Polarising bear

 

He has been dubbed Ireland’s most right-wing economist, and he may lack the common touch, but though critics label him a professional controversialist, he is also admired for challenging the consensus, writes LOUISE HOLDEN

IF ECONOMISTS were children’s characters, Ireland would be host to some of the classics. Morgan Kelly’s fire and brimstone delivery has invited comparison with The Simpsons’Sideshow Bob. Colm McCarthy’s droll pessimism brings AA Milne’s Eeyore to mind and now Constantin Gurdgiev has been described on Twitter as The Count from Sesame Street.

With his background in maths and his wintry Russian inflection, the TCD adjunct lecturer loves to count the cost of Ireland’s economic profligacy, and we love to listen to him. It’s fair to ask why: he doesn’t exactly have the common touch. His critics accuse him of directing all conversation, on or off air, at the fourth-level educated and no lower. “He doesn’t rate any university in Ireland except Trinity. He’s probably never heard of an institute of technology,” said one.

Gurdgiev is not an obvious candidate for the airwaves from the point of view of accessibility. However, he ticks outside the boxes of Irish commentary. He is characterised, rightly or wrongly, as our most right-wing economic commentator, bookending the discourse with Unite’s Michael Taft at the other end of the shelf. “Ireland has been a consensual policy space for the past two decades,” says a fellow economist. “Because Gurdgiev hasn’t fitted in, and is pretty clearly a believer in the markets, he is incorrectly characterised as unequivocally right-wing. He spent half his life living under communism: that has to have shaped his world view, but it’s more nuanced than he gets credit for. His opposition to Nama is positively left-wing.”

Another peer believes that Gurdgiev has been pigeonholed because of his fervour, rather than his credo. “He has an evangelical sense of economics; he’s an extreme libertarian. But he’s not against Government intervention; he believes in proper regulation. People characterise his perceptions as all one way.”

His association with Libertas during the first Lisbon referendum campaign gave his critics the freedom to label him, and there are those who believe that his ideology overrides his engagement with Irish economic reality.

“He’s an ideologue: that is his biggest flaw,” says an observer. “He starts at the finishing point and works back. He doesn’t believe in the rule of government; he wants to leave everything to market forces. That’s the ideology that got us into this mess in the first place.”

Even his opponents will nod to his ability, however. One of his sharpest critics describes him as “incredibly bright, and one of the best-qualified economists we have”.

Born and educated in Russia, Gurdgiev served as a sergeant in the Soviet military before leaving for the US. He gained his Masters in economics from the University of Chicago, then studied for his PhD under Phillip Lane in Trinity College. He lectured and researched at Trinity full-time before making a surprise segue into media, taking up editorship of Business and Finance. Academic eyebrows were raised.

“Full-time academics didn’t work out for him,” says one. “He tried out media and many academics wrote him off after that. They didn’t believe you could make the move to media and speak credibly as an academic again. On the media side, there were those who claimed he tried to turn Business and Financeinto an economic research journal.”

At the end of three years, however, both stakeholders emerged smiling, BF with its profile significantly raised and Gurdgiev primed for a move into the private sector, firstly for a year in NCB Stockbrokers and then on to IBM, where he now earns his crust as chief macroeconomist for Europe mid-east, while maintaining his part-time lecture post in TCD.

He continues to publish research material in high-profile publications, such as the Journal of Housing Economicsand the Journal of Higher Performance Computing. He will shortly present a paper on gold markets to the Bank for International Settlements with TCD’s Brian Lucey.

“The position in IBM is the closest he has come to returning to academia,” says a peer. “He’s dealing in international macroeconomics again.”

Gurdgiev felt the sharp end of the recession briefly last year, when both he and his American-Italian partner found themselves unemployed in their negative equity home. However, the stint on the ropes didn’t last long and, overall, Gurdgiev has been successful in Ireland. He doesn’t speak about the country with much affection, though.

“His comments to the media and his blog reveal a palpable sense of anger at how badly run this country is,” says a colleague. “He would draw the lines of government intervention here very differently.”

Gurdgiev’s obvious impatience with Irish people and institutions give the impression of a man who would love to be anywhere else but here, but those close to him say that Gurdgiev would be outspoken and critical no matter where he was. “The fact that he has chosen to settle here and raise two children must say something positive about his relationship with Ireland,” says a friend.

In fact, Gurdgiev occupies a range of spaces in Irish life: apart from his roles in business, academics and media, he is a prolific blogger and chairman of the Ireland-Russia Business Association.

He also has a cultural role, recently providing programme notes for an RTÉ Philharmonic season of Russian composers. Recommended reading on his blogspot includes essays on mathematics and beauty and pre-enlightenment environmentalism.

Everyone who comments on him admits that he is stimulating company, even those who have a visceral contempt for his ideas.

“People enjoy arguing with him. He’s a great guest. He’s into everything – poetry, classical music, painting. If he was a dictator I think he would force everyone into an education in the fine arts and opera.”

“Gurdgiev has a dark, Slavic sense of humour that you have to key into to get on with him,” says a friend. “He’s fun to have a beer with. He will have a row with you and run with it, call you an idiot, whatever. You have to be ready for him.”

He has done well in, and for, Ireland, says a colleague, because he fills an empty space in Irish economic discourse.

“Gurdgiev has the energy of the mad. He’s extremely energetic, engaging, a real livewire. He is unashamedly supportive of libertarian economic philosophies. He is so vociferous and stands out because that position is not well-represented in the debate. The Government hate him. He is a polarising force but we need more like him. He is an outsider. Being from outside Ireland, they are better able to take uncompromised views.”

So polarising is Gurdgiev, he elicited the following two observations:

“He’s a professional controversialist, who has made Ireland his project, but he can’t give Ireland credit for anything; he has made no attempt to understand the Irish mentality at all.”

“He has a first class mind. He’s a refreshing and welcome challenge to the dull and dreary consensus in this country.”

Both quotes are from the same speaker.

Dr Gurdgiev’s diagnosis

Russian-born economist Constantin Gurdgiev is never shy of telling Ireland what’s wrong. His lively blog (trueeconomics.com) contains plenty of diagnoses and treatments for the ills of this country and of Europe.

“[Ireland needs] to end social partnership, delegating all authority, and the responsibility, for developing, implementing and monitoring economic and social policies solely to the legislative and executive branches of the State.”

“The State should not own service providers. Instead, public services can be supplied by mutual, private for-profit or non-profit providers.”

“Imagine a household with a single earner where a person working earns, say €50,000, and has a spouse who is engaged in full-time household work.

The implicit cost of such household work (labour alone) to this family, using our Government’s metrics, would be €30,000 net of tax. What would any household do in these circumstances? Send the spouse into the workforce and hire substitute services (childcare, cleaning, cooking, etc). What does the Irish state do? It signs a multi-annual agreement with the unions that ensures that the taxpayers will see no reprieve on wages and pensions bills they pay for public sector.”