No Dog In The Fight: Whatever happened To Academic Expertise?

By   /   April 23, 2013  /   28 Comments

Screen Shot 2013-04-23 at 5.49.06 PMONLY STEVEN JOYCE could offer up JB Were, Woodward Partners, Milford Asset Management, First NZ Capital, Devon Funds Management and Forsyth Barr as credible critics of the Labour-Greens’ energy policy. As if these six financial institutions were ever likely to offer the Opposition parties their fulsome support!

Or, maybe, it’s not so strange.

After all, who does Radio NZ approach when they want a pithy comment or two about the economy? Do they go to New Zealand’s professors of economics? Nope. Nine times out of ten they go straight to the major banks’ economists.

I wonder, if Radio NZ ever asks itself whether these guys, whose six-figure salaries are unlikely to survive any kind of analysis which undermines their employers’ quarterly profits, are the right guys to supply a dispassionate and disinterested view of the New Zealand economy?

Would it not make more sense to go to the academic economists? Their biggest concern is always going to be whether or not their analysis gets torn apart in the University Common Room – that is to say, with making an intellectually robust case. And, surely, that is what the ordinary voter needs from these so-called “experts”: free and fearless commentary – not something designed to make the boys in the boardroom beam with pleasure.

I’m actually old enough to remember when Radio NZ – and just about every other media outlet – wouldn’t have been seen dead talking to someone as self-interested as a bank economist. Back in the day, academics were almost universally regarded as the “go-to-guys” on anything requiring specialised knowledge of complicated things like – oh, I don’t know – economies and societies and the natural world. The not unnatural expectation was that if you’d spent your entire adult life studying economics, or sociology, or politics, or the Law, well then, the chances that you could answer a lay person’s questions were pretty good.

And they did. Media friendly professors like Bryan Philpott (economics) Keith Jackson (politics) and Jack Shallcrass (education) became household names. And people generally walked away from the news and current affairs programmes on which they appeared much-better-informed citizens.

So when did all this change? When did we suddenly decide that the likes of the ANZ’s Cameron Bagrie has more insight to the NZ economy than a professor of economics?

Well, strangely enough, it was about the time that Roger Douglas was “reforming” the New Zealand economy. Douglas’s problem was that (if I may be permitted to mess with Bob Dylan’s lyrics) he’d been with the professors and they’d all disliked his looks. Economists like Philpott and Geoff Bertram and Len Bayliss and Jan Whitwell had perused the material pouring out of the Treasury (which had, by this time, been thoroughly colonised by fanatical neoliberals) and decided that it was the intellectually unimpressive product of, well, fanatical neoliberals.

This was no good at all. They’d simply have to go.

Fortunately, the newly liberated banks and finance houses were awash with cash and only too happy to spend it on young eager-beaver economics graduates desperate for a chance to shine in the bright lights of corporate banking.

I don’t know whether or not the big banks were familiar with the waspish observation of the muck-raking American journalist, Upton Sinclair, that: “It is difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” But, either way, the boys and girls they put on their payroll to talk about the economy certainly didn’t seem to understand the concept of boom and bust. As far as I know, not one of them saw the Crash of ’87 coming.

Not that anybody seemed to mind. What wass a little purblind stupidity among friends? And by now neoliberalism now had lots and lots of friends – and they were everywhere.

And so it has gone on. For the past thirty years what passes for expertise has been whatever the banks’ economists say it is. And, once again, its only after the big financial crashes have already happened that these guys ever get round to predicting them. Before the economy goes under there’s never a cautionary word. Like Dr Pangloss, bank economists are absolutely convinced that everything must be for the best, because, thanks to neoliberalism, we’re living in the best of all possible worlds.

Steven Joyce certainly thinks so. But then, he would wouldn’t he? And, because he’s also the Minister for Tertiary Education, the cash-strapped Vice-Chancellors of New Zealand’s universities are unlikely to encourage the few remaining opponents of neoliberalism still drawing an academic pay-check to say anything to the contrary.

What I wouldn’t give to be able to hear what Bryan Philpott had to say about the Labour-Greens energy policy. Sadly, he died in 2000, aged 79. This is what the NZ Herald’s Brian Fallow wrote about him in his obituary:

“In his later years Professor Bryan Philpott often seemed to be the voice of an earlier, more decent time. Doyen of New Zealand’s academic economists, he preferred the pragmatic to the dogmatic and was a trenchant critic of the economic policy direction of the past 15 years ….. Typically, behind the rhetoric he directed at the “ayatollahs” of the Business Roundtable and their policymaking handmaidens lay meticulously compiled numerical evidence.”

Evidence? Evidence!

Steven Joyce is not familiar with the concept.

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28 Comments

  1. Gosman says:

    Good to see the intellectual snobery of the left is alive and well.

    I seem to remember private sector left wing economists like those from BERL getting a lot if air time in the recent past. I suspect those sort of non academic economists are okay for leftists though as they think the ‘correct’ way.

    • adam white says:

      Did you see TV 3 news tonight? Some twenty something bank boy speaking in acronyms so smugly he made me laugh at his lack of education and weep for his lack of analytical skill.

      I know you live in la la land Gosman, but your attacks are the same shit most on the left have heard from neo-liberals for the last 30 years – and quite frankly there dull, lacking imagination and petty. Shame you could offer a real counter, but you, like the majority on the right are full of hyperbole, reeking of self righteous, and couldn’t be rigorous if it hit you in the face.

      To soon

    • Ovicula says:

      Yeah Gosman. If you ever need open heart surgery, don’t fall prey to intellectual snobbery. Just choose one of WhaleSpew’s contributors to wield the scalpel.

      • Gosman says:

        We are discussing social sciences not medicine but if we take your analogy further I think I’d prefer to have heart surgery from a practicing doctor rather than someone who teaches it at university but doesn’t perform them.

        • adam white says:

          Your ignorance again is outstanding Gosman. In medicine the best of the best teach, not any teach and do nothing else.

        • “…I think I’d prefer to have heart surgery from a practicing doctor rather than someone who teaches it at university but doesn’t perform them.”

          Funny… that’s what critics of Charter Schools demand as well; trained teachers teaching our kids, and not just Uncle Tom Cobbly pulled off the street.

          • Gosman says:

            Ahhh… not quite. The argument would be like stating a medical Doctor shouldn ‘t teach kids human biology because he is not trained as a teacher. Do you agree with that view?

    • Tim says:

      When working for an organisation providing IT services to the banks in the 1980s and 90s, a few of us used to monitor each of the bank’s financial gurus and their predictions. They got them WRONG more times than not. We thought about devising a dart board for them with various options on it. Cudda Shudda Wudda made a killing!

    • Ion A. Dowman says:

      Though I quite fail to see any left-wing snobbery in Mr Trotter’s article, you, friend GOSMAN, have a point. The problem with askng acadenic economists is that you are more likely to run into a Noe-Classical – so called Neo-Keynesian – Economist. Sure, sure, there are differences between the ‘freshwater’ and ‘saltwater’ factions, but they still believe in the same drivel that has advised governments

      Where your own vision fails, is that the sort of people that National is asking to back up their (alleged) policies are precisely those who created the Global Financial Collapse in the first place! And got away with it. These outfits discovered very quickly how short a leash they have governments on planet-wide, and the collar is firmly tied around those governments’ goolies.

      The sort of people to ask are economists that are not part of the mainstream, who are beholden to no one, who recognise that ‘the economy’ is not a static, tranquil, self-regulating system; and ‘economic ‘Man’ is not rational and clear-headed in his own interest and forearmed with the knowledge to make the right choices. These ‘Post-Keynesians’, as they are sometimes called, recognise a fact that I in my ignorance thought would be elementary.

      They know that ‘the economy’ is something dynamic, subject to boom and bust, its predictability limited in the same way as any complex systems are predictable – within limits – and certainly not susceptible in the slightest to ‘self-regulation.’

      They know that ‘economic Man’ is not at all rational (unless you seriously think, as some Neo-Keynesians seem to think, that blind panic is a rational response to bad news); sometimes does put the interests of others ahead of ‘his’ own (otherwise there would be no such thing as a labour market); and in any case has a different meaning for the word ‘rational’ than the idiosyncratic inference drawn by Neo-Classicals.

      If you can’t find an economist in this country who fits the ‘Post-Keynesian mould (for given values of ‘fit’ and ‘mould’), than maybe they should consult someone who does have an understanding of complex systems – what used to be called ‘chaos theory’. A physicist, say.

      • Gosman says:

        Since you think you have a handle on this whole economic thing please tell me why the causes if the GFC were significantly different to say the South sea or the Tulip bubbles?

        • Ion A. Dowman says:

          They weren’t.

          • Gosman says:

            They predate keynesian and neo-classical economics by about 200 years though.

          • Ion A. Dowman says:

            Forgive me: my reply was too hasty, too terse, not very informative and possibly misleading.

            But in fact the South Sea and Tulip bubbles were no different from the Railroad bubbles, the dotcom bubble and any other kind of bubble. That the two you mention predate Neo-classical economic theory ought I think to give one pause about believing anything that theory says to you when [A] that theory failed to predict the debt bubble that led to the GFC and [B] said (and still says) it could not happen .

            The GFC was simply the bursting of the Debt Bubble. Perhaps now you will grasp the significance of debt in an economy. If you do you are a step ahead of Neo-Classical economists and the Governments (including New Zealand’s) that they advise.

            For what that’s worth.

  2. Countryboy says:

    I really like the way you Chris can peel the neoliberal agenda like a sour old grape .
    But I reckon it’s a simpler and even less noble thing than one might imagine . I don’t think neoliberalism is what might be regarded as simply seeming like a good idea at the time . I reckon it was a script for fraud and treason in the beginning and now that the pillaging has been done and there’s nought left but crumbs , the proponents of neoliberalism have to ease themselves out of the picture along with our money as safely and with as little fuss as possible lest they arouse suspicion from the stupefied masses . It’s my view that neoliberalism was a great con job . An almost unbelievably complex thing that’s spanned generations , has involved a cast of thousands and has seen to make a few good ol boys multiples of billions of dollars . I also believe that Labour is duplicitous in their desperation to slip out the back door .
    You yourself wrote about the ancient history of it . A deviant tangle of truisms to play out in the hearts and minds of the gullible and unquestioning . Like comfortable , post war Kiwi’s with hearts of gold and sea sponges for brains .
    Has anyone experienced a bludging hippy ? Now , if you were to meet the same person but this time wearing a fancy suit , you might then think ‘ Hang on a minute mate ! ? ‘ It’s your shout isn’t it ? ‘
    roger douglas should be investigated by the Police . All the Police . The Peruvian Police , the Welsh Police , the buddhist Police , the Police of the Serengeti , that one lone cop in Bluff . The SIS , the SAS , the FBI , the CIA , the NSC , the KGB , Mi’s 5 , 6 , 7 , 8 , and 9 . He should be probed by a blunt fisted proctologist then by a nervy , jumpy urologist , and by a French man more accustomed to ramming grain into a goose . Roge should be stripped naked under bright lights by beautiful women with a keen sense of humour and a camera each . He should be paraded about as a warning of what can happen as a consequence of unprotected sexual intercourse between a mustache salesman and a rain forest pigmies pet sloth . I remember well the unfeeling lies that farted out from beneath that sparse thatch stretched over his meat eating teeth . A warm gust of brain fart containing every bombast’s tools of the trade . Well rounded vowels . The liars most essential affectation . His nasal entrenchments reaching out of the tele like a virus looking for a compromised immune system . Or a frail memory and/or an instinct to trust rather than not . We New Zealanders , we good Kiwis . We trusted him and then as if he were the Beast of Blenhiem with a sack of licorice all-sorts at a pet show he set upon us trusting souls and took our innocence away . He started a well documented thirty or more years of dysfunction and spiritual disease which has led this writer on a hobby career of alerting anyone who would listen to his greedy dysfunctions and insanities . The ‘ Free Market’ dogma he espoused was a lie . It’s that simple . He conned us completely . Neoliberalism was the perfect vehicle to use to rob us of our shit to use a common parlance . It’s not good enough to dissect neoliberalism for the sake of it . It’s not enough to say ‘ Oh well , never mind . It seemed like a good idea at the time . ‘ There needs to be an inquiry . A public inquiry . And it needs to be now .

    • *claps at Countryboy*

      Well said, mate!

      • Ion A. Dowman says:

        Actually he didn’t con us. No more did Ruth Richardson. Many, yes, but probably not most. Most knew deep in their inner hearts Roger ‘I’ve-Got-Milton-Friedman’s-Hand-Up-My-Bum’ Douglas’s programme was a crock, even though they’d never heard of Milton Friedman. They knew their livelihoods would be on the line. They knew they stood to lose, and lose big. They knew what would be the real nature of the ‘trickle down’ effect. They knew bloody well.

        And there wasn’t a blind thing they could do about it. Was there. What weapons did they have? The vote? A blunt instrument they might use once every three years with the impact of a wet noodle.

        Unions? For mine the Unions and Service Organisations without exception stand condemned for the supine surrender to neo-liberal theft of the common weal, for the erosion of workers’ conditions of employment and their livelihoods. They were useless.

        ‘Our aim is to preserve jobs,’ they bleated, over the swelling demand that the Unions, who still seemed to be keen on collecting their annual subs don’t you worry about that matey, actually get up on their hind legs and fight for their members. They stand condemned for abandoning their members to their fate.

        And in even that pitifully modest aim – to save jobs – they fell woefully short. Have you noticed the ongoing export in jobs overseas? Even an erstwhile state sector outfit has exported hundreds of jobs this year to the Philippines. Whatever happened to the training schemes that used to be a by-word of the State and Public sectors, developing expertise that fed into the private sector? Whatever happened to the sponsored programmes that eased school leavers relatively painlessly into productive employment?

        And what was the point of the ‘saved job’ if as the years went by you found your income shaved in real terms by upwards of 20%? That your 40-hour week became a 50, or even 60 hour – and for less pay at that? Or, being out of work, you were desperate enough to offer to work for zero wages, just so as to get your foot in the boss’s door? And how productive of real employment was that? How much did that desperation further undermine the livelihoods of others?

        Well, even before 1984 I was accusing Unions of being ‘just another management.’ By God, was I right!

  3. Marcus says:

    Nice one Chris. What indeed would anyone who has spent their lives studying a topic know about it? Greed is visceral, and that’s what these future eaters preach. Add soundbites and pretty young things going on about the “market” and it’s all soooo compelling. I remember watching the comedy channel, Fox that is, and they were ranting on about liberal bias at “colleges”. The departments were stacked with them! An outrage! What is it about people who know shit and their propensity to understand and critique. Who do they think they are, with their thought and historical perspective and all. Oh well, when Joycey is finished, the unibloodyvarsity will just be a butchery pumping out the warm meat for the market.

  4. geoff says:

    You’ve smashed another 6 into the crowds, Chris, great work, please keep up the momentum.

    One question: You accurately pin down RNZ as consistently going to the political right for opinion. I have long noticed, as I’m sure many others have, that the RNZ political bias has shifted to the right over the years. Do you have any insight as to why this is?

    Also, countryboy, that was sublime! I wish I could give you a 2 min slot on prime time tv to let rip with that little beauty!

    • Gosman says:

      Yes, I wish Countryboy would get more publicity as well. Obvious;y my motives are different to yours though…

      • North says:

        As the old fulla from Dad’s Army would observe – “Oooh, they do not like it up ’em !”

        At the moment Gosman your motivation centres on stemming the flow of your own waste down your own legs. In less than 14 days the wind has changed and there’s a nasty stench blowing right up your arrogant nostrils.

        Hero (skittering on clay feet to zero) Shonkey Python looks more catatonic by the day. Fake smile masking hubristic, naked self-interest has discharged waste into everybodys’ nests for far too long. Now you gotta eat it. Excellent !

        Thanks Chris, thanks Countryboy.

        • Seaweed says:

          Not forgetting that on Planet Key there are no facilities where Gosman can relieve the pressure. Shon has the same problem except that in his case he has found that his mouth is a functional waste depositor
          Right beside you Country Boy, good work !

  5. Marc says:

    Yes, with Roger Douglas came NZ’s introduction to the “Chicago Boy’s” economics, the new style laissez faire approach, the “trendy” asset sales, the outsourcing, the privatisation and the progression of their agenda under Ruth Richardson’s Mother of All Budgets.

    Since about then it is a regular news-feature to get a brief summary of the share market report, the currency exchange rates and brief “media” commentary on “the economy”.

    Milton Friendman’s disciples and their philosophies flowed into New Zealand, and with the radical change of direction traditional academics suddenly became “stuffy” old dinosaurs, who had to be removed and be replaced by the new brigade of “thinkers”.

    It was the days when a currency trader called John Key started making lots of finacial “hay” for his bosses and himself, learned the ropes of merchant finance and speculative deals, as well as ruthless management.

    That man is now “leading” this government, so no surprises re what comes from them.

    The media have long been “privatised” and brought into line also, to dance to the tunes of “business”, the market, “trends” and ratings. It is advertising revenue that feeds the journos, so they will be mindful to play the game as they are “trained” to do.

    Just daring to question the status quo (since the late 1980s) is considered something like “blasphemy” now, and that ensures, that Orwellian rule is ensured for the key stakeholders and decisionmakers in Aoutearoa NZ.

  6. Mick says:

    ” Upton Sinclair, that: “It is difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” ”

    Sums up the situation perfectly .Currently we suffers from the result of Bankers inability to understand banking but who do we go to for the fix ? Bankers ,that should work ,yeah right !

  7. MeToo says:

    The problem is that Rogernomics has muted the voice of academics too. Academics are rewarded for international research, not for NZ research; they are rewarded for peer-reviewed journal articles not contributing to public understanding of the issues. Promotion structures, PBRF, AACSB criteria etc all downplay contributing to the public sphere and play up a narrow range of research outputs. Especially in business schools/commerce faculties (less so in other faculties).

    Todd Bridgman writes about the lack of academic voices on the GFC here and gives some reasons:
    http://igps.victoria.ac.nz/publications/files/2b3beacf730.pdf

  8. fambo says:

    Re – (if I may be permitted to mess with Bob Dylan’s lyrics) he’d been with the professors and they’d all disliked his looks

    I highly recommend listening to Bob Dylan’s mid-sixties records again. Things have gone full circle and Highway 61 Revisited is full of electric energy. The above line is from Ballard of a Thin Man.

  9. ghostrider888 says:

    authoritatively written Chris

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