Thursday 27 July 2017

David McWilliams: 'People ran away from us at dinner parties'

Economist David McWilliams talks to Niamh Horan about embracing enemies and his friendship with Bono

David McWilliams with wife Sian Smyth at the launch of his
new book 'The Good Room'
David McWilliams with wife Sian Smyth at the launch of his new book 'The Good Room'
David McWilliams: ‘I have to pinch myself... I can actually read books and think of ideas and get paid for it.’ Picture: David Conachy
David McWilliams
David McWilliams
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

When he was 10 years old, David McWilliams' father lost his job. The indignity was such that he maintained the facade of his daily routine for the sake of the neighbours.

"I remember my father putting on a shirt and tie and pretending to go to work because of the shame," recalls David, who began to feel the anxiety creep into his home.

"[Kids] can sense things really, really deeply inside them. They know if there's anxiety, fear, a little bit of trauma, no matter how normal the parents are trying to be. And I suppose that memory stuck."

Sitting in The Grapevine wine bar in Dalkey, David mulls over how it shaped him today: "It created in me a pathological fear of a boss.

"Maybe my reaction to that over the years… was to never allow myself be dependent on anyone.

"You see your father and your father's future and his dignity and his masculinity - and all these very profound things - affected. It's not just about the finance that's been taken away from him. I remember thinking to myself 'That's never going to happen to me'.''

It is one of the reasons he took an interest in economics - where he quickly became the celebrity chronicler of Ireland's boom and bust. It is also probably the reason he has more jobs on the go than most people have on their CV.

There's his role as an economic adviser with the Development Bank of the Caribbean, which he flies out to "four or five times a year". His gig as an economics lecturer to MBA students in Trinity College Dublin and he says, without expanding, "I work within the UK and the States quite a bit." He is also a columnist, documentary maker, organiser of The Dalkey Book Festival and the Kilkenomics festival, as well as being a best-selling author.

David McWilliams
David McWilliams

Famous for his depictions that capture Ireland's economic zeitgeist, such as 'the good room' and 'the breakfast roll man', David explains how the latter came about in the unlikeliest of places, in 2004, when he was at a friend's wedding.

"I was in the jacks at about 2.30am and two lads, who were leaning up against the urinal, started giving me a lecture on remortgaging and second homes."

He pinpoints it as his ''shoeshine boy moment'', the instant he knew the economy was about to go bust.

"These two guys were like 'breakfast rolls' [men] - I remember thinking what they would look like the next day. Then I saw a whole lot of guys go by in hi-vis jackets, it was a couple of weeks after, and that's when I said, 'That's it'."

David McWilliams with wife Sian Smyth at the launch of his
new book 'The Good Room'
David McWilliams with wife Sian Smyth at the launch of his new book 'The Good Room'

I wonder if his pop culture approach brings resentment from po-faced economists?

"Of course you've enemies, but I embrace my enemies. My dad actually told me once, he said: 'Listen son, it's very simple - show me a man without enemies, I'll show you a man without a backbone'. If you don't have enemies, you stand for nothing.''

So has he felt other economists looking down on him?

"Oh God, yes, absolutely. There is a general sense in academia that academics are very important and if you don't believe that to be the case - which I don't - then of course they are going to react.

David McWilliams
David McWilliams

But, he says, it doesn't cost him any sleep: "Maybe when I was younger - everybody craves the affirmation of their peers." But, he says "then we realise they're not our peers… peers are the hundreds and thousands who read your books, the hundreds and thousands who tune into watch your RTE documentary, they're your peers.''

On the critical reviews, he says: "They are fantastically outrageous. They are designed to hurt." However, his reaction surprises his family: "Sian [his wife] is always amazed about how Zen I am, I just say, 'You've got to find your inner Gandhi at these moments, darling'."

One of the criticisms levelled at McWilliams, when he predicted the crash, was that some day, he was bound to be right.

Does it annoy him? "No. Everybody needs to try and rationalise their stupidity after the event, so that's how they do it."

Was it difficult when people kept admonishing him for talking the economy down? "Maybe it's the Scot in me but I don't have that, sometimes Irish, need to be loved.''

When his prophecies came true, one person who did breathe a sigh of relief was his wife.

"I remember Sian saying, 'Jesus Christ, thanks be to God!' If I had to go to another dinner party where people actually ran away from us!'

"I didn't realise it but we were probably quite toxic at the time."

But it paid off. His work on the economics circuit has earned him a pretty penny. Accumulated profits at the media firm he owns soared to more than €1m last year. When I ask him about this, he tightens up: "I don't ever really talk about money, I know that might sound strange."

But he has been particularly successful in that respect, I suggest. "Maybe. But it's because I don't worry about money. If you go into any venture for that alone, the likelihood is you'll fail."

He says the best financial decision he ever made was to work hard on his economics degree. And the worst?

"I made an investment in a friend's company. He was happy to come to the house with his kids. That was a bad one." Afterwards, he says: "I just felt like a gobshite!"

He currently lives in Dalkey and has a summer home in Croatia, off the coast of Split, where he spends up to two months of the year holidaying with his family. It is where he chose to celebrate his 50th birthday last August - several weeks later Bono flew over to join them.

An economist and a rock star - how did that happen? "He's actually hugely into economics," says David.

They met through a mutual friend "and we just realised we'd a lot more in common".

They regularly have pints in Finnegan's, although he laughs off the prospect of giving the billionaire financial advice, "no, zero", he admits they chat about the economy.

He wonders why there is a lack of female economists in Ireland and wants to see more to take the discipline back from the "extreme masculinity" that has hijacked it.

The best economist "understands love and emotion, all the things that drives us… feelings not figures drive the world", he says, citing Irish homeowners who got into negative equity during the crash: "Some said they were greedy, but they weren't, they were in love."

As for another rock-bottom recession, he says: "I think there's going to be ups and downs but it's not going to be like what we saw."

For those wanting to buy a home, the future is bright: "I think prices will go up - not as dramatic as they are - but I don't think you should be waiting for the big crash unless European rates go through the roof, and I don't see that happening."

And, as for the housing crisis, he believes it would be partly eased if the State freed up building regulations, saying: "There was a very good announcement yesterday for Poolbeg, which I think is 16 to 17-storey blocks. We should have 40-storey blocks."

"Most proper cities have high-density urban living. The higher density, the better transport, schools, creches, all that sort of stuff.

"I don't understand why a city like Dublin can't have a Georgian and Victorian centre, then height in the Docks," he argues.

In the meantime, David is busy putting together a stellar list of speakers for the Dalkey book festival, for which former American Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders will jet in.

So what's his secret to getting box-office names to his little seaside village?

The answer can be found in Dale Carnegie's book How to Win Friends and Influence People: "find something that people want and give it to them, it's not that hard".

When David bumped into Malcolm Gladwell a few years ago, the author told him he had an obsession with 1980s middle distance Irish runner, John Treacy. McWilliams organised a run for the pair in the Phoenix Park.

And again this year, he stuck with Dale Carnegie's tried and tested formula.

"Sanders's wife is Irish American and is obsessed with his roots, so we traced them. That's why he's coming. It's just like hosting a big party and inviting lots of people to come."

It sounds like he has the dream job. He says: "I have to pinch myself every morning and say, 'Is this really happening? I can actually read books and think of ideas and get paid for it?'

Did his father live to see his success?

"Oh yeah, he'd walk around the town here and say, 'Look, here is my son on the telly'."

And he doesn't even have to wear a tie.

The Dalkey Book Festival takes place from June 15-18. See www.dalkeybookfestival.org

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