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David McWilliams turns down Celebrity Economist Debtmatch with Dan O'Brien

Well, a debate anyway…

DAVID MCWILLIAMS HAS declined to debate fellow economist Dan O’Brien about his provocative documentary on wealth inequality in Ireland.

McWilliam’s hour-long RTÉ One documentary, Ireland’s Great Wealth Divide, caused a huge reaction online as it was being broadcast last Monday night.

It put forward the theory that the divide between the rich and poor in Ireland has widened in recent years and that there was a massive transfer of wealth to the richest during the crash.

The high-profile economist and author argued that neoliberal economic policies have seen wealth transferred from the poorest to the better off with social mobility reversing at a faster pace than many would assume.

screenshot.1443190482.45425 Source: www.thejournal.ie

However, O’Brien, the chief economist at the Institute for International and European Affairs, disputed much of McWilliams’ thesis in his regular Irish Independent column on Thursday.

The pair have been asked by two RTÉ programmes, including Prime Time, to debate the issue in recent days, but McWilliams has declined on both occasions.

O’Brien took to Twitter last night to question why his fellow economist couldn’t find the time:

McWilliams, who failed to respond to O’Brien on Twitter, said he had prior commitments but was reluctant to debate anyway, telling TheJournal.ie:

It’s like if you were a kid in a school playground and some other fella says: ‘Fight me, I wanna fight you.’ What do you do? You walk away… you’ve got to find your inner Gandhi.

The dispute

In disputing McWilliams’ thesis, O’Brien said he had failed to mention Central Bank data published earlier this year which showed that the spread of wealth is more equal in Ireland than the eurozone average.

O’Brien told TheJournal.ie: “He didn’t use the stats, which would have shown Irish wealth is actually more equally distributed than most other European countries.

Given that Europe is the most equal part of the world, that makes Ireland one of the most equal countries in the world when it comes to wealth.

Biz Dan O'Brien

His opinion that there was once a “compassionate capitalism” and now it is “winner takes all capitalism” is just that – an opinion. He used no data to back it up and ignored Central Bank work which show wealth inequality actually declined during the recession.

But McWilliams said the data he used, from Credit Suisse bank, is based on the most thorough academic methods, using Irish data sources and the same Central Bank data from last year. He said:

It’s the only worldwide comparative data. The reason we used the Credit Suisse data is they had done a good job compiling all national data.

David McWilliams at Banking Inquiry Source: Leah Farrell/Photocall Ireland

He said there was a minor difference in what the Central Bank data said compared to the Credit Suisse data, explaining:

This Central Bank data says the top 20% in Ireland own 72.7% of the wealth. The Credit Suisse data says that the top 20% in Ireland own 72.5% of the wealth. So it’s only 0.2% in the difference. Would you debate somebody over such a small discrepancy?

O’Brien also said that contrary to McWilliams’ theory, Ireland is one of the few developed economies where income inequality has not risen over the longer term.

McWilliams, who runs the annual Kilkenomics festival, said he had repeatedly emphasised in the programme that wealth inequality is a global problem and that Ireland was not an outlier.

I come back to the basic idea, when you think about inequality. If you say Ireland is doing okay in comparison to the rest of the world it’s like going to the doctor and he says: ‘You have a heart condition’, but you say you’ll do nothing about it because all your mates have one too.

Read: These charts show why Ireland’s wealth divide has widened so much

Read: David McWilliams’ media company is doing very nicely, thanks

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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