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Stockholm or Silicon Valley?

Maurice Earls writes: In a recent Irish Times opinion piece, Cliff Taylor asked why it is so expensive to live in Ireland. There is no one answer, he said, but nevertheless he did suggest that the collapse in house-building during the crash was a major factor. The cost of borrowing, insurance and, of course, the fees paid to our unreformed learned friends also got a mention.

Taylor clearly believes it is not acceptable that ordinary people should be under permanent financial pressure and concludes by suggesting that “we pick a couple of sectors and try to do something”. This is a good idea and few could fault the idea of doing something. But it could also be argued that societies sometimes have to ask large questions and that due to scale of the trough we find ourselves in, piecemeal efforts will fail, that the time has perhaps arrived where there is a widespread inclination to ask what we want from society, for ourselves and future generations.

Some might argue that our economy is doing very well and we should be happy with the way things are. Those who read the newspaper business pages will be aware that employees of tech companies can earn very good salaries. Lawyers, marketing people and others also do very well. The cost of living in Ireland does not particularly bother these high-earning individuals.

We could, as a nation, decide to encourage this type of individual by making the place as attractive as possible for financial executives, corporate lawyers, marketing people and tech innovators. We could set our best people the task of luring them in on the basis of the quality of life on offer here. It’s happening already.

But  then there is the little question of what happens to ambulance drivers, set designers, chefs, teachers, actors, cleaners, college lecturers, poets, road sweepers, artists, bus drivers, civil servants, nurses, baristas, writers, catering workers, farmers, retail workers, publishers, mechanics, filmmakers, waiters, journalists, photographers, painters, labourers, guards, editors and soldiers. If the country remains impossibly expensive, many of these moderate and low earners will emigrate; others will live far away from their work and become socially alienated. Will our quality of life then still attract the high earners?

Devoting ourselves to the needs of the rich is unlikely to remain the effective policy of the state. Universal suffrage will play a part here. We can, I think, expect an electoral response from people who are becoming aware that their marginalisation is potentially permanent. This likelihood is the legacy of living in a society which has been engaged in serious democratic politics for two centuries, longer than anyone else in Europe.

It may well be that we are about to ask if we are happy living in a society in which only high earners are comfortable, in the realisation that by doing nothing we are choosing that future. One of the many impositions nudging the public in that direction is the cost of childcare.

Cliff Taylor tells us that OECD research shows that average childcare costs in Ireland absorb 28 per cent of disposable income and that the European average is 12 per cent. We can be completely sure that as a result of this discrepancy many Irish children are receiving inadequate nurture and that many parents are under pressures which are incompatible with a healthy family life.

The traditional view is that as “children are the future” it is in society’s interest to ensure the sustainable and healthy management of childrearing. This is a view which can be heard in many countries, including the United States where at a rhetorical level the family is fetishised. The proof of the pudding, however, is not found at the rhetorical level. In the United States, which is the world’s largest and most successful economy, there is no paid maternity leave, never mind paid paternity leave. According to one commentator, in the US mothers “complain of exhaustion, returning to work well before their baby can sleep through the night, and of the trials of pumping breast milk at work”.

But there is no general panic. The unfortunate fact is that the US economy does not feel itself to be disadvantaged by the state’s anti-mother and anti-family policies. And in terms of its competitiveness, it is probably not disadvantaged. The US is the land of immigration. It does not have to ensure that the children of its working poor – which now include huge swathes of the former middle classes ‑ are humanely nurtured. There is no shortage of workers. It will only get worse when the use of advanced machine labour escalates.

One can’t help feeling sympathy for the many Americans who are campaigning for state-supported maternity leave. They are up against immense obstacles and, thus far, have failed politically. Childcare support and family-friendly policies in the US are at the lowest level in the Western world.

Sweden is at the other end of the spectrum. There the state actively intervenes in the area of childcare. In Sweden it has been found that, relatively, “mothers are least conflicted and most content”. Parents in Sweden have sixteen months’ paid leave and workplaces are family-friendly.

One other positive result is that the phenomenon of “helicopter parenting” (which could just as easily be termed the disruption of childhood) and which is frequently driven by an anxious desire for children to get a monetisable advantage over their peers, is uncommon in Sweden. There they tend to allow children be children.

In which direction will Ireland pivot, Stockholm or Silicon Valley? The next year or so, which will see three elections, may well give us an indication.

18/4/2019