The fine art of being economical with the truth
Whether excoriating the government for its disastrous handling of the banking crisis, lamenting the timid regulation of the financial sector or decrying the shibboleths of public-service expenditure, the newly vocal breed of economist emerged as iconoclastic critics of the egregious orthodoxies that created the crash. But while individual figures have been effective in highlighting glaring flaws in policy and practice, collectively these economists appear to sing from the same hymn-sheet of austerity.
Public-sector rectitude is constantly advocated while hopes for recovery are pinned on a resurgent private sector. Bashing the Croke Park Agreement is hardly a maverick act of imagination, but has become a virtual tenet of faith among Irish economists, suggesting they have orthodoxies of their own. The verdicts of ratings agencies such as Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s, for example, are regarded with the same unquestioning awe that devout Catholics once reserved for Papal bulls, used as a stick to beat government policies rather than viewed as the opinions of financial institutions that failed to foresee the global financial crisis of 2008.
All of which might be fine, were it not for the stubborn failure of the domestic economy to recover. With the populace chafing after four years of austerity, the mantra about the need to reduce the deficit, customarily through cuts of some sort, has become a tired refrain.
Yet it is notable that the most visible dissenters from such prescriptions are not Irish, but rather Americans, such as Paul Krugman, whose advocacy of increased state expenditure has gained increasing prominence over here.
More and more, the prominence that economists enjoy in our culture seems down to media appetites for specialised opinions and political optics demanding unbiased advice, rather than the possession of inherently greater wisdom than, say, political scientists or historians. And while their views have more immediate traction than the musings of artists, economists offer little of the imaginative sustenance that art can still provide. (In fairness, few of them aspire to such goals.)
It is telling that the one economist who has maintained a consistently high public profile is McWilliams, who has always been as much a showman as an analyst. From his one-man theatre show to his stewardship of the Dalkey Book Festival, he has operated in the cultural sphere as much as the economic one, opening his field of expertise (as well as himself) to a wide audience.
Unsurprisingly, McWilliams is the driving force behind Kilkenomics, which showcases heterodox economic opinions from a variety of international figures while lightening the proceedings with contributions from comedians.
In introducing audiences to new, more contrarian views, Kilkenomics capitalises on the enhanced position of the economist in Irish life. Whatever else, our surge of interest in all matters economic has placed ideas at the centre stage of Ireland’s public discourse, an arena not always associated with such lofty activity.
Economists might have spread themselves thin ideologically, but they are far from intellectually bankrupt.
Kilkenomics runs until Sunday.