Since 2007 the jobless rate in Ireland has tripled, housing prices have dropped by half, and the country’s credit rating has been downgraded repeatedly.
Enter the comedians. Kilkenomics, billed as Europe’s first economics festival, sold 3,120 tickets to the events at Kilkenny, a city founded in 1207. Kilkenomics’s purpose is to make sense—and light—of all the misery. The idea was for eight comics plus 24 economists, journalists, and bloggers, to “simplify the big ideas and make them more accessible,” according to the festival brochure. Seminar topics ranged from the predictable—“What is the future of the euro?”—to the potentially more useful—“What the hell is happening right now?” The only rule seemed to be that the comics had to dress like economists and the economists had to dress like comedians. Ex-Argentine Economy and Production Minister Martín Lousteau made a deep impression with his backpacker look.
One event had panelists competing to create folk tales using jargon like derivatives, fiat currency, and haircuts. In one story the hero rushed into a confessional to plea for debt forgiveness. During a discussion of investment strategies for 2012, former hedge fund manager Vikas Nath urged attendees to buy shares of luxury good companies such as Prada, the Italian maker of shoes, handbags, and apparel. High-end products are booming in emerging markets like his native India even, he explained, as demand slows in the U.S. and Europe. “Cheap imitations are for white people,” Nath declared. “We prefer the real thing!” (Uproarious laughter.) Comedy writer Paddy Cullivan sang, “A is for austerity, B is for bailouts.” Q, needless to say, was for quantitative easing.
One of the biggest names on the program was economist Jeffrey Sachs, twice named one of the world’s most 100 influential people by Time magazine, whose black jeans appeared to be pressed. Asked about Goldman Sachs’s role in recent economic traumas, he proclaimed, “What they’ve done is a disgrace to the Sachs name!” (Generous laughter.) It was a comfort that Sachs can stick with his impressive day job as director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and its Quetelet professor of sustainable development and professor of health policy and management.
Among the attendees, who paid up to €100 ($138) for a day ticket, were folks who came more for guidance than mirth. An elderly homeowner traveled to Kilkenny, despite her apprehension about the long drive, because she feared she might have trouble paying her euro-denominated mortgage if Ireland’s problems worsen. An Intel production engineer wanted to know why Intel stock price was so depressed—and his options underwater—if the chipmaker was making buckets of money. Maura Frasier, who is trying to manage a €50,000 inheritance, said she was “worried to death about the money. I don’t want to do anything that would risk it.” And Kenny Hope, a Merrill Lynch financial adviser, sought a better sense of why his clients are unusually cautious about the markets and whether he could figure out how to assure them.
Much scorn was heaped on the notion that Irish bankers feel so constrained by the current pay cap of €500,000 a year at state-rescued institutions that the most talented might flee Ireland to seek living wages elsewhere.
On the Kilkenny festival’s last day, comedian Colm O’Regan asked panelists to hold up headlines from the morning newspapers that spoke to current economic conditions. One held up the Daily Racing Form, displaying a two-page spread of betting tips and pictures of racehorses, as well as a headline that read, “Bankers or Blowouts?”
“That’s it!” O’Regan declared. “We’ll get rid of all the bank directors and replace them with horses. They couldn’t do worse.” Panelist Margaret E. Ward, a journalist, looked up from her paper and said: “And we’ll pay them with sugar cubes.” (Knowing laughter.)