ReadingRoom

Book of the Week: Brian Easton will now harrumph

Shamubeel Eaqub reviews a thumping big opus by Brian Easton, "a walking encyclopaedia of New Zealand’s economic history".

I used to lunch fairly regularly with Brian Easton and Jas Mackenzie, the former secretary of the Department of Labour, at Nikau by the Wellington Art Gallery. Standing order was usually their excellent kedgeree and a soda of the day. We talked about economics, politics, life and all that. Every so often, Brian would talk a little about the chapter of a book he was working on at the time. Not in Narrow Seas: The economic history of Aotearoa New Zealand is the excellent outcome.

A lot of our conversations were around housing, in part because of my interest, and I asked them both about data sources, history, and why something happened on a chart. They had all the stories. We also talked about immigration, the economic outlook, and the risks from too much debt. There were differences of opinions of course, but it is hard to recall big disagreements. We talked about politics, who has the best gossip in town and which political bloggers were worth reading (Danyl Mclauchlan’s Dim-Post was our top at the time). Often we’d meet after putting out quarterly forecasts when I was still at NZIER, so our chat was about what was going on post the earthquake in Christchurch, the rebuild or the global financial crisis.

In some of the chapters I could see glimpses of conversations we had over lunch. But Not In Narrow Seas is really a lifetime of work turned into an accessible and sometimes challenging book on the economic history of New Zealand. I enjoyed reading it. It made me think. I am still thinking and still have many questions.

It arrived in my house just as the Covid crisis was breaking and I was already in isolation with a suspicious cold. So I had time to browse, but I also needed a New Zealand perspective on the Great Depression comparisons mushrooming overseas.

I turned to the Great Depression chapter and it gave a great summary of how it unfolded, how we compared to other countries, and gave a punchy summary of the Kiwi experience. I didn’t know that unemployment may have been as high as 30% - or that we were already experiencing years of stagnation. History doesn’t repeat but it rhymes.

Looking at the economy through the lens of history makes it much more relatable than most books about the economy, which frankly tend to be dry as unbuttered toast. Easton’s book will also appeal to history and political types too. There’s plenty of both Not In Narrow Seas.

The book is pretty big. But doesn’t feel so. It’s in discrete bits. Each chapter is around 10 pages; it’s easy to dip in and out. Which is a great strength, because the book covers a vast span of time, critical events in our economic history, and large economic concepts.

This book is not the usual Brian Easton tome. He has written extensively on the New Zealand economy over decades. His writing can be described as a hard slog. But Not In Narrow Seas is far more approachable and best consumed in small bites. It packs a lot in and you need to let the descriptions paint a picture, settle in your mind and to query if you’re convinced by the arguments.

It builds on our growing understanding of the economy and our own history. Brian’s past work on the Maori economy in particular adds a richness and necessary voice that is often missing in economic narratives.

Easton paints a well researched economic history of New Zealand and advances views on why some things may have happened. He often presents more than one voice. For example there’s three perspectives on the success or otherwise of Rogernomics; each scenario is plausible. It shows how difficult it may be for us to detach from our ideologies. The book also presents a helpful plurality of views, which is a fair reflection of the debate in academia and among the public.

Many economists will have fond (and some not so fond)  memories of the typical Easton harrumph before a tricky question at the end of a presentation, usually followed by his own answer. It can be daunting to be questioned by someone who has dedicated much of his life to understanding our economic history. But young and experienced economists alike will learn a valuable understanding of our country’s journey to today.

The man is a walking encyclopaedia of New Zealand’s economic history. Not In Narrow Seas is the accessible and condensed version of that in print.

Not In Narrow Sea: The economic history of Aotearoa New Zealand by Brian Easton (Victoria University Press, $60) is available in bookstores nationwide.

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