizes its role in shaping a collective consciousness. What I can’t seem to get past is whether this is a realistic expectation or not?

Philip Lawton

Former Minister for Finance Charlie McCreevy conjured up his own epitaph when he uttered the now legendary description of his budgetary tactics that went something like “When I have it, I spend it and when I don’t, I don’t”.  This phrase has become somewhat folkloric.  Its attribution is cited as sometime in the mid 2000s and the exact wording changes depending on the telling.  It is a tale of legendary negligence, a legitimation of the burn after earning that characterised the production of Celtic Tiger wealth.  It was a warning sign of the inevitability of hard times to come that we mostly chose to ignore.

McCreevy’s comment is iconic of the era in which it was uttered.  During the Celtic Tiger period a collective consciousness was arguably created in which most of us believed in the myth of eternal economic growth (or if we didn’t, we at least did not think about the consequences of collapse so often).  In a way the Government had convinced people that they didn’t really need state support.  On some level we all knew that the Government were squandering the tax intake but it didn’t somehow seem essential to (most of) our daily lives.  We were producing our own wealth, creating our own opportunities.  They had pulled off the neoliberal trick of convincing the country that it wanted less and not more state intervention.  And this produced new types of citizens.  In the space of a generation the Irish had gone from a people that saved before they bought, questioned any extravagance, and were wary of debt, to a nation only too happy to blow their paycheque on nights out, put the bills on the credit card, and become sodden in debt to buy their dream home and all the trimmings in one go.  For a long time the Irish had been a people who simply didn’t have it to spend.  Now that we had it, by god we were going to spend it.

This attitude was actively encouraged by the Government in almost everything they did.  They transferred the tax burden to assets, property in particular, and talked up the property market at every turn, encouraging people to buy, buy, buy.  They generated an economy based on consumption and called it growth, and they dealt in macro-economic statistics to obscure the uneven and precarious nature of this ‘expansion’.  (more…)