Tuesday 27 November 2007

The Eyes of the Child

We adults often forget how different our world is from that of young children. We think their world is simple and their worries trivial. We forget that they are subject to many of the same emotions and fears as are we. The only difference is that we are often better equipped to deal with them. If we are to understand one another in our different worlds, we adults need to imagine the world as children see it, for they will never be able to grasp our world. A friend of mine, Tomislav, told me the following story about his childhood and his father. It is true to a word, save the name which I have changed.

Tomislav grew up in one of the huge, high rise estates in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. One year, when he was a little boy, he came home from school at the end of term and showed his father his results. He proudly handed his father the little slip of paper which showed he had made an average grade of 4, the second highest level. Without looking at the sheet of paper, the father praised the young boy and then made a promise. He promised to buy Tomislav a new bike the following year if he made an average of level 5.

Tomislav was thrilled and decided he really loved his father very much. He was now determined to work harder the following term. And he did. He wasn't a swot by nature but he imagined joining his friends on their bikes in summer as they rode away from the crowded, noisey estates, leaving behind the towers with their stairwells and shadows, and heading for the fresh breeze and open emptiness of the countryside. Now he began doing his homework before going down to play soccer in the street. He even revised for his exams, sometimes pausing during study to take an imaginary trip on the bike that would soon be his.

Tomislav did very well in the exam and almost cried with joy when he saw his average was 5. He ran the whole way home. His father took the piece of paper and asked for his glasses. He studied the little sheet. "But you only got 3 in Serbian and English" he said sternly, looking over his glasses. Tomislav was shocked, but managed to reply that they had agreed an average of five. "No, no" the father said "five in each subject, the average is nothing". He took off his glasses and said "but next year you can get five in everything". Tomislav felt his little heart retreating in his chest. He went to his room and cried until no more tears would come.

Tomislav never again told his father or anyone else about his results. Nor did he ever tell anyone about the broken promise.

Years later, when Tomislav had grown up and had children of his own, his father fell terminally ill and was confined to bed. Tomislav was at his bedside and they were reminissing about his boyhood and how his father used to bring him up river to bathe on the banks of the Danube. And how they enjoyed going to matches at the stadium nearby. Then Tomislav recounted the bike story, and how it broke his young heart. His father began to cry, then burst into sobs as his son finished the story. Tomislav had never before seen his father weeping so inconsolably, and he flung his arms around the old man and hugged him tightly.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

Primal Snobbery

What is that thing within us that makes us strive to feel we are better than our neighbours? What is it that burns inside, driving us to compete with others? Which urges us to plough a huge part of ourselves into the endless race to show the superiority of our taste, our children, our capacity, our worldliness?

Whatever this force is - let's call it our 'primal snobbery' - somehow it thrives in our post-industrial, supercapitalist society. When our material needs - food, shelter, security - are met, all else is relative. As productive capacity passes a certain point and if certain structural (democratic?) properties are present, capitalist society falls into a hierarchical state where all members lie on a relative scale. In this condition, our entire purpose in life is to move up the relative scale. But it is not merely to move, but to be seen to move, for primal snobbery is not just about acquiring a level, it's about acquiring it with swagger.

Thinkers such as JK Galbraith and Fred Hirsch have said that when we enter the 'primal snobbery' state, that is, when society has for the most part met the material needs of its citizens, our focus shifts from the desire to enjoy social and public goods to the desire for what economists call, positional goods.

Positional goods are products (and services) whose value is mostly, if not exclusively, a function of their ranking in desirability in comparison to substitutes. The extent to which a good's value depends on such a ranking is referred to as its positionality. [wikipedia]. Ownership of these goods are markers of ones position in the social hierarchy. The location of one's home, branded handbags, or a table at a michelin restaurant are examples. So too are the size of one's car, the school attended by one's children, and where one goes for holiday.

Economists are increasingly concerning themselves with the issue of happiness and collective welfare. (In some ways this is a return to base. In the 19th Century thinkers such as John Stuart Mill debated the concept of utility). Many have come to the conclusion that our current obsession with the production and consumption of positional goods does not in fact increase our collective welfare. In fact, over time, it may even decrease our welfare.

An example is owning a house in suburbia as opposed to the crammed city centre. Once the status value of moving to the burbs became established, it became essential for middle class people to acquire the positional good. It's not that they needed the space materially, they wanted it as a status symbol. The herd followed the primal snobbery instinct and made its way to the burbs. Soon the burbs became crowded and their residents still needed to work in the city. The result was commuter chaos because, obsessed with the need to acquire the positional good, no-one prioritised the public good of transport infrastructure. In the end, as people sat in traffic, their net welfare diminished.

Here too is an example of market failure. The fact that my usage blocks the road for others is an externality. I'm only one user, "I won't make any difference". The benefit to me is living in the burbs, and the cost of the painful commute is borne by all users.

'Primal snobbery' then can triumph over the collective will in ways which reduce the total welfare. Clearly there is a good argument to rebalance society and the underpinning economy so that public goods are given more weight. This would involve an admission that part of the problem is the priority given to positional goods over public goods by way of reduced taxes.

Ironically, a better provision of public goods - such as schools, cancer services, and trains - would make a huge material difference to our lives. Yet we are loath to surrender the tax reductions which have allowed us to gather a plethora of positional goods in the form of status symbols. Unfortunately, we cannot have it both ways. If we really want better public goods, we need to control our 'primal snobbery' and forgo just a few of our status symbols.

Tuesday 13 November 2007

The Blue of the Night

The Blue of the Night is a wonderful evening program on Lyric FM. I'm not sure when I started listening to it first, but I think it was when my girlfriend, now my wife, moved to Japan in the late 90s for a year with work. I began listening to radio again, something I hadn't done for years. Back then I listened to two things - Tonight with Vincent Browne on Radio 1 and The Blue of the Night on Lyric. The first of these disappeared a few months ago (funny enough I was an audience member on one of the last shows before I knew it was coming to an end). Today I learned that the presenter of The Blue of the Night, one Paul Herriot, has also moved on. I had suspected it for a while - there has been a long series of stand ins for Paul over the past few months. He would only present the show about half of the time. I was kind of waiting for the bad news. And it is bad news. I will use first name terms here for a voice I feel I know so well - Paul's voice is smooth and calming with a hint of the North about it. On The Blue his every word was intoned especially for the pillowed ear. There was always just enough emphasis, or even playfulness, to make you want to hold back from sleeping for another track. And here was the main beauty : Paul played a delightful selection of triple plays that took us from the renaissance to modern jazz. From innovative trad to English folk. It was Paul who introduced me to Jacques Loussier who plays Bach with jazzy improvisation. To Liam O'Flynn the finest living piper. To Kate Rusby the sublime Celtic-English folk singer. To the magnificent harp strings of the great Andrew Lawrence King. And dozens more. This was always sweetened by occasional plays of my other favourites such as jazz scatter Kurt Elling and standards from Davis to Simone. Wonderful wonderful music. A serene and delightful way to retreat from the world at end of day. But alas, Paul has moved to a daytime classical slot. The voice of Carol Corcoran takes over at the Blue. Corcoran is another Lyric gem and I'm sure the Blue will continue to surprise and delight.

Thank you Paul and all the best.

Oh and that's Kate Rusby there in the pic, not Paul :-)

Cold November

Because Autumn was calm and mild
Cold November took me by surprise

I wriggled my fingers on the handgrips
to deter the nibbling frost

That is surely when it fell
My gold ring among the golden leaves

Monday 12 November 2007

Has Rural Ireland a Future?

On a recent visit to a rural area in East County Galway I had a conversation with a local about how things were going in their part of the world. Not too bad, was the initial response, quickly qualified by the remark that "we didn't see much of the tiger down here". Can this be true?

Below is the text of a short piece I wrote about a year ago, in which I claim there are certain black spots in rural Ireland which have some of the characteristics of deprived city areas.

It is difficult to believe, but a particular kind of poverty flourishes in pockets of rural Ireland. It's the kind of poverty that cannot be detected by purely material indicators such as disposable income, access to housing, or the availability of food. Communities which suffer from it are identified by unusually high levels of the social problems that are common in the deprived areas of our cities : teenage pregnancy, poor educational achievement, functional illiteracy, alcoholism, marital breakdown.

These are communities where, through lack of education, many people find it difficult to fill out a census or a tax form; they are not good at finding out about and applying for their entitlements such as college grants or tax rebates; they find it hard to communicate their problems to councillors or TDs. People in these areas are frustrated that they are disconnected from the rest of Irish society. And a worrying contempt for authorities and institutions has taken root: the guards, the tax man, and the government are not merely criticised but despised.

One handicap that affects people in this unhappy state is the inability to recognise the root cause of the problem: lack of education. Often, they fail to encourage their own children to stay in education as long as they can. I know several parents who actually persuaded their kids to leave school early! The result of such blindness is more early drop-outs and another dysfunctional generation. It's a kind of "capability trap": people don't have the capability to identify a way out, and their children will inherit the same problem.

I know for sure that the problem I describe afflicts parts of the Border and West region (I hate the term BMW for poorest region in the country). And I know that nothing is being done about it. In cities, where deprivation is more concentrated and more extreme, government projects have to some extent started to make an impact. But the deprivation in rural areas lies below the radar and is not detected, let alone tackled. Local government is mainly concerned with the big towns - where single projects can make an impact at the polling booth. The parish and the small village are forgotten.

This matters because these communities are paralysed and dependent. They cannot muster the ability to act together, to agitate for a better school, to organise events for the children, to tidy the village, or to light it for Christmas. Instead they curse the authorities and ask why the magic "they" cannot do something about x or y. A culture of reliance has taken hold in these communities. In a connected world they feel cut off; in an era of mass communication, they are voiceless.

All this is troubling because it happens at a time when rural Ireland needs innovation, energy, and solidarity to fight for its very survival. In many parts this is happening, but certain black-spots have fallen into what are akin to rural slums. And it is sad too that so many people are not enjoying a much fuller life in one of the richest countries in the world.

I stand by my remarks but please note that I emphasised "black-spots" and "certain areas". Like the city, development in the country is very uneven and the ability of a particular community to latch on to the coat tails of the tiger depends on many things from local employment prospects (which vary greatly between say South Donegal and the outskirts of Galway) to community leadership.

I am convinced, however, that for the most part residents of rural Ireland have enjoyed the fruits of the celtic tiger just as plentifully as their city cousins. Remarkably the comment from the Galway resident flies in the face of the visible transformation in the community where she resides. Perhaps it's an Irish trait to play down one's fortunes. Or perhaps there is a sense of collective amnesia about the state of rural Ireland 15 or 20 years ago. Either way, apart from the blackspots I mention, rural Ireland has changed utterly since the beginning of the boom.

The most solid evidence is jutting out of the landscape itself - a proliferation of new houses. Regardless of your view on one-off housing, the fact is that until the recent decline in output, about 17,000 of them were being built per year. In rural areas and on the outskirts of villages every second or third house you see is not just new but huge as well. Typically there are five or six en suite bedrooms, numerous living rooms, and the de-rigeur conservatory. Stone finishing on the front has also become fashionable.

These new homes are a sign that prosperity has made it to the greener parts. They are a sign too that people are placing faith in their rural origins. The dramatic difference in price between city and country means that these magnificent homes often cost less than a basic terraced dwelling in Dublin. Yet the people I know who built new homes in a rural area near where they grew up were not merely trading proximity to urban life for square metres. They were moving home because they genuinely want to live there. Rural life remains attractive to many for the slower pace, the sense of belonging, the space, the family ties, and the strong sense of community.

Dig deeper and more evidence emerges. Some rural bars have succumbed to the tougher driving rules and changing drinking habits, but many are resilient and are being sustained by car sharing, local minibuses, and the growth in the surrounding population. A generation ago, these bars would have been empty apart from over Christmas, when emigrants returned from London or the States. Now they are vibrant on a Saturday night in November.

GAA clubs are thriving. New facilities abound in parishes across the country. Churches have been refurbished. Villages are competing in tidy towns competition or 'pride of place' initiatives. Rural schools shrank in the 80s, then consolidated, merged, and stabilised. Many are now growing. For contrary to a popular perception, the population of Rural Ireland is growing not shrinking.

Like many industrialising countries, in Ireland the percentage of rural dwellers declined rapidly, but it seems to have stopped at about 40%. There was little change in that percentage between the census of 2002 and that of 2006. Since overall the population grew substantially, this means that the rural numbers grew as well. (we currently have almost 1.7m rural dwellers)

Despite the concerns about the sustainability in terms of energy, transport, and other services, the single dwellings continued to dot the landscape in large numbers. It's a reality we are going to have to live with.

The big question is employment. Many rural areas have been sustained by small farms, which are still in decline and are likely to disappear in greater numbers when the current round of Eu subsidies is renegotiated in 2013. Another high employer is construction and its derivatives - from builders to decorators, from ironworks to stonemasons. This too is on the cusp of a downturn. Furthermore, as manufacturing declines, work in the mid sized towns may be harder to find, particularly for those who are not well qualified.

Already many in rural areas are commuting long distances - up to an hour behind the wheel on the way to work in a city or town. Even middles size towns now have significant rush hour traffic.

Rural areas need to do more to diversify their income base. Tourism, heritage, and high end food production are among the alternatives now being explored, but these remain underdeveloped in many areas. One example is South West Donegal. Recently big employers such as multinational Hospira or the famous clothing company, Magee, have shut down or offshored most of their operations. In a region blessed with a stunning landscape and coastline, the tourism industry remains curiously understated. Services there are pitiful. Public transport is skeletal and broadband is available only in patches. So much more could be done.

All things taken into account, I think rural Ireland is thriving and crucially a new generation believes it has a future. They now need to persuade our city-centric government to give them the tools to build that future.