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Column: Has Michael Healy-Rae hit on a way to make us happier?

The independent TD’s comments on car registrations may have been silly, writes Eoin O’Malley – but maybe we should look into it a little more…

Eoin O'Malley

LAST WEEK, MICHAEL Healy-Rae ventured forth into a public policy debate arguing that in order to prevent the ‘car industry’ from terminal decline in 2013 we should consider changing our car registration system for next year. The thinking is that people will be unwilling to have a car with a 13 plate because they’ll regard it as unlucky. The people of Kerry wouldn’t buy cars, the car dealers would go out of business, jobs would be lost.

Many comments on The Journal.ie exclaimed the stupidity of belief in the supernatural. And we can also criticise him for his lack of understanding of basic economics. There is no car industry in Ireland. We don’t make cars here. When a new car is bought it means that the wealthy (anyone who can afford it now must be cash rich) pay the government a good deal of tax (no bad thing) but also that they export a very large amount of money for a consumer good that has little more productive value than the car they are replacing.

Up to recently, we subsidised this export of money by paying people to scrap vehicles that may have worked reasonably well and offered a few more years of use. If we were to discourage buying new cars, we’d keep more money circulating in the Irish economy, and mechanics would benefit as older cars would need more regular repair. The only losers would be car salesmen.

However, Healy-Rae may be right that people do make purchases on the basis of what’s on the car registration plate. Anecdotal evidence suggests cars with a 02 plate are typically more expensive than those with an 01 plate, even though the cars might be the same in other areas, mileage etc. It is also sometimes said that people will not buy cars from certain counties – so no self-respecting Louth man would buy a car with an MH registration plate.

‘Some of those proud drivers became slightly unhappier this year’

We also know that the current system changes when we buy cars. A third of private cars registered in 2007 were registered in the first two months of the year. January 2007 had about 30,000 new cars registered, whereas there were just 1,500 in December 2006. People like to have new cars and nothing says new like a 12-D registration plate. This means that the offices dealing with car registration have very uneven loads of work, which may be inefficient for staffing.

But it also means that some of those proud drivers with their 11-D plates became slightly unhappier at the turn of the year. Their car was no longer new. It may have looked the same, even still had that new car smell; it may have only been a few weeks old, but in the minds of others, it was one year old.

Research on happiness (it’s a growing area!) tells us that we tend to compare ourselves to others. Most of our lifestyles are far superior to that of our grandparents, but what matters more is where you are relative to others in society. So you are only well off if you are better off than your brother-in-law We also know that we take undue notice of what others think of us, or what we think others think of us.

Even if our car is perfectly functional, many of us feel deficient if it is an 05 and all our friends drive 09 cars. So what might we do?

The current system encourages those who can to change their cars more frequently than is efficient for the Irish economy or the environment. Why not move to a registration plate system with random identifications? There are downsides. Many of us like that we can tell where a car is from. But we might be able to incorporate this into the system, but just ensure that no one can tell how old the car is by looking at the registration plate. We could even move to a system where people can choose their own, and pay for it, making this a revenue raising scheme. Brian O’Driscoll might pay a premium for L31NST3R 13. And it could make the rest of us a little happier with the cars we drive.

Eoin O’Malley teaches politics at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. He usually cycles to work, but when he doesn’t, he uses an 11 year-old Cork registered car. He is not from Cork. You can follow him on twitter @AnMailleach.

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Eoin O'Malley

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