Broadening one’s horizon in Kilkenny

Broadening one’s horizon in Kilkenny
Economist, author, journalist, and broadcaster David McWilliams is one of the co-founders of Kilkenomics, a unique blend of economics and comedy which has caught the public imagination and is now celebrating its 10th year.

Life is all about change — at least that’s the standard counsel, increasingly received as the years roll by.

With this in mind, I’ve decided to challenge my personal status quo with a first visit to the annual Kilkenomics festival, from November 7 to 10.

Having endured my share of dull and uninspiring business gatherings over the years, that cautionary adage echoed in the brainpan as I booked the tickets: “A conference is a gathering of people who singly can do nothing, but together can decide that nothing can be done.”

But Kilkenomics is not your ordinary financial assembly. Now in its 10th year, this unique mix of economics and comedy has prospered and grown during its first decade, and plotted a clever course along lines described by the San Francisco Chronicle: “An utterly bizarre idea, but the public love it.” 

Or, as Bloomberg put it: “Lenny Bruce meets John Maynard Keynes.”

Pulling together leading economists and financial analysts with stand-up comedians for a weekend of lectures and laughs has proved a serious crowd-puller, built around an ethos of “Davos with jokes”.

Born as the bonfire beneath the meltdown gathered strength in 2008, Kilkenomics was established with the aim of taking economics out of the conference hall and making it accessible to the ordinary man on the street.

It immediately caught the public’s imagination, with regular participant Gerry Stembridge advising: “Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s about economics; it’s actually about life.”

At a time when we are beset and bludgeoned by the complexities of Brexit and ‘Trumponomics’, who could condemn Kilkenny’s amusing intelligentsia as being any less relevant than the august G7? As Kilkenomics co-founder David McWilliams opined in a recent column: “Imagine what it would be like, had you devoted your professional life to a discipline governed by reasonably predictable rules, only to find out, 25 years later, that the rules no longer applied? Spare a thought for the traditional macroeconomist, who has seen this happen.” 

The choice is wide and varied over the four-day event, with a few standout sessions. Top of my list is ‘The Great British Break-Off’ where a grouping of international minds will pick over the blunderings of Brexit and Boris to decipher what the future holds for Ireland, the UK, and the EU.

Economic luminaries such as Yanis Varoufakis, Mehreen Kahn, and Linda Yueh have made this one of the hot tickets. Interestingly, one of the earliest sold-out shows is: ‘1931: Debt, Crisis and the Rise of Hitler’ — surely no laughing matter.

Tobias Straumann, Swiss historian and associate professor of economic history at the University of Zurich, makes the case that the Wall Street Crash of 1929 was not the commonly- perceived spark that ignited the Great Depression, but rather the Austrian bank crisis, combined with the shutdown of the German financial system and Britain crashing out of the gold standard.

What lessons can be learnt from the economic chaos and political populism that led to the Nazi regime, and how might they apply today? Inevitably, America’s place in the new world order of 2019 was bound to merit a discussion, and ‘Goodbye USA: The End of the American Century’ should put the proverbial bums on seats for those wondering how this economic ally of Ireland will fare in an uncertain future. 

The session blurb doesn’t put a tooth in it: “Twenty years ago, the USA stood imperious, the world’s only superpower, the master of the markets, the victor. Today it stands on the verge of a recession, run by a narcissist, lashing out at everyone from China to India and the EU, yet cosying up to Russia.”

Peter Antonioni and Bill Black, co-author of Economics for Dummies, and associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri respectively, team up with comedian and author of the Irish Mammy books Colm O’Regan to read the runes on this one. 

Another session that should provoke plentiful pondering, especially for our national broadcaster, concerns the future of home entertainment — ‘TV: Too Big To Fail?’ As the streaming culture of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney and Apple continues to dominate, is the game up for linear television as we know it?

Indeed, for those who like to crystal ball-gaze, ‘The World In 2020’ offers much to chew on for a panel that includes Justin Wolfers, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution; Stephanie Kelton, professor of economics at Stony Brook University, and rising comedy star Joanne McNally, whose documentary, Baby Hater, debuted this year.

Will Trump win in November, and what the UK will look like a year after Brexit are among the other topics.

If anyone deserves the moniker ‘rock star’ at Kilkenomics, it is Samantha Power, the Irish-born Pulitzer Prize-winner and relentless human rights advocate, whom Barack Obama name-checked as one of America’s “foremost thinkers on foreign policy”. 

Her autobiography, The Education of an Idealist, tracks her varied career from Dublin childhood to the streets of war-torn Bosnia, to the White House Situation Room. It also includes background on her famously indiscreet reference to Hillary Clinton as a “monster” at the height of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. 

Having served on the US National Security Council during Obama’s first term, she took up the post of US ambassador to the UN in his second. 

Her idealist credentials found ample public display in that international gathering, not least the confrontation with her Russian opposite number during the siege of Aleppo. “Are you truly incapable of shame?” she demanded.

“Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?” This impressive woman is reason alone for making the journey to Kilkenny.

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