The Poor Man's Accountant

Peace in Our Time

In the midst of all our wars, the world's longest war has finally petered out and no one seems to have noticed. Admittedly the fire isn't dead-out, tit-for-tat revenge will continue on forever, but the armies have thrown away their weapons and everyone seems happy to leave the fighting to the politicians. A grudging peace, but that's as good as it gets on this planet.

Do you know the war I'm talking about? It started some 400 years ago with your usual invasion and theft of land. You would think that over four centuries the melting-pot theory would have kicked in. But, in this case, the two sides were able to segregate themselves and so the crimes were never forgiven or forgotten. And since one side wouldn't come out on an open battlefield and fight fair, terrorism became the weapon-of-choice for both sides. In the 20th Century they set the standard with car bombs directed at civilians, assassinations, and slow suicides. Each side used heinous cruelty to prove their resolve. When I watched it all on the news it seemed that both sides had gone too far and now could never back down.

All the belligerents looked alike and all spoke the same indecipherable accent. They all claimed to worship the same God and they all read from the same holy scripture. I had no idea how they could tell themselves apart — except on Sunday when they went to different churches. Is that all it took too sort Us from Them? Could indoctrinated differences in dogma be enough to keep the fires of revenge alive generation after generation? Couldn't they see that war just led to economic ruin? Unless murdering is in their genes, what other than religion could have maintained such madness over hundreds of years?

Now this worried me because in this case we're not talking about heathens from the other side of the world. I can understand how the less civilized could be overwhelmed with religious fervor and throw away their lives in jihad. But in this case we're talking about freckle-faced white folk that could all be my cousin. I had never seen any signs of religious zeal in my relations. In fact my kin seemed to have moved beyond God. It scared me to think that just under my skin lay a Celtic barbarian looking for any excuse to start the slaughter.

Last summer it began to dawn on me that for the past few years the news out of Northern Ireland had, by Irish standards, been a bit tame. Doesn't a lack of violence mean peace? But why aren't the bells ringing and the banners flying? I thought I'd better head to the library and get the facts. I hoped that if there was peace, then maybe therein lay the answer to world peace. Obviously I'm getting out of my league here, it's not like accounting and income tax has anything to do with world peace. But I thought if I could read a few history books, who knows what I could discover!

I read how the English came and stole all the best land from the barefoot Irish. How they used a razed-earth policy that in the north wiped out the population with a famine. The English then repopulated with imported Scottish Protestants (my kin), and it's their descendents that are the problem to this day.

As I read, I searched for the religious atrocities that had steeled both sides to fight on forever. But I didn't find any. Though way back they had a few small religious massacres, at heart the battles weren't being fought for God. The fact that both sides could be split by religion was just a coincidence of conquest. If you were Irish, you were probably Catholic and you wanted your land back; if you weren't Irish, you were probably Protestant and you wanted the barbarians brought to heel.

It wasn't until 1922 that Ireland was given back to the Irish, but the Protestants in the north would have none of it. They built a grand parliament, vowed to fight on forever, and became Northern Ireland. By the time I had read up to the 1970s I had to conclude that only bloodymindfulness could explain the perpetual violence. Britain was forced to pour in billions of pounds to prop up Northern Ireland and everyone was still on the dole. Couldn't they see the prosperity that peace was bringing to their southern neighbors in the Republic of Ireland?

Then I read: "in 1990 standards of living were still around 40% higher in the north than in the Republic of Ireland." Ah! It all made sense now.

Never once on TV did I hear of the immense poverty of the south. I had always assumed that the Republic of Ireland had an economy just like Canada, and certainly was a lot better off than any place in the midst of a civil war. But that was wrong. Northern Ireland may have had the lowest level of income in the UK, but the story of Britain pouring in billions wasn't about how poor the north was — it was about how rich they were!

My faith in my tribe was restored. My kin were not capable of throwing away their lives in meaningless jihad. But a 40% drop in your standard of living? That I can see my flesh and blood dying for.

Yet today peace has come, and it's the Protestants that have thrown in the towel. They are resigned to eventually lose their democratic majority within Northern Ireland, and don't mind sending some politicians to Dublin as well as London. But why now give up on their principles?

What has changed is that the Republic of Ireland has transformed into the "Celtic Tiger." It now has the second highest per capita income of any country in the EU, fourth highest in the world. And how did they perform is miracle? With billions of dollars in investments by Intel, Dell, Microsoft, IBM, Abbott Laboratories and some 600 other U.S. subsidiaries all operating in the Republic. Why? Because it's part of the EU and so has tariff free access to the European Common Market. But why not put their factories in the heart of Europe and save transport fees? Because in the heart of Europe the corporate tax rate is between 20% and 60%, in the Republic of Ireland it's 12.5%.

Income tax to the rescue! Who would have guessed? Northern Ireland is now making money off the south and in so doing is growing twice as fast as the rest of the UK. The north has caught a ride on a faster train.

What can we learn from Irish history? The Protestants of Northern Ireland have shown that if one side is facing a significant drop in their standard of living, then four centuries of talk and war won't change their minds. From this it follows that all the dead died in vain because violence did not bring about the solution. Ten men starved themselves to death for nothing because cold hard cash solved this war. And if the factions are fighting because they have no money, then that means the money is going to have to come from somewhere and someone else. Which means some altruistic third party has to be willing to suffer a drop in their standard of living for a bunch of strangers. Which, as the Protestants of Northern Ireland have shown, is going against basic human nature. And that's why we have so many wars today.

I had discovered the cause and cure to all our wars and, just my luck, it's a solution that no one wants to hear. I may have the dirt poor and a few anarchists on my side, but anyone who has even a little money to lose won't want to hear any wild talk of giving away trillions to level out the economic playing field. Surely it's cheaper to send in the troops.

Worse yet, though I would have the historical facts behind me and only be arguing for no more than Christian charity, all those against me would be shooting down from the moral high-ground. One man's charity is another man's extortion. They would argue that paying people to not blow themselves up is just giving in to blackmail. It would go against the very heart of our hard-working, free-market Capitalism. Once the first terrorist's bomb goes off the only moral way to answer violence is with violence. The Romans may have been able to pay off the Persians, but back then you had to pay for your wars up front.

And the reason that you are hearing all this from me is that once any reporter started connecting that dots he would have put down his pen. No need to write a story you can't sell. On this planet the rich don't like their media discussing any "economic" solutions: there are only military or political options. To point out the money would put a lie to all the patriotic rhetoric and cheapen all the dead. Not the sort of story to win a Pulitzer.

So if the answer to peace is an immoral dirty-little-secret that goes against basic human instincts, how did Ireland succeed? The EU lets the Republic of Ireland get away with a 12.5% corporate tax rate because they want to make it a prosperous trading partner. They aren't giving away money, they're investing in Ireland. And the moral issues are sidestepped because the money has nothing to do with the war. The EU bureaucrats have faith in their economic theories and believe that in the long run the whole of Europe will be better off. They are the heroes in this story because there is no guarantee that their plan will work. All we can say for certain is that the Germans, the Dutch and the French are willing to suffer higher unemployment and a loss of revenue just so the Irish can get on their feet. That's as close to altruism as it gets on this planet. The grand European experiment at trying to create a common market where everyone gets to be rich has to be commended. It's a far cry from Hitler's plan to take over eastern Europe and make the locals disappear. There's hope for humanity yet.

And a special mention should go to the guy who figured that changing one tax rate to 12.5% was all you needed to save Ireland — only a cynical accountant could have reckoned that!

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