The Anti-Economist Papers
Here’s a nice rural scene: a passing motorist bets a mustering farmer one sheep that he can guess the exact number of sheep in his flock. When the motorist gets the number exactly right first go, the farmer tells him to take a sheep, adding laughingly, “You’re an economist, aren’t you?”
“How did you know?” the motorist asks.
“Put my dog down, and I’ll tell you,” says the farmer.
This wee joke – one of many in Paul Bieleski’s The Anti-Economist Papers – is a succinct attitudinal and philosophical summary of the author’s intent. For all the humour, this is a real bee-in-the-bonnet book. It’s a tract, its polemic punctuated with aphorisms and (mostly lame) jokes and unsubtle cartoons.
Why should you read it? Because for all the times you want to throw the book across the room and shout “Get over it!” at its cantankerous author, it is a lively, thought-provoking tome – as only the product of a life’s beady obsession can be.
On another level, it’s the hectic therapy of an intelligent, rational and good-humoured man who has been driven to hyperbole by the ills of the world, and found economists (not society – not even politicians or the media) to blame.
It’s a fun read that also irritates, or an irritating read that is also quite good fun. Paul Bieleski trained in economics, and he hates it. He believes it a pseudo-science that has wrought incalculable damage on the world – with the grim emphasis on “incalculable,” since his core theme is that economists calculate the sum of life highly selectively, and even then, they get those few bits of it wrong.
He reckons we have “reified” the economy into a Thing, much as believers reify God. The Thing is presented as though it had concrete dimensions, and only those trained in its workings can protect it from irrational, opportunistic or wrong-headed political interference. The Thing’s viscera are the marketplace: “The euphemism ‘financial markets’ means that people or organisations with money to invest (rich people) must be protected from anything that makes them nervous (it does not matter that poor people are made nervous).”
Widely – and wildly – read, Bieleski bandies bright nuggets of resource material. It’s a lively primer for anyone unfamiliar with economics. He gives us the Club of Rome on the limits to growth; Vilfredo Pareto’s maxim (true economic welfare is only achieved if, anytime a person is made better off, no-one else is made worse off); Gareth Morgan’s writings; the Phillips Curve of employment; Will Hutton’s The State We’re In; Jane Kelsey; even Sir Robert Jones. He canvasses compellingly the deficiencies of economic measurement – why don’t we measure health, welfare, the extent to which people help each other?
Given that there is a major world movement toward better-rounded economic measurements, which is slowly shaming even the central bank high priests into re-evaluation, Bieleski is no crank – even though he sometimes writes like one.
Personal convictions are junked in with reasoned argument, as if the author has temporarily lost his grip, and stuck his tongue out at you. “They (some economists) want to root out egalitarianism and the thought that, collectively, we must care for all citizens and share in all good things,” he rails. “Ban the study of economics,” he heads one sub-chapter. “Kill the economists!” begins another.
For some, this may leaven the book. But it’s often hard to tell quite when he’s being playful, and when he’s deadly serious.
He does offer some gorgeous nonsenses. Gross domestic product growth is held by economists to be good, but some of the things it measures are quite bad. The Kobe earthquake added massively to Japan’s GDP, because so much economic activity was generated repairing its damage. The O J Simpson trial generated $200 million more GDP for the US. And did you know that in a well-documented experiment, dustmen outperformed economists and captains of industry in making economic forecasts?
Most contentiously, Bieleski argues that economists, for all that they disagree about most everything, have connived at social engineering – to make us all more materialistic. Their dogma is that people are insatiable consumers, and that drives everything. At the same time, he argues that economists have no grasp of human nature.
This is where you might find yourself shrieking rude words into the pages of this book. Acquisitiveness – aspiration, the quest for security, outright greed – is part of human nature. Economists didn’t invent it. Can Bieleski really believe that they are the prime perpetuators of it in modern-day people? Just because they insist on factoring it into their (pseudo-scientific) calculations?
Bieleski clearly believes we could evolve beyond greed much faster if economists were drowned at birth. In an economist-free world, once our material needs were satisfied to a particular level, we would move onto a higher level of needs – of a more spiritual, caring nature – he suggests.
An economist might say, well, some of us will and some of us will still want a Porsche with every fibre of our being.
And you can imagine what Bieleski thinks about that. Railing against the economists’ notion of a “Porsche economy”, he says:
The Porsche is an extravagant car designed just for the rich. It is too powerful to be opened up on public roads. It is difficult to get into, and when you do, you have to sit with your knees up in the air. It cannot carry much luggage or many passengers. Its main function is to impress the gullible. As a machine for transport, it fails to be practical.
If this, and the famous gag about the Treasury economist’s report on the Unfinished Symphony – too many notes, repetitions, duplication of instruments etc – tickle your fancy, you will lap this book up. For serious thinkers-about-things, it may be an irritant to further thought, rather than necessarily an adjunct. It’s a romp, in which the humour is a little cheap, the assumptions are heroic and the whole tone rampantly political. But it’s also almost a backhanded glorification of economists. Economics is a big slice of the universe, but it is just a slice. Economists are surely not evil incubi in absolutely everything. This book, taken too seriously, could leave sensitive readers checking under the bed every night, to make sure Rufus Dawe or Rodney Hide weren’t there, ready to incant subliminal messages into their dreams.
The most reassuring line in the whole book is this: “Economics is the systematic complication of the simple details of housekeeping.” If you keep repeating this to yourself, the whole shower of economists demonised by Bieleski tends to disappear, like childhood monsters in the wardrobe.
Jane Clifton is a columnist for the Listener and The Dominion.