David McWilliams and Linda Yueh speak at the first night of Trinity Economic Forum

McWilliams warned that all economics students ‘need to wean yourselves off this nonsense you are taught in the first two years of university…it doesn’t reflect the society you are supposed to be analysing’

NEWS Friday afternoon marked the beginning of the fifth annual Trinity Economic Forum (TEF), a student-run event attracting some of the biggest names in Irish and international economics for two days of panels, debates and discussions.

The US Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin O’Malley, was the first speaker of the evening, and in a brief address to the large assembled audience he praised the forum’s “valuable input” into shaping Ireland’s future economic leaders.

O’Malley referenced many Irish-American youth and cultural initiatives, such as the US Embassy Youth Council, the Washington-Ireland Programme, and the Creative Minds Series, as he encouraged the student attendees to invest in “collaborations of creativity” to strengthen the close economic bonds between Ireland and the United States.  

O’Malley’s remarks were followed by a talk from Trinity Business School’s newest Associate Professor, prominent Irish economist David McWilliams. Taking up where Ambassador O’Malley left off, McWilliams further stressed the importance of the Irish-American relationship, and sought to deconstruct the “myth” that Ireland is a European economy.

Instead, he advocated the conceptualisation of the Irish as “an Atlantic race, with Atlantic links”, that Ireland would do best to capitalise on rather than consolidating its position within a weakening, German-centric EU. He took the view that Ireland would benefit from adapting a strategy of debt-forgiveness similar to the Icelandic model, and that the likelihood of a Brexit is leading Europe to an “existential crisis… a period of deep self-criticism, neurosis and trauma.”

McWilliams provided some reflections on the discipline of economics itself, accompanied by reminiscences of his time as an Economics undergraduate in Trinity in the 1980s. He warned that all economics students “need to wean ourselves off this nonsense you are taught in the first two years of university…it doesn’t reflect the society you are supposed to be analysing.”

Criticism was levelled against the dogmatism with which economists preach the laws of demand and supply, and attempt to superimpose “elegant mathematics” onto “the study of human beings’ foibles”. Despite this cautionary note, McWilliams concluded that “you can do almost everything with economics” if you take it seriously, “but not too seriously that you forget common sense”.

A panel discussion on the “growing pains” of China in recent years provided stark contrast with the decidedly Irish-focused theme of the rest of the evening. The discussion was chaired by Professor Louis Brennan, Director of the Institute for International Integration Studies at Trinity, and featured contributions from Dr Linda Yueh of BBC World News’ “Talking Business”, and Assistant Professor of Chinese Politics Xin Sun.

Yueh highlighted the transitional nature of the Chinese slowdown in recent years, remarking that rich countries don’t grow at massive rates, and hence stalling Chinese GDP is to be expected.

All panellists praised the development of strong economic and business ties between China and Ireland, though Xin signalled that the reaction of Irish political and economic leaders to the recent Taiwanese elections has the capacity to test this relationship.

Yueh raised questions over the ability of Ireland to “be friends with two superpowers”, China and the US, although speaking to TN following the discussion Professor Brennan was confident that Irish “charm” and international appeal would enable it to do business with both economies.

A presentation by IBEC CEO Danny McCoy on the “lack of ambition” in the Irish economy came after the China Panel. Mr McCoy advocated infrastructural development, highlighting the need for the expansion of the motorway system and even touting the “pipe-dream” idea of a car tunnel between Britain and Ireland, all plans which he claimed were the key to economic and population growth.

Like nearly all speakers at the Forum, McCoy addressed the implications of a Brexit, concurring with McWilliams that Irish politicians remain staunchly “pro-Europe despite changed circumstances”, but concluding that ultimately Ireland faced “exciting times ahead”.

Rounding off the night’s proceedings was a much-anticipated panel discussion on the possibility and implications of a British exit from the EU, led by Patrick Smyth, foreign policy editor of the Irish Times. Among contributors to the debate were the former Secretary General of the Department of Finance John Moran, and Dan O’Brien, Chief Economist of the Institute of European and International Affairs.

All panellists were eager to emphasis that bilateral agreements between Ireland and the UK post-Brexit would be almost impossible while Ireland continued to operate within the framework of the EU, and O’Brien seemed to sum up the attitude of all speakers by claiming that “everyone loses from this, on a world perspective.”

Further to this, Jennifer Todd of UCD’s Institute for British Irish Studies spoke of the potential for serious destabilisation of Northern Ireland in the event of a Brexit Scottish independence and the establishment of an EU land border at Newry. In light of this bleak forecast it was reiterated that “there isn’t any price Ireland shouldn’t pay to keep Britain in” the EU.

Speaking to Trinity News, TEF Co-Ordinator Catherine Corrigan provided her assessment of the Forum so far: “We believe this evening has been a great success both on the demographic of attendance across the Irish universities and the calibre of speakers”. Corrigan cited Kevin O’Malley’s praise of the Forum’s to attract the “ultimate creative mind” of Nobel laureate Vernon Smith, a massive “endorsement” of TEF as a whole. Smith will be delivering the keynote address of TEF, which continues tomorrow.