Given the inaccuracy of most economic forecasts, then clearly the answer is yes. Naoise Nunn clearly thinks so too. He set up the Kilkenomics Festival in his home town of Kilkenny in Ireland four years ago. It was perfect timing – right in the middle of Ireland’s financial collapse.
In September 2010, it was becoming apparent quite how much it would cost the country to back its failing banks. That massive bill – at the time estimated to be €45bn – eventually caused the financial collapse of the country. Only two months later, by November 2010, the government had to turn to the IMF and EU for an €85bn rescue package. At the height of Ireland’s economic and financial pain, Kilkenomics was born.
In the years since, Ireland has become the (relative) poster child for austerity. It is the example Merkel uses when other governments complain of the austerity imposed on them. However Ireland’s nascent recovery has not diminished interest in finance and economics, 2013 was the best-selling year for tickets at the Festival. Clearly the Irish people still want to find the answers to why it all went wrong.
And who could not be captured by the imaginative programming? “The Economics of the Game of Thrones”, a discussion comparing the principles of Renaissance banking to the Iron Bank of Braavos. “The Economic Agony Aunt with Dan Ariely”, allowed the audience to pose their own work related problems to professor of psychology and behavioural economics, Dan Ariely, who has his Agony Aunt column in the WSJ. Mr Ariely was also was part of a panel discussing “Animal Spirits; Behavioural Economics from Grocery Shopping to Organ donation” which I would love to have heard (but was on a flight back to London at the time). And my favourite? “Pulling it out of our arse? Economics, Statistics, Predictions and Lies” with American broadcaster Max Keiser. A critique of the economics profession and the statistics they mistakenly cling to.
I was asked to participate on three panels and was delighted to take part although slightly apprehensive of what to expect. My old friend, journalist Audrey, picked me up from Dublin airport and thus we had a road trip together. Not so much Thelma and Louise, more Audrey and Louise, although sadly Brad Pitt didn’t hitch a ride with us and Kilkenny is not Texas.
Hhaving a laugh at the comedy in economics festival
As would be expected arriving in Ireland, the welcome was warm even if the weather wasn’t. The hotel was fabulous – the kind of chi chi business hotel that can be found in all the big capital cities across Europe. But Kilkenny is not a great city, it has a population of just a few thousand. The flamboyance of the hotel a sign of the Ireland’s boom times of the past.
The first panel was a relatively sombre affair on unemployment where I delivered my scathing assessment against central bank’s targeting the jobless number.
But the more livelier panel, or in Ireland “craic”, was later in the evening at 10pm, discussing tax. To start with I cannot believe anyone would pay €15 to hear five people talk tax on a Saturday night, but clearly I am wrong as this was a sell-out gig. It was in the back room of a pub and there had been plenty of Guinness consumed by the time we started (maybe that helped?). Comedian Colm O’Regan was chairing the panel and did a brilliant job of injecting humour into “Double Tax / Double Irish – Are tax Avoidance Schemes a necessary evil?” (the terms Double Dutch and Double Irish providing a great opportunity for Double Entendre).
Before we began, there was much googling by the panelists to try and work out how this tax avoidance scheme worked. The conclusion we came to was that it would require a white board and hours of careful explanation (with diagrams) to explain it in full. So we ditched that idea and went for the big issues (and a few jokes) instead. If it took Congress weeks to understand the Double Irish and Dutch Sandwich in the summer, then we only had an hour and a quarter. (I leave to one side the irony of us googling a tax scheme that allows Google to avoid paying billions of tax).
The audience interaction created the star of the show – an Irish man who had worked in the finance department for Google in the past, helping them reduce their tax bill. Obviously he became the butt of many jokes (whilst also informing us all of how the scheme actually worked).
The final panel was the Optimistic Economics Brunch on Sunday morning where sore heads were soothed with orange juice, coffee and a fry up. Eleanor Tiernan, comedian and broadcaster got us off to a flying start with her gags. In fact all the comedians did a great job of getting the crowd going before each session. So impressed am I that I have come to the conclusion that financial and economic conferences could do with a warm up man (or woman) telling a few jokes before the start. Facing The Ninth Edition Stress Testing Gathering in London next week or the Sixth Conference on Economic Challenges of an Enlarged Europe in Estonia next year, would be much easier with a smile on your face.
So what are my takeaways from my road trip?
Clearly there is still money in Ireland. Dublin property prices are still not cheap for the capital city of a very small nation. And tiny Kilkenny has two Michelin starred restaurants. That must be the highest density of French gourmet stars on the planet.
Many Irish do not realise that their country is in a far far better competitive position than other troubled Eurozone states. It is a well reformed economy, even if it doesn’t feel so to the inhabitants.
There is a lot of anger at the low corporation tax rate of 12% versus the high personal tax rate of around 50% at an income of just over €32,000.
A fellow panelist has a restaurant in London and out of £5mn revenue, he pays £2mn tax (corporate, income, VAT, National Insurance etc). That really surprised me and makes me question the UK government’s assertion that the UK is a “place open for business”.
And finally beware hotels that look like chi chi business ones in Ireland. We arrived back, just past midnight Saturday to discover that it had become Kilkenny’s only nightclub. For €5 you could dance to as much 80s and 90s disco pop as desired. And when we expressed dismay at the noise, the doorman assured us not to worry as it only went on till two o’clock!
On conclusion, I thought Kilkenomics is a great idea. It is a novel way to engage non experts in a subject that is so important to their wealth and happiness but is mostly poorly understood. Serious subjects were discussed but in a humour full way. So should all other bailed out countries have similar festivals? Should Greece, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus have a way to bring economics and comedy to the people? The EU could get involved and provide funding. Now that is a great business idea…..
And finally as a Brit I often do not feel very European. But at the festival I was given Kilkenomics Euros that I could only spend at the official festival venues. Now I know what it feels like to be Cypriot.