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David McWilliams: Lockdown decision makers still get paid. Those they shut down do not

Government should aid small businesses directly to help prevent bankruptcies

An eerily quiet Temple Bar in Dublin: By ordering the private sector to close, in order to avoid overwhelming our hospitals, the State is putting most of the economic burden on the small business sector. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

My colleague, Fintan O'Toole, deems it "breathtaking" that a group of 11 men, and not a single woman, took the decision to lock down.

Of course he is right. Robust decision-making must be representative. None of the decision makers – all public servants or politicians – works in the sectors that they are closing down.

Small businesses live in the world of risk, while public servants live in the world of security. They are chalk and cheese. When it comes to the lockdown, politicians and people in the Civil Service get paid no matter what, but small businesses go bust.

Given the security of the public servant and the precariousness of the small business person’s situation, we can see they have profoundly different reactions to challenges. One individual is protected; the other exposed. One individual knows they will be paid come what may, while the other understands that they may be paid last, if at all.


For one, the lockdown means a new lifestyle; for the other it could mean losing everything.

Public servants will not go out of business due to the lockdown. They won't go bankrupt, or lose their homes, or face the personal trauma of liquidation

We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people. Small business in Ireland provides 74 per cent of all the jobs in the “productive sector” of the economy – that is, the part of the economy not dependent on a Government wage. On top of this, another 300,000 people are self-employed.

In the lockdown most of these people don’t have any income and planning for the future is impossible because the immediate concerns of keeping the business afloat are all-consuming.

While we hear quite a bit from big business, small businesses are the backbone of this economy. Small and medium-sized enterprises in Ireland pay 62 per cent of all private-sector wages, 55 per cent of all income tax, 63 per cent of all VAT and 55 per cent of all universal social charges. Small businesses make the country tick. They include manufacturing and tourism outfits, small indigenous tech companies, start-ups, companies in transport, hospitality, entertainment and retail. The so-called non-essentials.

A civil servant has no idea of the day-to-day reality of buying and selling, trying to make profit after costs, trying to juggle precious cash flow, chasing debt, risking everything and knowing that there is no safety net. Simply put, if you don’t have skin in the game, you don’t understand the game.

The men who took the decision to lock down haven’t experienced what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night worried about paying the rent, paying suppliers, agonising about product lines, marketing, advertising, cash flow, keeping staff, helping staff – and the families who depend on their salaries – through this pandemic.

Every man who took the decision will be paid a full salary irrespective of the lockdown. Not one worries about the VAT bills piling up, the rent arrears, the threat of tax-clever online giants destroying their retail business. They don’t stress about paying rates, employing people or paying employers’ PRSI. They are not lumbered with massive insurance bills for the mere pleasure of opening every day.

Go bankrupt

These men don’t have customers who may never come back because of the lockdown. They don’t have creditors who are cutting their credit lines. They don’t have balance sheets where the assets are falling in value but the debts they incurred to buy those assets have yet to be paid.

Public servants will not go out of business due to the lockdown. They won’t go bankrupt, or lose the homes they put up as collateral, or face the personal trauma of liquidation.

Small business owners, many of whom are women, face some or all of the above, every week. By ordering the private sector to close, in order to avoid overwhelming our hospitals, the State is putting most of the economic burden on the small business sector. Big businesses have the balance sheet to survive this. Small businesses don’t.

Civil servants rarely ask where the money comes from when their wages arrive like clockwork every month

Lockdown means completely different things to different people. For the public servant there is no reduction in income. For the average small business person, income goes to zero. When your income goes to zero, it means you have no cash.

Once that happens, once cash flow disappears, every other problem is magnified because running a business is a complex exercise in managing an inter-dependent web of obligations. The life-blood of business is cash flow. Little else matters. Without cash, you go bust and without sales, you have no cash. The lockdown means no sales for hundreds of thousands of small businesses.

I’m no expert on lockdowns, but the WHO is not a big fan, suggesting lockdowns should be introduced only as a last resort if the health system looks to be overrun.

This begs a question: why was Ireland’s intensive-care capacity not enhanced greatly during the summer? It was the one thing that we needed to do, as we waited for the long-anticipated second wave. The answer to this question will probably come in the 2025 Tribunal at Dublin Castle into the 2020 Covid-19 Response. After all, that’s the way we do things in Ireland.

So what can be done now to protect small businesses that have been ordered to stand down? In March, this column argued that the correct response to Covid-19 was massive State borrowing. At the time, the establishment condemned this idea as being too radical. Now they are doing it.

However, distributing money though State agencies via grants is including an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. Likewise, presuming that small businesses will look for soft loans from banks when they are facing bankruptcy reveals a deep lack of understanding of what bankruptcy does to you. Let’s just say more debt is not the answer for struggling small companies.

Helicopter money

The answer is helicopter money. Give small businesses the money directly. We are borrowing it anyway. Cut out the middle man. Get the Central Bank to add a few zeros to the accounts of small businesses. Use the banking system to do this, as we don't have accounts with the Central Bank.

These are not loans: the money is free, just like it is if you get a tax cut. You never ask where it comes from, you just get it. The Central Bank lends it for free to the State and the State does what it wants with it. Once the borrowing decision is made, where it goes is immaterial.

But it is material for cash flows, and cash flow prevents bankruptcy, and preventing bankruptcy prevents a credit crunch and the viral defaults that move from one debtor to the next in our interrelated world.

Civil servants rarely ask where the money comes from when their wages arrive like clockwork every month. Why not afford this sense of security to small businesses until this thing passes and we can all get back into the game?