Nerds, wonks and a failed finance minister: a visit to Kilkenomics

Discussions on Trump, Brexit, technology and media were some of the topics covered at this year’s economics festival in Kilkenny

On Sunday, at the eighth iteration of Kilkenomics, casually dressed international economists stroll Kilkenny’s windy streets having strange interactions with eager students, wild-eyed conspiracy theorists and soberly dressed policy analysts who have spent four days considering Trump, Brexit, Bitcoin, the marijuana business, European integration, national identity, disruptive technologies and the economics of the modern newsroom. It’s a truly odd event.

"It's amazing to have a room packed to talk about French politics the night Ireland is playing a match," says Financial Times writer Gillian Tett during a Saturday night dissection of Emmanuel Macron.

So who are these people? "Some nerds, some wonks, some students, some general public types who're just interested in things," says co-founder and creator Richard Cook.

And who are the panellists? Well, former Greek finance minister and author Yanis Varoufakis is the nearest thing the event has to a financial rock star, even if he, at one point, introduces himself as "a failed finance minister from a bankrupt state". He says this shortly before arguing with Tett over whether "Emmanuel" (they're on first name terms) has populist tendencies.


This debate soon broadens into a discussion of European identity which sees Tett lamenting the lack of unifying foundation myths before a hilariously full-throated defence of European blandness from comedian Andrew Maxwell. "If you need to fill the hole in yourself with a f***ing symbol you might need to get a hobby."

‘Sodom and Gomorrah’

The presence of comedians at Kilkenomics is crucial, says co-founder David McWilliams “[They] give permission to the audience to ask questions.”

And the audience sometimes prefers statements to questions. When Tett muses about what makes people like Donald Trump “tick” a voice from the audience declares: “He’s definitely thick.”

The comedy types are in their element with this. “Let’s see where this goes,” chuckles Maxwell when a different punter stands up and says, “this is more a statement than a question.”

By Sunday all the panellists know each other pretty well. Previously McWilliams had glowingly described the intellectual pub discussions that took place after hours. He recalled former finance ministers Varoufakis and former Argentinian finance minister Martin Lousteau sitting in a conspiratorial huddle.

On Sunday he describes the previous night’s revelling in less worthy terms as, “Sodom and Gomorrah for people with masters degrees”.

In the afternoon in the Set Theatre some older economists groan about entitled millennial "snowflakes" in an event titled, Growing Old Gracefully: How to Spend Your Children's Inheritance. This is hosted by the very funny Gerry Stembridge who has, he admits, "no children, so couldn't care less".

Presidential adviser to four US presidents Harald Malmgren cheerily notes that it’s a moot point. “We spent all your money. [It’s] all gone already.”

Financial analyst Pinchas Landeau literally reaches for a passage in "the good book" ("You mean the Pope's Children?" asks Stembridge) to justify parents not passing on cash but "accumulated wisdom" to their hapless children.

“So, we can spend what we like and just have to talk to them a bit,” says Stembridge with relief.


Kilkenomics contributors are overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) male and this has not gone unnoticed by INM group business editor Dearbhail McDonald, who refers to herself, at one point, as “pinkwashing” the panels she appears on. This is most noticeable at the Kilkenomics Brunch which is meant to be a comic look at the morning’s papers but veers somewhere much more powerful when McDonald discusses her own experience of sexual assault. She is eloquent and the story is upsetting and the room is hushed.

And then the discussion passes back over to the other panellists and a wider discussion about high profile news stories about sexual assault and harassment. Comedian Ardal O’Hanlon wonders if culture might change too much, leaving men confused and unsure how to act anymore. He misreads the room. An audience member later says, with a touch of anger in her voice: “[Women] had to cope with this for millennia... Please don’t ask us to feel sorry for you.”

After a weekend of dire pronouncements, the last event I attend is titled Reasons to be Cheerful. These reasons are diverse – gay rights, falling global poverty levels, Twitter's expanded character limit – but the panellists can't help themselves indulging darker thoughts about populism, Trump and global debt. Martin Lousteau notes that the increased queues at airport immigration are a good sign for the Irish economy and advises that when talking to an immigration officer: "Don't say you're here for an economics festival, say economics conference".

"'I'm here looking for relatives,' is what you should say," says comedian Karl Spain, helpfully.

Entrepreneur Mike Driver praises the standard of Irish start-up businesses but he also discusses how “cheerful” he is that he wasn’t arrested for drunkenness the night before. “Technically you’d have been a ‘drunk Driver’,” says Spain.

Spain and co-host Adam Hills are very funny. At one point, English economist John Kay quips that he doesn’t have to do much for his fee because they’re talking so much. Spain is impressed by Kay’s “diss” and approvingly notes that the weekend’s activities are rubbing off on the finance wonks: “You’re beginning to think like comedians.”