global agenda 88.
(photo credit: )
An “Economics Festival,” mixing economics and comedy, serious debate and
wisecracking jokes, should be an oxymoron in theory and impossible to organize
in practice. But in Ireland, virtually no cultural event is impossible, and the
Kilkenomics Festival, which I had the pleasure and privilege of participating in
last weekend, proved it.
Kilkenny is a beautiful little town in central
Richard Cooper is an Irish impresario who has made an event
called “The Cat Laughs” into an internationally known comedy festival held
annually in Kilkenny. David McWilliams is an economist and Irish media
personality whose best-selling books predicted the implosion of the Irish
property bubble and then suggested original ideas as to how the country could
recover. Together with a broad selection of economists drawn from near and far,
and a slew of brilliant comedians and stand-up artists from the rich pool of
local talent, they produced Kilkenomics.
As for Ireland, the country is a
total shambles. It has succeeded in marrying the worst aspects of the American
economic disaster (a property mania in which vast wealth was squandered on
futile “investments” in absurdly overpriced real estate, with the lemming-like
general public egged on by rapacious but stupid bankers and short-sighted,
selfseeking politicians) with the worst aspects of the European economies –
namely, a bloated and largely useless public sector that manages an excessively
generous welfare system, all wrapped in an ill-fitting currency union (the
Not surprisingly, the Irish people are now enraged. Naturally,
they don’t see themselves as being to blame for their own idiotic behavior.
Instead they pour their wrath and derision on the fat-cat bankers and their
politico friends and accomplices. But, being Irish, the general public is both
educated and creative.
That’s why Kilkenomics could only be conceived of
and delivered in Ireland. Nowhere else would thousands of people willingly spend
time during the weekend attending sessions in small halls, listening to the
cut-and-thrust of high-powered intellectual debate, posing sharp and intelligent
questions of their own – but also laughing at themselves, via the comedians and
stand-up artists, and dousing their sorrows at the bar.
Murphy must have
been busy in Dublin, because the timing of the festival could hardly have been
bettered. The worsening crisis in Ireland and the fate of the country’s banking
system dominated the front pages of the global financial press in the week prior
to the event, so that the discussions were not only current but sizzlingly
But the debates, the criticism and the undertone of fury all merely
served to highlight how wide the gulf is between the Irish middle class and the
country’s political and bureaucratic elite. The latter are determined to keep
Ireland in the euro framework, whereas on the street, the growing ranks of the
unemployed and the dispossessed are being squeezed out of an economy in which
everything is priced in euros and hence far too expensive for them to
The traditional Irish answer to economic hardship is emigration,
and, indeed, members of the young generation are falling back on this potential
solution, although the traditional emigrant goals – the UK and US – are neither
welcoming nor particularly attractive at present. But for the bulk of
middle-aged, middle-class Irish, tied down by mortgages, parents, kids and their
whole social framework, emigration is not a practical option. That, however,
does not mean that they will docilely swallow the repeated doses of austerity
being imposed on them by their government.
On the contrary. Behind the
talk and laughs in Kilkenny, the whiff of incipient revolution was in the air.
The process of financial collapse is far advanced in Ireland, as it is across
the PIIGS group of countries and in Europe generally.
is intensifying steadily, although the public sector has been largely spared so
Social dislocation is the inevitable consequence, and, as the
pressure mounts, the demand for sweeping, fundamental political change is
spreading and deepening. Unfortunately for it and its citizens, Ireland looks
set to remain the pathfinder for other European countries, as they continue
their collective descent into collapse and