“The economics profession has taken a long, hard look at itself after the Global Financial Crisis, Occupy Wall Street, and the popular success of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. But how many of us are debating these ideas seriously?”
This was a question posed by a member of the Economic Strategy team during an offsite planning day in early 2017. We’d kept up with economics news, maybe read an abstract or two and read some of these books individually, but we hadn’t meaningfully discussed what this meant for us as economic advisors.
This exposed a stark gap. How could we be advising on New Zealand’s economic strategy—let alone be world-leading—if we weren’t challenging our priors, inviting in new perspectives, reading and debating current economic thought, thinking about what this means for our advice, and helping others grow?
So Treasury staff started an economics reading group. Nearly two years after our first session on Gabriel Zucman’s The Hidden Wealth of Nations, Let’s Talk Economics has undertaken almost thirty economic discussions.
“The prudent [wo]man always studies seriously and earnestly to understand whatever [s]he professes to understand, and not merely to persuade other people that [s]he understands it; and though [her/]his talents may not always be very brilliant, they are always perfectly genuine.”
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments
Over the past two years, inclusive and diverse discussions have seen the group grow steadily. The first session started with a small group of around 10 people, from which core group of half a dozen regulars formed. Towards the end of year there was standing room only.
We attracted some names with heavy job titles. These included the Treasury Secretary, Gabriel Makhlouf, the Treasury’s Chief Operating Officer, Fiona Ross, Motu Senior Fellow, Isabelle Sin, and the Productivity Commission and University of Otago’s Andrew Coleman.
But the achievements we are proudest of are subtler. Providing a space for graduate analysts to present their ideas, having the IT folk teach economists about gaming economics, and listening to members of our Human Resources team explaining differences in negotiation tactics that embed gender inequality.
We discussed what economics can learn from anthropology. We raised provocative moots, including whether tax evasion can ever be ethical. We worked through some tense moments that were personal for many people around the table: our second gender economics discussion comes to mind. We dove into topics ranging from modern monetary theory; the dangers of big data; the economics of offices; wage growth stagnation; competition amongst digital monopolies; migration; and whether more money makes you happier. All of these improved our understanding of the economy.
Over the next few months we will start sharing our discussions through the Treasury Staff Insights Blog. These do not represent the Treasury’s views on these topics, nor the views of a particular person or group. Instead, they are the result of open and inclusive discussions between experts and the interested, with a view to widen our perspectives, deepen our understanding, and improve the quality of our advice for all New Zealanders.