Kilkenny is the home of the Smithwicks brewery (whose product I happen to like) and tends to crush other counties in the national sport of hurling. It also has one of the tidiest Gypsy camps I've ever seen (in Ireland the Romani are known as “Travelers”) with actual council-built housing and plenty of pasture for their horses. Kilkenny is also home to a number of festivals: there is a comedy festival and a foreign film festival, and the wildly successful Kilkenomics conference which it was my privilege to attend. The concept behind this conference is quite a stroke of genius: get economists and comedians together. The economists are mostly a dull lot who are either spouting philosophical theory in tones that brook no argument, or spouting statistics with a “don't you know” sort of look, and, most significantly, most of the news they have for us is enough to make a grown man weep. And why exactly would grown men want to pay conference registration fees to sit there and weep? That is where the comedians come in: they make us laugh, so that we forget to cry. And this they certainly did, paraphrasing the economists' dour pronouncements in ways that made the audience laugh. One particular paraphrase stuck in my mind: there was in attendance one Constantin Gurdjieff—a swarthy and bombastic Muscovite who happens to be a distant relative of the great early 20th century mystic with the same rare surname (he spells it differently: Frankenstein, Fronkensteen—whatever). He held forth at length in a booming Rocky and Bullwinkle accent, only to be swiftly paraphrased as “Kill zem all!”
My contribution amounted to sitting in on three panels, in the course of which I realized that I am more of a comedian than an economist. Now, I don't have any formal training or credentials as an economist, and thank God for that, because, on the one hand, I have lost count of the trades in which I've worked quite successfully without a license and, on the other, why would I ever want to waste my time on such a hopeless discipline? What do you call an economist who makes predictions about the future? Wrong. Comedy, on the other hand, is much more of a science: comedians can accurately predict what will make the audience laugh. I actually said that at the conference, and the audience actually did laugh. I rest my case. I also gave a talk on the subject of my book, Reinventing Collapse, which got a few laughs and left the audience in an upbeat mood, quite possibly because, compared to the other talks, my message was quite upbeat. Because, to be perfectly honest, the overarching meta-question that was continuously asked at this conference, and sometimes answered in the affirmative, was: “Are we fooked?” The headline on page 6 of the Irish Independent from 3 November read “Economists warn euro will be extinct in 10 years.” The article goes on to quote the retired American bank regulator Bill Black, who said, before a packed hotel ballroom: “The euro is the biggest threat to peace and prosperity in Europe in modern times.”
Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts forced me to miss the few talks that focused on success stories—one on Iceland, and another on informal economies. I did get to see Charles Eisenstein speaking about gift, barter and informal economies in a tiny and packed room in the back of a pub where I was sandwiched against the door with Max Keiser. Charles is very upbeat and is something of an inspirational speaker on the whole informal economy thing. Then Charles and I rushed to a different hole in the wall (one actually called “The Hole in the Wall”) where we battled the indomitable Constantin “Kill ze kommies!” Gurdjieff over the role of left-wing politics on a panel on “Economics for People who Hate Capitalism.” There was quite a number of such people in attendance, and I am afraid they walked away disappointed. I did manage to spell out some basics, such as, if you want to have dealings with people you don't trust, you need to make room for government/mafia (and even Constantin conceded that the two are essentially the same). I also managed to say a few words about the biggest Communist institution in America, if not the world, which is the US Armed Forces. I didn't get a chance to talk about the second biggest, which is the American Ivy League. We disagreed about the recent successes of the Latin American progressives; I happen to like some of them, while Constantin wanted to, you know... None of us had a single good thing to say about Karl Marx. The poor fellow was mired in useless German metaphysics (dialectical materialism my foot!) plus he was all about distributing the fruits of industrial wage labor equitably, and where is that state-run industrialist vision now? I felt sorry for the lads trying to flog copies of “Socialist Worker” outside the venue, but we were hungry and it was late.
The overall political mood of the gathering was hard to gauge. There was a lot of despair over the fecklessness of the Irish politicians in the face of pressure from Europe (“Why is Ireland bailing out Germany? Are we insane?”) as well as over the strange Irish compulsion to hurt themselves by specifically refusing to investigate financial fraud—in a national referendum, no less! There was a lot of indignation over being treated as Europe's “special child” and a palpable resentment of Angela Merkel. She will be burned in effigy if she keeps at it like that. The more I talked to people, the more I started to feel in my bones that what's happening in Greece, Italy and Spain will eventually happen even in conservative and cautious Ireland: the EU is coming politically unstuck. There will be plenty of work for economic comedians, and the Kilkenomics conference should continue to do well.