Dangerous simplicity

Nov 30, 2020
Cormac Lucey explains why, as societal fissures and inequality grow, we must no longer be satisfied with unduly simple answers to complex questions.

The biblical story of the Tower of Babel explains how humans across the world speak different languages. In the generations following the Great Flood, humans spoke a single language and migrated to the land of Shinar, where they decided to build a tower tall enough to reach heaven. Unhappy at this impudence, God intervened so that humans spoke several different languages, were unable to understand each other and were thus unable to build their idolatrous tower. Today, it is not different languages, but several other aspects of life, that risk pulling us apart.

Specialisation has been one of the key ingredients of dramatic economic growth in recent centuries. But growing vocational differences and technical specialisation make it more and more difficult for national leaderships comprised of generalists to manage and control a society increasingly comprised of technical specialists. Consider the economic disaster of the financial crash just over a decade ago, and the failure of the Central Bank of Ireland and the Financial Regulator to take corrective action.

Consider the current lockdown and reflect on the fact that, if everyone in the Republic contracted COVID-19 and we suffered the median fatality rate estimated by the World Health Organisation (0.23%), the resulting fatalities would equal around one-third of total fatalities that we suffered from all causes in 2019.

Another serious societal fissure is growing economic inequality and the increasing role of education in determining an individual’s earning capacity. Here in Ireland, we are lucky that income inequality has not grown over recent decades. But it has grown substantially in the US. We can see the political polarisation that has followed and, increasingly, political affiliation in the US follows education. This pattern was very evident when the UK voted for Brexit.

The political and media establishments may dismiss those who dared to vote for Brexit or Trump. But if the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that in an ever more complex world, our fates are increasingly interdependent. In such a world, it makes little sense to dismiss large blocs of fellow citizens as if they are fools. Yet that is what has happened.
This sneering reaction feeds another fissure, that which separates insiders from outsiders. We can see this in the rise and rise of monopolies and quasi-monopolies in the US. A paper published recently by two Federal Reserve economists found that the concentration of market power in a handful of companies lies behind several disturbing trends in the US economy such as a falling share of national GDP going to labour, a rising share going to capital, increasing inequality, rising financial leverage, and an increase in financial instability.

Here in Ireland, we are confronted by a different monopolistic power, that of the State. At the end of Q2 this year, average weekly earnings in the Irish public sector exceeded those in the private sector by 32.6%. In the UK in 2019, (pre-pension) public and private sector earnings were approximately equal with public sector earnings 3% ahead before consideration of bonuses and 3% behind after their consideration. The stark public/private gap in Ireland arouses little public commentary, but feeds the fissures in our society.

What can we do as we face this increasingly divided world? We should be careful of those who suggest simple answers to complex questions that generally don’t have yes/no answers but, rather, difficult trade-offs. Independence of judgement matters just as much for our public life as it does for our auditors.

Cormac Lucey is an economic commentator and lecturer at Chartered Accountants Ireland.