Michael Bassett’s Review Of in Stormy Seas

Letter in New Zealand Journal of History@ 33, 1 (1999), p.134-135.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

Michael Bassett’s review of my In Stormy Seas: The Post-War New Zealand Economy, opens with “[t]his book has had a bad press from economists and a business newspaper.” (NZJH Vol 32, No 2:222). I do not know whether he is referring to Joe Wallis in New Zealand Books, Keith Rankin in Political Review, or to David Mayes in The Economic Journal. If they are “bad” reviews, Bassett’s could only be described as “rotten”. Admittedly not all reviews have been as favourable, but with the exception of the business newspaper and Bassett’s they have not been ill tempered and unscholarly.

Bassett does not seem to understand the discipline of economic history. He says, “the nearest Easton gets to a primary source is a published departmental document. National Archives has splendid Treasury and Industry and Commerce files. With persistence one can access documents as late as 1986. … One would have thought that an economic historian would find such files meat and drink. Not so. Nowhere in Easton’s writings [sic] can I find more than an exiguous use of archival sources.” I mention in passing that I do use archival sources as those with familiarity of my writings on the Tiriti o Waitangi and on Bernard Ashwin demonstrates. Moreover, although Bassett seems unaware of the procedure, one can get archives well after 1986 by the use of the Official Information Act.

Bassett states that I believe that the “Rogernomes … dropped enough hints about a pending devaluation to create a foreign exchange crisis.” Not only would Bassett be completely unable to offer a single citation to support that I hold that view, for I do not, but in a work cited in the book I used official papers to show it is wrong. Even so, such archives are not the “meat and drink” of economic history, as any review of earlier New Zealand studies would demonstrate. John Condliffe, Gary Hawke, John Gould, and Colin Simkin use the standard economic models, to describe and evaluate the path of the economy and its consequences. To confine the discipline of economic history to official archives would not only redefine and limit the subject, but miss the point of what it is trying to do – to offer an account of how the economy evolves, not how a group of officials and politicians thought it was evolving at the time.

Relying only on archives has its limitations. Consider Bassett’s biography of Joseph Ward. Despite assiduous reading of the available archives, he made little sense of the economic context. Ward is portrayed as being a successful Colonial Treasurer and a less successful Prime Minister. Those familiar with New Zealand’s economic history know the economy went through a climacteric about the time that Ward changed roles, with an evident slowdown of the secular growth rate. The possibility, not addressed by the Bassett biography, is that the apparent deterioration in Ward’s political performance reflected the economic environment in which he was working.

Bassett’s makes no reference to the 120 odd tables and figures in the book, which might be useful to a numerate historian. His analytical understanding is extraordinary. One may but chortle at his coinage of “unreal exchange rates” (even if the book explicitly mentions the dangers of using the “real” in this way on page 17). He says he found the diagram on page 37 “unintelligible”. I have used the diagram in a number of learned papers, in Listener columns, and in numerous teaching situations, and that is the first time that adjective has been used. Bassett complains that “terms like `purchasing power parity’ .. are suddenly introduced.” The term is first used on page 11, with a brief description and an explicit reference to the main exposition on pages 19 to 21. I am not sure how one avoids introducing any new concept “suddenly”, but the import of Bassett’s comments is that concepts unfamiliar to him may not be used, reducing any exposition to a lowest common denominator of the New Zealand history profession. Even so, I dont understand how a LCD can so confidently state “there is a great deal of hocus pocus masquerading as economics.”

Finally, I must defend my publisher, the University of Otago Press. For the record the manuscript was read for them by two scholars. (In addition, it was earlier read in entirety by four other economists, parts were read by others, plus, of course, much of the material has been published in learned venues.) Bassett concludes “[h]ave we reached a stage in academia where anything goes? If so, it just might be the most serious outcome of the last 14 years”. I will not judge whether the worst thing to happen since 1984 has been my book, but merely suggest that MPs, and apparently some ex-MPs, do not always realise how pathetic the rhetoric of the parliamentary debating chamber sounds to those outside.