Irish economist David McWilliams takes to the stage this week at the Abbey’s Peacock Theatre in Dublin for a rather unorthodox theatrical offering – a 90 minute monologue on what’s wrong with the Irish economy, why our political leaders and civil servants aren’t getting Ireland out of the mess, and what might be done to fix it.
McWilliams has become a popular public figure, known now as one of the few economists who predicted the collapse of the housing market and the subsequent credit crunch. Through books like The Pope’s Children and The Generation Game, and special television series such as ‘Addicted to Money,’ McWilliams has been something of a wet blanket on the party like there’s no tomorrow approach to the Irish economy. During a stint as a host on the RTE comedy series ‘The Panel,’ one of the comedians once referred to him as ‘the ginger horseman of the apocalypse.’
Some of the promotional material puts it like this:
While the others cheered the boom, only one economist accurately predicted the collapse and mess we find ourselves in. He told you the truth then; he’s telling you the truth now.
‘The Outsiders’ opens officially on Wednesday June 16, but I attended one of the preview shows this weekend. While McWilliams’ show might be considered nothing more than a glorified economics lecture, he is able to make it work through his characteristic high energy and good humour.
There’s not too much information that’s new to those who have been following McWilliams’ line of thought for some time. His overarching thesis is that the Irish economy is controlled by a cartel of self-serving ‘insiders’, who not only were responsible for allowing the banking crisis to happen – but who have now rigged the rules of the game so that they will emerge winners from our present economic woes. In the show, he presents a bewildering picture of the insider connections between Ireland’s economic elite, illustrated by a spider-web like graph demonstrating the level of entanglement.
In short, ‘the outsiders’ – that’s the rest of us – are going to be footing the bill for the insiders or else turning to the traditional Irish safety valve of emigration.
Among McWilliams’ remedies to this situation are allowing AIB to fail, abandoning NAMA, and if necessary, seizing a possible breakdown in the Eurozone as an opportunity for Ireland to take control of its own currency and to devalue it, thus stimulating economic growth.
While getting out of the Euro mightn’t be as eminent or as possible as McWilliams hopes, what he says about NAMA frankly scares me. Putting it in perspective, he points out that no country – let alone a small country like Ireland – has ever attempted a bail out of this scale. In a normal country, he says, banks and developers are allowed to fail. That’s part of the rules of the game in capitalism – accepting risk and its consequences.
While McWilliams shows that the relationships between Ireland’s politicians, bankers and developers are incestuous and breed cronyism, he also points to a cultural factor beyond greed or the bonds of an old boys club.
He says that Irish politicians are motivated by a desire not to lose face in front of the rest of the world. NAMA, he contends, is in part a bluff to show to our neighbours that everything is okay and we can handle this crisis. NAMA, then, becomes part of Ireland’s desire to be seen as ‘good Europeans.’
McWilliams likens this to the ‘good room’ that was ubiquitous in poor Irish homes of the past. The ‘good room’ was set aside for when posh visitors came to the home – priests, doctors, anyone that was of a higher social class.
Family members, especially children, hardly ever set foot in the good room. As McWilliams said, Irish people pretended they lived in the good room, and their visitors pretended they thought their hosts lived in the good room.
Now, McWilliams says, our posh neighbours are the rest of Europe and we want to impress them. He says we’d be better served by abandoning this pretence and pursuing different policies.
McWilliams covers a lot more ground than this in the show, which runs until July 3, 2010.