Sunday, April 10, 2011

Crisis upon crisis

Intentionally or not, I have been picking up books on the financial crisis of 2008. First there was "Fool's Gold", a largely US-centric account on Investment banks, such as JP Morgan,  "The Crunch" which is a British-centric account around Norther Rock. And then there is that all-rounded discussion by Prof Paul Krugman in "The Return of Depression Economics", where his analysis of the financial crisis spanned the times and the globe, from the Latin American crises in the 1980s to Mexico in the 1980s and 90s, and forward to the Asian financial crisis in 1997, arriving at the most recent crisis in 2008. Such a broad survey linking common and originating factors illustrates the truth of Solomon's wisdom, that there is no new thing under the Sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). His is a unique account among a sea of books that have already been written on the same subject.

The latest I have read is Fintan O'Toole's "Ship of Fools", which, if nothing, is a damning account of the Celtic-Tiger years in Ireland. (The term, "Celtic-Tiger" is taken from the term, 'Asian Tiger' referring to Singapore, Hong Kong, S Korea and Taiwan that experience rapid economic growth and development between 1960 and 1990). Though Ireland also experienced rapid economic growth towards the end of the 1990s and into the first decade of the new century, the account in this book focuses, quite unflatteringly, on the almost pervasive corruption and incompetence of the powers that be in the very highest of government and society (read: bankers, and property developers).

My prior impression of Ireland is that illustrated by the Irish-American Frank McCourt's in his award-winning book, "Angela's Ashes". The book was depressing reading because it described an Ireland that was poor and hopeless. So much so that, as Mr O'Toole pointed out in his book, one of the things that characterized the Irish people is emigration - away from Ireland, for good.

For almost a decade, Ireland seemed to have gotten itself out of its depressing cycle of civil conflict, poverty and depression. Electronic giants such as Intel, Motorola, and Apple made a bee-line for Ireland to set up a significant presence. Ireland's economic growth became the stuff of legends and impressive case studies in management literature.

But the statistics have lied. And while the industries are real, lured to the island through generous tax incentives, the over-priced properties that came up in those years were a mirage. The account does not attempt to hide Mr O'Toole's contempt for the character and integrity, or more precisely, a lack of these qualities in people like Bertie Ahern, erstwhile PM of Ireland in the Celtic-Tiger years and his fellow government ministers. Names have been named in the book, and it doesn't need to be repeated here. I have no personal interest in what happens in Ireland, but it is incredible that a country can fall into such a state at all in the first place. Were there no opposing voices to right the wrongs? Is Parliament sleeping all those years? Is the media dead? Are there no regulators? Sadly, according to Mr O'Toole, all of these parties are either intentionally ignorant or complicit in the 'crime'. The rest of the good people, I suppose, have simply left for greener pastures across the seas.

There is a lesson in this for countries with mal-functioning democracies, and of countries which believe only in one-party rule.

A disturbing book.