Posts Tagged ‘Economics’

The Beggar’s Opera

5 August 2009

By Kevin O’Sullivan

Vaclav HavelIsn’t it funny how history can always teach you something? Or, more appropriately, remind you what you should have learned, after it’s too late? I’m reading To the Castle and Back at the moment, the autobiography of playwright and former Czech president (1989-2003) Václav Havel. It is, as you might expect, no ordinary memoir. Compelling and brilliantly written across three parallel narratives (interviews, reflections, and instructions to his staff), Havel’s experiences offer a fascinating account of the transition to democracy and the travails of a country (and, after 1993, two countries) re-asserting its place in the modern world. A very different situation to our own current malaise, yes, but as anyone who has been in Tesco’s ten floors across two buildings in the centre of Bratislava will attest, there’s a certain parallel with the more is better, grab-what-you-can climate of the last fifteen years.

Quelle surprise then, that Havel, recalling the privatisation of the Czechoslovak economy (pp. 158-9), should write in terms that resonate so strongly with post-Tiger Namaland.

Many years later I began, for the second time, to change my mind. It happened when I observed that the majority of our most dubious new capitalists, Mafiosi, and entrepreneurial con men had emerged from the small privatisation process, that is to say, from the auctioning off of small business. At the time, anyone could borrow money, buy any property at an auction, and then either sell it off again at a profit or strip the assets and file for bankruptcy. Then all they had to do was keep on investing borrowed money, without, of course, ever returning the loan. This led to the collapse of banks or to enormous state bailouts in the banking sector. Read More

History in the Bust to Boom and Boom to Bust

25 June 2009

By Kevin O’Sullivan

Scrooge McDuckA friend from the further left of the political spectrum once dismissed all academic conferences, seminars, symposia and any other gathering you might care to name, as ‘a bunch of people sitting around a room talking, but doing nothing’. And, playing devil’s advocate, maybe he had a point. Is it really worth paying fees for a bunch of academics to sit around researching and writing papers and books that only they will ever read, while (begrudgingly) doing a bit of teaching on the side?

The short answer is yes, yes it is; but let me rewind a bit first, to what got me started on this discussion. Towards the end of Olivia O’Leary’s recent BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘Ireland: From Boom to Bust’ – an interesting if slightly less than satisfactory piece put together with the help of an odd selection of talking heads (Frank McDonald, Claire Kilroy, Richard Corrigan, some suburban house-owners and a Drogheda taxi-driver) – we are introduced to James Mooney, a 23-year-old quantity surveyor who recently emigrated to London for work. In the midst of recounting his thoroughly modern tale of returning home every five weeks or so, Mooney offered a recollection of his college years: ‘We had lecturers telling us that if we stuck out the course … we’d be well on our way to being millionaires by the time we were 30, 35. You know? As a lecturer he’s probably on a hundred grand, you know what I mean? For doing fifteen hours of work, lecturing a week.  Read More