There’s only one festival of economics

Our lengthening summer evenings signal the onset of the European festival season. From Helsinki to Dubrovnik, programme directors are touting for visitors.

Predictably, the Winchester Festival has the timidity of the bean counter. A Haydn symphony jostles with cosy chats about Churchill, Queen Victoria and Alexander the Great.

More imaginative festivals can be found in celebrations of body-painting in Austria, oysters in Ireland, and wife-carrying in Finland.

Enthusiasts for such esoteric themes might regard a festival of economics as an oxymoron. Undaunted, and now in its fourth year, Trento’s Festival dell’Economia has been rewarded for its perseverance by hitting the jackpot. No other European festival can summon the drama of the Trento theme, “Identity and Global Crisis.”

Meanwhile, a very different event in New York on the same topic has run into trouble. The UN Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis and its Impact on Development appears likely to be postponed by world leaders “since it coincided with several other international events.”

No doubt Trento will be flattered, as its festival dates (May 29 – June 1) overlap with the original UN timetable. The postponement might also be welcomed by the impressive line-up of US academics heading for Italy, including two former Nobel prizewinners.

The Trento programme makes no concessions to the fusty image of its subject. City Plazas will give space to “cartoonists, artists and humorists” with a big screen relaying the debates, a session of “economics explained to teenagers” and a daily show trial of institutions responsible for the economic meltdown.

There is serious business too as speakers grapple with tough questions. How could so few bankers accumulate such wealth at the expense of so many ordinary people? What reforms are necessary to reconnect the behaviour of economies with that of the individuals whose fate they determine? What are the prospects for national identity as protectionism seeks to tame globalisation? How can we inject values into the blunt instruments of economics?

Reading between the lines of the preliminaries for the UN conference, it’s not difficult to detect that disagreement between richer and poorer countries is the true reason for its postponement. I suspect that developing countries are demanding a UN response to the crisis which is driven by a vision of global justice rather than the cold economics of “stimulation” and IMF credit lines.

A weekend in Trento could be just the medicine needed to knock sense into the negotiators.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK