My wife and I have just returned from a trip to Ireland, America’s worst trade partner in terms of their per capita trade surplus in manufactured goods, and I thought I’d share some observations.
First of all, perhaps because I visited areas more attractive to tourists (mostly in Kerry County), I didn’t really see much evidence of a large presence of American companies there. However, shortly after arrival, as we were checking into our hotel just outside Dublin, an older gentleman who was dressed as a businessman somehow recognized me as an American and asked if I was there on business. “No, we’re just here on vacation,” I replied. “Oh, well there are a lot of American companies here, you know.” he said. “Yeah, I know.” I replied. If only he knew just how well I knew that fact and how I felt about it but, following an all-night flight and a harrowing drive through Dublin to the hotel (my first experience driving on the left in a right-hand-drive, manual transmission car), I didn’t have the energy to get into a discussion.
One morning at breakfast at our next hotel in Killarney, a young hotel employee (maybe thirty) who was busy bussing tables and restocking the breakfast buffet, struck up a conversation, asking what part of America we were from. “Michigan,” we replied. (I found it interesting that of all of the people we met who asked such a question, maybe only half knew where Michigan was located. It was oddly comforting that Europeans can also be “geographically-challenged” in the same way that many Americans are criticized for being.) Anyway, the thing that this young guy seemed most interested in was the current state of the job market in America. He noted that things had been difficult there as Ireland struggled to emerge from the economic mess it landed in during the “Great Recession.” (You may recall that Ireland was dubbed one of the “PIIGS” nations of Europe – Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain – who had racked up massive national debts and were now a drain on the Euro Zone economy.)
On another occasion, as we waited for a tour of the Muckross House in Killarney National Park, one of the ladies selling tickets bemoaned the fact that they were short on tour guides, thanks to government austerity measures. I was beginning to understand that employment was still a significant concern in Ireland. This seemed strange, given Ireland’s relatively huge trade surplus with the United States.
The longer we were there, I grew more accustomed to the charm of the Irish brogue. But I also began to notice that, in many cases, the accent didn’t seem right. I then began to realize just how many of the people we were speaking with weren’t Irish at all but immigrants, primarily from around Europe and some clearly from the Middle East. Especially in the hotels, the staffs seemed to be dominated by immigrants. At an ice cream shop, the young lady who waited on us was French. When I asked if it was difficult to get a work permit in Ireland, she explained that as a citizen of the Euro zone, she had just as much right to work there as anyone.
Although Ireland is twice as densely populated as the U.S., it’s actually rather sparsely populated by European standards, where most of continental Europe is as densely populated as China. Thus, it’s become a magnet for migration of Europeans looking for a better life in a less crowded land where, though unemployment is still a problem, it’s much better than in other places. We talked with a lady who had recently moved to the Killarney area from England, a nation four times as densely populated as Ireland. She was ecstatic to be there.
Ireland is a beautiful place that everyone should try to visit at some point. The people are friendly and we never had a bad meal. The countryside is beautiful, dominated by sheep pastures delineated by ancient stone walls and hedgerows. But, as someone hypersensitive to the subject of overpopulation, I can see that Ireland is in a state of transition, and I fear that their culture will gradually fade into the boring sameness that increasingly characterizes our globalized world.
Speaking of England, on our last day in Ireland I was watching a BBC news broadcast in which some journalist was interviewing Ed Miliband, Labour Party candidate challenging David Cameron for British prime minister in the upcoming election. I was shocked (pleasantly so) by a question that the interviewer put to Mr. Miliband. But that’s a subject for my next post.