The fine art of being economical with the truth

Fri, Nov 2, 2012, 00:00

The contemporary Irish economist has a public image that politicians lack, clerics have lost and artists envy – but we need a little more dissent in the ranks

THE PROSPECT of three days of talks by economists is not, it is fair to say, everyone’s idea of leisure activity. That such an event exists, in the form of the third annual Kilkenomics festival, which takes place in Kilkenny this weekend, is a sign of the times.

Back when the country was awash with cash, many of us would have paid to avoid public discussions by academics and commentators on forbidding topics such as “Wrestling the economy back from the banks” and “Money and the crisis of civilisation”. Now, we buy tickets to attend them in sold-out venues.

If one profession has prospered amid the collapse, it is surely the economist. As we have sought analysis and answers regarding our recent calamities, so economists have become influential fixtures in Irish life, informing debate and moulding opinion far beyond their specialist sphere. Experts from the banking and academic world have become public figures, constantly popping up on radio and television to cast light on the latest slice of bad news; others, meanwhile, have been recruited to shape Government policy.

In the process, economists such as Colm McCarthy, Constantin Gurdgiev, Morgan Kelly and others have stamped their presence on Irish popular culture. Their ideas are disseminated across the web, their personal tics lampooned by comedians such as Mario Rosenstock. Where suspicion once prevailed about public intellectuals lecturing the country on its ills – the late Conor Cruise O’Brien springs to mind – Ireland has now apparently adopted an entire cadre of erudite experts to fill this role. Cast as honest brokers operating above the fray of cant and cronyism, the contemporary Irish economist has a public image of insightful authority that politicians lack, clerics have lost and artists wish they had. Now, however, this aura may be starting to fade.

THE RISE OF the economist is, at first glance, as unlikely as it has been irresistible. A decade ago, economics was for all intents and purposes a niche area. Toiling away in financial institutions and educational establishments, its practitioners barely registered in the popular consciousness. Even within key fiscal centres, economics was regarded as an esoteric pursuit: fewer than 10 per cent of staff in the Department of Finance were trained in the discipline to Master’s level.

One of the few exceptions was presenter and economist David McWilliams, though even he was renowned more as an ebullient broadcaster credited (erroneously) with coining the term “Celtic tiger” than as an analyst.

But with the political, banking and construction sectors discredited by the collapse of 2008, economists came increasingly to the fore as experts untainted by the failures of the boom. Kelly, the unassuming UCD academic whose previous warnings of a property crash had fallen on deaf ears, was the prime example of the prescient expert whose advice was overlooked.

While Kelly has maintained a low profile, others have filled the demand from current-affairs programmes and talk shows for qualified pundits, such as Jim Power, Stephen Kinsella and Gurdgiev: the latter has become something of a cult figure thanks to his regular appearances on Vincent Browne’s TV3 show. Other economists took on more concrete roles, from Alan Ahearne’s role as adviser to the late Brian Lenihan to Colm McCarthy’s chairmanship of An Bord Snip Nua.

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.

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