It's the second event of the Irish Times Winter Nights festival and David McWilliams, commentator, broadcaster and explainer of economic complexity, is being grilled by the Irish Times's resident economics guru, Cliff Taylor. The topic is, ostensibly, the post-pandemic economy but it ends up being wide-ranging and informative.
Taylor starts with a question about the economic state of the nation. McWilliams goes through a litany of positive metrics. “VAT was up, income tax was up and corporation tax was up … What you’re looking at is an economy that not only has weathered the storm but has done extraordinarily well.”
He evokes “a vibrancy, a dynamism” which he links to being a country that has experienced a lot of social and demographic change. He’s positively Panglossian until he arrives at housing, where we’re “doing exceptionally badly.”
The idea of rewarding people because they've inherited a piece of land is anathema to a dynamic society
He points out that we're the least densely populated country in western Europe but that we have the highest land prices which "means the interests of landowners have been preferenced over the interests of everyone else".
He talks about a generation who are being left behind and how we’re still producing far fewer than the 40,000 homes we need to be building every year. He thinks we need better metrics for differentiating between valid and invalid planning objections, that property owners need to be penalised for dereliction and that should be building lots and lots of council houses.
Even Singapore, he says, builds huge numbers of council homes. "They realise that social cohesion rests on housing … The idea of rewarding people because they've inherited a piece of land is anathema to a dynamic society."
Taylor asks him his views on the Russian troops amassing on the Ukrainian border. McWilliams spent time in Russia in the past. He talks about the national yearning for "pan Slavic unity" and Putin's history with military interventions in Chechnya, Georgia and the Crimea. "He's got away with it every time."
Taylor asks him if he thinks Putin will invade this time. "I think he will. He knows the Americans won't fight. Since they pulled out of Afghanistan that sent a signal to everybody that they haven't the interest."
Taylor takes a question from Twitter about NFTs, the digital blockchain-linked tokens currently at the heart of a speculative frenzy. McWilliams refers to this as “the tulip mania of the digital age … You should always be very worried when premiership professional footballers are advertising things.”
Another Tweeter notes how well Irish billionaires did during the pandemic and asks if it’s “time for a wealth tax”.
McWilliams thinks it is. People are increasingly angry about the wealth disparities and “many very wealthy people who don’t want to be the targets of people’s ire ... would be quite happy to entertain being taxed more”.
I think Sinn Féin will try to make good on their promise on housing. I think that will be elementary to them
Some redistribution would also be better for the economy. The problem with rich people is they don’t spend their hoarded wealth, he says. “Poor people spend more of their income in the immediate present because they have to … And that generates dynamism.”
An audience member asks McWilliams to predict the outcome of the next Irish election. On the basis of the latest polling, he says, the coalition could get back into power. “But for our democracy I think it would be regressive if the ultimate aim of the two major parties was reduced to only keeping Sinn Féin out ... There does come a time when the yearning for some sort of alternative needs to be recognised by the political system.”
He notes how many Sinn Féin voters are young and feel "left outside of the system". He thinks if Sinn Féin do get in, it may be in coalition with Fianna Fáil.
The problem with the left, he says, is “how much they hate each other.” He recalls an old adage: “The right look for converts while the left seek out traitors.”
Taylor asks what McWilliams thinks Sinn Féin policies might be like in government. “I think the housing market will change. I think they will try to make good on their promise on housing. I think that will be elementary to them … Their model is probably Fianna Fáil from 1930s, 40s into the 50s … They’d have to try and make good on [housing] … And that would be a wonderful thing, actually.”
The 2022 Irish Times Winter Nights online festival, supported by Peugeot, takes place from Monday, January 24th to Thursday, January 27th. Still to come are paralympic medallist swimmer Ellen Keane, rugby legend Brian O'Driscoll, author and comedian David Baddiel, writer and feminist Caitlin Moran, and Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole. For tickets, go to irishtimes.com