Phanzine (May 1996, vol 2, no 1: p.6-8) by David Grant.
Brian Easton: Wellington economist, historian, media commentator
Brian Henry Easton was born in Christchurch on 28 March 1943. His father Harold, born in Wellington (his father was from the West Coast), worked as an armature winder for half of his adult working life and a psychopaedic nurse for the other half. His mother, Dorothy, an infant immigrant from English, worked as a clerk and later was a long-serving librarian at Hillmorten High School; the library was later named after her. Brian was the eldest of three children. Brother Keith is now a teacher and sister Jean, a solo mother. Both live in Christchurch.
He was schooled at Somerfield Primary, Christchurch South Intermediate and Christchurch Boys’ High School where he thrived in a top-stream academic environment. Considering a teaching career, he enrolled at Canterbury University in 1963, later graduating with an honours degree in mathematics. The faculty was stimulating. In particular, he acknowledges his mentors Professor Derek Lawden and Walter W Sawyer (when he was at primary and secondary school) for their fine teaching and rigorous scholarship.
During this time an interest in economics was fostered, heightened by a summer school at Curious Cove to which left-wing economists Bill Sutch and Wolfgang Rosenberg contributed. This led to academic study in the subject at Canterbury followed by a research assistant’s post at the N. Z. Institute of Economic Research while graduating from Victoria University in economics in 1966. Philosophy became important at this time, particularly epistemological questions as to how to understand what is truth, a credo that has since become a primary determinant in how he approaches his research in a wide range of interests.
He then headed to Britain, as an assistant lecturer at the University of Sussex, where he was influenced by economic historian Professor Barry Supple who taught him the linkage between data-based economic theory and practical solutions in a historical context. Back in New Zealand in 1970 he lectured in economics and econometrics at Canterbury University until 1981, directed
the Institute for Economic Research until 1986, before branching out on his own as an independent researcher and consultant.
Today, Brian Easton’s professional activities traverse a wide and eclectic mix of interests. Firstly, he works as a consultant – to Māori claimants in Waitangi Tribunal hearings, to trade unions, companies and institutions in the public sector. These encompass macroeconomic forecasting and advice, competition and commercial policy litigation, public policy analysis and project evaluation. He has been used as an ‘expert’ witness on a mix of commissions, committees, tribunals and courts covering issues ranging from taxation to maternity benefits, broadcasting and casinos.
He has taught a variety of courses at Auckland University’s political studies department, Victoria University and the Wellington School of Medicine’s Department of Community Health. These courses cover industrial relations, labour economics, health economics and political economy. Treasury has ensured, he considers, that consultancy rates for economists are generous enabling him to spend the rest of his time pursuing less profitable pursuits but ones closer to his heart.
He has a high public profile as a journalist, reviewer and occasional radio and television commentator on economic and related issues. He has edited the New Zealand Monthly Review and Quarterly Predictions and since 1978 has been the economic columnist for the Listener. He also is on the Editorial Advisory Board of New Zealand Books.
Some in the community, including many other economists, consider Brian Easton a ‘maverick’. On the other hand, supporters point to the conjuncture of diligence. scholarship and humanity in his research. His unorthodoxy was clearly evidenced in a recent paper he called ‘Myths of the lnterwar Economy’ presented in a seminar to the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography where he dismisses the conventional wisdom that New Zealand experienced general hardship in the 1930s depression mainly through the incompetence of the Forbes coalition to manage the economy, that the 1920s economy was largely dormant and the Labour Government in 1935 introduced policies that led to a better economic performance and prosperity.
His revisionist argument indicates that the external shock of the early 1920s was as severe as that of the early 1930s, that the 1920s as a whole was a period of stagnation, and that while there was substantial hardship in the early 1930s, New Zealanders were not the worst hit in the world. Further, he argues that economic management during this period while not perfect, was better than has been credited for and introduced policies and made changes which benefited New Zealand in the long run. He is not, it must be quickly added, being contrary for the sake of it. The argument is cogently presented based on available evidence and statistical data.
Brian Easton disavows the term maverick although he keeps his own counsel, ‘walking down his own path’ as he describes it. That said, he does not work in isolation. A wide range of colleagues read and comment on or criticise his drafts. But he firmly believes New Zealand is a conformist society. lnnovation most easily emerges from those who live and work at its margins. He does consider himself an outsider. He strongly adheres to the words of Columbian University academic Edward W Said who decreed that it was the intellectual’s role to represent a message or view not only to, but for the public and to do so as an outsider not co-opted by government or corporations.
He regards an understanding of history as essential to his work as an economist. Knowledge of the development of economic and social processes in the past helps us to understand current issues and gives us the wherewithal to argue with passion and conviction. He belongs to PHANZA because it is an organisation of professional historians and is happy to be regarded as such.
Some of his publications have emerged from tangential research. In 1989, working with Maori claims in regard to broadcasting reforms and in order to understand the entitlements to the property rights of the radio frequency spectrum by the Maori and the Crown, led to an investigation of the origins of the Tiriti o Waitangi. This led eventually to ‘Was There Treaty of Waitangi?: Was It a Social Contract?’ which he presented as a paper to the Here and Now History Conference in Wellington in February of this year.
In it, he argued that there was, in a particular sense, no Treaty of Waitangi, that is, there was no document in English which could purport to be a treaty agreed to at Waitangi on 6 February 1840. The Tiriti o Waitangi that was consented to was different in important ways from the drafts in English out of which the Tiriti developed. The closest document we have to a true Treaty, he suggests, is a fair translation of the Tiriti – probably made by one of the Williams about a week after the signing – and sent by James Clendon the United States consul in the Bay of Islands, to his Government. He further argues that to be in part a social contract.
Currently, his major project is his forthcoming book, In Stormy Seas: The Post War New Zealand Economy, a substantial work that he has been working on for many years, to be published by Otago University Press, towards the end or the year.
Brian lives in Kelburn. His biologist wife Jenny works in Nelson as a pollution control officer for the Tasman District Council. Daughter Anita, 24, is a post-graduate linguistics student at Victoria University and son Tama, 22, works at Mud Cycles. a mountain bike shop in Karori.
Some matters of fact have been corrected. It has not been updated.