Outsiders at Kilkenomics

The buzz at the recent Kilkenny-based Kilkenomics economics and comedy festival was terrific. Assembled were economists and comedians bent on explaining the nuts and bolts of our economic crisis – how it came about, who was involved and what ought to be done about it. By Miriam Cotton

The festival was brilliantly organised, the weather was bright and Kilkenny itself was a good location for it – the venues for the various talks and seminars were all within minutes of each other with plenty of distractions to retreat to if you wanted a break. The comedy was an inspired idea: such was the depravity and incompetence of what was described about how our government, civil servants and the banking community got us into our present state, festival-goers very much needed some light relief from the dismal picture that emerged from what the speakers were able to tell us.

Langton House Hotel was the hub of the festival, its magnificent Set Theatre the main venue for the panel discussions. Other smaller – tiny even - spaces such as the beautifully renovated Hole in the Wall were the venues for other discussions such as that between Fintan O'Toole and Olivia O'Leary about O'Toole's recently published book Enough is Enough.

Speaking of books, the festival was also partly a book promotion – with six Penguin authors present to talk about their books – all economy related. Dearbhail McDonald author of 'Bust' – a compelling account of the interaction between property developers and the legal profession – was in discussion with comedian Pauline McLynn who described McDonald's contribution as the highlight of the festival. Ha-Joon Chang from the University of Cambridge came to talk about his excellent book 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism.

It was an all star line-up. The speakers included economists whose names are now nationally and internationally recognised: Constantin Gurdgiev, Brian Lucey, David McWilliams, Peter Mathews and Shane Ross were among the Irish panellists. Vikas Nath (India), Vilhjámur Bjarnason (Iceland) Peter Schiff (US), Peter Legrain and John Lanchester (UK) - and others from around the world were there too, including the former Minister for Finance from Argentina, Martín Lousteau who made one of the most apposite observations of the festival: "the reason governments have to intervene in crises in the financial sector is that, unlike in any other sector, the banks are using other people's money."

The lawyer, academic and author Bill Black was there from the US – a man who is responsible for the indictment of more than 1,000 white-collar criminals and fraudsters over there, and he was clearly dismayed by the toothlessness of our financial regulatory system.

Speaking to him on Sunday morning, the last day of the festival, he noted that such was the state of affairs in Ireland that "people are actually paying to come and hear economists talk - for a whole weekend". Black had also said earlier in the weekend – and this was a view shared by everyone present: "subordinated debt is supposed to be lost if banks go insolvent".

And come people did, all 3,000 of them. The four-day festival was fully sold out, most who had not pre-booked had to be turned away. The same weekend the government were still denying that the arrival of the IMF was imminent. EU Finance Ministers were meeting to decide what our fate should be. People wanted to know the inside track, what the future was likely to hold and what, if anything could be done about it all.

The scene was set for a lot of excellent satire, and the comedians rose to the occasion: Pauline McLynn, Colin Murphy, Colm O'Regan, Jarlath Regan and Karl Spain did a great job either as compéres or contributors to the sessions.

Colm O'Regan's hilarious history of the Celtic Tiger centred around two conceits – a facebook page discussion between government and people and the 'Anglo [sic] & Barry' reading primers for children. Explaining the term 'leverage' he described how Anglo lent Barry 10p for ice cream and how that in turn had made it possible for Barry to borrow 400million euro for a glass and bottle factory. Nobody 'liked' this arrangement and the new words of the lesson were 'regulation' and 'you-couldn't-make-it-up'.

No two ways about it, this was a thoroughly middle class affair. Individual tickets for the sessions cost between 10 and 25 euro. There was a package deal available for €100 (80 if unwaged) which included access to five sessions, a signed copy of one of the authors' books and 20 'Marbles' – the festival's own currency, minted specially for the event and legal tender in participating shops and cafes. Good value but still beyond the reach of a lot of people.

The discussions themselves were firmly rooted in centre-right economics. Nobody unemployed was among the speakers and there were no left of centre speakers there. Probably most present had never even heard of the Workers Solidarity Movement and certainly, one felt, neither the SWP nor the Socialist Party were wanted there at all!

Peter Schiff and Constantin Gurdgiev disagreed over the degree of 'charity' that should be permissible with Schiff describing Gurdgiev's limited, state-mandated charity proposals as 'theft' - and the social welfare safety net in general as being 'more like a hammock'. Schiff, alone of all the speakers at the festival was booed during one session where his boasting about how wealth creators like himself were the key to making everyone happy did not go down too well.

But that was as near to challenging the system as it got – and it seemed that what really irked people was Schiff's very un-Irish swagger about himself (who does yer man think he is?) rather than the severely indifferent social policy he was advocating! But to give Schiff his due, he was one of those who foresaw the crisis and who was ostracised and berated for his predictions at the time. He also argued that default is the best and only workable option for Ireland.

The left was represented by Fintan O' Toole who was arguing for root and branch reform of our political system, but not for a different system. The session titled 'So what have we learned and what's the way out?' was instructive. Chaired by the inexhaustible David McWilliams – whose idea the festival was – a detailed discussion was had about the hows and wherefores of what has brought the country to its present position.

We heard how Iceland – the supposed 'basket case' economy – had done just about the opposite of everything our government has done. To a chorus of vested interest and international, media-compliant disapproval we now know, nevertheless, that its economy is in growth and unemployment is running at half that of Ireland's. This was toward the end of the festival and by then the audience was clearly feeling fired up.

Earlier, we had heard in some detail from Shane Ross about how the disgraced Sean Fitzpatrick had nevertheless been able to appoint his own successor and how the top people in the Department of Finance who oversaw the crisis and the failed rescue strategy are all still there.

The insiders are still there and we, the outsiders are still to all intents and purposes unable to undo the stranglehold they have on managing the country. What should we do, people wanted to know? O'Toole argued forcefully for more public participation, for the implementation of the ten point plan that he has set out in Enough is Enough. The audience clearly warmed to him and were glad to hear someone speak who was making tangible suggestions about what people could and should do.

However, it seems David McWilliams' notion of outsiders may not be as inclusive as it at first seems. Seeing how O'Toole's suggestions were going down well with the audience, he was clearly uneasy and he made a telling statement. He declared that people such as himself and Fintan O'Toole who are in the public eye have a particular responsibility not to do or say anything that would lead to creating a 'herd mentality'.

This not-in-front-of-the-children put down of the role that ordinary people might play in bringing about systemic change had a dampening effect on spirits in the audience. The primeval fear of the mobilised masses that is commonly shared by people in privileged positions is never far beneath the surface it seems. McWilliams went on quite deliberately to emphasise the point by declaring that people such as himself had a duty to stay 'ice-cold' when speaking in public so that we, the herd outsiders, don't get too excitable.

And it was indeed as if he had thrown a bucket of ice water over the audience. We weren't going to have anything that might resemble a communal, shared response to the issues at hand. We were to be declaimed to, icily, from the podium by the experts. So there are outsiders and then again there are outsiders – and it seems the outsiders McWilliams is concerned with are those like himself with access to the corridors of power and the media but who are not, at present in pole position. The rest of us should follow the second tier outsiders' lead.

But to leave it at that would not be fair to McWilliams who is beyond question well-motivated and decently troubled by the damage that is being done to the country. As a well-to-do, affluent, right-wing activist he is putting a huge amount of energy in to making economics accessible and to helping expose exactly how and what has been done to the country.

As someone else has said, he is like a magician exposing the secrets of the trade. In this respect he shares the limelight with others on the right such as Brian Lucey and Constantin Gurdgiev who are equally genuine in their concern to see honest, accountable economic and financial management. But where were Michael Taft and Paul Sweeney? Maybe they just couldn't make it.

Just last Sunday I went to see McWilliams in Cork where he was performing his one man show Outsiders which is about all of the themes and topics already mentioned. It was another engaging, fascinating and informative performance – and one that clearly, again, fired the audience up. However, in the Q&A session after it McWilliams once again was keen to snuff out any impetus for mass cooperation and grass roots engagement with a reform movement.

When questions came from the floor about what people could do, his solution was not for co-operative movement of any sort, but to rely on the isolated environment of the ballot box alone to vote Fianna Fáil out. He made a candid observation about the Labour Party when asked which of the opposition parties were most likely to bring about real change. He said that it should be the Labour Party but that he thought they were so afraid of being labelled communist or socialist if they advocated fairness, accountability and those sorts of qualities that they had effectively neutralised themselves. This is nothing if not confusing.

Having twice now sat through McWilliams telling a joke about how teachers had formed an "11-mile tail-back of Toyota Corollas to Newry" when they were supposed to be picketing their places of work during a one-day strike last autumn, his fear, if not outright contempt for the ordinary citizen taking matters into his or her own hands, is manifest. That the tail-back story was an unsubstantiated, deliberate smear intended to undermine the valid points teachers were trying to make was no concern of David McWilliams - and I have since asked him if he would like to qualify what he said in any way. He declined.

The joke was an easy, cheap shot, one that went down well with his well-heeled audiences and one which he understands full well goes a long way to reinforcing a perception of teachers and teaching as a profession - and more insidiously toward rubbishing the very notion of grass roots self-empowerment and egalitarian reform for everyone.

Truth is there are insiders, insider-outsiders and then the majority, the real outsiders.