June 30, 2002

'What do you want? Get out! This is private property !

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‘What do you want? Get out! This is private property … I’ll call the police right away,” the teenager cried. A two-year-old toddler, who had just inadvertently stepped into the parking area in front of a house, hid behind her daddy’s leg and began to cry. With people like these, who needs soap operas?

Picture the scene — the first balmy evening of the summer and the day WorldCom’s fraud was exposed. The toddler waddles freely into a neighbourhood yard. Granted, this was no ordinary yard, full as it was of four or five cars.The child, of course, could not read the house name on the wall, having stepped dramatically from the public into the private world.

Naturally, the father followed her into this altar of flashy consumerism, stuffed with fittingly, impractical open-topped cars.

Then the screeching started. The teenager screamed that she would call the cops because the father was trespassing on private property. Electric security gates, private property, trespass, calling the cops. Who are these people? Why do they believe that the gardai are some sort of private security firm of hired muscle? Why, when the instinctive human reaction towards small children is joy, do they react with horror? How has their view of the world become so distorted? And what does it tell us about certain miserable parts of our society?

South Dublin seems to have its fair share of these people and this is all the more infuriating for those who of us live in the place. In my own case, there have been four generations of McWilliams in the town and to see the place being invaded by monsters from American straight-to-video movies is frightening (oh no! I’m beginning to sound like Hugh Leonard).

The problem with them is not money in itself, but a sense of values that rates people according to the size of their wallets.

The reason many of these people live in south Dublin is because it has become expensive. The house is a trophy that defines its owners.

These people divorce themselves entirely from the community in which they live and to an extent they replace community with possessions that they believe will make them happy. Individually, such people are no loss, but if everyone in society adopts this attitude we have a serious problem.

Two American writers have addressed this issue from very different angles, yet both authors arrive at remarkably similar conclusions. The first book, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (published in 2000) points to the collapse of communal activities in the US. From book clubs to bowling leagues, from the scouts to auto clubs, vocational participation in the US has almost disappeared.

In the 1950s and 1960s, America had a higher proportion of society involved in local clubs, committees and associations than anywhere in the world. All this has changed and Americans no longer participate. Local democracy in its myriad of guises has vanished. Americans now are lonelier and more likely to live alone, many in gated compounds divorced from their communities.

In Putnam’s view, this lack of contact at a local level — whether it be in a football team or a bridge club — corrodes the society and erodes the legitimacy of politics. With no local participation, politics is reduced to spectator democracy and the media is used as a filter for politicians to deliver spindoctor-scripted soundbites.

Every four years there is a gladiatorial contest between two party leaders. We watch as spectators via the TV and then give thumbs up to Bertie or Enda and off they go for another four-year period. Putnam believes that at the root of falling turnouts in elections is a lack of local participation.

The fact that Putnam’s biggest fan in Ireland is, apparently, Bertie Ahern, it is obviously a concern felt in political circles here too.

A recent article by Paul Krugman, the eminent US economist, refers to another book dealing with similar issues — Wealth and Democracy by Kevin Phillips. The writer recounts the emergence of a plutocracy in the US whereby the rich have bought the democracy to the detriment of society.

It also highlights how the rich have, over the past few decades, cemented their position at the top. Much of the book’s message is contained in one stunning table. That table, in the middle of a chapter titled Millennial Plutographics, reports the compensation of America’s ten most highly paid chief executives in 1981, 1988 and 2000.

In 1981 those captains of industry were paid an average of $3.5 million, which seemed like a lot at the time. By 1988 the average had soared to $19.3 million, which seemed outrageous. But by 2000 the average annual pay of the top ten was $154 million. It’s true that wages of ordinary workers roughly doubled over the same period, though the bulk of that gain was eaten up by inflation. But earnings of top executives rose 4,300 per cent.

When we see the likes of Bernie Ebbers at WorldCom and the top brass at Enron and Tyco, we know arguments that these guys are worth the money because they are uniquely talented are bogus. These chief executives — with their 15 minutes of CNBC-inspired fame — are charlatans.

Phillips argues that such huge disparities in wealth also corrode democracy, making a mockery of the political system. He concludes that “either democracy must be renewed, with politics brought back to life, or wealth is likely to cement a new and less democratic regime — plutocracy by some other name.” In other words, a world ruled by people who treat everyone else as an outsider — a pretty appalling vista. Recent events suggest that the trend observed by Putnam and Phillips — during the boom years where those at the top took the mickey — might be coming to a close and the pendulum might be swinging the other way.

This column has always argued that economic freedom and the opportunity to make, spend and lose money is central to a creative society. Yet when we see the carry-on at WorldCom and the trousering going on at the highest level in business, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that things have got out of hand. When boom turned to bust last time and the 1920s led to the 1930s and 1940s, the narrowing of income gaps that took place under FDR in the US was termed the ‘Great Compression’. When I see next week that benchmarking will have to be paid for by higher taxes, together with tighter financial regulation in the US and the continuing falls in the financial markets, it’s obvious things are changing.

It’s likely that a second great compression is upon us. It may have come too late for the screaming teenager, but it will perhaps make her mother’s grandchildren nicer people. 


  1. tom

    so what you are saying is that we can hop over fences into
    peoples land say for a shortcut or for whatever reason you
    want. i live near a football field and i own 3 dogs i have
    people coming into my garden for balls 3 or 4 times a day
    because they have a goal post next to the wall of our land
    i have a 2 year old who is constantly being woken up when
    the dogs go nuts when they see kids running through my
    garden we have told the club owners that it is private
    property and if we find a ball in the garden that we will
    throw it back but under no circumstances should anyone
    from there club come into our garden because it is private
    property and there could be dogs at play so far this has
    been ignored. now could you tell me who gets sued when one
    of these people fall and break a leg in my garden or god
    forbid gets bitten i do and for what because i own a house
    and garden that people wont stay out of priate property is
    private property and what the hell was a 2 year old
    wondering around on its own for. our 2 year old is never
    out of our sight seems to me that if a 2 year old can
    wonder into someones garden then it could have wondered
    out onto a road just as easy.

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