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Sunday, June 21, 2020


Not in Narrow Seas by New Zealand economist, consultant and political commentator, Brian Easton, is an interesting book on many levels.

First, there is the striking cover image.  A painting by New Zealand artist Nigel Brown, it is based on a work by the Tahitian high priest Tupaia, who sailed on the Endeavour with Captain Cook, and was instrumental in forging a productive, and largely non-combative relationship between the crew, captain, and supernumeraries of the ship and the Maori of New Zealand.

This is what Tupaia drew:

Having a dry sense of humor, Tupaia was enjoying a private joke when he made this sketch of Joseph Banks, the young and somewhat pompous botanist with the expedition, in a stand-off situation with a Maori chief. Banks's intention was to barter a piece of tapa cloth for a crayfish (New Zealand lobster), but neither he nor the Maori were willing to let go first. Eventually, the exchange was made, but in an atmosphere of deep suspicion.  It was a potent and eloquent prediction of the trading future of all the peoples of New Zealand, now as well as back then.

Thus, Brown's version of the same scene (the only difference being that the European is trading a nail instead of cloth) is the perfect illustration for Easton's book, As he meditates in chapter five, "Maori meet the Market," which of the two is getting the better deal? Is it the Briton who is receiving food, the very basis of life? Or is it the Maori man who is receiving a capital good which will markedly increase his productivity?

Economists observe that it is a voluntary exchange, so their answer is "both."

Something else that makes this book different is its emphasis on the environment.  Justifiably, the publishers claim that this "is the first economic history to underline the central role of the environment, beginning with the geological formation of these islands."  Where other economists have concentrated on the produce of the soil, and the quarrying of the land, Easton is also passionate about the economic challenges of global warming. "About the time this was first written," he points out, "tens of thousands of New Zealand children and hundreds of thousands throughout the world took a day off school to march to demand that global warming be taken more seriously."  Certain politicians and tycoons might not have taken much notice, but Easton certainly did.

Then there is the title.  "Not in Narrow Seas," as Easton explains in his introduction, is New Zealand poet Allen Curnow's "pioneering 1939 work, a collection of great poems evoking New Zealand's isolationg and fragility.

In your atlas two islands not in narrow seas -- it begins --
Like a child's kite anchored in the indifferent blue...

The poet is describing what is commonly known as "the tyranny of distance," a geographical fact that separates the country from the rest of the world in general, and "Mother England" in particular, an awareness that is very much part of the national psyche. "Curnow's poetry is a gift for an economist," says Easton.  "It captures certain brutal truths about our country.  If the land mass later known as New Zealand had sunk beneath the waves 23 million-odd years ago, the history of the world would have been little different." Very true -- back then -- but in this age of the internet and international flight, is it still true today?  This is a large part of what this book explores, starting with the profound effect of refrigerated shipping on the farm-based economy.

And, as Easton also goes on to explore, does New Zealand have anything to offer to the wider world, apart from sheep meat, dairy products, enviable scenery, a tricky touch with filmmaking, fine wine and wool?   Is it possible that such a small country could create new insights into political, social, environmental or economic matters?  Is it surprising, for instance, that universal suffrage had such an early start here -- or that a cooperative populace was willing to make sacrifices to stem the latest pandemic?

The administration of Aotearoa is different from many, in that it is politically centralized.  As Easton points out, most interestingly, this is because government was already established when European mass settlement began, while -- "In other former colonies such as the United States, settlements began 150 years before a federal government was formed." This meant that in America musket-armed, log-cabin-building, fundamentally Christian pioneers had already stamped their presence on the scene by the time America won its independence, a fact that the Founding Fathers had to take on board when establishing a government, something that is amply illustrated within the Constitution.

This book is full of such thought-provoking insights, which would make it worth reading even if it were not so entertaining.  That it is so accessible is the result of Easton's many years of writing popular columns of political, social, and economic commentary.  Despite the subtitle, the book is really an economist's meditations on the history of Aotearoa New Zealand, and it is this that makes it different, as well as valuable.

I was pleased to be one of the audience at a well-attended occasion at Unity Books, Wellington, where Brian Easton was interviewed by another eminent economist, Allan Bollard, who drew out very interesting insights into sheep farming, refrigeration, and the Maori economy.

There is also a warm review in today's Newsroom daily briefing.

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