New Zealand’s most well known economic commentator is neither an academic, a journalist, nor a financial sector representative, but instead ‘an independent scholar’. Brian Easton was interviewed for the new publication Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand (edited by Laurence Simmons, 2007, Auckland: AUP), and spoke of why he thinks that blogs have now overtaken the mainstream media as the most important vehicles of political information and opinion to the public, why NZ shouldn't be a bicultural nation, why the country is very nervous of having proper debates, and how the role of the intellectual is to be sceptical of everything. [Read more below]
Easton says that NZ doesn’t have a tradition or a fora for facilitating intellectualism and public debate: ‘we don’t actually have a tradition of talking about intellectuals, in the way the French do; and we don’t have, like the British or Americans, fora which attract intellectuals’ (p.106). He does admit however, that this is all partly a function of the size of the country: ‘we’re a small society; so even if we weren’t anti-intellectual we would still have an enormous amount of trouble having a proper debate. We are still a society which is very nervous of having proper debates’ (p.107). But Easton is in no doubt that the anti-intellectualism – or at least the lack of intellectualism – has become worse in NZ: ‘In the early 1990s there was a very conscious proposal to cut certain people out of public discussion. Go back to the 1970s and list those who were involved in the debate – the list is long’ (p.111).
Easton suggests a mechanism for distinguishing between those that are public intellectuals and those that are private intellectuals: ‘If you’re writing for the New York Review of Books I guess you know you’re a public intellectual; if you’re reading the New York Review of Books you are a private intellectual’ (p.106).
Interestingly, Easton seems to see the operation of identity politics in NZ as having suppressed his contribution to knowledge about oppressed groups:
I was interested in the role of women in the economy, and I’ve always been, I think compared to many of my colleagues, sensitive to those issues. But some women said to me, “no we don’t want you to be involved, we don’t want you to speak on our behalf, so butt out”. So – put it this way – I still do the work, while I don’t always report on it (p.117).
On the theme of identity politics, ethnic categorisation also comes up as area of contention for Easton. His position on biculturalism is:
we can’t be a bicultural nation because, in one very obvious sense, there are Asians who are not one single culture, there are the Pacific Islanders, who are also fragmented. Pakeha are highly fragmented. Biculturalism not only ignores the other ethnic minorities, it also lumps us all as being English, and we’re not. We’re Scots, and we’re Irish, and we are Jewish, and other non-Europeans beside. So ultimately we’re not going to be a bicultural nation (p.118).
Unsurprisingly, Easton thus believes that the role of the intellectual is to be sceptical of everything:
In my salad days I was very influenced by social libertarianism, and I have a very natural scepticism of the government. But it is offset by the belief that there is a need for collective action. Sometimes the government has to do it, so there’s no sense that I am a pure anarchist, and I’m certainly not a right-wing libertarian either. But scepticism of everything, basically every statement, you’re testing it, whether it comes from the government, or the corporate sector, or the Maori, or feminists, or whatever. That’s what the public intellectual’s job is (p.122).
Easton is somewhat of an ‘organic intellectual’ – in the sense that he’s not in the employment of a university. He is described in Speaking Truth to Power as ‘an independent scholar who works as a consultant’. The reason why he isn’t an academic isn’t entirely clear, but Easton is very clear about his scepticism towards the contemporary university in NZ. Increasingly, academics are concerned with subjects that are too narrow, according to Easton: ‘You know the summary of the academic who’ll say more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing’ (p.111). He thinks they play too small a part in contributing to public debate and knowledge: ‘Most academics are very isolated. Having said that, in the 1970s when I held an academic position, I don’t think I was as isolated as the academic of today’ (p.111). He’s rather critical of the whole structure of the university, making the cutting aside that ‘Ours is a society in which we don’t believe in class and we don’t believe in aristocracy – unless you’re a professor’ (p.110).
Despite the low regard for universities, Easton considers recent reforms to have made them worse:
I couldn’t believe what happened to universities in the early 1990s. One could see the train coming down the track, and they stood on the track saying “hi!”…. I would have thought genuine academics would have rioted, but generally they just stood there and watched the inevitable outcome. I couldn’t believe it. Perhaps that’s why I’m not in a university (p.120).
Easton identifies part of the problem with the state of NZ universities as being to do with ‘cultural cringe’ and therefore the inability to develop our own intellectual models and analysis: ‘What riddled New Zealand in the 1980s, and what riddles New Zealand universities, is the colonial cringe: that we’re not good enough, that we are second and third and fourth rate. So we take models’ (pp.115-116).
He is also very critical of NZ universities appointing foreign candidates to jobs where good NZ ones existed:
What we do is import a person who has probably been trained in an American economy to come and teach New Zealand… Characteristically, most New Zealand textbooks which you use in Stage I are American and they don’t talk about the reality that we’re actually facing. Moreover, because of the colonial cringe we’ve appointed a whole lot of people who are not of high quality – I’m talking about economics. One of the things we need to ask is why anyone would come to New Zealand if they’re as good as they’re cracked up to be? (pp.116-117).
The economics discipline
Easton has been critical of the standard of economic debate, suggesting it’s been inferior to what it was two decades ago:
when Rogernomics took place there was a very sharp change in the whole mood of the profession. Under Muldoon, everyone hated Muldoon, so it was a time of open debate. When Rogernomics (or economic rationalism) took over, it certainly became clear there were extremely heavy penalties for getting out of line. The penalties could be losing your research grant – it happened to Bryan Philpott, it happened to David Shepard, both professors incidentally (p.111).
Within the academy, Easton believes the economics departments have lost their intellectual diversity and ability to dissent from current trends: ‘Economics tends to be within the business faculty, which is much more rationalist than economics. The deans were very discouraging and the appointment process actively discriminated against people who it was feared were not rationalists’ (pp.111-112).
The health of the academic economics discipline is such that, according to Easton, the media doesn’t even bother to refer to the academics for information and comment:
Journalists tell me that they found that academics weren’t very helpful. If you had a problem and you went to an academic economist they, on the whole, couldn’t actually help the journalist, so journalists stopped going to academics, who in some sense are independent. If you look at the public debate today it’s primarily driven by business economists who work for financial institutions. Why the academic economists just gave up I don’t know, but that dumbed the debate down (p.112).
University economists are now so isolated from public debate and discourse, Easton says that ‘at the Knowledge Wave conference there was not a single university economist’ (p.111), only ‘people in government and the business community’ – a fact that also speaks volumes about who the government actually wanted to talk to.
So despite being an economist himself, Easton has very little regard for his own discipline. His orientation is nicely summed up in an anecdotal joke:
in the 1960s there was a standard joke, which was that someone wanted to be an economist, but he didn’t have the personality so instead he became an accountant. Nowadays the joke is that he wanted to be an accountant, and he didn’t have the personality and became an economist (p.112).
New technologies vs old media
Easton is enthusiastic about the role of new technologies (blogs, websites, podcasts, etc) for facilitating intellectual and political debate. He even thinks that blogs have now overtaken the mainstream media as the most important vehicles of political information and opinion to the public: ‘Blog discussion groups and the like on the web have become increasingly important. During the 2005 election, some were much more lively and more interesting than the formal media, which tended to provide facts laced with stodgy, self-important non-comment’ (p.109)
Easton’s experience of operating his own website (www.eastonbh.ac.nz) has obviously influenced his view of the medium. Through his site he gets regular feedback and interaction that he has missed in ‘real world’, where he says ‘Because there are so few intellectuals in New Zealand, I’m in continuous critical dialogue with myself’ (p.108). The e-interaction appears to be heralding a whole new type of intellectual conversation:
It’s extremely valuable to me, in a professional way, for improving my understanding of some important issues. So in one sense what’s happened is that the sort of conversation that once occurred, say in the eighteenth-century coffee house, has now gone onto the web. The other thing is that the website also gives you this enormous range of information. In my case the website is recording my intellectual history (p.110).
The rise of the new technologies is clearly related to the decline of the media in NZ as a fora and avenue for public debate and information:
Over the last twenty years there has been a dumbing down. The sort of place where I see it most is that public debate has shifted from hard copy to television and radio. There’s clearly less and less public debate going on in the print media… They’ve actually become less committed to open debate (p.109).
Easton compares NZ’s print media to the offerings overseas and finds local columnists in particular to be substandard:
In New Zealand on Saturdays and Sundays you pick up the papers and you say “these columns are all predictable”. They are so predictable, they’re usually all on the same topic, and they don’t usually have a lot of original ideas to express. So that’s another consequence of smallness (p.114).
Easton goes as far as suggesting a conspiracy to remove dissenting voices from he media-controlled public discourse:
It’s also tied up with very deliberate strategies to reduce fora. It’s not generally known, but I have this documented, that in the early 1990s there were representatives of major pressure groups who were going around newspaper and magazine editors saying you shouldn’t use certain people, shouldn’t give space to certain people; some of the editors caved in (p.109).