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If you’re a middle-class person visiting a pretty little city you’ve never seen before, you stop at the estate agent’s window and fantasise about buying something. When I did that in Kilkenny in southern Ireland recently, I had a shock: it was affordable. A nice house round there can cost under €150,000. The halving of property prices since the crash of 2008 is just one index of Irish suffering. A woman buttonholed me on Kilkenny’s main street to lament that three of her four children had emigrated – as have nearly a tenth of Ireland’s population since 2008. Many who stay will never repay their personal debts, let alone Ireland’s debt for bailing out its failed banks.
All this helps explain the extraordinary scenes I witnessed there: all weekend, Kilkenny’s theatres and bars were packed for what is probably the only comedy economics festival on earth. Kilkenomics has been described as “Davos with jokes” and “Davos without hookers”. It may be a model for the world.
Some of the speakers were big-shot American economists. But they came unpaid, and once in Kilkenny, far from global power, everyone shed their guru status. It’s such a small place that almost any pub you stumbled into, however far past midnight, was bulging with famous economists in T-shirts gabbing with ordinary punters. Most tickets to events cost from €5 to €15. This wasn’t a Goldman Sachs investors’ conference.
Kilkenomics’s founder, the Irish economist David McWilliams, calls it “bringing economics to the people”. Being Irish, he draws a parallel with Catholicism. “Economists,” he explains, “were like medieval priests who had a special relationship with God and spoke in Latin to the average punter, and said, ‘This is way above your head. Don’t worry about it.’ ”
But in 2008 the Irish discovered that most economists, and everyone else who ran their country (or other countries), had no idea what they were talking about. Nobody knew anything. In 2010, a troika of international lenders bailed out Ireland for €85bn. Ireland exits the bailout programme next month, but the country’s ruling caste is discredited. The ex-prime minister Bertie Ahern was recently assaulted in his local pub by a man with a crutch. Disgraced ex-minister Pádraig Flynn now reads scripture at Mass in his hometown of Castlebar, to the irritation of local churchgoers. Sean Fitzpatrick, bankrupt ex-chairman of Anglo Irish Bank, hardly dares appear in public. At Kilkenomics, the very word “Anglo” provoked belly laughs.
Yet the crisis doesn’t seem to have pushed many Irish into a know-nothing, anti-intellectual response à la the American Tea Party. Rather, Kilkenomics is an intellectual response: “Nobody ever taught us about economics. Please try and explain what happened.” Colin Murphy, whose play about the Irish bank bailout is touring 12 venues across Ireland, and filled the house in Kilkenny, diagnoses: “The audience is both angry and hungry.”
Punters at Kilkenomics didn’t want overpaid talking heads with facelifts screaming at each other in a TV studio. They didn’t want new priests purporting to reveal The Truth. They just wanted smart people who might possibly shed a little light.
No speaker at Kilkenomics faked omniscience. The ambiance discouraged it: panels were moderated by professional comedians in the backrooms of pubs. Bill Bonner, the American author of the investment newsletter The Daily Reckoning, when asked where the world economy would be in five years, replied: “I have no idea.” The Chicago economist Deirdre McCloskey repeatedly shot down fellow-panellists (including me) with a loud, joyous, “That’s baloney!” The Irish economist Stephen Kinsella gave advice on pensions: “Stock up on canned goods and shotguns.” The financial analyst Cormac Lucey, when introduced as a former adviser to an Irish minister, led the audience in a pantomime boo of himself.
The language of Kilkenomics was humour. You looked from comedian to economist, and from economist to comedian, and you could no longer tell which was which. On the Saturday night the Israeli-American behavioural economist Dan Ariely walked on stage in the local theatre wearing a fleece and holding a glass of whiskey, and sat down and talked about dishonesty for 75 minutes without notes while the overflowing house leaned forward, spellbound. Ariely told jokes with a stand-up’s timing. He ended with the one about the old Jewish man who goes to a Catholic priest to confess his adultery with 25-year-old twins (look it up online), and while the audience was still rocking with laughter, Ariely walked quietly offstage before anyone could clap. I think we learnt something, but not from a guru.
I’ve been to lots of festivals and conferences, but Kilkenomics may be the best. More than that: it felt like democracy. It recalled the 1960s “teach-ins” on American campuses. It reminded me of the proposal by Bruce Ackerman, Yale law professor, to sit ordinary people down with experts to talk through complicated issues like the Tobin tax or British membership of the European Union and actually change some minds. Kilkenomics could work far beyond Kilkenny.