August 2012        


What if Ireland defaults?

Conor McCabe

Brian Lucey, Charles Larkin, and Constantin Gurdgiev (eds.), What if Ireland Defaults? (Dublin: Orpen Press, 2012; ISBN 978-1-871305-48-7; £12.75)

The machismo of restaurant chefs always makes me laugh. From the Hell’s Kitchen of Gordon Ramsay to the Kitchen Confidential of Anthony Bourdain, it’s hard not to be reminded that behind all the shouting and sweating and deep-throat realism, these guys spend their afternoons making flower shapes out of tomatoes. They toss salad for a living. They’re about as tough as their home-blended mayonnaise.
     Similarly, it’s hard to read public-sector economists going on about “getting real” and facing up to the “tough issues” without having a slight chuckle with oneself. What if Ireland Defaults?, a recently published collection of essays and anecdotes, is by no means the worst offender here, but nevertheless there are moments of unintended hilarity among the more solid, journeyman efforts.
     It is, without doubt, a strange collection. There is no real coherence. The title itself is misleading and undoubtedly owes more to marketing than to intention. Two of the articles are written by Constantin Gurdgiev, who is also one of the editors. Both, however, fit the theme of the book, one arguing for debt restructuring in Ireland, the other providing a précis of the experience of Russia in the 1990s.
     There is a useful synopsis of financial crisis theory from Joseph Stiglitz, Anzhela Knyazera and Diana Knyazeva. The experience of Iceland is given a fair reading by Elaine Byrne and Huginn Freyr Þorsteinsson, while Peter Matthews makes a principled and honest case for debt restructuring that is firmly placed within the tradition of Catholic social teaching. There is a touch of the ordinary, decent conservative about Peter Matthews, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense.
     As for the rest . . .
     Stephen Kinsella’s contribution is pedestrian, to say the least. Despite the substantial body of academic research conducted over the past decade into Irish society by the likes of Hilary Tovey, Perry Share, Mary Corcoran, Colin Coulter, Tony Fahey, and Brian Nolan—research that is readily available to Kinsella as a staff member of the University of Limerick—he ignores all of that and instead reaches for David McWilliams and the class-codology of The Pope’s Children. He finishes by speaking out of both sides of his mouth on whether Ireland should default or not.
     The contribution by Karl Deeter of Irish Mortgage Brokers is so inane and devoid of anything resembling human intelligence that a paintbrush tied to the arse of a monkey would have produced a better result—certainly one with more beauty and colour. His contribution is so full of typesetting mistakes and grammatical errors that it’s hard to believe that the editors did anything more than cut and paste and check the word count. “The myriad of opinions boil down to a binary choice,” “that’s taking [sic] from first-hand experience . . .” He actually sums up his piece with the line, “Time will tell.” Karl Deeter’s laptop is where clichés go to commit suicide.
     Séamus Coffey, lecturer in economics in UCC, argues that it is “impossible to know what the final outcome of the NAMA process will be” and that “unless there is an almost complete collapse in asset values it is hard to see how [the NAMA] shortfall could be more than €5 billion.” Less than 18 per cent of NAMA loans are actually performing loans, while a substantial section of its assets relates to agricultural land that gained value purely through rezoning.
     For the rest of the article Coffey transports himself, and his analysis, into the future. If one were to remove all the supposes and assumes and ifs and probablys from Coffey’s analysis there would be nothing left but haikus. This is economics at its worst: creating a future out of assumptions and treating the conclusions as real. A professorship awaits Séamus Coffey among these flowered tomatoes.
     The final word must rest, though, with Seán Barrett, senior lecturer in the Department of Economics, Trinity College, Dublin, and a member of Seanad Éireann. Among all the fault lines and problems—political, social, economic, and cultural—that affected Ireland in the run-up to the 2008 crisis, what one stands out head and shoulders above the rest? According to Barrett, “the practice of senior civil servants passing notes or whispered advice to ministers in parliament.”
     This man is a senior lecturer in economics in TCD. Jaw-dropping stuff.
     In the possible words of Karl Deeter, What if Ireland Defaults? boils down to a binary choice between a mixed bag and a curate’s egg. There are articles of workmanlike standard between its covers, but one feels that as a whole the book will end up fuelling more dinner parties than debate.
     However, only time will tell.

■ Dr Conor McCabe is a historian and the author of Sins of the Father: Tracing the Decisions that Shaped the Irish Economy (2011).

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