Economist Of the Year?

Choose Yours from this List of Possible Contenders
Listener: 13 January 1996

Keywords: Miscellaneous;

I am occasionally asked about “the economist of the year”, an award which is announced each November. Most people have not heard of it because it is very a business sector thing, sponsored by some commercial firms, selected by a committee appointed by the firms, with very vague terms of references. Not surprisingly the award tends to be idiosyncratic, and the newspapers are right to almost ignore it. Such oddities are not confined to New Zealand. The Nobel Prize in economics was never awarded to Joan Robinson, a major figure in three mid-century economic theory revolutions, apparently because one member of the committee vetoed her. Taste and judgement are so important. Rarely is a decision authoritative.

To be clear, the first two award recipients, Rod Deane and Frank Holmes, would probably appear on most economists’ lists of, say, the twenty most important economists over the last two decades, had there been any consultation. However in each case I thought the award citation rather odd, presenting a curious definition of economics. These definitional issues are not unimportant. The economist of the year, every year, in terms of influence on the New Zealand economy, is surely Hugh Fletcher, as managing director of Fletcher Challenge, but he is not acting there primarily as an economist.

On the other hand would the selectors ever include economists who have made major contributions in economic areas with which the sponsors and committee are less concerned, even where the benefit to the nation is as great? How about Mike Cooper for his work in health economics, Prue Hyman in women’s economics, Susan St John in social economics? I wonder if Raymond Firth would even be thought of, even though his masterly Economics of the New Zealand Maori is probably the outstanding economics book written about New Zealand. Firth spent most of his life overseas, but if that is the test how should we treat David Giles who has been the best econometrician living here, but published mainly overseas, with little influence on New Zealand? Despite being overseas today, Graeme Wells, would be a sitter for his outstanding contributions to New Zealand macroeconomics.

Selections tend to be very politically correct. Would the panel think of Wolf Rosenberg, with whom I disagree on many technical issues, but who constantly challenges us by his particular left insights? Similarly I would include Gareth Morgan, with whom I also disagree, who has been one of our most successful consultants, and writes the most provoking magazine column from a right perspective.

What about the various economic specialities? New Zealand agricultural economics is very strong. In a close race I would choose Grant Scobie, who did so much interesting work while a consultant. For economic history it would definitely be John Gould, who wrote two important books, The Rake’s Progress and The Muldoon Years . The industrial economist would be Alan Bollard; for work in the labour market, Denis Rose. The doyen of research economists is, of course Bryan Philpott, with his commitment to research long after younger men have abandoned it. He has just been appointed the first economics Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

I add Suzanne Snively who forced us to think about fiscal impact studies, and the way that the government changes people’s power to spend and consume. A similar innovative drive is Len Cook’s key role in the development of a number of a basic statistical series. I am not nominating him because of his present job as government statistician. It is too easy to name those of high status in positions of influence. Their best economics was usually done earlier. So Jas McKenzie would be remembered for the brilliant team he built up in Treasury in the 1970s, and especially for the work which culminated in the 1979 anti-protection package, despite resistance by Robert Muldoon. Similarly Graeme Scott would be there for his editorship of the 1984 Treasury post-election briefing Economic Management, and also the 1987 one – if we omit the social sections with their clapped-out ideology.

So there is my list of 20 for the last two decades. Yours will be different, which exactly makes the point that any selection by a committee is going to make arbitrary decisions, especially if it does not bother to consult, and is unclear as to what constitutes economics.

Note that I have chosen about equally between left, centre, and right, and between academics, business, and public servants. I doubt the business award will do so. And I make no apology for distinguishing economics from policy and from ideology. The list reflects my commitment to the scientific component of economics, not to the theological. Other choices may have a different balance.

Bernard Shaw said of awards that they distinguish the mediocre, while embarrassing the superior (and are disgraced by the inferior). Choosing an economist of the year is an exercise for a summer holiday evening. Any more effort suggests that it is some businesses trying to purchase a little bit of notoriety. That is why I have not named them.