Would you put your hand up to being stupid?

Aug 6th, 2011 | By | Category: Ireland

Why aren’t we angry?  Why aren’t people taking to the streets in protest at our country being run by foreign officials and our taxes being used to bail out financial institutions?  Why are the very banks that have received billions of public money being allowed to pursue confiscatory policies against members of the very public whose taxes have paid the bailout? Why aren’t we blocking the closure of essential services? Why aren’t we picketing the meetings of those who put foreign interests before those of poor Irish people?

Perhaps we are afraid to admit to foolishness.

A neighbour across the fields in Co Down used to tell of going to a horse race meeting with a group of friends from work. Lurking around the entrance was a man offering brown envelopes at £1 each. These envelopes, he claimed, contained tips for the winner in each race on the card that day. My neighbour and his workmates bought envelopes for the fun of it. When they opened the envelopes they discovered that each contained a different list of horses. “None of us would have admitted being taken in and backing a loser, but when we got a winner we would have said that the man was a great tipster”.

Economic punditry seems pretty much like horse race tipping, no-one is going to admit that they believed analysts who got things completely wrong.  Voices that appeared on the radio during the boom years assuring us that nothing could go wrong are still appearing, now telling us what went wrong. Yet no-one seems prepared to shout that the emperor has no clothes, no-one wants the embarrassment of admitting that we listened to charlatans, that we paid for bad tips.

Meeting a bishop in England during my student days, I was asked where I was studying. “The London School of Economics”, I replied.

“Ah, give me a one-armed economist”, he declared with a flourish.

Mystified, I asked why.

“So he cannot say, ‘On the other hand'”.

Economic history shows that every boom eventually busts; sometimes, as in our case, spectacularly so. But George Bernard Shaw, a founding figure of the LSE is said to have once commented, “we learn from history that we learn nothing from history”.

We seem to have again proved the truth of Shaw’s comment, but our problem is that we don’t want to admit it.  We don’t want to accept that we built our hopes on pyramid selling, on a Ponzi scheme.  We believed tricksters who took what was before our eyes and told us it was different – that the bit of pavement outside was a plaza where the sun always shone; that a flat overlooking a dual carriageway represented elegant living; that, even when the market was faltering, economic growth could continue for years to come; that negative equity was something from Britain in the 1980s and it couldn’t happen here.  We seriously believed we were one of the wealthiest countries in the world, despite what we saw elsewhere.

It all crumbled before our eyes – but to go out and protest would mean owning up to being foolish.

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