Ideas Matter: Geoff Bertram Rattles the Neoliberal Cage

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GEOFF BERTRAM is a national treasure. For 35 years he has lectured young New Zealanders in economics. Whoa there! Not so fast! Don’t jump to conclusions! When I say “economics” I’m not referring to the crude neoliberal propaganda that today masquerades as economic theory. No, among the purveyors of that particularly dangerous brand of nonsense Geoff Bertram is loathed and detested as an apostate of Keynesian Hell!

The economics Bertram has imparted to his students over the past 35 years is an economics whose assumptions are grounded in reality. Assumptions that acknowledge and incorporate the research of other academic disciplines – like History, Geography, Sociology, Psychology and Ecology – rather than being derived exclusively from Philosophy and Mathematics. It’s what makes Bertram and his analyses so dangerous to the neoliberal establishment.

The former CTU economist, Peter Harris, once described the dramatic imposition of “Rogernomics” in the mid-1980s as a “bureaucratic coup d’état”. Thirty years on that may sound a little melodramatic, but for those who lived through the neoliberal seizure of power and the ensuing eight years (1985-1993) of ideological co-ordination, Harris’s choice of words remains peculiarly apt.

High on the list of those to be “co-ordinated” into either compliance or redundancy were those with the intellectual and academic resources to seriously challenge the new orthodoxy. The Lange-Douglas Labour Government (advised by the coup’s organisers at Treasury and The Reserve Bank) was determined to extirpate Keynesianism root and branch. Those who attempted to defend the economic models which had contributed so much to the 30-year-long post-war economic boom were to be offered just two choices: get on board – or get out.

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A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to be seated next to Geoff Bertram at a post-seminar dinner organised by the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago. Hearing him describe the way he and his colleagues were treated by the “co-ordinators” left me feeling profoundly disturbed. Certainly, any fond notions I may have entertained concerning the independence of our universities and their supposed commitment to being the “critic and conscience” of society did not survive our conversation.

In the aftermath of the 1984 election, the new neoliberal establishment (comprising most of the parliamentary Labour Party; senior officials of the Reserve Bank and Treasury; business leaders who had already embraced the neoliberal creed and a growing number of ambitious politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, business people and academics who had grasped the importance of not being found in possession of ideas hostile to neoliberalism’s success) needed to send a message. The fate of  Professor Bryan Philpott and BERL’s Brian Easton communicated very effectively what lay in store for those who questioned the new orthodoxy’s economic assumptions.

Victoria University, as the capital city’s intellectual powerhouse, was particularly afflicted by the ideological warfare that accompanied the advance of the neoliberal project. For many years it resembled a genteel version of prohibition era Chicago. Departments, Centres and Institutes were invaded, taken over, reclaimed and defended by academic “gangs” from both sides of the Rogernomics “revolution”. Throughout these wars Bertram remained a loyal defender of reality-based economics. Somehow he survived. Not all of his colleagues made it out alive.

The reason for the new order’s determination to silence its critics was simple: it understood that ideas matter. Those with the skill to gather empirical data, test models and generally ask the right questions, pose a deadly threat to any system of thought which is vulnerable to evidence-based argument. Neoliberalism, as a system constructed upon a series of highly questionable anthropological, sociological and economic assumptions about the drivers of human behaviour and the ultimate purposes of the institutions human-beings construct, simply cannot afford to have its ideas subjected to rigorous intellectual scrutiny. To survive as a credible ideological system, Neoliberalism is forced to rely upon the deliberate political suppression of any and all opportunities for effective rebuttal.

Hence the near panic induced by Geoff Bertram’s analysis of New Zealand’s energy sector in which he sharply criticises the three-decades-worth of price-gouging engaged in by both the publicly- and privately-owned energy companies. So effective was Bertram’s critique that, Carl Hansen, the newly appointed head of the Energy Authority felt obliged to commission a thorough-going rebuttal of the Wellington economist’s research.

Hearing Bertram deconstruct Hansen’s rebuttal was a true delight. Never before have the absurd assumptions of neoliberal economics been so ruthlessly exposed. Hansen’s understanding of the world appeared to be based on nothing more than the crudest of a priori reasoning. He simply couldn’t conceive of a world driven by ideas and values that had nothing to do with the “weighted average cost of capital” and everything to do with building a nation.

Clearly stung by Bertram’s rebuttal of his rebuttal, Hansen launched another (this time highly personal) attack on Bertram in front of a press conference on Wednesday, 5 February.

According to the Dominion Post:

“At the press conference Hansen went on to attack media commentators, singling out Bertram. ‘He isn’t a very careful analyst. He is often portrayed in the media as a professor. He was never a professor and he was never an economist. He was a geographer. I think it [Bertram’s research] is showing his lack of technical ability.’”

Fabian Society, spokesperson, Mike Smith, posting on The Standard blog responded:

“When they go personal it shows they are losing it (and the argument). Geoff Bertram is certainly an economist – he has a D.Phil in economics from Oxford University and taught economics at Victoria for 35 years. The chapter which provoked the Electricity Authority was presented to an international forum in Germany last year.”

If just a single academic critic (albeit a bloody brilliant one!) can inflict such damage on an institution with the prestige and resources of the Electricity Authority, just imagine what 20, 30, 40 of our best and brightest scholars could do to the reputation of the component institutions of the entire Neoliberal Establishment.

Rigorous research; the quiet amassing of hard evidence; testing the data against the predictions of the modelers; being aware of the historical and ideological context in which the decisions of our ancestors were made; understanding that human-beings do not always act as “rational utility maximisers” but as citizens determined to build a better world for those who come after them: the people who can do this wield an enormous power for good on our behalf.

Geoff Bertram is one such person. We need so many more.

 

Note: Geoff Bertram will analyse the prospects for the Labour-Green’s single-buyer model for electricity at a public meeting on Tuesday 11 February in Wellington. Visit the Fabian Society website http://www.fabians.org.nz/index.php?option=com_civicrm&task=civicrm/event/info&reset=1&id=93  for details.

10 COMMENTS

  1. I’d put forward Kelvin Smythe who has given his utmost for education, ever since the introduction of the neoliberal Tomorrow’s Schools agenda in 1990 that has brought us to the current centralisation through Key’s Executive Principals mode.

  2. I see ACT have re-invented themselves yet again, if you thought that their current incarnation was back to Libertarian roots, not so. Jamie Whyte was on Live with Wallace Chapman and guess what – they are a Liberal Party now.

    • Jamie whyte said on TV that he disliked the libertarian label because the American left had hijacked it, and that he considered himself a liberal, as in classical liberal.

      Of course, we al know that “liberal” on these pages means authoritarian Marxist control freak.

      • “authoritarian Marxist control freak”?!

        Heh heh heh… I like your style, AndyS. You’re so Over The Top that it’s self-parodying. (Thanks for bringing a smile to me lips in the mornings!)

        As for Carl Hansen, it occurs to me that his position of CEO of the Electricity Authority has become untenable as he has now moved into the realm of politics.

        In case any National supporters think this is acceptable, would they be so tolerant if Hansen had, instead, made comments highly supportive of the Labour-Green NZ Power plan?

        Of course not. They’d be demanding his head on a platter, stat! And MSM editorials around the country would be joining in, in a frenzy of shrill condemnation.

        @ Chris – I found Geoff’s remarks about the fate of Professor Bryan Philpott and BERL’s Brian Easton more than a little disturbing.

        The lack of any MSM documentation of such events suggests that, as you’ve referred to previously, the advent of the neo-liberal “concensus” is an end to history and the msm has complied accordingly; there is “nothing” to report” on such matters.

        “History”, such as it is, is now framed around the irrelevant; the distracting; or from the neo-liberal perspective.

        And if anyone gets too active or too much of a nuisance? Well, there is always the Right’s #1 “shock trooper”, Mr Slater to dish the dirt publicly.

        Ministers aren’t above destroying opposition either, as evidence by the fate of Natasha Fuller and Jennifer Johnston, at the hands of Welfare Minister, Paula Bennett, as well as other similar instances.

        It’s insidious, and shows the high stakes involved.

        Kudos to Geoff Bertram, and we’ll be at his talk on 11 February.

      • Thing is Andy, Libertarians can have right or left or a bit of both at the same time, views on the economy.
        Trouble is, far too many people see the politcal spectrum as a purely linear thing of right and left only, when it is not. It looks more like a sheet of graph paper with left and right representing things economic, then you have up and down authoritarianism and libertarianism in that order. Now you can place your dot anywhere you like on there to get what degree of economic collectivism v individualism you think is about right and the amount of control of personal freedoms you would like to see in the up and down. Now, you might be able to see where all these myriads of names come from for various political ideas, from liberal which would tend to be more (but not entirely) libertarian but almost as far right as you can go in economic terms, then conservative which is about the same economc wise but much further up in the authoritarian quarter. Now you may see why libertarian and conservative are as opposite to each other as left and right are.
        The big problem is had when you go for any extreme as NO extreme will work for long without force as human nature has a habit of screwing up libertarianism be it individual or collective, and when the old right wing creates vast inequalities then defensive action begins to be taken against the deprived who may rise up against them.
        Adam Smith explains that perfectly well

        • PS. Another dimension could actually be added to all of that to make it 3 dimensional, and that, for my mind would be madness. That way we could truly see how we get to have things like Nazi Germany and North Korea and all manner of dictatorial situations where sociopaths and narcissists are able to hold sway at certain times in certain places. Almost always their ability to gain power arises out of situations of deprivation

          • In fact I will go so far as to add that right and left in economic terms have far more ability to co-habit than do authoritarian and libertarian, in fact in almost every economy in the world right and left co-habit all the time, and it is a bit like a tug-o-war as to how far in one direction or the other we go, if you want to go all the way either way, some force will need to be applied for it to last for any length of time. That force can be at the point of a gun or by inequality, which is a form economic force

  3. Geoff Bertram is the real deal. He is proof that NZ has been hijacked by malevolent imposters.

    1)In an egalitarian society, economics would be “grounded in reality” and practised DIFFERENTLY to how it operates now.

    2) Description of “Rogernomics” as a bureaucratic “coup d’etat” is the truth about what happened.

    4) The results of their true aim have been achieved- https://thedailyblog.co.nz/2014/02/08/this-is-what-inequality-looks-like-in-nz-beneficiaries-vs-ceos/

    In a fair and decent society, ( a mark of being civilised) with decent honest people in leadership, what should happen now , is that this horrific imbalance should be acknowledged, discussed & addressed.

    BUT INSTEAD,

    1) It is not only being IGNORED but also DENIED & LIED about.
    (Even Labour has not brought it out into the open .)

    2) Worse, it is patently clear that the Powers that be have no intention of reversing this trend. (Jk & secret TTPA overseas.)

    3) There is now an obvious & total ABSENCE of concern for people’s wellbeing, on the part of “Leadership”. This is unheard of in NZ’s history prior Rogernomics.

    4) There is far worse to come. Once NZ is signed up to TTPA ,corporations be allowed to do what they like in NZ.
    This means the END of any human rights , environmental concerns and more.

    (Frank, ) : Andy’s comment re “neo liberal = authoritarian” is actually the truth.

    The Authoritarian ( aka”neo liberal”) culture in Govt today =

    Blame & punishment, bullying, abuse of power, (changing laws to suit them), Invalidating NZ Bill of Rights by adding their own final clause at the bottom, lying to the public, One law for them, another for everybody else, sense of entitlement, exploitation of workers by removing rights , using Police primarily to gather revenue, increasing fees , increasing fines..

    Hijacking & controlling the Media for their own ends :
    eg divert attention from important issues with endless trivia; mold public opinion by repetition of false beliefs-
    & inciting hate & class warfare:
    “people are poor because they’re lazy & don’t try hard enough”
    “people on benefits are a drain on society”
    ” people on benefits are a burden on the taxpayer”

    Where NZ is headed is truly frightening (..and if Geoff Bertram rattles Neo liberal cage too much I’ll be very worried for his wellbeing. Because they are evil.)

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