Announcement: My column in The Sunday Times is concluding this week! I start in The Irish Times this Wednesday (22nd). For the moment they are cool with me publishing the columns on the blog, so though I am posting very rarely I’ll still be checking in on at least a weekly basis. I am delighted to be joining the IT. I suppose this does mean I’m officially part of the establishment, but as soon as I start sounding like it, I hope you lot will slap me around the place. It also means that as part of a daily paper I’ll have more flexibility on column topics, so its exciting times ahead. The next phase begins……
Perhaps my inner masochist is revealing itself, but I rather enjoyed the budget speech. What about the call for patriotism at the end? I actually cheered. What a smashing way to end the lashing. Yes, Minister! That’s what we’ve been missing all these years. With a mediocre soccer team and a losing streak in the Eurovision, patriotism has been sadly lacking. If hard times are what we need to bind us together then so be it. We can take the pain! I don’t mind cutbacks. Just tell me how this humble housewife can do her part to save the country.
What can I say? I was reared in the 80’s and it left a lasting impression. I never quite managed to develop a sense of entitlement. I bought the clothes, the shoes and the facials. I ate out a lot and paid other people to look after my children. But always with the uneasy feeling that someone would phone up and say “ There’s been a mistake and we’ve just discovered you’ve been using the guest towels. Here – use this old sack instead”.
Now that I’ve finally been caught out, it’s all quite a relief and I rather relish the prospect of a Blitz Spirit. So Minister, I’m in.
The problem is that there appears to be some confusion as to how the housewives of Ireland should act best for the sake of the country. The government needs unity on this issue, so Brian Lenihan needs to have a quick chat with the Greens, especially Trevor Sargeant. A couple of weeks ago Sargeant said that we belong to a useless generation. Actually he said, “We probably are the most useless generation ever to have strode the face of the earth”. This is “because of many people’s inability to do practical tasks such as mending a broken tyre.”
I blushed reading it because the bicycle bought in a rush of environmental consciousness and enthusiasm for physical fitness is out in the shed with a flat tyre. I could mend a puncture easily when I was ten, but I’m not sure how to go about it now. Could it really involve a basin of water and old spoons? I dropped into our local garage and hopefully asked the mechanics if they’d have a crack it but they looked at me as if I was bonkers. I’m not mad; I’ve simply become accustomed to outsourcing certain tasks.
Sargeant says I must change my ways and he urged us “to adopt a World War two-lifestyle and approach to consumption in the current climate”. On the one hand, that approach appeals to me. I took up the hems on my son’s schools trousers myself. I’ve got a kitchen garden going and hens are my next purchase. I don’t mind having a crack at painting the kitchen myself. Didn’t I paint my own bedroom several times when I was a teenager? The problem is that if I DIM (Do It Myself) I may be responsible for bringing the economy crashing down.
When I discussed the issue with UCD Economist Moore McDowell on The Last Word recently, he warned of the grave threat posed to the economy if we all followed Sargeant’s advice. Capitalism appears to have outlasted communism by about twenty years. This relative success is due to the theory of comparative advantage and specialisation, first proposed by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. The theory and practice of Comparative Advantage is that people and countries should identify what they’re good at, what earns them most money and then stick to it. They should specialise in those products and buy from others what goods or services they decide to abandon. The idea is that everyone will make more money at the end of the proverbial day. When a country decides what product they’ll trade, they need to take into account issues like opportunity cost – the cost of choosing one thing over another.
If you’re a Senior Counsel with a kitchen that needs painting, you could take the day off work to do it. But you could have earned ten grand down at the Four Courts whereas you could pay a painter a couple of hundred euro to do the kitchen. Not only does it pay you to pay someone else to do the job, but you’re boosting the economy by spreading your money around. Now the painter can buy stuff and the money trickles down the line making us all richer.
The opportunity cost for women is particularly high. When I was sitting at home congratulating myself as I sewed – badly – the hem on my son’s trousers, I would literally have been better employed paying someone else to do that job, while I scribbled out a column.
The bottom line is that Trevor Sargeant is both perfectly right and fundamentally wrong. We are a useless generation. We outsource basic jobs so frequently that certain skills once common will become increasingly scarce.
However by doing so we are actually helping the economy. Consumption might be our spiritual downfall but also our economic salvation. This is why Lenihan needs to tell Sargeant to zip it and make sure that us citizens don’t get confused by his budget message. The government needs to make cutbacks, but it’s vital that households don’t. If the country is to have a chance, the outsourcing must go on. Cleaning, decorating, repairing and baking are all tasks that came naturally to the 1950’s housewife. But we were poor and miserable in the 1950’s. If we don’t want to be poor again, the bad housewife can be the country’s great hope.
This might seem counterintuitive and you’re probably still in a post-Budget anger phase visualising all the cutbacks you’ll make around the house this winter. Stop and look at it this way. The budget wasn’t so bad at all.
For the past ten years the government flung money indiscriminately at people who could do without it. SSIA interest, automatic under-6’s child benefit bonus, over-70’s medical cards and inequitable tax allowances for high earners were all handed over as populist election winners. The money was crudely distributed and is being more crudely recouped, but I can’t help feeling it’s a case of easy come; easy go. What Fianna Fail giveth, Fianna Fail taketh away.
The trick to our future is to get over the snatching back of what we never should have gotten in the first place. Some people are poor, but if you’re reading this paper, I’d bet that you’re not. However, if you start acting poor then we’re really done for. The Blitz Spirit is all very well, but ultimately streets were bombed into rubble. If we don’t want to see our economy reduced to rubble, then we need to keep spending. Useless citizens of Ireland unite. Your economy needs you.