Economists talking gloom in the land that penury forgot
ECONOMISTS from across Ireland gathered in Kenmare yesterday evening for what is quaintly called the annual meeting of the Dublin Economic Workshop.
The Kerry town, with its well-tended lawns and beautifully painted houses, is a strange place for a Dublin Economic Workshop meeting, as it could hardly be further away from the capital physically and could, at first glance, hardly be further away mentally from the concerns that currently fill much of your average economist's mind these days.
Kenmare Park Hotel, where the annual meeting always takes place, shows almost no signs of the recession raging elsewhere in Ireland.
A cut-stone Victorian pile with a discrete and monied charm, the hotel must be among the very few left in the country where a two-course meal still costs close to €60 a night.
One could suspect that the nation's economists had decided to simply ignore reality and pretend that the last few years had not happened, were it not for the fact that this is such a long-standing tradition that it has outlasted both the recent crisis and the recent boom.
While the country has a relatively small number of economists, the gulf between universities, financial institutions and think-tanks would appear to be fairly wide, judging by the number of delegates who did not appear to recognise one another yesterday evening in the hotel's small but well-appointed bar.
There were many comments along the lines of, "how nice to finally meet you. I've read your articles of course and recognise the name" as town and gown chatted.
In the background, organisers were scratching their heads as they looked for a replacement for Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, who was forced to cancel his much-awaited speech, due to be given this evening, because of a bereavement.
His speech had been flagged with the wonderfully vague title of 'Current Issues in Political Economy', but had been widely expected to contain several hand grenades aimed squarely at the dismal science and at least some of the many practitioners present.
While a little bit more sophisticated than many of the politicians who are currently urging us to be confident and help spend our way back to fiscal rectitude, Mr Lenihan is known to feel more than a little frustrated with some of the country's leading economists, so his broadsides had been awaited with a mixture of curiosity and concern among those attending.
The title of Mr Lenihan's speech had the distinction of being intelligible to the layman, something that could also, and somewhat unusually for an economists' conference, be said for many of the other talks given last night and to be given today and tomorrow.
While some, such as 'The Net Economic Cost of Regulatory Policy Choices' or 'Evolution of the Stability and Growth Pact within EMU', were not likely to have been a talking-point at any other hostelry in Kerry last night, most of the subjects were much more down-to-earth and addressed the concerns of the man on the street or his counterpart propping up a bar.
'Value for Money in Irish Education' is one such talk that would engage the parents of almost every child in the country, while 'Ending Tax Shelters' is another.
While the concerns will be almost universal, experience from previous workshops suggests the remedies will be perplexing, controversial and stimulating and that they will soon find their way into wider public debate.