Book review: Get off the Grass, by Shaun Hendy and Paul Callaghan

by Tim Hazledine / 12 September, 2013
Get off the Grass is a classy, spirited, intelligent book – but its central claims are wrong.
The great physicist Max Planck once said he tried to study economics but gave up because it was too hard. Professor Sir Paul Callaghan – a distinguished physicist and 2011 New Zealander of the Year – had no such qualms. He was “fascinated” by economics and cheerfully popped out a book on the subject – Wool to Weta: Transforming New Zealand’s Culture and Economy (2009). So how did Callaghan deal with the too-hard problem? He simply ignored it, evidently innocent of any reading into the discipline or serious conversations with working economists.

Sir Paul Callaghan, By Murray Webb


I may not have been the only economist reviewer of Wool to Weta to grumble about this. In any case, when Callaghan – knowing his time was short – approached another physicist, Shaun Hendy, to collaborate on what became Get off the Grass: Kickstarting New Zealand’s Innovation Economy, their approach was totally different. They shared drafts with possibly New Zealand’s smartest young economist – Dave Maré of Motu Economic and Public Policy Research – and others, and dug enthusiastically into the classics of the subject, such as the ideas of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Alfred Marshall, as well as modern research into the economics of growth and the economy of cities. They brought in Hendy’s own work on similarities between biological and innovation networks and ecosystems, and that of other non-economists – fascinating stuff.

However, the results are basically the same as those of the earlier book. There are in essence two claims made: one major, one subsidiary. The major is this: the income gap between New Zealand and Australia and other economies is caused by a “knowledge gap” marked by our relatively low output of patented intellectual property (IP), to be cured by more (and better) government spending on research and development (R&D).

The subsidiary proposition is signalled by the clever title of the new book: current R&D efforts, such as they are, are inappropriately biased towards our traditional land-based activities – especially agriculture – instead of focusing on developing IT and other advanced manufacturing and service activities. We should be “exporting knowledge, not nature”.

In 2009, I thought both these propositions were wrong, and they still are in 2013. You simply cannot build a well-grounded explanation of international income variations on differences in R&D or IP or patents. And the view of land-based activities as producing boring “commodities” is simplistic and misleading – there is a heck of a lot of “knowledge” built into the modern agricultural supply chain, for example.

But never mind that. This is a classy, spirited, intelligent book, with something of interest on just about every page – from people in big cities walking faster to the serendipitous origins of Silicon Valley. Read and enjoy, but don’t take it all on. Economics really is difficult. Another great physicist – the magical Richard Feynman – gave a clue why when he said: “Imagine how much harder physics would be if electrons had emotions!”

Humans do move in mysterious ways. They have their reasons and these can differ across countries and cultures. Meddle with caution.

GET OFF THE GRASS: KICKSTARTING NEW ZEALAND’S INNOVATION ECONOMY, by Shaun Hendy and Paul Callaghan (AUP, $34.99).

Tim Hazledine is a professor of economics in the University of Auckland Business School.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Cutting costs: The perils of buying a chainsaw
73472 2017-06-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Cutting costs: The perils of buying a chainsaw

by Rebecca Hayter

Rookie lifestyler Rebecca Hayter on sawing the wood for the trees.

Read more
Hell and high water: When climate change comes lapping at your door
73401 2017-06-24 00:00:00Z Environment

Hell and high water: When climate change comes lap…

by Anke Richter

The world’s first climate change refugee now lives in a quiet Dunedin suburb. For Sigeo Alesana, life in this southern city is a long was from home.

Read more
Film review: Rosalie Blum
75175 2017-06-24 00:00:00Z Movies

Film review: Rosalie Blum

by Peter Calder

Rosalie Blum is a charming comedy of déjà vu and stalking.

Read more
Tatai Whetu revives seldom-heard pre-European musical culture
75198 2017-06-24 00:00:00Z Music

Tatai Whetu revives seldom-heard pre-European musi…

by Elizabeth Kerr

The sounds of taonga puoro are harmonising with Western instruments on concert platforms.

Read more
The Pill in New Zealand: Freedom - and denial
75395 2017-06-24 00:00:00Z Health

The Pill in New Zealand: Freedom - and denial

by Justin Gregory

"My doctor simply would not prescribe me the Pill. He was very disapproving. 'Haven’t you learned your lesson?’"

Read more
Best red and white wines for winter
75447 2017-06-24 00:00:00Z Wine

Best red and white wines for winter

by Michael Cooper

The winter chill has us instinctively reaching for bold reds and sturdy whites.

Read more
What to do and see in Auckland
74332 2017-06-24 00:00:00Z Sport

What to do and see in Auckland

by Noted

The shopping! The beaches! The cafés! The volcanoes! Auckland is New Zealand’s biggest and busiest city and has everything on offer all the time.

Read more
How the All Blacks inaugural World Cup triumph revived the game of rugby
75187 2017-06-24 00:00:00Z Sport

How the All Blacks inaugural World Cup triumph rev…

by Paul Thomas

The sport was bruised by the fallout from the 1981 Springbok tour, the rebel Cavaliers’ visit to South Africa and a rampant rival football code.

Read more