Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Meanwhie in Ireland

Last week I spent three days attending the Kilkenomics conference in sunny Kilkenny, Ireland. About an hour and a half by taxi from the Dublin Airport, Kilkenny is a smallish medieval town on a smallish non-navigable river, its skyline dominated by an impressive, gloomy castle and a few equally gloomy cathedrals of grey stone. Its narrow streets are full of mostly empty shops and pubs (the shop to pub ratio seems on the order of 3 to 1) and during daylight hours they are clogged solid with mostly empty little cars. Maybe it's because a lot of the little cars are diesels, or maybe the local brand of petrol/gasoline is heavy on aromatics, but standing in the street in Kilkenny often smells same as being downwind of a freighter. One morning, when it briefly wasn't raining, I took a walk around the town, and it could be quite lovely if it wasn't for the insane amount of street traffic and that awful damp.

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.


Paul said...

A great piece about my long suffering homeland, Dmitri. Kilkenny is a lovely town that, like of all of Ireland, has suffered as a plaything for a wealthy elite to profit from as they see fit and a political class of kept enablers for them.Just on a point of information, Irish travellers are a native ethnic group (although of the same stock as the rest of us)and not Romani. Sorry I missed your talk!!!

Anonymous said...

I like this article because it doesn't draw any conclusions. It doesn't end on a 'we're screwed' or 'we have to do this' note. It just shows that you're a writer for the pleasure of being a writer and that the best goal is not having one. Maybe that's what people should strive to do more to avoid collapse: do things for the sake of doing them rather than for profit.

A reader from Paris.

brandnewguy said...

Just a small correction: the Irish Travellers are distinct from Romani folk. This is confused by both being bundled together as "gypsies", but they have a separate ethnic identity.

Evan said...


A little off-topic, but I was wondering if you have any recommendations of books or resources for sailboating. I've enjoyed your essays on sailboats and am considering this as an option as my sweetheart grew up sailing and talks about living aboard a boat, but I have no sailing experience (!). Just looking for some resources to learn about the basics of sailing but also the issues of living aboard. I love the idea of the simplicity of living aboard, and already am familiar with low-cost, frugal living. Have any recommendations that have helped you? Also, I know you took sailing classes in Boston, but is this something your wife also did? I'm just wondering if I can get away with learning from books and my sweetheart or if I really should consider some classes first...


Tom Crowley said...

It was my pleasure to go to Kilkenny specifically for your talks. I enjoyed our conversation after your round with Constantin Gurdgiev who I also have great respect for. Having read this blog for 2 years I was more interested in what you did not say rather than what you did say.

Shadowfax said...

Sailing the Farm by Ken Neumeyer is pretty cool if you are interested in liveaboard.

Lord Sidcup said...

Tom Crowley

What did Dmitri not say?
I'm on tenterhooks!

vera said...

"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"

So are you saying, Dmitri, that for those of us who don't want to have dealings with those we do not trust, government is optional? :-)

DeAnander said...

"like of all of Ireland, has suffered as a plaything for a wealthy elite to profit from as they see fit and a political class of kept enablers for them."

Hmmm, kind of like all of the world? The political class of kept enablers (very nice phrase, btw, and would make an excellent title for a blog, poem, or novel) seems to be very active, indeed hyperactive, worldwide. Western Canada is feeling a bit like the plaything of fate (or of financiers) these days, too.

Unknown said...

Sorry, Dmitri, but growing up in a socialist country (at least it had that word in its name) I always had health care, including dentistry.

The Ivy League (I went to Columbia and Princeton, with a Ph.D. last year) never gave me any dental coverage except for a 100$ dental cleaning. They don't pay for child birth, either.

Now if we're talking about the administration, or about some tenured professors, or about the holy trustees, yes, they have a kind of socialism. The grad students and many of the instructors don't.

Kevin said...

Since the subject has been raised, I still very much want to try living aboard a sailboat, for all the reasons you've proposed, as well as some others of my own. I sailed as a kid and enjoyed it a lot, though it's been a very long time.

I was also intrigued by your remark in another post or its comments thread that by boat one can gain access to shoreside land that is only accessible from the sea. As best I recall, you were speaking in terms of land to grow food on, though one can think of other uses for some shoreside redoubts.

Thus far I've been too stony broke even to think of paying slip fees let alone purchasing a decent seaworthy boat, but there's reason to hope this may be ameliorated in the next year or so.

For starters I'm looking for sailing lessons to reacquire my long-neglected skills. I don't know what skills I could trade in return for that - I'm a good artist, and know how to make a parabolic reflector, but I doubt many sailors are on the market for those skills - so it looks like I'll have to scrape up some shekels for them: unless anyone can suggest some other way.

Unknown said...

Upon second thought, delete my comment.

Any relevant information can be found on the sites of the Ivy League universities, if you look for coverage on teeth and vision.

I am tired of them and I am tired of the ways in which the word "socialism" gets employed in the US discourse. I am not going to participate in them, it's futile.

John D. Wheeler said...

Oooh! Oooh! Oooh!

You and Constantin have inspired a new catch phrase for me regarding the collapse of civilization:

"It's all gotta go!"