Not so much looking down as across..

Monday, December 27, 2010

What car would Jesus drive?

What car would Jesus drive?
As a child I would lie awake in bed and listen to the cars as they made their way up Landscape Park in Churchtown. From the sound of the engine I was able to distinguish between a VW and a Ford, between a Renault and an Austin. Cars in the early fifties were different from each other.
I lost interest in cars a few years ago when they all looked and sounded the same. The only difference between cars was a price and a badge. Just as all trainers in the world are made in the same sweat shop in the Far East only to be distinguished by expensive marketing logos it seemed that all cars were made in the same factory only to be given badges when they arrived to the car dealer.
My interest was rekindled in recent days as I jealously watched four wheel drive and all wheel drive SUV’s purr past the rest of us mortals condemned to spend an eternity slithering up and down Newtownpark Avenue. I had always hated SUV’s on the basis they were ugly, they ran over young children without even seeing them, they nudged up at roundabouts and your couldn’t see past them, they encouraged in many drivers a sense of superiority, they were not fuel efficient, they were the equivalent of bringing your house on your back, and a few more... While all of these things may be generally true, I did feel a little stirring in the heart as they majestically trundled over snow, slush and ice.
A neighbour of ours, who hardly ever drives, was seen arriving and disappearing in a real SUV – a Land Rover – every ten minutes – or so it seemed.
And then Christmas arrived. Our first white Christmas – ever. Unless you were born pre 1947 in Ireland, you never had experienced the Bing Crosby heaven of a Christmas card scene. I drove down to our Friends Christmas Meeting. All nine of us arrived at 9.30 to see the caretaker emerge from an igloo he had built in front of the Meeting House. He and his wife had spent the night in a comfortable zero degrees while outside it was minus 6. Even at 9.30 in the morning it was registering minus 4.
On the way back from the service to a sleeping Murray household I spotted a big Volvo XC90 awd (all wheel drive) and wondered if it had not been remiss of me in our thirteen Volvos to have not at least considered one of these mountainous cars. And then, being Christmas, my thought moved to Jesus. What car would he have driven?
I felt I could immediately discount the Rolls Royce and the Maybach. He might have travelled in a Merc or BMW though. The priests would not have approved. But then Jesus had a habit of enjoying a cup of tea or a glass of wine with whomsoever he wished. But I cannot see him owning one. Would he have been more comfortable owning a Fiat Punto or VW Polo? I mused. After all Jesus did a fair bit of travelling. The Holy Land tourist agency would have been thrilled with him. So indeed would the bed and breakfasts and rural hotels, except of course when he spoiled it all by multiplying the loaves and the fishes. All in all though, he was good for travel and tourism generally.
Would he have chosen, like me, a nice safe Volvo? After all Volvo have been leaders in the field of safety and fuel efficient cars for over fifty years. Maybe a second hand Volvo Estate with three rows of seats that would have fitted the disciples as they moved from town to town? You can imagine the kind of Volvo I mean. It is about twenty years old and the tailgate has stickers from National Parks and Glastonbury, from Maynooth University and from Greenpeace.
Over the Christmas I travelled the galaxy of cars in my mind and came to the conclusion that Jesus was probably a public transport person. After all that!!
I can imagine him in scarf and heavy coat waiting for the 46A bus to arrive. He knows the bus conductor by name. His apostles half fill the bus. They will take the bus into town and the train to Cork to meet some Gentiles who live in the Southern part of Ireland.
I think Jesus would use public transport because it is more democratic. Cars insulate us and emphasize our individuality and separateness. Public transport would be the first choice of Jesus. Will someone else make the same discovery as me and rename their bus or train fleet?
As I look out the window, the rain has replaced the snow. That is progress. Next year I predict the hit single at the end of the year will be, I ‘I’m praying for a green Christmas’...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Where has all the money gone?

Where has all the money gone?

A fellow blogger asked this simple question some weeks ago.
It is a reasonable question to ask.
We were told a mere three years ago that we Irish were the wealthiest people in Europe if not the whole wide world. How can it be that we have been reduced, seemingly, to being the beggars of Europe?
Did we blow it all? Where did we spend those billions we now owe and how did we manage to spend it so effortlessly?

Here’s my Ladybird approach to economics.

Filthy lucre or money has two functions – it allows for the payment of goods and services and also tries to put a value on a specific good or service.

The first function is much easier to follow. I work as a teacher. I get my wages at the end of the month. I buy a litre of milk in the shop and hand over a euro. The shop takes a little profit and pays the dairy, which after taking a little profit pays the farmer. We can follow the money splendidly.

During my working life I was always fascinated by how that one farmer supported the Co op who bought from him and the retailer who bought from the co op, and the insurance salesman which insured the cow and the banker who lent for the cow. The only person, it seemed to me, who was creating anything of value was the farmer, the rest were simply living off him. We might go a little further if we believe in animal rights and give the full credit to the cow, but that is for an udder day.

The second function is to put a value on an object - say my house. It is an anticipated value, because I won’t know how much it is really worth until I sell it. The same holds true of the stock market where values are assigned to shares. Because shares trade daily we can much surer of the value from a day to day to basis(unfortunately).

Let’s look at an imaginary comfortable upper middle class family. Let’s call them Black, (they were once in the black) whose family balance sheet looked like this at the end of 2007
Family home Cost 750k Value 2,000k Debt 600k
Investment property Cost 500k Value 700k Debt 400k
Bank Shares Cost 500k Value 700k Debt 400k
Holiday Home Cost 350k Value 400k Debt 300k

Total Cost 2,100 Value 3,800k Debt 1,700k

The net worth of the Black family at the end of 2007 was 2,100k
Mr. Black was earning 150k pa and received a bonus of 150k at the end of ’07. Mrs. Black is a teacher who was being paid 50k pa.
The loans were interest only and cost 50k pa

At the end of 2010, things have changed for the worse, and now the Blacks are in the red
Values have fallen as follows

Family home 1,000k (if they can find a buyer)
Investment property 350k (they are having problems finding tenants)
Bank shares 10k (no point in selling them at this stage)
Holiday Home 150k (lovely house on the Shannon that no one wants to buy)

Revised net worth Minus 190K

Mr. Black has taken a 20% decrease in salary to 120k and no bonus is being currently paid. Mrs. Black’s gross pay has remained the same but tax and deductions have reduced the take home pay.

In the case above, we might ask, where has the money gone?
There have been no transactions, so there is no money to follow.
But the problem for the Blacks, their Bank and the taxpayers who own the Bank, is that the Black family now owes more than they own and their chances of repaying these loans are very much reduced. They will have to be forgiven some of these loans if they are ever to repay the balance – but no one has worked out how much, or how it might be fair. The Black’s problem has become a problem for the tax payer including the Red family who have not moved house since they married forty years ago and never borrowed for anything but saved all their lives.

Here’s a Black example of money changing hands. Let’s imagine that the Blacks adult son bought an apartment in Dublin in July 2010 for 350k, which had been for sale in 2007 for 700k.
Let’s try and follow the money
Site cost to the builder in 2007 200k
Cost of building 2007/8 200k
Bank charges 50k
Overheads 40k
Fees 40k
Total cost 530k

Loss on the apartment 180k

Let’s see how the apartment was funded and follow the money

The Banks is owed 400k
Subcontractors 50k
Other creditors 30k
The Developer 50k

The following people will lose money (indeed already have)

The developer 50k
Subcontractors 20k (they will have to be paid something by the bank to finish the apartment
Other creditors 30k
The Bank 80k

That would explain why the developer has gone bust, why the subcontractor is hurting
And the bank is bleeding.

We might ask: what has happened with the money that was paid for the site – 200k?
It was paid to a farmer who sold 500 sites at the time and received 100m.
There are three possible general scenarios as to how he spent the money:

a) The farmer put the money on deposit and is playing golf in the Algarve

b) The farmer put one third on deposit, one third into property and one third into shares – he has probably lost only half his money and is now playing golf in Ireland

c) The farmer got great advice from experts who showed him how by borrowing 300m he could acquire a trophy property in Canary Wharf. Sadly now he has lost all his money and is probably worth minus 100m.

Anecdotally it seems as if option three was the only one generally employed. Assuming the farmer bought the property from an East end boy, someone in London is now playing golf in Florida.

Looking at Ireland Inc, a big part of our problem is that all of our overseas ventures and much of our domestic ones too were financed by overseas banks or by Irish banks who borrowed overseas and now our overseas friends want their money back.

As capitalism and leverage lifts us on the way up, it crucifies us on the way down. Ireland needs low interest rates so as to be able to repay the money but is punished with high rates which make the possibility of default a lot stronger.

Banking is the art of giving only money to people who don’t need it. Occasionally bankers forget this axiom and lapse by giving money to people who cannot afford to pay it back. A bank that has lost the confidence of its depositors is like a virgin who has lost her virginity, you cannot buy back either confidence or indeed virginity. Confidence in Banking as in life can only be given, it cannot be proscribed.

To conclude, much of what we have lost is implied value – that is not to say it is unreal, on the contrary the halving of the value of my house is very real for me and painful for my wife.

There is a further argument that would suggest that much if not all of our gains over the past ten to fifteen years have been made on the back of our simply borrowing from strangers who kindly lent to us having worked hard themselves to save the money in the first place. Now, the argument continues, we will have to work even harder for less so as to repay the debts. Not even a moneylender will look at us for the next few years. Our living standards will decline. The hard working, hard saving Chinese will see their standard of living rise. And there is nothing unfair about that.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Time for my Brother

Time for my Brother

I never had a brother, but I had hundreds of Brothers. An only child for seven years, I yearned for company to play or even fight with. My sister Kate arrived when I was seven and my sister Margaret when I was ten, and that was that.

At the age of 18 years and three days I joined the Novitiate of the Legion of Christ in Leopardstown, County Dublin. The Seminary was a green building built on land that had been sourced by Archbishop John McQuaid – now a controversial figure in political and ecclesial history, known to my father who was a big fan of the Archbishop who could be quite charming in private. The Legionary Novitiate may be the only green building to my knowledge in all of Ireland. The green tiled building, conceived to ‘blend in’, sticks out like a sore thumb as you drive along the M50 motorway at the Sandyford junction.

In 1969 I joined twenty other young men with a view to serving God in the Mexican Missions. Within an hour of joining we were advised that we should address each other as ‘Brother’. It became natural over the following two years of the Spiritual Formation Course (the Novitiate) to call each other ‘Brother’. So much so that when two of us were sent under cover in mufti on a ‘delicate’ mission to Madrid in 1971 to pretend that we were lay students attending UCD, we found it almost impossible not to call each other ‘Brother’ and once or twice we lapsed.

We lived a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. Poverty meant having no possessions of one’s own – literally. We were all assigned jobs, Sacristan, Cook, Medical Officer, Farmer, among others. My favorite job was Receptionist because it entailed spending much of my time in a little office at the front of the building where I could see all the comings and goings. I got to sleep in a little room beside the reception so as to be able to take phone calls that might sound in the night. This was in the days before phone extensions and mobile phones.

In the years after I left in 1976 I used to claim that my only possession was my watch – which was not strictly true. Stricly I had no watch. The watch I brought to the Seminary was given to young man called Thomas Price – ‘Brother’ Thomas Price – to give him his full religious name. Thomas had the toughest job of all. He was in charge of ‘time’. With the help of my watch he sounded the bell every time a new task was due. He rang the first bell rang at 5.50 am for Morning Prayer, followed at 6.00 for meditation, followed at 7.00 for Mass, followed at 7.30 for breakfast – in silence – and so on.

The Brother in charge of the Bell needed to be punctual and diligent. Thomas Price had those qualities and more. Over the following 41 years nearly all my companions left the Legion of Christ – but because we were never allowed discuss personal matters in the Seminary – our decisions to leave were made alone, without access to colleagues or family. Often when we left, our remaining colleagues were told we had moved 'to Mexico' or to another mission. That is what happened in my case. It was reported that I had left on a top secret mission to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico when in fact I was back in Dublin walking Dollymount Strand.

As a result, having been deprived of communication while we were within the Legion, the information blackout nearly always continued afterwards – often for years. Many were so traumatized by the Legionary experience they chose not to contact others, no matter how well meaning. Purely by chance, some years ago I learned that Thomas had unsurprisingly left but surprisingly and sadly had died at a very young age. I was shocked and saddened. Thomas had been a gifted footballer. He hailed from the Liberties and I can still see his parents in my mind. Our parents were allowed to visit the seminary twice a year for an afternoon. I have pleasant if black and white memories of their reunions with Thomas from my vantage point in Reception.

Yesterday as I drove around Glenageary roundabout, thirty nine years later I took a call on my (hands-free!)mobile phone from a friend in Amnesty International – where I had served as honorary treasurer for three years. In moving premises they had discovered a Bible donated to a Brother Thomas Price, LC (Legion of Christ) on the occasion of his Profession (Vows) in 1971.

Memories flooded back of the red headed Brother Thomas as he made his way along the polished Seminary floor in the early morning and how he glanced at his watch – my watch; memories of him playing football in the field which now houses Bewley's Hotel in Leopardstown, of working with him to harvest potatoes in the autumn of 1970 in the land that is now occupied by Central Park.

Coming up to our first Christmas in the Seminary, in December 1969 Brother Thomas dropped the watch on the marble floor and it smashed into many pieces. So that was the end to the only thing I had in the world. Those two years in Leopardstown and the five following years taught me a very privileged lesson – possessions don’t really matter as long as you have three decent meals a day and a roof over your head. Many in Dublin and in Mexico will not have those luxuries this Christmas.

I have undertaken to try to track down members of the Price family and return the ‘Amnesty’ Bible to the family of my 'Brother' – Thomas Price. So if anyone out there knows of someone related to a wonderful red headed young man (as he was in 1969), hailing from Cork Street in the Liberties, who played a mean game of football and who was never late in his life, just give me a call and we will try and offer the family a small memento and remember a life that, if short, was nevertheless heroic.

PS Best of luck to all in Amnesty who will be moving into new offices over the Christmas Period!