Some Economists of Repute

Listener 14 January, 1991.

I never met James McIlraith who completed his LLD at Canterbury College in about 1910. Published as The Course of Prices in New Zealand, it was the precursor of our consumers price index — which came into being after the 1912 Royal Commission on the Cost of Living for which Mcllraith was secretary. Starting in 1862, Mcllraith’s series finished in 1910. Unfortunately, most of our key official price series start in 1914 and we need the link. We know that Mcllraith updated his series, but we do not have his worksheets. They were probably in his copy of his book. If you own a copy, please check whether it is his, with handwritten data added, and then get in contact with me. The economic history profession would be delighted if you were so lucky.

Canterbury University has had a long reputation of quality statistical work. One graduate was Rex Bergstrom, who has an international reputation as a econometrician. As a professor at Auckland he brought on a host of talented, world-recognised New Zealand econometricians. When Bergstrom went to the University of Essex, the initiative was recaptured for Canterbury by Tony Rayner. Alas, a year ago, Rayner died while tramping. But his work continues in the students he inspired, one of whom is his successor as professor of econometrics at Canterbury.

Chris Higgins was not a New Zealander but, as an Australian Treasury official, he took a keen interest in New Zealand, particularly CER. In early 1987, when it was obvious that the policies of Rogernomics were failing, I gave a paper in Canberra where I carefully went through the evidence. It was with some trepidation that I saw Higgins rise with the first question, such was his reputation. But his concern was that we would not back out of CER or our trade liberalisation policies. Promoted to Secretary of the Australian Treasury he visited us six months ago, again showing a diplomatic scepticism towards the extreme aspects of our economic policies. Just before Christmas he died from a heart attack, after finishing a 3000m race. Australian economics lost a fine public servant; New Zealand economics a friend.

Although born in England, Dudley Seers spent some of his early years in New Zealand and constructed our first comprehensive national accounts (from which we get such measures as GDP) while working in the prime minister’s office during the war. Overseas he was an outstanding development economist, and was the foundation director of the prestigious Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. His greatest impact on me was a brilliant paper I read as an undergraduate entitled The Limitations of the Special Case. It compares the reality Seers met in the countries he worked in with the picture portrayed in a couple of textbooks — one US, the other Soviet. Each offered a rather specialised account of its own situation, as if it were a generalisation for all countries. Seers’s point was that those who slavishly applied the theories in either of the textbooks to their local situation, without allowance for the specific local circumstances, would, have policies that generated poor economic performance, and unnecessary human misery.

Ronald Meek, a contemporary of Seers, also went to Britain after the war, to make an international reputation as a scholar in the history of economic thought and public sector economics. He was a bit of a wag in New Zealand, and still had a glint in his eye when I met him in England. More literate than the average economist, he wrote this piece in 1940, claiming it was sung at gatherings of British capitalists in the 1830s.

Mighty Mammon, at thy feet

In this British bank we meet;

Hear our voices, we entreat – Colonise New Zealand!

We have capital to burn,

Interest we wish to earn;

Overseas we’ll have to turn – Colonise New Zealand!

KCs, PCs, CMGs,

GCMs, and OBEs,

Send your money overseas Colonise New Zealand!

Baronets from county shires,

Knights and lords and country squires,

Parsons, priests and holy friars – Colonise New Zealand!

Help us build across the sea

A land to dedicate to thee

A little Britain let it be, Colonise New Zealand!

If we get our 10 percent

On the money that we have lent

All of us will rest content, Colonise New Zealand!

Labour is not far to seek,

Cheap at 15 bob a week,

We shall form a ruling clique   Colonise New Zealand!

While we charge the infant state

Interest at goodly rate

It will do as we dictate – Colonise New Zealand!