Kilkenomics: A topsy-turvy place all about maximising weird interactions

Economists wander in T-shirts, jeans and leather jackets; comedians wear suits and ties

Is President Trump going to be allowed to fire nukes and end the world? No, according to former presidential adviser and apparent deep-state operative Harald Malmgren.

“If the president ordered [the generals] to go ahead and fire the nukes [they’d say] ‘of course we’ll do what you request but that takes a lot of planning, let’s set up a task force’…. Pretty soon his mind will drift in another direction.”

“The world is hanging on his inability to concentrate?” asks interviewer and Kilkenomics co-founder David McWilliams.

Pretty much, says Malmgren. “Be thankful we have three generals who’re not going to let him blow things up.”


It’s the eighth Kilkenomics festival, and Malmgren is on stage with his daughter Pippa, also an adviser to successive presidents. Harald has a mane of leonine hair, was in the room with JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis (“[Bobby Kennedy] would have been a great dictator,” he says), spent some time in the eighties as an adviser to a South Korean autocrat, and has worked with Kissinger. “You people are behind everything,” says McWilliams with wonder, and, I think, a little fear.

Drinking with Putin

Malmgren recalls drinking with Putin before he was infamous. “The only ways the Russians trust anyone is to see how they behave when you’re drunk,” he explains.

“Good acid test,” says McWilliams

“That’s what we were doing in the bar last night,” says Pippa.

She goes on to explain the appeal of Trump in "the flyover states" before calmly stating that while the media froths over Trump's offensive tweets and personal attacks, the real story is his slow, wilful relinquishment of global territory to China and Russia. "The period of integration is over and now we have disintegration," says Harald brightly.

The economics and comedy festival, Kilkenomics, is a topsy-turvy place. The economists wander around in tee-shirts, jeans and leather jackets while the comedians wear suits and ties and attempt to get their heads around taxation policy. "I'm trying to bumf up for my next panel," said Kevin Gildea, one of the comedic hosts, as he concentrates on a phone screen in the back of Cleere's bar. Nearby, an Englishman called Henry Leveson-Gower distributes literature about a financial journal he publishes and tells me he's contemplating "stealing this idea and running something like it".

I can see the appeal for policy wonks. Kilkenomics is a parallel universe where academic types are treated like pop stars. "You were amazing," says a gushing fan to nonplussed economist Constantin Gurgdiev after the panel on Russia in the Ormonde Hotel.

“Of course, I was,” says Gurdgiev (he’s joking).

Weird interactions

McWilliams says that the event is all about maximising such weird interactions. He recalls watching two former finance ministers, the Greek Yanis Varoufakis and Argentinian Martin Lousteau, deep in discussion in a bar the night before. "Only in Ireland would you have an event like this," says Varoufakis himself as he wanders from one event to another. He seems charmed. "You are such a weird and wonderful people."

There are panels about everything – the newly legitimate marijuana industry, bitcoin, the ramifications of a United Ireland, Russianomics. At an event called Knowing Me, Knowing EU, comedian Colm O’Regan ably leads three British journalists, an expert on Asian economies and a utopian Greek (the aforementioned Varoufakis) in an almost hilariously depressing discussion of the European project. The panellists apparently agree that it’s a Euroshambles, but vehemently disagree on how and why.

The audiences seem to come with their own preferences and biases and axes to grind. “Is this a question or a polemic?” asks O’Regan with alarm when an audience member gets up to ask a question clutching a sheaf of notes.

A friendly German woman sitting to my right sighs sadly every time Varoufakis interrupts a fellow panellist (“He thinks he’s a rock star”) and winces whenever anyone mentions Germany’s influence on the EU (“I feel bullied!”). At the end someone asks a question about Putin. “Oh, we’ll sort that one in five minutes,” says O’Regan.

Similarly bewildered

A panel on Brexit has a similarly bewildered and downbeat air. Financial Times Journalist Gideon Rachman complains that the EU seems to be trying punish Britain. "I don't think Britain is important enough to punish," says Dutch economist Joris Luyendijk. "They think they are central to the EU. They're not." (I think this counts as an "epic burn" in economics terms).

At another panel on "disruptive" tech companies like Uber and Airbnb, entrepreneur Mike Driver dismisses the so-called "disrupters" as "extractors" who discourage real entrepreneurialism, while the ideology of Silicon Valley is dismissed by advertising man Rory Sutherland as "weird millennial pseudo-religious nutbag stuff."

The festival has changed a bit over the years, says former US banking regulator and "Kilkenomics recidivist" Bill Black. "When I came here first it was in the middle of the recession and people were raw and were actually coming to us for answers."

Co-founder Richard Cook tells me how much bigger it's all become, with 8000 tickets sold this year. Cook is, according to McWilliams, the "details man. I'm more the dreamer." He thinks for a moment. "Or possibly, the bullshitter".

“In the first year the titles of the talks were urgent and dramatic,” says Cook “’Are we leaving the Euro?’ ‘Are our banks collapsing?’… Now they’re slightly more thoughtful, maybe.”

Colm O’Regan agrees. “In 2010 there was a whiff of cordite in the air… now [the panellists] are telling us what our lives will be like in five-years-time. They’re little dispatches from the future.”