If Germany can, and the US can, we can do it too
Continuing our series where business leaders suggest ways of kick-starting the Irish economy, web visionary Paddy Cosgrave says our intellectual class has been an appalling failure
I'M interested in two challenges: first, can Irish culture be changed; and second, if there is any sub-culture or class within Ireland that is particularly toxic to our future, then who are these people and can they be changed?
I believe Irish culture can be changed, and I believe the most toxic and destructive class in this country's recent past and likely future are not bankers and politicians, but our professionals and academics -- our intellectual class.
And they can be changed.
In these recessionary times where almost everyone from the world's leading economic commentators to my own mother defer to the economic aphorisms of Adam Smith, it's perhaps wise to begin any opinion piece by turning to the words of the great man. As this piece is concerned only with Ireland, I think it's worth sharing Smith's views on the Irish, because those views are seldom if ever shared.
In Wealth of Nations, his legendary tome, he made the following pertinent observation: "the strongest men and the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions, are said to be. . . from Ireland".
Being buff and hot is no doubt an important Irish economic fact, and one that other notable economists and IMF officials have undoubtedly observed in recent months through the windows of the Merrion Hotel. But for now I'm more interested in what the Germans were like in times past when we were being buff and hot, and what that past tells us about our own future.
Thankfully, some wise Irish kept diaries of their travels to Germany during the earlier part of the 19th century. Sir Arthur Brooke Faulkner noted in his book Visit to Germany and the Low Countries that "the tradesman and the shopkeeper take advantage of you wherever they can, and to the smallest imaginable amount rather than not take advantage of you at all . . . This knavery is universal".
Not only were Germans universally dishonest, in Sir Arthur's view, they were also overly emotional.
Sir Arthur was not alone. In fact, his observations are consistent with those of many others during this period. John Russell concluded that the Germans were a "plodding, easily contented people, endowed neither with great acuteness of perception nor quickness of feeling". Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, wrote that "the Germans never hurry".
So just to set the record straight, in the past, while the Irish were a super buff and hot bunch, the Germans were a super lazy, indolent, thieving bunch of non-engineers. Yes, non-engineers. John McPherson, Viceroy to India in the late 18th century, penned in frustration that "I found the roads so bad in Germany that I directed my course to Italy".
Ah, the Germans. How you have changed. We salute you.
Now before we all get jingoistic and uppity about our new landlords, the point is, culture changes, and sometimes dramatically. Back in Ireland, we can lament a poisonous political culture or a sedated academic one, but whether either culture actually exists or not is in a sense irrelevant, because culture can and does change.
In short, anyone who is a cultural fatalist and believes Ireland will never change, might benefit from remembering Germany's past.
But why does culture change, and in particular, why does business culture change, and what can Ireland do?
Well, having focused on our German friends, I think it's worth turning to our American friends. In Ireland, we sometimes think of certain business values that we hold as some sort of irreversible consequence of an invisible hand that no one group or individual can sway. Yet,in the US such cultural values, including the idea of the American Dream and the American Way of Life, are almost entirely invented.
The spectacular achievements of the National Association of Manufacturers and similar groups in "re-educating" the American people, in particular through the late Forties and early Fifties, as documented by many historians, are a case in point. During this period American business collectively embarked on the single largest marketing and advertising campaign conducted in the history of the world up until that point.
And the purpose was simple: to influence and ultimately change the values underpinning US business culture.
I'm not passing judgement on business groups successfully "re-shaping" the cultural values of a nation, I'm merely pointing out that in the past it's been done in a nation many times the size of Ireland, and spectacularly so.
To conclude the first part of this piece, and before moving on to the second part, there are no grounds to be fatalistic about Irish culture. "The way things are" can and does change -- just look at the Germans. And furthermore, if the Irish business community actually wants to change culture, then it's been done to great fanfare in the US in decades past, so there really are no excuses. IBEC officials would be advised to read Selling Free Enterprise by Prof Elizabeth Fones-Wolf and Free Market Missionaries by Prof Sharon Beder, among numerous other unintended handbooks "in the everlasting battle for the minds of men", in the words of the former chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers Public Relations Advisory Committee and vice president of Du Pont, J Warren Kinsman.
Turning to the second part of this piece, I feel that if we are to change our future for the better, then it's useful to come to terms with the immediate and catastrophic past, and those ultimately most responsible.
As someone who watched Ireland disintegrate almost from the moment I left university in mid 2006, I've constantly wondered who is perhaps most responsible for the situation we are in? Is it the lazy Germans or the beautiful Irish, or perhaps some subset of both?
In trying to locate those most responsible and discussing the issue with my four housemates: an academic, an accountant, a solicitor and a barrister, I'm often reminded of Victor Klemperer.
Victor Klemperer was a notable German Jewish intellectual. In his diaries covering his life in Nazi Germany, where he avoided the gas chambers by a mere whisker, he wrote something truly memorable about a German academic friend whom he had greatly respected, but who had eventually joined the crowd.
"If one day the situation were reversed and the fate of the vanquished lay in my hands, then I would let all the ordinary folk go and even some of the leaders, who might perhaps after all have had honourable intentions and not known what they were doing. But I would have all the intellectuals strung up, and the professors three feet higher than the rest; they would be left hanging from the lamp posts for as long as was compatible with hygiene."
I wonder sometimes what I would do were the fate of the vanquished in this country in my hands. I think of all my friends forced to leave Ireland, and I think of the many more without jobs or hope of jobs. Would I string up most of the bankers and politicians? I don't think I would. Like Klemperer I think in many cases the bankers and politicians were men and women who really didn't know what they were doing. But as for the intellectual and professional class in Ireland, I'll say this, unlike in Nazi Germany where the costs of speaking out were extreme, the costs in Ireland were minimal. Yet there was silence. And perhaps that silence is and was the most morally criminal silence of all.
I think of the many solicitors, accountants, professionals and, in particular, academics in this country who collectively are so brilliantly talented and perceptive, yet who said nothing during the height of the Celtic Tiger. Perhaps they are the most complicit class in this country. I say that while living in a house occupied by an accountant, a solicitor, a barrister and an academic, who oddly are in some agreement on this point.
To conclude, my melodramatic point is this: in Nazi Germany, Adam Smith's Britain and Bertie's Ireland the most dangerous class was and always will be the intellectual and professional classes. Their "interested sophistry", in the words of Adam Smith, can disproportionately sway a nation's people and its politicians, and sometimes disastrously so, if left unchecked. So, just as business people and entrepreneurs everywhere are mindful of entrusting their earnings and wealth to that class of "advisers" for a seemingly ever-increasing fee, let's be equally mindful as a nation as we entrust the greatest wealth transfer in the history of this State to that same complicit class of pleasant advisers for yet another seemingly ever-increasing fee.
We can change the culture of our nation, and we change our own individual cultures as entrepreneurs, business people, academics and professionals. It's really our choice.
Paddy Cosgrave is founder of the Dublin Web Summit
Sunday Indo Business