Monday, 10 June 2019

Pilgrimage and policy

It was mostly a mix of school reunion, family and social catch-up, genealogical research and all-purpose holiday, but a trip to Ireland and Scotland also allowed a side-outing pilgrimage to Adam Smith's grave in Canongate Kirkyard in Edinburgh. If you're ever minded to visit, go round the back of the church, and the grave is up against the wall of the church on the right hand side. I didn't notice it at first, but there is also a little trail of  'Adam Smith' plaquelets set into the grass that will take you to the right spot.

I wondered about the railing around the grave and the heavy duty lock: anti-market vandals? Like the nerk that scribbled anti-Smith graffiti on the yellow explanatory notice? Not so, said the formidably learned volunteer minding the church: she said it was quite common practice to rail a grave in the 18th century (Smith died in 1790). She'd also noticed that these days visitors to the grave tended to come from Europe rather than the UK, and her experience was that UK people tended to have very little knowledge of Smith: he had (she said) completely vanished from British school curricula.

I did my usual economics-by-wandering-around on the trip. Random observations:

Ireland's standard of living has pulled well away from ours. Comparisons are iffy because of big tax-domicile accounting changes to Irish GDP and an unusually large wedge between Irish GNP and Irish GDP, but it's safe to say that living standards per capita are now some 50% higher in Ireland than here. And it shows in things like the cars people drive and the quality of the houses. Ireland's no paragon of good policy or governance, it had an unusually nasty GFC, and it's got locational advantages we don't, but for all that it's clearly made a better fist of getting growth barrelling along than we have. Sure, GDP isn't everything, but if we had incomes at Irish levels we could afford a hell of a lot more wellbeing-enhancing initiatives.

There's no border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. One minute you're on the road from Letterkenny (in the Republic) to Londonderry (in Northern Ireland) and you're calculating in euros and driving to kilometre per hour speed limits, and the next you're thinking in pounds and observing miles per hour limits. That's it. No checks, no let, no hindrance - for now. This currently free passage is yet another of the potential casualties of the Brexit debacle, since the clowns running the process didn't join up all the dots (a commitment to the Republic as part of Northern Ireland peace talks to have no borders, versus the gaping hole in the customs and regulatory frontier with the EU that post-Brexit free passage would create, leading to various proposals for rickety 'backstop' fixes). But Brexit incoherence aside, hassle-free movement is a great idea. If countries like Ireland and Britain, despite sometimes prickly relations, can organise completely free movement, why can't Australia and New Zealand?

And on Brexit, if there's a hard no-deal Brexit, it's heavily odds on that Scotland will run a second independence referendum, and I wouldn't be surprised if it succeeded. Which might enable a more prosperous Scotland to do something about the state of its roads: years of false economy 'austerity' cutbacks to spending on road maintenance have left potholes everywhere (even on motorways).

There are indeed at least some limits to tourism. If you want to see one, visit the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland. It's an unusual geological feature, but considerably diminished by the hordes of people all over it (and it isn't even high season for visitors yet). We'll face similar issues in due course, and I don't think our new $35 a head levy on visitors is much of an answer to anything.

Some of our food exporters also face headwinds. There is a clear push, in the Irish and Scottish restaurant trades, both to explain where your ingredients have come from, and to use local providers. VisitScotland for example has an accreditation scheme which includes among its criteria, "Quality ingredients of Scottish provenance" and "Food miles kept to a minimum". 

Finally, coming back to Adam Smith, I hadn't known that since 2008 Edinburgh has a statue of him on its Royal Mile. The story of how it came about is told here, and well done all the organisations and individuals who planned it and paid for it. How much it is a statue of Smith, however, as opposed to a generic Important Person is in the eye of the beholder: for me, it could as easily have been a memorial to a sea captain. I'd like to have seen a book, and even if Smith is the father of the dismal science, would it have hurt to have shown him smiling?

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