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Friday 9 December 2016

David McWilliams put his finger on our brutal inequalities

David McWilliams
David McWilliams

DAVID McWilliams is one of the good guys — and this is probably the last time you’ll hear anyone say that about an economist.

When others in his profession were busy obfuscating and bullshitting and talking about soft landings (remember those?), McWilliams was warning us that we were about to crash and burn.

The politicians didn’t listen, of course, so here we are now, crashed and burned and smouldering on the runway, with no sign of a fire engine squealing to our rescue.

Mock the man if you wish — and plenty, including satire show Irish Pictorial Weekly, have — for his Blackrock College/Trinity background (some think he was the inspiration for Paul Howard’s Ross O’Carroll Kelly) or his capacity for self-publicity.

The Phoenix magazine, ever the one for the witless one-liner, dubbed him the David Beckham of the Irish media; frankly, if you can name anyone working in the Irish media who doesn’t have a capacity for self-publicity, they’re probably in the wrong business.

Me, I’d prefer it if somebody erected a statue of him. Unlike the British, we’re not big on declaring human beings national treasures, but McWilliams is a national treasure.

His latest authored documentary, The Great Irish Wealth Divide, was the kind of programme that made you feel like putting your boot through the television out of sheer anger.

Do that, though, and you might not be able to afford a new one. Who knows what else you might not be able to afford as you slide down the poverty scale from society’s squeezed middle to its bottom 20 per cent, who are trying to scrape by on their 0.2 per cent share of the wealth sloshing around the country?

 

HARD-WORKING

The thrust of the documentary was that if things keep going the way they are, this is where many decent, hard-working people, who’ve spent their lives playing by the rules and doing all the things decent, hard-working people are supposed to do, will end up.

The lion’s share of the country’s wealth, 70 per cent, is currently in the hands and pockets of the super-rich, the elite few (and by comparison they are few) who can zip over to Rome in their private jets to buy exclusive — ie, obscenely expensive — luxury goods, such as watches from Bulgari (prices start at a modest €50,000). They prefer to splash the cash there, or in London or New York, because doing it in Grafton Street might look like showing off. Even our billionaires know that’s not the Irish way.

The point of McWilliams’s film wasn’t that the rich getting richer is wrong — he’s a capitalist, not Karl Marx — or even that there’s a gap between the haves and the have-nots. There always has been, and there’s nothing at all wrong with trying to better yourself.

The point was that the gap between rich and poor has widened, and will only continue to widen. The recession didn’t sink the super-rich, it just made them super-richer, because they know how to manage and manipulate and massage their assets, with the help of banks — which only lend money to people who already have assets — and politicians and favourable tax deals. The recovery won’t re-float the ordinary people who have sunk to the bottom.

Capitalism, according to McWilliams, isn’t the problem; it’s “hyper-capitalism”, the kind where acquisition is everything. Wealth creates nothing but more wealth, which is of no value to anyone but the wealth-owners; there’s no trickle-down effect. He had a simple solution: tax the super-rich. Good luck with that.

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