For many decades now I have commented publicly on issues to do with economics and finance. I’m still interested in that stuff – which is why I continue to comment on monetary policy, housing, tax, welfare policy, inequality, and investing to name just a few. But over the last few years I’ve broadened my subject range a bit to cover the environment and society at large, including:
- Climate Change
- The performance of New Zealand’s health system and opportunities for improvement
- The state of the world’s fisheries and the future for sustainable fishing
- The issues facing Our Far South (Antarctica, Southern Ocean and subantarctic islands)
- The expansion of dairying in New Zealand and environmental consequences of focussing on quantity rather than value of milk products
- The opportunities and threats to monetising our natural capital – particularly the role of wandering cats in causing local extinctions of native species
This year we have new projects including:
- Predator Free New Zealand – making Sir Paul Callaghan’s vision a reality
- Enhancing the halo around Wellington’s biodiversity hotspots and ensuring Wellington is NZ’s natural capital-
- Agitating for cleaner rivers in New Zealand – advocating polluters pay for the privilege
- Evaluating the impact of food on our health
- Examining the future of institutionalised biculturalism. Where to now for the Treaty of Waitangi?
Some of these new topics have taken people by surprise. It may look like a big list, but to me it is all the bread and butter work of economists. We’re forever assessing costs and benefits, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats – these are the focus of economic analysis. The reason I became interested in the environment is because I see it as part of New Zealand’s unique selling point to the world. In other words there is an economic dividend (jobs and incomes) to protecting this ‘natural capital’. I’m interested in issues like the Treaty of Waitangi and the health system because enhancing our collective wellbeing is the objective of economics.
Being obsessively curious and never too old to learn new things is a trait common to many people. I’m in the fortunate position of being able to call in experts on various topics, have the evidence presented, assess the issues and publish the findings. This way of starting conversations is simply fun. I also believe that democracy works better when people are informed, my experience is that the public is astoundingly rational when it is presented with all the evidence in a digestible fashion, so when I learn something new I should share it.
In many ways I am in a privileged position. Thanks to my investments and the sales of my businesses I can pursue what interests me full time. As well as contracting out to the relevant experts on a topic I also employ some cool analysts in the Morgan Foundation to research topics and help get the findings out.
What Floats my Boat
As you will see from the above list we cover a wide variety of topics at the Morgan Foundation. There are more than another 100 that did not make the cut this year. A typical enquiry or project we take on at the Morgan Foundation will tend to:
- Be in the public interest – it will potentially add value to society. Chances are it will not be covered in the media because it is either too confusing, too controversial or because the popular press is preoccupied running another feature on readers’ cutest pets, road accidents, murders, gossip and speculation. Such must be the priority when financing tomorrow’s fish and chip paper.
- Have tangible results – it will offer the opportunity to achieve real change whether it be in policy or behaviour.
- Be quick to deliver – we will be able to deliver results quickly. We work fast here because we don’t have any political constraints that might slow us, make us resistant to change. We can be neutral, speak to the point and say what we think, report on what we find.
- Be fun! – Often this goes hand in hand with being controversial.
It doesn’t always go our way;
For example, following our book on fishing (Hook Line and Blinkers) we scoped a campaign on marine issues. This took about a month and was looking really exciting. However, as part of the project I wanted to show Kiwis a map of possible marine reserves. To do a decent job I had to get data from right across government, which turned out to be a nightmare. So I had to chuck the project in – a real shame. If the bureaucrats ever get their act together we would love to return to it.
Without appreciating both sides of the argument, how can you form an objective opinion? This is why I often put us through the intense process of writing a book. It forces our team to research everything and come up with an opinion that we can all buy into. Believe me that is not always easy, but at least this means we reach an opinion that is informed and balanced.
We rely on the expertise of others – and often it often turns out that the world’s top experts are Kiwis. We talk to the experts, and review the latest peer-reviewed research (this is important because it shows it has been quality-assured by others). Being lay people ourselves, we work really hard to translate the technical knowledge of experts into words that the rest of the population can understand. This takes time – and sometimes the scientists themselves get fed up because we have to simplify things a lot to make the issues digestible.
The other unique contribution we can make is to focus on the important stuff. A lot of experts get really close to their subjects and can’t see the wood for the trees. As economists we are experts at sniffing out the best bang for the buck – finding the ideas that will benefit New Zealand the most. So when I raise an idea you can be sure that I haven’t just made it up.
A good example of this in action is when we wrote our book on climate change – Poles Apart. I wanted to know whether climate change was truly happening, so I engaged top scientists from both sides of the debate – the alarmists and the deniers – and set them against each other. John McCrystal and I sat in the middle and tried to make sense of it all. Like most science there is not a 100% proof answer, but on the balance of evidence we were convinced that anthropogenic (human-made) climate change is real.
What Can You Do?
Speak Up! – I don’t care if you disagree with what we’re saying – that’s fine – but bring us the facts. Challenge me. Inform me. Let’s get into a meaningful debate. But don’t expect us to respond to an emotional rant. Bring evidence to the table, and we will be listening.
When I started the cat campaign, we had gathered a lot of peer-reviewed research to back up our position. No expert will question that cats kill, even if they are well fed. Yet still people (including the SPCA!) claimed that because cats are cute and cuddly they wouldn’t possibly kill native birds. Grow up people, open your eyes and take responsibility for your actions.
Don’t Expect Funding – a lot of people see me talking about an issue and get excited because they think I will fund their pet project. That’s not the approach we take here. New Zealand is a first world country. We have plenty for everyone if we just run things right. Most of our money goes overseas to the people that really have nothing: see the Morgan Foundation site for details.
What Do You Think We Should Research? – If you know of an issue that could benefit from a fresh look, get in touch! Tell us a story why we should study that area, get us inspired. If you would like you can tell your story in the comments below.