Public Intellectuals and the Crisis

See this article in today’s Irish Independent.

37 replies on “Public Intellectuals and the Crisis”

You cannot really argue with the article.

The only problem is begrudgery. To the average Irish citizen, the word intellectual is akin to feckers or worse.

I would certainly argue with the assertion that Brian Lenihan doesn’t surround himself with yes men – look at AA. Whose appointment nicely illustrates the fact that the appointment of intellectuals to govt positions isn’t an unqualified good – no matter how good the academic, independence is key to critical thinking, and who pays you does matter.

A reasonable article but it misses an important point. Having people like Honohan & Ahearne in positions of influence, just as in most civilized countries, is a good thing but there is a limit to what “a few good men” can do. If you go the equivalent of DoFinance in other countries (civilized or otherwise) you will find typically plenty of well trained, bright economists. Moreover they will interact with top academic economists through various fora both formal and informal. In addition spending departments will also have their own economics expertise. None of this happens here & the consequences are all around us.
One would like to think that when the current crisis is over that policy making will not return to the bad old ways.I doubt it though.

The sad thing in my mind about all this is we seemed to treat the public finances, future of direction of the economy and regulation a little like air. When everything is going alright you dont worry about it, its only when u can no longer breathe you begin to address the issue……

One would hope that in bringing on board, or into the tent, such distinguished academics, who have both had strong and cogent arguments against Government policy as it was during the Bubble, and more recently with regard to NAMA-as-is, Minister Lenihan and the Government are not attempting to silence debate regarding those issues.

As both AA and Prof. Honohan appear to be extremely honourable people, I do not believe that they have lost, or will lose, their critical faculties.

However, giving expression to any misgivings they may have, would now surely be extremely difficult.

Has anyone else noticed particularly, that Government spokespersons are busily spinning that they are inclined towards NAMA 2.0 as per Prof. Honohan, but when one examines their proposals, they are far from Prof. Honohans proposals, INHO.


Agreed. The only reason the printed press is reporting on it, and carrying the occasional critical article on Nama at the moment is because they are hurting financially.

All the glossy ad space sold to their developer buddies has dried up. Now they pretend they were conned as well. Pure hypocracy.

The RIA are holding a symposium on public intellectuals in the crisis on 27 November. Cant see anything on their website at present.

“Public intellectuals”? What the government needs is independent, technical advice from people with proven expertise in economics, finance,valuation and related areas. Are we looking for the government to deploy a crack team of poets?

The best part is: ‘A lawyer himself, Mr Lenihan is trained to argue on first principles and haggle over words and will happily debate the country’s financial issues, rather than surround himself with obsequious ‘yes men’.

Now this statement says everything you need to know about what the author knows about ‘public intellectuals’. Firstly the term ‘public intellectual’ refers to people who have a public standing and profile in arguing about politics / economics / philosophy / culture..other social sciences – France has quite a few. Ahearne and Honohan do not fall into this category. But look closer and let’s break down the logic of the statement:

[1) A lawyer himself, Mr Lenihan is trained to argue on first principles]

This is perfectly meaningless. What are ‘first principles’? Are these the principles whereby Mr. Lenihan says that the banks are a good bet because the markets believe they are whilst ignoring the fact that the markets believe they are solely because Mr. Lenihan does? What first principles are these?


[2.) ..and haggle over words and will happily debate the country’s financial issues, rather than surround himself with obsequious ‘yes men’.]

Surrounding yourself with obsequious ‘yes men’ and ‘debating the country’s financial issues’ are not mutually exclusive concepts. You can quite easily do both at the same time.

Very poor logic here.

But here we have the deep Irish problem (see, in particular, Kevin Denny’s post in this thread) with the concept even of ‘expert’. The author of the newspaper article defines ‘public intellectual’ in essence as the government hiring someone with technical competence in their field – i.e. an ‘expert’. Kevin Denny cuts to the chase and says, in effect, all we need are experts. Kevin is right we do need them but without something else we have big problems. That ‘something else’ is morality in government. Alan Ahearne just like Colin Hunt (remember him?) was hired to lend respectability to bad government pure and simple.

The author hankers after ‘public intellectuals’ because of the correct view that they usually are notably for their moral as much as their academic strength. But only in Ireland would we accept that academic economists qualify as public intellectuals for no other reason than that they’ve been hired by the Department of Finance or Central Bank.

Ahearne and Honohan are public intellectuals in the same way that Twink is major international entertainment sensation.

The general aspiration is welcome – and in the Indo, to boot! – but surely the article is also taking one of that paper’s typical sideswipes at the Gang of 46…:

“Much of the debate surrounding NAMA is noisy entertainment and uninformed opinion, but the emergence of some critical thinkers will allow proper discussion to take place. […] It’s about time we had a dose of uncompromising intellectual debate. Let it begin.”

I’d be sceptical about the extent of IN&M’s conversion to wide intellectual debate…

A crack team poets
Teeming through the cracks
Of greed-baked bricks and mortar

That whisper wanly
Into the autumn chill of orchards bare:

“There never was a tiger here. Only fat
chip-fed children on the back seats
Of cars their parents never could afford.”

Maybe experts aren’t all we need but we certainly need more. And we don’t just want to grab a few off the shelf when there’s a crisis to be subsequently returned when things calm down. The use of expensive consultants is a good example of this bad practice. So the experts need to be embedded in the policy making process. There are plenty of good models of this, for example the UK or Australia.
Personally I have been averse to the term “public intellectual” since a certain Irish academic described herself as “one of Ireland’s leading public intellectuals” thereby confusing intellect with egomania. To link Patrick Honohan with Twink is quite an achievement ‘though: bet they will be both be chuffed.


Methinks you mix your ladies up here 🙂

Ms Devlin is the partner of RTE’s some-times Economics Correspondent David Murphy, co-author of Banksters.

Also she has authored, all on her ownio Ship of Dreams, a romantic Novel:

“Ship of Dreams by Martina Devlin is a gripping read inspired by the turn of events following one of the world’s most horrific tragedies, the sinking of the Titanic.”

Not the Sinking Ireland Inc. note!!

Also, another pot-boiler called, wait for it:

Be Careful What You Wish For

Maeve Dineen, OTH, is:

Business Editor of the Indo, for the past year:

Irish Pancake Says:
September 7th, 2009 at 2:42 pm

Mea Culpa.

Can’t work out which one I should apologise to though.

Which one is the intellectual?

It is an old trick in management vs union squabbles that when some union leader is particularly annoying and vociferous, the simplest way to keep him quiet teeth is to offer them a job in Human Resources.They rarely refuse.
I suspect The Prince is on the required study list for FF leadership, so I tend to agree with Irish Pancake that this smacks of a stroke. Let’s hope it backfires.

“A lawyer himself, Mr Lenihan is trained to argue on first principles and haggle over words and will happily debate the country’s financial issues, rather than surround himself with obsequious ‘yes men’. ”


The man who not only argued last Monday at the Oireachtas committee that the bank share price shows thay they are not insolvent, but believes that he has confirmation of that because the bank directors have not resigned.

Of course the scary thing is that he almost certainly knows that the above arguments were rubbish. His father’s son.

Page 117 Commission on Taxation Report

“At the time of writing, levels of activity in the commercial property market have substantially decreased compared to levels over the past decade or so. There are a number of factors which have contributed to the decline in that market. The primary factor is the worldwide financial crisis, which has led to the withdrawal of financing facilities for commercial property investment.”

Not quite 1.1 material!

Worthwhile focusing on Socrates though.
A busy man pointing out bullshiking to the Athenian citizens.
Truth to power and all that.
But what did the Athenians do to him…

Seriously though, a large section of the established commentariat have been found wanting, as I suppose we as a nation have too!
We still read it!!!


@Philip Lane
“Public” + “Intellectual” in an Irish context – crisis or not, – surely an oxymoron of our own particular type.

There is quite simply no-one on this island of similar stature [or even close] to Jurgen Habermas in Germany – in my humble opinion – Europe’s leading public intellectual.

To our credit we elected Mary Robinson, but these days she prefers the more cosmopolitan ambience of New York and afternoon tea with the Elders – why have they not invited Garret to join? With due respect to both Alan Ahearn and Patrick Honohan probably 99.xx% of Irish citizens (excluding students and colleagues) never heard of them up to recently, and it appears that one third of citizines have no opinion on Naa-Maa – a frightening stat in terms of the quality of civil society ….

Certainly an interesting topic Philip – but this Indo piece is more fawning chick-lit than critical discourse. That said, “Public Intellectuals” – could certainly do with a few ………..

“Of course, the task of any intellectual is to make ideas as interesting as possible”

Interesting in the French sense of monetary advantage?
Interesting because they are relevant to the issues of the day?

The key things we need now are skills in
1) generating and exploring ideas,
2) developing options that are relevant,
3) choosing those options that will move from where we are, while avoiding a lapse to BAU
4) implementing the options chosen with flair and imagination.

The absence of an Irish Habermas is something in our favour. Have you ever tried to read that guy? I don’t see how he, or even Mary Robinson, has much to offer in terms of finding a feasible solution to the problems facing our banking system, related issues of macroeconomic stabilisation while minimizing the associated Harberger triangles. Personally, I think we have far too many “public intellectuals”…

Intellectuals. Yes lad, and lasses, more jobs for the intelligentsia! Great!

How foolish? Yet more wedge politics. I can see the spiel now:
Assailed by intellectual critics? Mute them by one of their own, and see the opposition halve! Watch the little devils trot out fine arguments using fancy words!

While it is a start, it is far from a trend and it is certainly not the answer to our problems.

The problem was that it was widely known what was happening and some felt that they could remain quiet, not rock the boat, others made sure to make money out of it and some even made sure of that by stacking the deck.

The point was a lack of willingness to adopt sensible fiscal policy when the ECB rates were clearly inflationary. Intellectual? I think not! Pigs at the trough? Sure, make as much as you can today, tomorrow does not matter. I see no rainbow in Brussels either on this. The Germans know what inflation can do. Now the Irish do also. Have we taken this on board? No, we expect that land will regain its value. To ensure this, we want to borrow from abroad.

The boom was an artifical multiplier where funny money, borrowed from abroad, chased land via rival developers pushed by bankers on commission. And housing remained the same but went up invalue by over 100%.

None of this makes sense. Intellectuals were silent through ignorance or greed.

We need to stop this stupid greed. I hope NaMa will be a lesson to us all.
I doubt it. More borrowing anyone? You can afford intellectuals then!

Since its foundation, and for most of its history, the Irish State has had a dark anti-intellectual streak to it. DeValera, God help us, was derided for being a mathematics teacher, and had to put up with a great deal of negative criticism when he came to the financial rescue of TCD when it was going bankrupt.

The State education system was anti-intellectual from the outset – promoting the teaching of Irish and religion as more important than science and mathematics, and even removing basic science from the primary school curriculum to make more room for Irish teaching. The objective of an Irish education apparently was to shape a suitably Irish nationalist ‘character’ rather than prepare young people and equip them with the skills they need, practical and analytical, for the world they had to survive in.

By and large, intellectuals have not had a happy time of it when they enter public life, and few have stuck around long enough to make any lasting impact on public policy formation in this State. Anti-intellectualism has persisted in our media and political culture, right up to the 1980s for example, when Garret Fitzgerald was skillfully portrayed as a fuddy-duddy professor out of touch with the real world by his enemies and certain elements in the media. That he was demonstrably a hard-nosed political operator who knew exactly what was going on, and who had some very clear objectives that he was determined to see through, particularly as regards Northern Ireland, was neither here nor there as far as they were concerned. They did not share his analysis, and opposed it by turning one of his great strengths as a weapon against him.

In this age of celebrity politics, it’s hardly surprising that people of any great intellectual capacity or expertise in their chosen specialty, would shy away from the public spotlight – even at a time of great crisis where their skills of analysis are sorely required. Granted there are plenty around who confuse ego-mania with intellectual prowess, or who think because they are expert in one area, they’re expert in all things, but thankfully most real experts are not like that. It takes a brave soul though to plunge into the murky stagnant pool that is Irish politics, as Alan Ahearne has done, and to some extent, Patrick Honohan in taking on his new role in the Central Bank.

It’s completely wrong, in my view, for anyone to suggest that the professional or personal integrity of these men is in any way up for grabs or their intellectual independence is capable of being compromised because they’re now in the pay of the public purse. It’s also illogical, since in their previous professional lives they were also paid out of the public purse.

@ kevin denny

Strangely enough – I do read Habermas and find him most interesting. His writings are particularly illustrative on the present mess, in both micro- and macro- terms.

“The financial crisis, as it unfolded during September 2008, may be viewed through the macro-lens of his theory of communicative action as it relates to the Lifeworld and the steering systems of Money and Power. In very simple terms, and from a political economy perspective, a systemic failure was allowed within the banking system and an alliance quickly formed between the elites of both Money and Power systems on how to save extant economic structures from further collapse. Costs of the various ‘bail-outs’ of the Money system, facilitated by the governmental agents of the administrative Power system, were largely burdened on future citizen taxpayers with consequences for their working and private lives in their own particular Lifeworlds. These citizens did not cause the pathology (although quite a few participated led on by the rampant possibilities), yet private system losses and risks from the mortgage-based financial system were socialized at the expense of the general public and taxpayers. Many critical research questions may be addressed here by drawing on the entire theoretical architectonic of the theory of communicative action at both macro- and micro-levels of analysis and from both participant and observer methodological perspectives. [slightly edited from a piece I wrote last September, 2008 and at that time my gut said Nationalise the lot of them so as to be able to try to sort them out – one year later – what another year? how not to despair] – not a million miles from Naa-Maa or the ECB in Frankfurt don’t you think? And where is the mediating influence between these Systems and the Irish Lifeworld – yes guess – it is LAW – so from a Habermasian perspective Minister Lenihan would appear to be perfectly positioned.

To contextualize a little further – and from Shane Ross’ piece in last Sunday’s Indo – on the servants of Money and Power: Re Zoe Developments ; AIB owed €500 million by Zoe; KPMG advising Zoe and KPMG also auditors to AIB; Goodbody Stockbrokers bullish that recession bottoms out in 2010 and Goodbody also owned by AIB; AIB not opposing Zoe/Carroll’s bid to keep the receiver at bay. I’m in the Irish Lifeworld and cannot get modest credit of a ‘cupla thou’ from AIB with very pragmatic proposals; Alan Dukes, surprisingly, from the Power system but now a Director of Seanie’s Folly in the Money/Bank system, intervenes to support Naa-Maa. Need I say more on the usefulness of public intellectuals?

Ah = go on – go on – Kevin – read a little Jurgen – may I recommend ‘Between Facts and Norms’ on the intersection between economy, law, democracy etc. You might even learn something (-;


I agree with the point made in relation to the anti-intellectual culture in Irish society and have made a similar observation in relation to the Civil Service during a previous discussion.

Does anyone think that there may be merit in reconfiguring the Seanad in order to 1.better facilitate intellectual discourse on public policy and 2.provide expert foresight and oversight of public policy choices?


As it stands, you can’t reconfigure the Senate. It’s mainly a refuge for political has-beens or wannabes and its electoral system is an absolute disgrace to democracy. Further, it’s deliberations are a massive waste of public money, since it is precluded from any effective oversight of finance legislation and by virtue of ‘Taoiseach’s nominees’ the government of the day has an inbuilt majority in respect of any legislative issue of substance. There’s really only one solution to Seanad Eireann : abolish it.

Your question then comes into play: do we need, and should we have, a second parliamentary chamber or other institution for the purposes you suggest? Personally, I don’t think we need a second chanber at all in a country of this size. What we may need, though, is to look more closely at how other countries of comparable size to Ireland integrate intellectual content and analysis into public policy formation and perhaps work from there.


I think it can be re-configured. The electoral system itself can be changed by legislation to prevent political wannabees and has beens if that was desired.
I am currently working on a Masters dissertation which is exploring the broader issue of whether we should reconfigure the Seanad to incorporate social partnership and whether this would improve our democratic design and policy making. The issue of intellectual and expert input is related and probably a necessary part of any reconfiguration. Of course, the conclusion may well be what you prescribe above but am not ready to go there yet.
To the moderators I hope you will forgive me what using your discussion to conduct research! I can but try!

@David: I think your quote just reinforced my prejudices! But then I don’t know what the Lifeworld is, sounds like a Christian theme park.

There is indeed an anti-intellectual trend in politics but that is also true in UK and the US. But, I say again, I don’t think this is about intellectuals per se its about making appropriate use of technical expertise. The issues around NAMA, tax reform, evaluation of public expenditure etc are not particularly intellectual after all although they may be very complicated. The difference is that government in these countries make extensive use of those who are trained to look at these things: Ireland is an exception.

TCD professor of economics Martin O’Donoghue was the architect of the 1977 FF manifesto.

Read his contributions in the Dáil and wonder how different was he to the majority agents of cleintism.

@Vincent Byrne

The argument that the Seanad provides a platform for intelligent contribution is defunct in the age of the Internet. Besides it’s a costly relic.

Compare the 216 seat Oireachtas with the 121 unicameral system in New Zealand.

Is Ireland better governed?

In answer to your question is No.

Most members of both Houses have nothing of significance to say on the major issues of the day, whether they are elected by local councillors or graduates.

@Michael Hennigan-FinFActs

I admire your certainty.
I dont think that anyone is making an argument for the Seanad as is. My interest is in exploring if it can contribute to an improved democratic design and policy making process. Maybe it cant-I take the NZ example on board.

As for the internet-there is no doubt that discursive sites such as this can enhance public debate but there are somewhat removed from the formal democratic architecture and have a very limited role, if any, in the foresight or oversight of policy making.

Essentially I would argue that we need to improve how we make policy and assume, nay assert, that policy making is a function of democracy. The debate about economic issues is imperative but without addressing the variety of issues around how policy is made in a democratic society that debate may well be rendered meaningless.

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