Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Recently a good friend posted a link on facebook to a TED talk by one Brene Brown, of whom I had never heard, although I was familiar with TED. This is a website that contains talks on various subjects either by well known people, such as Jane Fonda and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, or by lesser known but nevertheless well qualified specialists in their fields. TED is worth a browse at any time, just for its own sake.

Brene Brown’s talk, which is linked here, was well worth watching. I found that when I listened to it again, I got more from it. A key point of the presentation was that absolute certainty, in anything, is a major problem and a big mistake.

On December 15th last we woke up to the news that Christopher Hitchens had died. It was not unexpected as he had been battling with a serious form of cancer for about 18 months and it was known that he was not likely to survive. I have read most, if not all, of his books and I recently revisited the one for which he is perhaps best known, called “God is not great” (my copy is signed by the author, who I had the pleasure of briefly meeting when he debated religion with John Waters in the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 2008).

The following is an excerpt from the book:

‘Religion is man made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did. Still less can they hope to tell us the “meaning” of later discoveries and developments which were, when they began, either obstructed by their religions or denounced by them. And yet – the believers still claim to know! Not just to know, but to know everything. Not just to know that god exists, and that he created and supervised the whole enterprise, but also to know what “he” demands of us – from our diet to our observances to our sexual morality. In other words, in a vast and complicated discussion where we know more and more about less and less, yet can still hope for some enlightenment as we proceed, one faction – itself composed of mutually warring factions – has the sheer arrogance to tell us that we already have all the information we need. Such stupidity, combined with such pride, should be enough to exclude “belief” from the debate. The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted”.

After such words, nobody can be under any illusion that Christopher Hitchens or those, such as myself, who agree with him, can themselves be certain about their positions. All we can do is maintain that an explanation of how the world came into being that does not rely on a supreme creator is one that works for us. 

I have come across many who are deeply religious and who use this as the backdrop for living exemplary lives. These tend to be the religious people who do not attempt to persuade me to their way of thinking, and I’m more than happy to recognise that theirs is the solution to life’s complexity that works for them. I certainly have no interest in winning them over to my position on the matter. Where problems arise is where believers feel they have to proselytize – where they arrogantly think, for whatever reason, that everyone they meet should be “given the opportunity” to conform to their philosophy. Is this because they're insecure in their beliefs and need the reassurance that numbers of like-minded people can give? Do they feel threatened by those who insist on rational explanations and who hold, as Cicero did, that what is incapable of happening never happened, and what is capable of happening is not a miracle?

And there are those people of religion who would insist that they are not proselytizers, such as the RC Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, but whose actions do not match their words. The Archbishop certainly comes across as a reasonable man. He is on record as saying that lapsed Catholics “should have the maturity” to leave the church. He is, one might think, the acceptable face of Irish Catholicism. That is until we realise that he and his colleagues insist on having what is known as the integrated curriculum in Irish state funded national schools, of which, for historical reasons, they manage well over 90%. The integrated curriculum means that Catholic doctrine is not just confined to religion classes but permeates all subjects throughout the school day. The end result is that parents who do not want their children indoctrinated but who have no alternative primary school to which to send them and who are, after all, part of the body of taxpayers who provide the funding for the schools, are forced to put up with what is a totally unacceptable situation. It means that not only does the Catholic Church proselytize, but it insists on having as its target audience those who, because they are children, are by definition immature, with their critical and cognitive faculties still only in formation.

It must come to an end. The only certainty should be that there are no certainties.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Vincent Browne and the Euro

Vincent Browne is one of Ireland's most venerable journalists. He and I will agree on some things and not on others. One area of accord is probably (based on Vincent’s writings to date) the belief that the study of economics is not a science. Note that I did not write “exact science”. It is not a science at all. It is a set of beliefs that are held by individual practitioners and invoked under any and all conditions. Economists are Keynesians, Monetarists or follow the Austrian School in the same way as the devout adhere unquestionably to Mohammed or Christ or L. Ron Hubbard. Economists cannot agree among themselves on the right course of action under any given set of circumstances and they most certainly cannot predict what will happen in the future.

Vincent doesn’t claim, of course, to be an economist although I understand he has standing as a lawyer. His piece (Irish Times Wed Jan 4th 2012), on the possible upcoming referendum on fiscal measures that have been mooted in the context of resolving the debt crises of certain members of the Eurozone, seems to rely on a legal interpretation of the relevant treaties, especially when he claims that no country can be expelled from the Euro zone, and also when he implies that Ireland can veto the proposals and thereby do a “service to all the people of Europe”.

Taking the last point first, we need only look back a short number of weeks to when the British attempted to use their veto to block EU Tobin tax proposals. In short order they found themselves completely circumvented by the other EU states and at the same time pushed noticeably closer to the EU exit door than even the most rabid Euroskeptic could have wished for.

With regard to the existing treaties not allowing a state to be expelled from the Euro, no nations have better illustrated, through history, the adage that there are many ways to skin a cat than the Germans and the French. In the limit, both of these (along with other fiscally responsible states such as Finland and The Netherlands), could themselves opt to leave the single currency and put in place an alternative that would satisfy their requirements. For those left in the rump Euro the effect would be just as devastating as if they were expelled from the original. I cannot tell the future any more than Vincent or an economist can, but history has indicated a high probability that they would be subjected to very high interest rates, including on home mortgages, speculative attacks on the currency that they would not be in a position to defend, an inability to borrow internationally to repay either the amounts owing as a result of the bailouts or for current requirements, and a fall off in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) due to uncertainty and a lack of confidence in the currency. The rump Euro would also be subject to significant devaluation, which Vincent and others would probably welcome as an aid to exports and tourism, but this also carries a price, and that price is excessive inflation. We would be back, at best, to the situation that pertained in Ireland in the 1970s, when savings and pensions were destroyed and when profiteering was rampant.

Vincent Browne, and all the rest of us, should be very concerned that he might just get what he has wished for.