Lenihan: Economists and Our National Mediocrity

Yesterday morning on the Sunday Business show on Today FM, Minister Lenihan commented on the anti-NAMA economists (podcast here). Among his comments were the following:

What I notice about them is that there’s about forty of them. There’s about two hundred economists in all in the state. Most of the rest of them have approached me privately and said that these gentlemen and ladies are wrong. But of course they are not prepared to say so publicly because in Irish academic class, people don’t criticise other people’s books. That’s part of our national mediocrity. If you take the Irish historians and someone publishes a bad history book, you won’t find any reviews in the paper pointing out how bad that book is. If you look at the press in the United Kingdom or the United States, you’ll see robust academic criticism of others works but we’re reluctant to do it. We’re a small country, we have to meet people again, we have to go to other people’s funerals and we know and we don’t want to put the cross on someone even when they’re saying something that’s fundamentally wrong.

So Minister Lenihan is now saying that at least 80 economists have approached him privately to disagree with those who have criticised NAMA. He is stating that there is a silent majority of economists who support his approach to the banking crisis but are not willing to say so publicly because they are scared of insulting the anti-NAMA economists.

I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts on this. Is it likely that the Minister has been receiving huge amounts of anonymous support from intimidated economists? Is the Minister’s characterisation of the absence of disagreement or debate among Irish economists an accurate one? If we suffer from a national mediocrity, are the anti-NAMA economists part of it? Is the Minister attempting to encourage debate or to stifle it?

77 thoughts on “Lenihan: Economists and Our National Mediocrity”

  1. I will put my neck on the line here. 80 of the people emailed to sign the oped piece have not contacted BL. 80 brokers, blokes, bankers and other b’s have.

  2. oh, and Karl. Does this “in Irish academic class, people don’t criticise other people’s books” mean that the ESR is now 100% review free!

  3. Here’s a simple test of the veracity of the Minister’s statement.

    For any five of these poor intimidated economists, I’d ask them to reveal themselves to a trusted journalist like Fintan O’Toole, and have him vouch for their existence, while protecting their anonymity as sources.

    More should just email him, or anyone else they think credible, as long as their identities remain hidden.

    That would go some way toward establishing whether Messrs Whelan et al are just gigantic bullies, of whether the Minister is making things up on national radio.

    But really, is this the state we live in? Really?

  4. “That’s part of our national mediocrity”

    Why does Brian Lenihan hate this great country of ours so much? Why can’t he pull on the green jersey and support the country?

    :mrgreen:

  5. O’Toole? Ye mean the raving pinko who writes for the Times? Sure he’d sell the Elite Eighty down the swanee in a second. Ye’ll have to do better than that. I think you need a serious diplomat for this? Kofi Annan, George Mitchell, that kind of guy.

    😉

  6. @ Osama bin Whelan, @BL

    I think Kofi myself, but maybe that taints him in the eyes of others. Who knows?

    Seriously though, pick anyone, Brendan Keenan, say. Principle is still good.

    As for national mediocrity, well, that might be one of those ‘tighten our belts’ phrases in a couple of years’ time, no?
    🙂

  7. Silence is acquiescence (aka. silent acquiescence and acquiescence by silence) is a related doctrine that can mean, and have the legal effect, that when confronted with a wrong or an act that can be considered a tortious act, where one’s silence may mean that one accepts or permits such acts without protest or claim thereby loses rights to a claim of any loss or damage.

    These 200 or so economists will be Lenihan’s men and women unless they are prepared to defend their reputations, which he has effectively purloined.

  8. When the ’46’ launched their campaign, didn’t they claim that many of the ‘missing 200’ agreed with them, but were reluctant to sign a petition or were on holiday, or whatever? Just out of curiousity, can Karl Whelan or Brian Lucey put a figure on how many of the ‘missing 200’ have contacted them privately to say they agreed with them? No verification from Fintan O’Toole is required. I will accept whatever figure they say.

  9. Mr. Lenihan says,

    “If you look at the press in the United Kingdom or the United States, you’ll see robust academic criticism of others works but we’re reluctant to do it.”

    As usual, he totally contradicts himself. Because, when there is robust academic criticism, some people, most notably Brian Lenihan try to resort to the politics of smear and innuendo.

    He has drafted a proposal which even world renowned economists are saying it is crazy, it has bigger holes in it than the Titanic. Joseph Stiglitz described the idea of overpaying for distressed assets as “criminal” What does the man expect?

  10. It is a funny old world. Half the FG parliamentary party told John Gormley off the record that they did not want an election while one third of the academic economicst tell Brian Lenihan that they disagree with the 46. These ministers apprear to be hearing a lot of voices in their heads theses days.

  11. The call for all to ‘don the green jersey’ (to paraphrase) is a real recipe for mediocrity. It is shameful (though insightful) that the Minister for Finance must resort to questioning the ability and the professionalism of critics.

  12. To my mind “most” would mean a large majority, well over 80. I don’t think the Minister would say “most” if it was only 81, say.

    Based on these figures it seems quite clear that the majority of economists in the State support NAMA and, as is usual, it is the vociferous minority who are getting all the media coverage.

  13. Eh Duh!

    If one were to act in Machiavellian fashion, one would not partake in a petition and would then tell the government that they are doing exactly the right thing in private.
    This way you keep on your current employes good side without annoying your potential employers in FG/Labour.

    Is there a likelyhood that Brian Lenihan is getting lots of positive noises in private conversations from ? It wouldnt surprise me in the slightest. It would explain the silence that Brian Lucey got in his call to action.

  14. Err. Eamonn
    I doubt it. . But hey, why not ask them, the names are public information. Some even post here. Why not direct questions to them as to their views/private conversations/secret liasions.

    Brian Woods II : im taking that as irony…

  15. Brian Woods
    on second thoughts :
    “‘I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can,” the character of Stephen Dedalus argues, in James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” “using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.””
    Well, we tried cunning. Some have chosen silence. Whats left…..

  16. Karl, Brian etc.
    Well done, keep rattling those cages.

    They are starting to try to discredit you.
    You are doing something right.

    This government claiming that economists performances have been mediocre.

    Hello Pot! Would you like to call the kettle black?

  17. With apologies to M Night

    Scene : a ministerial office. Its comfortable. In a corner a Minister, his files pulled up close to his chin. Talking to him, The 46


    Brian Lenihan: I talk to nama supporting academic economists
    The 46 : In your dreams?
    [Brianshakes his head no]
    The 46: While you’re awake?
    [Brian nods]
    The 46 : Nama supporting academic economists….like, err. give me a minute there….err…whats his name…ah….Oh, yer man from CIT….
    Brian Lenihan: Walking around, cribbing and moaning, blogging and twittering. They don’t Listen to each other. They only listen to what they want to hear. And me. They don’t know they’re Nama supporting academic economists
    The 46 : How often do you talk tot hem?
    Brian Lenihan: All the time. They’re everywhere. “

  18. Just after the letter signed by the 46 was published I write a comment on this blog, explaining why my non-signature did not imply NAMA approval. I also explained this privately to Brian Lucey. Had I known the way in which a non-signature would be misrepresented, I certainly would have signed and I now regret that I did not put my name to the letter.

    If I have any message for Brian Lenihan in this matter, it is not that I quietly approve of NAMA but rather that I think his deliberate attempts to twist and misrepresent honest debate have been shameful. What is he so afraid of? The pathetic attempts by Pat McArdle to stifle Morgan Kelly at the DEW conference in Kenmare are simply another symptom of the fear and reluctance of Lenihan and many (though not all) of the pro-NAMA brigade to censor debate.

    My advice to those interested in honest exchange of views? Lock away your books before they burn them.

  19. Ah will you stop your cribbing and moaning , I don’t understand why you people don’t go and commit ……

    Its a pity the government are not as good at running the country as they are at spin .
    This at best is funny . Well people support me in private , I just can’t name them because they are afraid of academics .

    You guys must deal out some pretty severe punishment on campus in the dead of night .
    However play this game with them and pretty soon you will have been the sole cause of the GFC .

  20. I was one of the economists contacted by Brian, but decided not to sign because I didn’t feel my knowledge of monetary economics and banking is at a level to warrant a contribution as an academic economist. The Minister can read my Irish Economy note (http://www.irisheconomy.ie/Notes/IrishEconomyNote4.pdf) on valuing distressed assets (a first version, which is being revised I might add) and deduce that I’m nonetheless not an enthusiastic supporter.

  21. Not quite sure why they’re getting all uppity now. They’ve won in the sense Nama will be passed. The Greens are on board and history will declare who was ultimately right.

    The publicly vocal economists can rightly claim they managed to get a few amendments to the initial proposal that has reduced the cost to the taxpayer and for that I’m grateful.

  22. I signed the article. And I’m glad I did. I have not been persuaded by pro-Nama arguments since. I have never spoken privately or otherwise to Brian Lenihan. Although I can’t comment on whether he believes he has ever spoken to me. 🙂

  23. @ KW, BL
    I wonder will Brian resort to making telephone calls to the Big Boss in UCD to get those pesky economists to shut up.

    Cheer up lads, you have not been called British Agents yet by the FF Goon squad. Can’t be far off though.

  24. @JL
    Well, that wouldnt help shut me up. And I pity the caller to anyone in my direct and v short line of ‘control’ : Gerard McHugh (8961236), Head of School ; then Mike Marsh ((8961840), Dean, then Paddy Prendergast (8962178), Chief Academic Officer and Vice Provost.
    Hold the receiver far away from the ear Id suggest

    As for being in MI – X , god theyre not that hard up are they?

  25. Lenihan attacks the messengers on the same weekend Comical McCardle attacks the right to give the message. Sean O’Rourke asks, “is it right to give bad messages”? His question is prompted by a speech by Denis O’Brien in which he attacks the messengers. Surely we are not witnessing some sort of campaign?

    Lenihan is a serial fibber. He would be quite capable of saying next week that Nama will work because it is opposed by lots of these impractical academics. “Indeed, I know that hundreds of them are opposed to the scheme. They have told me so themselves. The opposition of these impractical men is another good reason for backing it”.

    It is a clever move though by the government spin machine: “Now, instead of further analysing Nama the academics will all be running around trying to persuade each other publicly to come out against it. And if they do they will be attacked by us, our journalist proxies and whatever dodgy oligarch we can rope in. They will get no work from banks, brokers, auctioneers or this government. And we will claim that any who don’t oppose it publicly back it. Brilliant!”

    Don’t spend any time wondering who talked to Lenihan – nobody, or almost nobody did. But by the time you figure this out he will be even closer to getting Nama through. This is just to put you on the defensive.
    He is not insane he is calculating and unscrupulous.

    The way to counter this is to keep analysing and keep publicising.
    That is what he is trying to stop.

  26. This is shameless, utterly shameless. I’m at a loss for words.
    What next? The fact that some of the 46 are non-Irish citizens means that they can’t have the best interests of the state at heart?
    This is desperate stuff.

  27. Richard : I emailed all faculty in finance/accounting in the country. I didnt include the ESRI or Teagasc etc, but I dont think the relative proportions would have changed that much . If someone were to look at the 46 relative to the 136 I suspect that its overrepresented at hte more “active” end.
    @Ashley : thats been said already to me…

    Its really now up to the silent majority to put us right….or put the minister right

  28. Excuse me.

    Brian Lenihan of Fianna Fail is accusing others of mediocrity?

    😯 😯 🙂 🙂 😆 😆 😆 😆

  29. “What I notice about them is that there’s about forty of them.”

    That’s a complete Bertieism.

    Is he writing Lenihans script?

  30. The best and brightest are the most arrogant. Politicians are a specific sub-species of the aforementioned.

    B Peter

  31. This goes beyond the NAMA debate. The point of having tenured academics is that they will feel free to speak their mind and engage in argument. If these economists are not willing to use the free speech that people fought for and that they are now paid to exercise to challenge the anti-NAMA brigade, then what is the point in having them at all?

    Maybe Brian Lenihan has inadvertently identified dead wood in the economics profession? Economists who are afraid to stand up and be counted?

  32. Antoin
    Free speech and academic freedom are precious things. If those who have them dont defend them then they dont, imho, deserve them. But you know my views, and the views of others that are out publicly. Why not ask the silent ones?

  33. @ All,

    I happen to agree totally with minister Brian Lenehan on the paragraph quoted above by Karl Whelan. As a general observation, BL is correct. The other ‘closed culture’ which closely resembles that of Irish economists, is that of Irish architects. It is impossible in a small country such as ours, to simply let fly at a fellow Irish architect, to tell them they are completely of s*** and they produce atrocious projects. Even with sufficient drink on you, there is something that holds you back from doing it.

    I think the basic danger, is they will lie in the long grass, if it takes an entire decade and the first little trip up you make, out they pop with their poison dart gun and get you in the neck. You’re gone.

    It has happened to me a couple of times, with the same fatal consequences I can assure you. It always comes back to you, when you least expect it too. Normally, when your life is going quite peach-y, and you think, now what can go wrong?

    But the sum total of it all, is it doesn’t lead to good economics, nor does it lead to good architectural design and buildings.

    BTW, I blogged something myself at Designcomment blog about the dodgy designs for the new Mater hospital. Now think about it, a capital investment of €750m and it will probably function like a condom put on backways. I wouldn’t exactly encourage people to stay in the new Mater hopsital.

    We build public projects all over the place and designers get away with it – worse, they know they will get away with it – because there is no system by which we review projects having been built, to see how they would perform. The designers certainly will not sign up to such a review process.

    Also, you read any architectural publication in Ireland. You will never see a review written by a client who points out all of the faults and shortcomings of the project. Instead you read the designers own essay, which fills the page with crap about their ideas on design.

  34. I forgot to mention, the thing that Architecture and Economics do share in common with each other, in a very errie kind of way, is the ability of one major figure to dominate the world view on architecture or economics at one point in time.

    Even more errie, the Chicago school of architects dominated the world scene and discussion, and practice at roughly the same time that the Economics equivalents did.

  35. @BOH

    For what it’s worth, I don’t at all recognise Irish economics as the “closed culture” you and the Minister describe.

    Remember that these are the same group of folks that regularly evoke the joke about “ask 5 economists a question and you’ll get 6 opinions”. Economics being a non-experimental discipline, there are usually many competing ways to interpet the evidence and thus there are regular disagreements about all sorts of things.

  36. Lads,
    Its all part of political rhetoric.

    A component of this is an appeal to more than logic.

    The minister is seeking to evoke feelings that

    46 have left us down
    46 arent old enough to understand
    46 dont represent the majority
    46 exist in a priviledged existence
    etc, etc

    Evoke back!

    @ BOH: Both architecture and economics have the letters e,c and i too!

    Al

  37. How many signatures on a new letter would you have to get to get him to resign? To rattle his cage a little more? How many of the non-signatories are pissed at this kind of blatant misrepresentation? All the letter would have to say.

    ‘We the undersigned would like to make it clear that we have NOT told Brian Lenihan privately that we support NAMA’.

    So much for the efforts of this blog to keep politics out of it. It’s coming to get you.

  38. @ Karl Whelan,

    The fact is Karl, you can get away with a lot of mediocrity in this country and very few people challenge you properly about it. That is not to say however, we cannot be civil to one another in general dealings – especially, where the younger students and graduate students are concerned. It is certainly important to build up their confidence levels.

    Perhaps my choice of the words ‘closed culture’ were chosen in too much haste. But certainly, I believe the minister for Finance has struck on an important point concerning professionalism in Ireland. For what it is worth, I will stick to my guns and I do appreciate the minister coming out and admitting to problems we may have as a nation, in how we expose mediocrity for what it is.

    OTOH, I find the contributions made by Karl Whelan, whenever I have taken the time to read them, extremely good and fall in line generally with my own ideas about economics and property. I also like reading Morgan Kelly and Pat McArdle, as well as a couple of others. I am greatful for all your efforts in contributing to the debate, and long may you continue to do so.

    Regards, Thanks for the reply. B.

  39. N.B. If you a public servant and reading this please remember the following:

    1. Brian Lenihan has attacked critics of Nama by saying that they are attacking the public service.
    2. He just made a speech saying that public servants should take more responsibility (and get more credit. But I doubt that is how he is thinking).
    3. When Nama fails he won’t be taking the blame.

    My suggestion, and I am making it purely in a personal capacity, is that you should pass on any information you have to Fintan O’Toole, whom you can trust to use it responsibly.

    Remember, when this fails Lenihan will blame the public servants. And it will wreck the country for a decade.

    P.S. I am not Fintan O’Toole

  40. You guys should give up the nuanced arguments, sit some colonels down for a bit of Bleedin’ Obvious 101 and send them on their way – first stop Leinster House.

    Tell them to please take over RTE before the Gerry Ryan show starts if possible too. Thanks.

  41. @dealga
    No, if either

    (A) Enough academic economists signed a letter opposing Nama, or

    (B) All civil servants told all they know about our banking crisis and about Nama (both of which the government are/will blame them for) to Fintan O’Toole, Ken Fox or Clifford from the Tribune, or Gene Kerrigan

    Nama would be stopped. This has nothing to do with violent protest or military coups, both of which I utterly oppose. We are a democracy.
    Lets not behave like bondholders, who have brought down many democracies and reduced millions to starvation.

  42. Brian Lenihan knows he has created a monster that will not work and he is very, very annoyed that the record and history will show that he was warned over and over again in the starkest mathematical terms and indeed in every way possible, but he marched on with the arrogance of Napoleon being told about Russian winters.

    The 46 economists did not just sigh a letter, they went into huge detail about what was wrong. They went out of their way to be constructive. However, they were ignored because what was being souught was total submission. This trait is extremely dangerous in a politician. Just look at the “True Economics” web site of Constantin Gurdgiev where there has been trojan work carried out on all aspects of NAMA for anyone including Mr. Lenihan to see. One should always listen less to the people you are remunerating than those whom you are not. Morgen Kelly too, has told him what he did not want to hear, you do not shoot messengers especially when they are bringing you invaluable information.

    NAMA is about politics, psychology, power, it represents the nexus between power and influence and finally, belatedly, it is about economic policy. He is pretending to concentrating on the economic aspects because he does not want the other aspects to be teased out! It is quite a clever strategy. When in doubt, go on the attack and keep these people off balance as your creation creeps over the line.

    Pat Kenny, said to him “you do realise, that if this NAMA fails you will be go down in Irish history ignominiously?” he said. ” I do!” But it sounded like it was an answer he reading from a book. It was devoid of any sense of responsibility. There is a serious disconnect in this man between what he is doing and its consequences for the ordinary citizen. Later on the press will suddenly “discover” this disconnect but only when it suits them.

    Some where, in his head he knows what is going to happen next. He is about to be consumed by his own creation. I don’t feel sorry for him and the position he has put himself in because, he has gambled our futures and lost! He is just one man who has gambled the future of hundreds of thousands of people and he wants adulation not analysis?

    I hope this posting is polite enough because I have deliberately tried to keep it polite!

  43. @Eamonn76

    Unfortunately I don’t trust our senior officers to run a military coup properly… it’s a pity our President has neither the brains nor the bravery to cause a constitutional crisis and bring the government down. Because if the government doesn’t fall NAMA will go through.

  44. I think our “National Mediocrity” is more about our willingness to talk about a problem rather than tackle it…

    Back when the guarantee was being signed, we were assured that they had went through the banks books and we were not just going into this blind… This was repeated in early 2009 by Lenihan.

    Now, at the end of 2009, in the small print on NAMA business plan, they claim that they have only seen aggregate data… and so blah blah blah

    So what happened, between the guarantee and now… Why hasnt a bunch of auditors been in every bank in the land… locking filing cabinets, requisitioning data backups….. and doing the hard work of double checking the aggregate data, by getting their own low level data….
    And making this available to OECD,CAB,NAMA….

    Without that work, everyone is flying blind… and were just listening to expert opinions…..whether honestly held, biased, or just paid PR… depends on what your opinion of the experts is….

    The minister is playing a game by not releasing data…. he can claim outside opinions are BS… but either the opinions on the inside are BS, or else they have done the audit and for whatever reason they cannot release the data…. There can be good and bad reasons for not releasing the data..

    But if they have done the work, then they should remove the excuses in the NAMA business plan…. Put it out that they have analyzed the assets and the plan is based on reality….

  45. Look, the Minister obviously still hurts from that Letter. He let himself down in playing this National Mediocrity angle.

    But to seize with glee upon a literal interpretation that he claimed over 80 economists have secretly approached him in support is equally unedifying IMHO.

  46. From David Einhorn’s recent speech:
    “Presently, Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner have become the quintessential short-term decision makers. They explicitly “do whatever it takes” to “solve one problem at a time” and deal with the unintended consequences later. It is too soon for history to evaluate their work, because there hasn’t been time for the unintended consequences of the “do whatever it takes” decision-making to materialize.”

    Just substitute Lenihan and Cowen for Bernanke and Geithner. First it was the blanket guarantee, then the recaps, now NAMA and next year maybe more recaps. Ad infinitum.

  47. @Brian Woods II
    “But to seize with glee upon a literal interpretation that he claimed over 80 economists have secretly approached him in support is equally unedifying IMHO.”
    I guess that as many of us academics deal in data, facts and analysis of same, thats the kind of thing we do, i.e, take “a majority” as being just that. If he had said “many”, or “a good proportion” we would be less exercised. But he here is claiming the high ground (and I note that there isnt a flood of denials, so maybe hes right, who knows…)

  48. @ Garo

    “and next year maybe more recaps”

    Eh…maybe this year more recaps.

    But hey, what does it matter as long as the bindholders are made whole.

  49. @Greg
    There won’t be more recaps this year. Why do you think Anglo is not reporting until next year?

  50. @ yoganmahew

    Yeah, think you’re right.

    I was just being a smartypants.

    Any additional bailout of Anglo this year would blow GGD.

    The other aspect of “waiting” to report until next year (until NAMA is in place) is that they do some fancy bookkeeping, without actually having addressed any of their problems.

    Then we won’t hear from them for another six months.

    Nice

  51. actually the mathematics are wrong: 200 economists were not contacted about the petition, just over 100 were, so if 80 contacted him then it seems that 20 who weren’t even approached did so out of their own volition having never been asked to sign the petition.

    obviously, it would be worthwhile to test the claim that nobody here slates eachothers work: so just prove him wrong…. post links where one of the 46 slammed a book written by another, not a sly remark or a funny comment, a proper slag, you only need one example to prove the point.

    obviously i’d ask that you please provide a link

  52. @Karl Deeter
    “What I notice about them is that there’s about forty of them. There’s about two hundred economists in all in the state. Most of the rest of them have approached me privately and said that these gentlemen and ladies are wrong”.

    The key issue in the minister’s statement is his claim that he has the backing of a silent plurality of Irish economists, at a bare minimum 81. Nama is a key national issue and the minister has made a hugely important statement. Pro-Nama economists, please draft a letter to support the minister now. His credibility is weak and he needs you now.

  53. @ All,

    I find it difficult to follow all you expert economists sometimes, but I know now it is important to listen to what you all have to say. I can only try to imagine how frustrating it must be for all of you to look at the NAMA scheme. When I look at an architectural design for a project such as the Mater hospital I get really, really worried. Because I know instinctively, from looking at so many projects how little real considered thought and skill has gone into the Mater hospital project. That is the only way I can imagine in my own mind, how it must be for an economists to look at NAMA. Other than that, I can only guess.

    But to run with this analogy, between construction planning and economic planning, I have compiled together an short piece for the benefit of Karl Whelan. I deliberately chose a building that Karl may visit very easily on his own campus at UCD Belfield. I don’t know if it will be of any help or not. Furthermore, I have connected my point about a specific building on UCD Belfield campus back to economic planning in a way, by reference to something Francis Ruane said recently about gathering information on the program to increase numbers of Phd graduates in this country.

    I know that NAMA is a big deal, I know that. But when I look at the Mater hospital project, I know I will never affect the decision making which affects that project. In fact, the more I complain and rattle on about the Mater hospital project, the more I begin to appear to everyone like a bitter little man. Maybe we can look at this at a smaller scale. That is why I chose something simple like Francis Ruane’s comments about the Phd education program. Maybe as economist you can look at economic planning at that modest level and put pressure on the right people. Who should enable you with the resources needed to do a proper study of fourth level education and resultant small startups in Ireland, arising out of Phd level work. That would be very, very useful work to do.

    Furthermore, it would be economics research that would be valuable to people in other countries also. I know it is not as big and important as Nama is, but it is something that is achieve-able for the 46 no. economists. If minister Brian Lenehan wants to go off and ruin the country proper, then let him off to hell. At this stage, it doesn’t seem to make much difference what anyone says. The following post is more of an essay than anything else. Feel free to delete it, copy and paste it, print it, or whatever you like.

    Hope it is of some small benefit.

    Regards. BOH.

  54. Some of the clichés used a lot in public are quite dangerous:

    Ireland being the envy of Europe.
    Ireland leading the world. (I am guilty of using that a lot myself)
    Ireland having centres of excellence.
    Ireland punching above its weight.

    You only have to read the above clichés, and one thinks instantly about Iceland. A country which believed it had found some ‘magic formula’ and has people who were clever-er than the rest of the world.

    The ironic fact is, with Ireland’s attempts to become world class in many areas of endeavour what we end up with is a very mediocre result indeed. You often hear talk of Ireland punching above its weight. I don’t know if that is a good policy in other areas. I can only talk about what I know.

    Accusations of ‘mediocrity’ about the Irish should not be used as an excuse to defend huge ambitious projects, we have not got the skill to execute and manage properly. If the knowledgeable economists here want to include NAMA in the category of ‘trying to be world class’ I would not argue. I do not know about economics enough to comment. However, I do know a little bit about architecture and construction.

    We need to distinguish between mediocrity and world class. The pursuit of world class excellence in building design has had a very dangerous effect in my view. It is one thing to produce a ‘world class’ design on a piece of paper. It is quite another to bring expertise to bear on a project in order to execute it. Ireland has been very ambitious in recent years with the design of buildings.

    In fact, we have attracted design talent from all over the world. People who come here to talk advantage of Ireland’s willingness as a country to embark on ambitious building plans. But in my view, the ability of many designers to execute their projects in real life has to come under question. The problem is Ireland is a small country. It is very hard to criticise another professional of their work.

    I will give you an example of a building project, which looks very handsome from the exterior and was published in all of the architectural magazines. It is the student centre at Belfield UCD campus. It took a lot of skill and effort to design such a beautiful building and to achieve it within the strict budget guidelines of public university funding.

    But I am compromised, as an architectural designer. I like good quality buildings and appreciate design whenever I see it. The fact is, Belfield UCD student centre building is the worse buildings completed in Dublin in the last decade or so. You go into the building and you wonder what the building achieves for the level of investment by the client – the university and the Irish taxpayer.

    The situation is difficult for me. I know the designers who built the project. That makes it very difficult for me to acknowledge that Belfield UCD student centre is the worse building in Ireland. I encourage any of the UCD economists from UCD to visit the building. Visit the building at various times of the day and see how it actually functions.

    Remember a building in such a context may have different functions at different times of the day. The activity profile of the building user might change. When I take off my hat as an architectural designer and look objectively at the Belfield UCD student centre project I understand how inappropriate the design response was to the design problem. It was a waste of valuable public resources, even though it looks wonderful at night time with those lights shining up at the roof overhangs.

    You walk into the building and you find a space which resembles an airport departure terminal or a train station. You would expect to see retail units on either side of the glazed day lighted atrium space selling your lingerie or bottles of brandy. But there is only a small newsagent store which only does a modest trade. At Belfield UCD student centre we managed to build a space which took enormous expense but serves almost no useful function.

    Taking off my architectural design hat and speaking objectively I would say the following. We have this high moral authority about providing the ‘very best’ of building projects to the public sector and to education. But should that desire to do well for our younger generations, disguise the misuse of valuable public funds? Do we really need to build buildings at great expense that serve no useful purpose?

    Here is the main problem. The building is well designed and within budget. It deserved got an architectural award I am sure and created great recognition for the designer. But there was no post-occupancy analysis done of the project to see what value for money was obtained.

    There should be a couple of projects like that taken and analysed by a ‘Probe Team’ like they have in the UK. A team with enough resources and time to study the use and functionality of the building, versus what it cost to build. That is the only route towards excellence of any kind in Ireland, in my humble opinion.

    Lets step away from architecture and buildings for a minute. I could use NAMA as an example, but instead lets choose some fairly simple. Francis Ruane speaking at a Dublin Innovation event recently spoke about Ireland’s Phd program. I think that Francis Ruane was trying to make the same point about economic policy as I tried to make about building projects above.

    Ireland decided to double its rate of Phd graduation. This was a wonderful announcement to make. Ireland is going to be a centre of excellence, world class, punch above its weight and become the ‘envy of Europe’.

    The construction of building projects to serve a specific function for a particular user – or the formation of economic policy – how much post occupancy analysis happens of those projects?

    The announcement of a brand new project is a wonderful thing and seems to indicate Ireland is going forward and advancing. But how many economic policies or building projects are re-visited afterwards to look at how they function and what use they actually had. This was the point Francis Ruane was making. We need to re-look at our economic policy five years down the road. That isn’t happening at the moment.

    I listened to a DCU business school professor recently, a man named Brian Leavy. Leavy worked for the great American company, Digital Equipment corporation when they had a base here in Ireland. Leavy mentioned that one of the ways we advance and gain sophistication at anything, is by re-evaluating projects or products we have completed, to judge them from a value and a pay back point of view.

    I wanted to make the point on the evening to professor Brian Leavy, that in architecture and construction is have no such practice that allows us to do post-occupancy analysis of projects. The designers involved in the projects do not want it to happen, in case their designs do not perform as originally specified.

    Lets bear in mind also, that economic policy often has un-intended consequences. I attended a debate recently where the panel spoke about Finland and Israel. I think the point was, both invested in projects with the unintended consequence of producing strong technological industries in those countries.

    The same with building projects sometimes, you are dependent a lot on luck and factors you cannot even see when you embark upon the project.

  55. @Karl Deeter
    Sub-issue:
    No, Irish economists don’t engage in cage fighting.
    The minister is a lawyer and and an FF cabinet member. Neither of these groups engage in cage fighting either. As the O’Donoghue and Coughlan cases show, public condemnation of each others mediocrity & robust criticism by FF cabinet members are as likely as…..they don’t happen.
    But economists do disagree. They don’t denounce each other personally. They just publish differing opinions and offer different public views. None of them hold back in doing so. That is why Pat McArdle’s intervention was so unusual. Why it was almost like he could hear Brian Lenihan’s thoughts.

    MAIN ISSUE:
    The minister has claimed the backing of 81 economists. He needs to give us evidence. Otherwise I will refer to him as Minister for Fibbing in perpetuity. Mr Deeter, I want to ask you to collect the signatures.
    Brian Lenihan’s credibility must be saved.

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