Brian Easton (Journalist) Interviews Brian Easton (Economist)
Published in Asymmetric Information, Issue 71 August 2021.
You grew up in Christchurch?
In Somerfield, in the south of the city, in a state house the family bought. Dad was an electrician who in the middle of his life became a psychopaedic nurse. Mum was a clerical worker who became a librarian; they named the Hilmorton School library after her. But I went to Christchurch Boys’ High and was in an exceptionally strong science class which did very well in University Scholarship Exams.
And then to Canterbury University?
My mathematics was strong enough to go straight into the second year, skipping the Stage Is, so I finished my honours degree in three, rather than four, years.
How did you get into economics?
My honours class all wanted to do an extra course in our second year at university. I could not do statistics because it clashed with German Reading Knowledge (a language was compulsory for a science honours degree) so I enrolled in Economics I. I turned up at the enrolment desk. The professor, Alan Danks, palpably sighed – presumably something like ‘not another one; we already have 200 in the class’. I explained I had a clash between a Pure Maths III lecture and one of the Economics I lectures. He beamed ‘Pure Maths III; sit down, boy’. (I don’t know if he actually said ‘boy’ but you always felt he did.) He arranged special weekly tutorials with Graham Miller to cover the gap, and he put me in one of his own tutorial groups. In my last year at university he jumped me into third-year economics saying second-year economics would not challenge me enough. It may well have been Canterbury economics’ first knight’s move.
Frank Tay’s development economics course introduced me to one of my great economics interests. John Ward, across from Lincoln, gave a course of agricultural economics which was my introduction to applied economics, although there is a good chapter in Paul Samuelson’s wonderful text, Principles of Economics (4th ed) which has also has that memorable description of how milk is delivered to one’s house in the morning (or used to be), by anonymous market transactions not be a centralised planning system. It has shaped my thinking about the market for the rest of my life.
Samuelson is the twentieth-century economist I admire most after John Maynard Keynes. He could write. I studied Keynes’ The General Theory with one finger on the book and another on Alvin Hansen’s Guide to Keynes. Other economist included John Kenneth Galbraith and Joan Robinson – it is a pity her Economic Philosophy is so forgotten.
Why did you go into economics?
I was already involved in political activity and had gone to a student-run summer school – the ‘University of Curious Cove’ – in the 1961/2 summer vacation. One of the lecturers was Bill Sutch on the future of the New Zealand economy; he was inspiring but I thought I could do better – such is the arrogance of youth. Wolf Rosenberg spoke of the dangers of being an economist and the young man ignored his wisdom.
Some decades later I realised that the reading I had been doing at high school, especially the Fabian literature, was a sound introduction into late nineteenth-century (i.e. emerging neoclassical) economics.
Who were the university teachers who had the greatest influence on you?
Karl Popper still presided over Canterbury science despite having left a couple of decades earlier. My most important teachers were Derek Lawden, Professor of Mathematics, and Danks.
It took decades to appreciate how thoroughly Lawden trained me as a mathematical modeller, which is at the heart of formal economics thinking. Modelling is about approaching a system or problem holistically, rather than just a part of it. H.L Mencken said ‘there is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong’. (The fate of the political opposition, I suppose.) It arises because it ignores the whole picture. I once assumed everyone else was as fluent a modeller as I was, but they are not, not having benefited from Lawden. (Later in my career I also benefited greatly from working with Bryan Philpott and his suite of computable general equilibrium models.)
People often make elementary mathematical mistakes. The short recession in the late 1990s was in part precipitated by the RBNZ using a mathematical equation which was dimensionally inconsistent.
Danks was probably the best university teacher I had. We joked he never taught us anything. In the first half of the lecture he told us what he had said in the last one and the second half was devoted to what he was going to say in the next.
It must have been a pretty traditional economics?
It was, but I benefited from doing it. And Danks was pushing us towards the more mathematically based economics. His third-year textbook was William Baumol’s wonderful Economic Theory and Operations Analysis.
Additionally, about a month into my Economics I year, I bought books by Gerard Debreu, Ken Arrow and Tjalling Koopmans – all Nobel laureates in economics. That was frontline stuff. I particularly loved Koopmans’ Three Essays on the State of Economic Science, which is a brilliant technical exposition written by a very humane person. I read Galbraith’s Affluent Economy about the same time.
Danks laboriously expounded the standard condition of the equality of marginal utility among consumption commodities, at the same time as we were introduced to Lagrange multipliers in Applied Maths III. (Lagrangians, at the heart of optimisation, are, in effect, prices.) I thought that if two lectures of economics took two lines of mathematics, I could do the 200 lectures or so to graduate in economics in 200 odd equations. – the arrogance of youth again. Later I realised Alan gave a marvellous exposition with nuances that the mathematics missed.
So I was on the cusp of the shift from the earlier neoclassical economic paradigm which was only marginally centred on mathematics to the new era of a more mathematical economics.
You abandoned mathematics for economics?
That is what it seemed at the time, but on reflection I realise I graduated as an applied mathematician and went on to apply those skills in economics. That is why Lawden was so important in my development.
What did you after graduation?
I became a research assistant at the recently established NZ Institute of Economic Research in Wellington and I did a BA economics at Victoria. The department was pretty plodding but there was the odd memorable teacher. John Young taught labour economics with a solid foundation in traditional neoclassical economics. Labour economics is the better subject for being mathematically restrained. John Zanetti gave a course on growth models which was an excellent introduction to the difference between models of the physical world and those of the social world, while Peter Lloyd’s international trade course taught me about geometrical presentations. I also valued George Hughes of philosophy – doing non-relevant courses can be can be invaluable. (Enjoyed doing English I too.)
It does not sound as though you learned much in your student years at VUW
I learned most was at the Institute. Conrad Blyth, back from Cambridge, introduced New Zealand to the new growth theories of Bob Solow and established macroeconomic forecasting (Quarterly Predictions) which, while not the first in New Zealand, was certainly the most sophisticated. I also learned a lot from interaction with the other senior economists, especially Peter Elkan, who was trained in three economics paradigms – European Institutional, Marxist and Cambridge. The Institute was highly research focused, enabling me to develop a more quantitative mode of thinking.
The Next Step Was OE?
I was applying for overseas scholarships. Danks, by now chairman of the UGC, told me I would be offered a scholarship to the London School of Economics. That would have been an interesting career move because they had some very good economists. However I missed out on that heartland of 1960s student unrest by taking an assistant lectureship at the University of Sussex.
Without being rude I am surprised that someone from so far away got the job.
They wanted a good mathematical economist and at the time they were scarce. In truth, they did not know how to use one.
So your time at Sussex was a failure?
To the contrary, it was terrific. I chose teaching at Sussex over the scholarship at LSE because Sussex prided itself on its multi-disciplinary approach to knowledge. And so I found myself in an economics department imbedded in a social science faculty with its Institute of Development Studies right next door. (Its director was Dudley Seers, who grew up in New Zealand and constructed our first national accounts.) Yes, I worked as an economist but I interacted with a host of scholars from other disciplines – even taught in some others. I have never met such a kaleidoscope of intellectual activity in a university; the closest was at Harvard, but that institution is too big to be so intense.
The Sussex experience meant I am comfortable to call myself a ‘political economist’ in the nineteenth-century sense of an intellectual who engages across the spectrum of the social sciences. (Later, while working in social economics, I was called, almost sneeringly, a ‘social economist” – by colleagues who spent a lot more time in the pub.)
Who Particularly Influenced You?
Too many to mention. I got on really well with the senior professor of economics, Tibor Barna, who despite his eminence in input-output modelling and industrial economics, could be very eccentric in a way which provided shrewd insights.
I also valued Janos Kornai – later a chairman of the Harvard economics department – who gave a series of lectures on planning modelling which was my introduction to general equilibrium economics and tied together much which I had taught myself. Once I asked what he thought of Marx. (He was based in Hungary which still had a Communist regime.) He said Marx did not have much to say in economics, but was important philosophically.
What about you and Marx?
Sussex’s senior professor of sociology was Tom Bottomore, one of the world’s most eminent Marxist scholars. I took a much valued course under him; it did not have much economics though. Karl Marx was one of the nineteenth century’s greatest intellectuals with whom one must engage. That said, Marx wrote he was not a Marxist; in which case neither am I.
So what are your politics?
Eclectic. In my youth I was greatly influenced by Fabianism, which is evolutionary rather than revolutionary socialism; Methodist rather than Marxist. I spent time with the VUW social anarchists group – they mainly talked convivially than did anything – where I learned to distrust power. I am more anti-centralisation than the majority of the New Zealand left and centrists – it is a scepticism which fits in well with my admiration of the market. But I do see a need for some centralisation, acknowledging that tension. My social justice philosophy follows John Rawls – one should judge a society by how it treats its worst off. I got there before I read him; he systematised my thinking.
Why did you return to New Zealand?
Home sickness really; air travel was terribly expensive for short sojourns. And we thought New Zealand was the best place in the world to bring up children. It may still be, providing you are middle class or, as I think of myself, professional working class.