Response to economic crisis: Irish government cutting support of homeownership

A conference on housing in Ireland suggests the Irish government is reversing course and will no longer be supporting homeownership:

STATE SUPPORT for the principle of home ownership is at an end after almost 100 years, a national housing conference has heard.

Encouraging people to buy their homes had been seen by the State as a social good, as well as an economic one, but there was now a definite shift in policy, UCD sociology professor Tony Fahey said.

Tenant purchase schemes were dying out and local authorities were no longer offering loans to private buyers. The policy now is households need to be assisted by the State if they can’t afford to rent, not if they can’t afford to buy.

“It had been an article of faith for almost 100 years that home ownership was a social good and should be supported by the State . . . The historic roll the State played in putting up capital for housing won’t be repeated.”

Americans tend to think we are a nation of homeowners but there are several countries that have higher rates of homeownership. Ireland is one such country:

The highest home ownership is in Romania (96pc), followed by Lithuania (91pc), Hungary (89pc), Slovakia (89pc), Estonia (87pc), Latvia (87pc), Bulgaria (87pc), Norway (85pc), Iceland (84pc), Spain (83pc), Slovenia (81pc), Malta (79pc), Czech Republic (77pc) and Greece (76pc).

Ireland comes in at 73.7pc, while 70pc of people in the UK own their own homes.

Irish home ownership levels have dropped from a high of 79pc in the 1990s to just short of 74pc at the start of this century, according to a new book on the economy, ‘Sins Of The Father’ by Conor McCabe.

Ireland is now facing the consequences of a burst housing bubble in the last few years.

While Ireland is facing their own issues, I wonder if the US government might make a similar shift or at least pull back from supporting homeownership through public policy and government rhetoric. Thus far, it doesn’t look like this has happened much. But, if the mortgage interest deduction disappears and/or younger Americans continued to avoid buying homes, perhaps things could change quite a bit here as well.

However, even if the policies changed, this doesn’t necessarily mean the cultural value of homeownership will change quickly.

Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins has a master’s degree in sociology

I’m always on the lookout for famous people with sociology degrees. Being the President of a country counts: Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins is considered a sociologist.

Higgins holds a graduate degree in sociology.In his academic career, he was a Statutory Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at University College Galway and was a Visiting Professor at Southern Illinois University. He resigned his academic posts to concentrate fully on his political career.

Higgins received a master’s degree in sociology from Indiana University in 1967:

“On behalf of Indiana University, I would like to congratulate IU alumnus Michael D. Higgins upon his election as the ninth president of Ireland and culmination of a long and distinguished career as a politician, lecturer, author and human rights activist,” McRobbie said. “Over the course of four decades, President-elect Higgins has dedicated himself to championing Irish culture and passionately defending human rights causes in many parts of the world. He is also renowned for the many intellectual contributions he has made to modern political, philosophical and literary discourse. All of us at IU wish him the greatest success as he prepares to apply his extensive knowledge and experiences to his new role as Ireland’s senior ambassador.”

Higgins received a master of arts degree in sociology at IU Bloomington in 1967.

Higgins is also apparently an honorary life member of the Sociological Association of Ireland.

I wonder if anyone has done a study on the effectiveness of leaders with sociological degrees. Sociology is an unusually broad field, containing insights for many areas of social life as well as for social interactions. I would hope that sociologists can do unique things because of their training…

Quick Review: Boomerang

Michael Lewis’s latest book, Boomerang, gives the current economic crisis some international context. In an entertaining and somewhat breezy manner, Lewis investigates why countries as disparate as Iceland, Greece, Germany, and the United States all fell into the economic mess. Here are a few thoughts about his take:

1. My overwhelming thought about Lewis’s explanations is that he wants to delve into different cultural approaches to the world of finance. Lewis’s argument goes like this: even though these countries have very different histories and cultural mindsets, somehow they all got involved with bad debt in the 2000s. This same topic could spark a fascinating economic sociology or cultural sociology manuscript.

2. Unfortunately, Lewis either doesn’t have much time to spend with each country (he admits the book began as he was working on understanding the US system, which became The Big Short or he doesn’t want to delve deeply into his thin arguments. For example, in Germany he tries to tie their fondness for following rules (which means Germans were the last people to be being disastrous American CDOs) to their fondness for scatalogical humor (which Lewis bases on one anthropological study). While there is a lot of potential here for showing how different cultures can be tied together by a global finance market, Lewis needs a lot more evidence to construct a convincing argument.

3. I found the last chapter to be both exhilarating and depressing. Lewis comes back to the United States in the final chapter and describes how this could all play out. Here is what Lewis suggests: while the centralized governments of Europe struggle, the problem in the US is pushed down the road because the federal government can push off more and more obligations on state and local governments. If this plays out as Lewis suggests (though there is debate over whether it will be as bad as Meredith Whitney suggested), local governments will continue to feel the pain of the economic crisis for years to come and the results may not be pretty.

Summary: I think Lewis is on to something here but I would like to see the topic covered with more depth and include more research.

“Muck mansions” and “bungalow bliss” in Ireland

The United States is not the only country with housing issues. Here is a description of some of the issues in Ireland, complete with references to “muck mansions” and “bungalow bliss”:

A major study of the impact of the Celtic Tiger property boom on the Irish landscape has slammed the damage done to the countryside, to rural towns, and to people who have to endure long commutes…

It says that the damage done by the ‘McMansions’ or ‘Muck Mansions’ of the past decade is worse than the effect of the ‘bungalow bliss’ era in the 1970s…

“The mark left on the landscape by the Celtic Tiger society has been profound. A sense of lifestyle entitlement is reflected in the one-off ‘McMansion’ housing in rural areas, with SUVs on cobble-lock driveways, satellite dishes and decking that is seldom used but always seen.”

The McMansions are on a bigger scale, the book says, referring to “a conspicuous two-storey house faced in either red brick or stone, with protruding conservatory and a detached garage. Frequently sited in commanding locations, they dominate the landscape, reflecting their role as status symbol as well as home.”

The description of a McMansion is intriguing. On one hand, there are similar traits compared to American McMansions: ties to SUVs, “entitlement” culture, conspicuous design, sprawl and long commutes, and status symbols. On the other hand, there are some differences: Irish McMansions are said to be in rural areas (though I’m not sure they really have suburbs like the US does so maybe this is similar), the garage is separate, and they are placed in “commanding locations” where everyone else can see them. The general connotation that these are undesirable places and that such homes are either symbols or causes of economic troubles is very similar.

There is something to this alliteration: “muck mansions” and “bungalow bliss.” Any good ideas about similar terms that could apply to the US housing market?

A bad week for sociologists in prominent government positions?

Two stories from this week suggest it might not have been the best week for sociologists who are in prominent government jobs.

First, in Greece, George Papandreou resigned as Prime Minister. From earlier this week:

“Today I want to send a message of optismism to all Greeks. Our road, our path, will be more stabilised. Our country will be in a better situation. We will be stronger,” Mr Papandreou said in the televised address.

Philippos Petsalnikos, current speaker of the Athens parliament, has been widely tipped to replace Mr Papandreou as prime minister. Although Mr Papandreou did not name a successor, he added:

“I want to wish every success to the new PM and the new government. I will support this effort with all my strength.”…

Pressure has mounted on Greece’s two main political parties this afternoon to wrap up three days of critical power-sharing talks and name a new prime minister to take over at the helm of an interim government.

Papandreou has a sociology background.

Second, here is a fairly critical review of Ireland’s president-elect:

Michael Higgins, the President-Elect of Ireland, has lived a very comfortable life sucking on the government teat. He began his adult life as a sociologist in academia. He then moved into politics, and for decades enjoyed lucrative pay as a member of the political elite (well above $100,000 annually in recent years).

Now he’ll pull in more than $300,000 per year for a largely ceremonial job as Ireland’s President. As the old saying goes, nice work if you can get it. This guy’s definitely part of the top 1 percent.

He’s also an economic illiterate or a cynical hack who apparently thinks noble poverty is a good idea for the other 99 percent.

Here is a quick overview of Higgin’s academic background from Wikipedia:

Higgins holds a graduate degree in sociology. In his academic career, he was a Statutory Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at University College Galway and was a Visiting Professor at Southern Illinois University. He resigned his academic posts to concentrate fully on his political career.

Perhaps Anthony Giddens can ride in and save the idea for prominent sociologists in higher levels of government?