Original Thinking – Lessons from our Economic Famine

Image via mikejackson@flickr

Image via mikejackson@flickr

Between 1845 and 1852, Ireland lost about twenty five percent of its population through starvation, disease, and mass emigration as the potato blight destroyed Ireland’s staple food. While there were larger forces at play,  one contributing factor to the mass starvation of the population was the lack of diversity both in Ireland’s potato crop, and the diet of the population in general.  Even if there were different types of potato in the diet of the average citizen, the effects of the famine could have been reduced as differing potato crops wouldn’t have been as badly affected by one type of blight.

Property Boom and Bust

Can the lessons of the great famine be applied to our current economic situation? Most certainly. Ireland is in deep economic decline caused by singularly betting our fortunes on property.  As the property bubble inflated the government stoked the fire yet further by offering tax incentives to investors purchasing housing and commercial property, banks pushed large loans to people without the means to pay for them long-term, and home owners cashed in their equity in order to invest in second homes or to allow them to live far beyond their means. People on very average salaries released mortgage equity so that they could drive brand-new sports cars, take several expensive holidays a year, or buy apartments in Eastern Europe.

Laying the blame

While it’s clear that the government was not only asleep at the wheel but actively unscrewing the lug nuts on the wheels to the economy, the blame also has to fall squarely in the lap of the populace.  Overwhelmingly, Irish people have a high external locus of control (“it’s not my fault – it’s fate / the government / they’re all out to get me”) which I’ve heard attributed to Catholicism in that it preaches that “the flock follows the Shepard”. Many Irish people are happy to follow the flow without trying to determine whether they’ve just pushed themselves into the veritable creek without a paddle.

It’s also a common phenomenon for Irish people to complain loudly from the safe confines of the pub long after it’s too late to change anything, as is our penchant for begrudgery towards anyone who succeeds. I’m all for constructive criticism, but where other countries praise their success stories loudly the Irish belittle them, cast doubts on the origin of their good fortune, and sneer at their efforts.

Learning from the past

For Ireland to drag itself out of the current economic mire, we need to correct these attitudes. The economy can be stimulated by innovative businesses succeeding and creating jobs. Government can be changed by motivated people who aren’t willing to accept the endemic cronyism, incompetence, and dynasty politics. Ideas to promote business like the Tuesday push, and incubator programs are essential. Ireland is a tiny country hiding at the edge of Europe, but by learning from the lessons of the past and embracing divergent thinking we can have a global presence. We need original businesses that fix a problem for paying customers not “me too” opportunism or “We’ll figure out the revenue model later” delusion. Most of all we just need to support people getting started find their path to success.

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