Brendan Hoban: We must not be defined by economic growth        

Western People 8.5.2023

President Michal D. Higgins hits the nail on the head with his intervention on our obsession with economic growth. ‘Many economists remain stuck’, he said, ‘in an inexorable growth narrative, a fixation on a narrowly defined efficiency (and) productivity’. It’s focus, he continued, is too narrow because it loses touch with everything meaningful.

The economic history of Ireland since independence has placed growth at the centre of economic life, with a rising tide presumed to lift all boats. But the more difficult truth is that increased growth has not decreased inequality but rather has encouraged greed and acquisitiveness, as the recent Celtic Tiger exemplified.   

As one of the richest countries in the world and currently ranked 25th of the major world economies, the question for Ireland is: how much more of what we already have do we really need?

Here’s a parable for our time.

An investment banker from the United States was at the pier of a coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the boat were several large yellow-fin tuna. The banker complimented the Mexican on the quality of the fish and asked him how long it took him to catch them. ‘Only a little while’, replied the Mexican. The banker asked why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish and the Mexican replied thar he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The banker then asked, ‘But what do you do with the rest of your time?’ The Mexican fisherman said, ‘Well, I sleep late in the mornings, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, and stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play the guitar with my friends. I have a full and busy life’.

The investment banker scoffed: ‘You should spend more time fishing and, with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you could buy a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you could sell directly to a processor, eventually opening up your own cannery. Of course you would have to leave this little village and move to Mexico City and maybe eventually to New York if the business continued to thrive’.

The Mexican fisherman asked, ‘But how long would that take?’ The banker replied, ‘Maybe 15 to 20 years’. The fisherman asked, ‘But what would I do then?’ The banker laughed out loud and said, ‘But don’t you see, that’s the best part of it. When the time is right you could float your company on the stock market, you could sell your stock to the public and become a rich man. You could make millions’.

The fisherman asked him, ‘And what would I do then?’

The banker said, ‘Well, then you could retire. You could move to a small coastal village, where you could sleep the morning, fish a little, play with your children, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your friends’.

There are many versions of that story doing the rounds. The above version appeared many years ago in The Tablet newspaper but it remains a parable for our times. In an age of incredible prosperity – the present economic debate in Ireland is about where we are going to put the extra billions flooding into the nation’s reserves – we should be asking how much of what we have do we really need? Can we distinguish between want and need, our own and others? Can we get off the merry-go-round of more wanting more and give ourselves the space and the time to make distinctions between what matters and what (like extra money in our pockets) may well be peripheral? Or just selfish.

Here’s another question. What are we losing in the desperate effort of trying to get what we think we want but don’t really need? Examples abound. Parents working so hard that they lose contact with their own children and then in later years regretting their false priorities? (How many parents do you know who regret the amount of time they spent with their children?) Or individuals postponing something indefinitely until the optimum circumstances prevail and then see their happiness flowing through their fingers like sand? Couples waiting for their children to be reared before they can focus on their own relationship and who wake up one day to discover that their children are gone and there’s no relationship to focus on. Or workers running themselves into the ground producing things their families don’t really need or value. A whole generation sold on a series of wants which the advertising industry has convinced them are needs and ending up with houses full of unused and useless material.

The point is that in a world where everything seems to move so quickly and so many decisions are taken on the run, we may need to slow down the treadmill and give ourselves time and space to ponder the difference between wants and needs and the price we (and those we love) may be paying for confusing them.

President Higgins’ intervention may give us some food for thought. Here’s another comment that we could think about. ‘We must design the economy so that it can offer every person access to a dignified existence while protecting the natural world’.

Pope Francis said it in his book, Let Us Dream.

It has more going for it than hoping for a few more euro in our own pockets.

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