More Irish secondary schoolgirls drive to school than cycle. This statistic captu res Ireland in 2004. It’s a far cry from the “We used to walk to school in our bare feet” stuff of our grandparents.
Schoolgirls eschewing bikes for cars reveals just how prosperous the country has become. What is driving this prosperity, and can it last? Crucially, on what does it depend?
To answer these questions, let’s take a bit of altitude and regard the economy as two specific worlds.The economy in front of the veil – the one you see in press releases – is the motor of the country. The one behind the veil, the one where most of us live, has a severe design fault.The extent to which Irish schoolgirls continue to drive rather than cycle to school will depend on whether the prowess of the motor outstrips the structural faults in the design.
In front of the veil is the glittering, successful world of the Intels, Dells and Microsofts that grabbed the headlines this week. It is a world of smart, well-paid workers with good career prospects. Most importantly, it is a world where `best practice’ applies. Best practice in organisation, production, management, technology, finance and all aspects of the workplace.
Best practice is not unique to multinationals. There are plenty of Irish companies in this league. It is the world of the business pages, company announcements and Davos.
Behind the veil is the place where we live. It is the dark side of the veil for many of us – whether we work in front of the veil or not.
It is a world that we run and administer, where the concept of best practice is not even entertained. It is the world of shoddy expectations, traffic hell, trolleys in hospital corridors and rip-offs. It is the Ireland that is disguised by Intel’s announcement this week.
Yet the fascinating thing is that for most people, Intel’s world and our world are one and the same place. Many of us leave our world at nine in the morning, slip behind the veil into the world of best practice and slip back into the shoddy world again in the evening.
But what happens to us when we move from the light into the darkness? Do we change? Are we not the same people?
For example, how can we explain that the workers in Intel or Dell can respond in minutes at work but spend hours trying to get home? Do we have frontal lobotomies when we leave work, or do we leave our brains behind?
Behind the veil, where we all live, we put up with things that we would be fired for at work.
Think about the waste of time that is Ireland’s traffic. Or the waste of money that is Ireland’s greatest rip-off – our ludicrous house prices. None of this would be tolerated in a competitive firm, so why is it tolerated in a competitive country?
If we can make Irish companies world beaters and make foreign companies here the most profitable of all their global operations, then the shoddiness of our real lives is not endemic.
Rather, it is a reflection of a lack of organisation. We are not biologically or genetically a chaotic nation, far from it. But we have allowed ourselves to evolve into a dual nation, not necessarily of rich and poor, but of organised and disorganised.
This disparity, commented on by many visitors who cannot understand why the richest country in Europe feels decidedly tawdry, can be explained by economics. Ireland excels at macroeconomics, but fails lamentably at microeconomics.
For 15 years the overall level of income has been rising rapidly. Budget deficit and debt ratios are healthy. Interest rates are low and the exchange rate is stable. Ireland gets top marks in the macroeconomic best practice.Why is this? Maybe because we do not control these things. Do you think this is a coincidence? Possibly not.
The reason that our macro indicators are all so positive and read well on the back of OECD and World Bank publications is because these are the areas which the government gave away influence over years ago.
The EU controls budget deficits, exchange rates and interest rates. Our income levels are boosted by the big three industries – computers, chemicals and pharmaceuticals – all of which exist in front of the best practice veil.
Ironically, by giving away competence over all the crucial levers of economic power, we also dispensed with ideology and emasculated the political system.
What is the point of having opposing political parties when the essential difference between a good and bad government is down to the management of public services?
Behind the veil we re-enter the tawdry, tattered world where “Paddy practice” reigns. At the micro level of organisational competence, we appear to be obsessed with entirely inappropriate battles.
Take for example the deregulation of Dublin Bus. The government appears to think the issue is ownership. If you change the owner, Seamus Brennan thinks, the bus service will improve. The unions too are obsessed with ownership. They contend that if you change the owner and introduce competition, the service will collapse. (Both are examples of straw man arguments put up and knocked down by the other side.)
Why not ask where the bus system is best? If it is France, then copy the French system fromtop to bottom. Why has the New York subway re- mained publicly owned, funded by pub- licly-backed bonds within the privatised culture of Manhattan? Maybe because it makes sense.
It is the best practice. Public transport is not supposed to make buckets of cash. Even the Americans see that the crux is not ideology but best practice. What about the row about private schools and universities? The issue is not about ideology. If it were, and you wanted to ensure fairness, there would be an overwhelming argu- ment for hefty fees in universities, because no fees are simply a way for the poor to subsidise the rich. The binman subsidises the doctor because the binman pays the university fees. If the consultant is not asked to forkout in later life he gets a free lunch, because the state pays for his fees,which enables him to make considerablymore than the average worker. But the most compelling argument for private universities is that they engender excellence. BeforeWorldWar II all the world’s top universities were in Europe.
Now they are all private colleges in the US. Why? Because theAmericans decided that their universities had to become cen- tres of excellence, financed by the private sector. American colleges have flourished, pushing the country ahead,while in Eur- ope our universities have stagnated.
The difference in achievement is now staggering. For example, Berkeley in Ca- lifornia has just fallen out of the American top 20 list of colleges – despite having eight Nobel Prize winners on its teaching staff.Youwould be hard pressed to name eightNobel Prize winners in the all the halls ofacademiaonthis side of the pond. Again, it’s not about ideology. It is about best practice. What is the best way to run a bus service, a university or a housing market? This is the question.
Not whether it is fair – if the result of the pursuit of fairness is a drive to mediocrity, congestion and underperformance.The choice is ours. How long do we want to continue living behind the veil?