Chris Barton 's Opinion

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Who is speaking out on today's big issues?

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The economy, financial crisis, inequality - they're today's big issues, so who are the people who are shaping the debate? asks Chris Barton.

Dame Anne Salmond joins an increasing list of academics speaking out on the big economic issues affecting society. Photo / Listener
Dame Anne Salmond joins an increasing list of academics speaking out on the big economic issues affecting society. Photo / Listener

There was clearly something in the air last October. Occupy Auckland began mid-month with a march of some 3000 people up Queen Street. Six New Zealand cities were now occupied in a show of solidarity with some 950 cities around the world that had followed the Occupy Wall Street encampment of September 17. Impressive - even if most people couldn't figure out what it was all about.

More impressive was the fact that two academics came out of their ivory towers and spoke out. Academics generally don't have much to say publicly these days - too absorbed, possibly, in raising their Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF) scores. It was unusual, too, that both - Dame Anne Salmond, a distinguished professor of Maori studies and anthropology and Campbell Jones, a senior lecturer in sociology - were speaking about business, not exactly their area of expertise.

By some definitions that makes each a member of an increasingly rare, routinely derided breed - the public intellectual or expert analyst applying their skills more widely. That is: using available media to engage with broader societal concerns - in this case the inequities of wealth distribution.

Here's a slice of Salmond's commentary: "In the midst of successive financial crises, the hand of the market still harvests wealth for the wealthy. While the richest avoid taxation, billions can be found to shore up the corporate sector, but not to deal with child poverty, third-world diseases, high rates of youth incarceration and suicide, and other indicators of suffering and failure."

And Jones: "Occupiers are concerned that after the series of financial crises beginning in 2008, governments and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund have chosen to rescue banks and finance companies while imposing austerity measures on pretty much everyone else."

It was Salmond, no doubt because of her status, who captured most of the attention, including a stinging attack from another academic speaking outside his area of expertise: AUT history professor Paul Moon, who leapt to the defence of pursuing economic self interest.

But while the old guard stole the limelight, it was the younger academics like Jones who had been publicly debating inequality issues for some time.

He wasn't alone. Another young gun, lecturer Bryce Edwards from Otago University's Politics Department, began writing about the inequality trend in August 2010. When Salmond went public Edwards commented: "For decades now, this subject has been largely absent from the parliamentary political system, and few political actors have been interested in raising questions about the distribution of material wealth. Quite simply, economic inequality has not mattered in New Zealand politics."

Salmond's public salvo appeared to spur others. In December Auckland University professor of economics Tim Hazledine discussed the OECD report Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising and was scathing about the university vice-chancellor's $640,000 annual stipend. "Is there any objective reason why Professor Stuart McCutcheon, the current vice-chancellor, should be paid 40 per cent more than Dr John Hood earned for doing the same job in 2001, or indeed why Dr Hood should have received an even larger premium over the salary of his distinguished predecessor, Sir Colin Maiden?"

Hazledine concluded there wasn't. In similar vein, Bryan Gould, whose career path from Rhodes Scholar to Oxford don to British Labour MP and Waikato University vice-chancellor provides impeccable credentials for a public intellectual, chimed in: "Many big earners do not create new wealth; they merely manipulate existing assets. Bankers, property speculators and even (dare one say) foreign exchange dealers cream their fortunes off the top of assets that others have created, thereby siphoning off wealth for themselves that might otherwise have been more fairly distributed."

So what? It's hard to know whether a handful of academics speaking out like this represents a trend or a flash in the pan.

But it may indeed signal a change of heart. In 2009 Victoria University Management School senior lecturer Todd Bridgman, assisted by a two year, $170,000 Marsden Fast-Start grant, went looking for public intellectuals. He reasoned that the global financial crisis was a topic that should have provided plenty of fodder for comment.

Bridgman found a variety of experts did speak out about the issues behind the crisis but they were largely journalists or economic consultants from think-tanks and banks. Academics were mostly absent. "I have concluded that, despite being a significant reservoir of knowledge in relation to many matters at the heart of the global financial crisis (GFC) the public voice of our universities has been faint," says Bridgman in Policy Quarterly. "Universities claim to be active public contributors and relevant to the communities which support them, but, at least in the case of the GFC and its effects on New Zealand, these claims sound like empty talk."

The faint voice of academics seemed odd, especially in light of the Education Act 1989, which requires universities to "accept a role as critic and conscience of society". Bridgman found some reasons why: universities, made over by the market reforms of the 80s and 90s, did little to encourage the critic and conscience role; academics believed making regular public contributions would harm their careers; taking a public role was time-consuming, meaning less time for publishing research in academic journals, which are vital to career advancement.

There were also concerns about being misquoted; fears that comments would be seen as a "dumbing-down" of academic knowledge; plus not having the skills to communicate with a wider audience. A common theme, says Bridgman, was the influence of the PBRF system and its bias against research on the New Zealand context, which is harder to get published in the higher rating international journals. In other words academics were, by and large, frightened, self interested and confined by oppressive research demands to their rarefied sphere of influence.

Then there is the long Kiwi tradition of regarding the word "intellectual" as a term of abuse. In his essay The Public Intellectual is a Dog, Auckland University English Department lecturer Stephen Turner sums up the problem: "Just talking about public intellectuals make you, or rather me in this case, a wanker rather than a well rounded bloke." The British have also been bagging intellectuals for a couple of centuries, as Auckland University associate professor Laurence Simmons points out in his introduction to Speaking Truth to Power. It's a stereotype which says experience rather than abstract ideas, the supposed currency of intellectuals, offers the better guide to social and political practice.

New Zealand's hostility towards intellectual wankers comes from the country's small population, geographical isolation, prevalence of colonial attitudes, and its pioneer culture which rates Kiwi ingenuity over academic achievement, says Roger Horrocks in his A Short History of 'the New Zealand Intellectual'. The emeritus professor of Auckland University's Department of Film, Television and Media Studies describes how puritanism and egalitarianism created a "fear of difference" and how he, and others, routinely disguise their intellectual shame. "Like many local writers I have learned to live it, striving to avoid big words and never associating myself with the problematic term 'intellectual'."

The surprise in Bridgman's research, which included 43 interviews with academics, other experts and members of the media, is a consensus that academics, despite their shame, are perceived as more independent than other sources of expertise. "They [respondents] believed that when academics speak, they do so as individuals," says Bridgman. "Whereas almost all others who contribute in public are spokespeople for organisations, which are perceived as having vested interests in promoting particular viewpoints." Yet despite the objectivity such perceived independence brings, the "faint voice" of academia goes largely unnoticed in the public arena.

Bias, on the other hand, is noticed. Bridgman cites veteran broadcaster Paul Holmes lamenting, in 2010, the quality of expert comment on the New Zealand economy - in particular bank economists. "They are fundamentally, intellectually dishonest. They are not to be trusted because they are deeply compromised ... They will never talk the economy down. Despite our wanting to know the truth, and despite what is staring at them in the face, they will lie to us." Holmes has a similar broadside for economic research organisations. "They have nothing to do with institutes or research and they are anything but independent, because their existence depends on the big companies paying them a ridiculous amount of money to hear the economists' own special economic gobbledygook."

Having despatched economists and other brains for hire, Holmes makes no mention of academics as a more reliable source. That's presumably because of his own and other columnists' anti-intellectual bias - apparently due to our "historical reverence for common sense." That comes from a 2003 column entitled "We don't need formally educated fools" by cultural spokesperson Gordon McLauchlan.

With such an entrenched anti-intellectual sentiment, it's little wonder, says Horrocks, that the media favours personalities - Paul Homes, the late Frank Haden, Michael Laws, Garth George, and Deborah Coddington - who are champions of common sense and can "vividly convey its classic sneer".

Not surprisingly, Bridgman finds bank economists vigorously refute Holmes' slur, pointing out that their influence depends on their credibility, which would be nil if their expert comments bore little relation to economic reality.

Some respondents, however, felt the bank economists were guilty of sins of omission and likely to avoid discussing issues which placed the actions of the banking sector in a negative light. For their part, bank economists acknowledged that academics were better equipped to provide the "big picture" overview of the economy, and to put today's economic events in a broader historical context.

Independence, however, is not always what it seems. Bridgman found journalists did not routinely ask academics if they had conflicts of interest - even though many have private research and consulting arrangements. Universities routinely seek funding from industry - such as the University of Canterbury's 2005 agreement with Provincial Finance to fund a professorial chair in investment finance. The deal fell over when Provincial Finance was put into receivership the following year. "If we want our academics to be a source of independent expert comment on the state of an industry, do we want them reliant on that industry for funding?" asks Bridgman.

The media's independence gets challenged, too. Bridgman points out that ownership of New Zealand's media is highly concentrated, with little competition. He notes also how banks have developed close relationships with media - sponsoring news segments and through informal relationships between journalists and bank economists. Finance companies were filling some of the slots too. Capital + Merchant Finance sponsored TVNZ's nightly news updates until it went into receivership in November 2007 owing $190 million and leaving some 7000 investors in the cold. Hanover Finance sponsored TVNZ's weather update. The voiceover by former TVNZ news presenter Richard Long, said: "This One Weather Update is brought to you by Hanover, a New Zealand business with the size and strength to withstand any conditions". In July 2008 Hanover Finance froze $554 million of funds, leaving 16,500 out of pocket.

Given the way in which banks and other financial institutions are deeply implicated in the causes of the global financial crisis, Bridgman asks whether TVNZ might have better informed New Zealanders about the finance company sector without such sponsorships. A sector that has been obliterated, with more than 60 companies wiped out and some 200,000 people expected to lose half of the $8.5 billion invested.

"Even if there was no overt editorial influence," says Bridgman, "it is plausible that the sponsorship of news by banks and finance companies might have made journalists less likely to pursue negative stories involving their sponsors or the financial sector as a whole."

Bridgman's research also finds a media environment of shrinking resources - a situation he says reinforces journalists' reliance on their established sources, such as bank economists, on whom they can rely to provide an informed comment at short notice. The end result of too many vested interest voices and not enough independents is a fourth estate ill-equipped to perform its function of holding powerful institutions accountable for their actions. "In an increasingly commercialised industry, it is becoming less obvious that the media even identify with those responsibilities."

Bridgman's conclusion is straightforward: more scrutiny, more outsiders speaking, more informed debate. Academics, especially those in business schools, not only could be, but should be contributing to an enhanced public understanding of the causes and effects of the most significant economic event since the 1930s Depression.

It's a call for those in the know to indeed "speak truth to power" and rekindle the role of critic and conscience of society. It's a call, as Palestinian literary critic the late Edward Said put it, to be "the scoffer whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma, to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations".

For economist and "independent scholar" Brian Easton, such a definition immediately rules out most "occupational-intellectuals" because they are insiders typically loyally working for the government or corporations. But as Bridgman found, it was non academic experts driven by commercial incentives who dominated discussion about the global financial crisis. Which is not say their contributions weren't valid. But without genuinely independent voices, the discussion was less than it might have been.

In an interview with Simmons in 2003, Easton cites Samuel Butler's Erewhon: "It will be seen that the Erewhonians are meek and long-suffering people, easily led by the nose and quick to offer up common sense when a philosopher rises among them". The deep strain of anti-intellectualism in New Zealand was alive as early as the 1860s. In many ways, says Easton, it represents the best of New Zealand - the readiness to "give it a go". What it lacks is careful, rigorous thinking. "We often just grab a fashion: Rogernomics was a fashion, the earlier economic policies were fashions. We don't think about them systematically and we tend to follow the herd."

Who speaks?

Expert analysts - please don't call them "intellectuals" - speaking out about business and the economy.

The Business has compiled its own highly subjective list of experts providing analysis and commentary on New Zealand's business climate. Apologies in advance to those omitted.

Getting on the list requires three things:

* A proven field of expertise
* Recent and/or regular publication in a public forum
* Commentary or analysis of business matters relevant to all New Zealanders

We've divided the list into two categories of expert - independent and occupational - to indicate the difference between those who may have a vested interest, though this too is highly subjective.

INDEPENDENTS

Academics:
Dame Anne Salmond
Paul Moon
Campbell Jones
Bryce Edwards
Tim Hazledine
Bryan Gould
Jane Kelsey
Roger Bowden
John Farrar
David Tripe
Bob Hargreaves
Sir Paul Callaghan
Keith Woodford
Susan St John
Claire Matthews
Steve Poletti
Keith Rankin
Ben Thirkell-White
John Gibson
Bob Buckle
Eric Crampton
Ben Jacobsen
Susan Flint-Hartle
John Small

Journalists:
Bernard Hickey
Gareth Vaughan.
Chris Trotter
Brian Fallow
Rod Oram
Fran O'Sullivan
Russell Brown
Gordon Campbell
David Cohen

Economists:
Brian Easton

OCCUPATIONAL

Economists:
Gareth Morgan
Tony Alexander
Cameron Bagrie
Alan Bollard
John McDermott
Grant Spencer
Doug Steel
Chris Tennent-Brown
Bill Rosenberg
Gareth Kiernan
Shamubeel Eaqub
Koon Goh
Nick Tuffley
Alan Oster
Bill Evans

Philanthropists:
Owen Glenn

Publishers:
Ian Hunter

Think Tanks:
David Skilling
Hugh Pavletich
Phil O'Reilly

Real Estate Managers:
Peter Thompson
Alastair Helm

Investment Managers:
Brian Gaynor
Neville Bennett

Financial Services Consultants:
Bruce Sheppard
Godfrey Boyce
Roger Kerr (Asia-Pacific Risk Management)

- NZ Herald

Chris Barton

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton is a freelance writer with 28 years experience in newspapers and magazines. He's been writing about technology since 1986, was the founding editor of New Zealand PC World and has won numerous media awards, including, in 2009, journalism's top prize, the Wolfson Press Fellowship to Cambridge. He has a Master of Architecture, teaches part time at the Auckland School of Architecture and is an architecture critic, winning, in 2014, the Canon Media Awards Reviewer of the Year.

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