Why does Gareth Morgan think he's the cat's pyjamas?

ADAM DUDDING
Last updated 07:46 27/01/2013
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He's been called a lunatic, a "media whore", a "boring, self-centred plonker" and worse (much worse), but last week New Zealand's renegade millionaire economist, Gareth Morgan, earned himself a whole new constituency of enemies from around the planet when he suggested cat-owners should think about getting rid of their pets.

"I've had a s...load of hate mail," Morgan told the Star-Times on the phone from China, where he was attending a wedding. "A lot of it out of America, actually. Now I understand why those people shoot each other so much. God, they're mad."

Setting aside the unprovoked Yank-baiting, let's have a quick recap of the people to whom Morgan has recently offered free, potentially unwelcome, advice.

Cat-owners, obviously, and he embellished his position by telling The Atlantic magazine: "The most oft-heard and erroneous utterance we get here from cat owners is, 'Oh but my pussy only kills rats and mice, he'd never harm a native bird.' As you can see this denial verges on explicit stupidity."

He told Wellington's Phoenix football team (which he part-owns) it needed to start playing a more "attractive" attacking game (the team has since performed even worse than usual). Fans who disagree are "pathetic" and "don't know much about the game anyway", he told Radio Sport.

Last year he told the Greens they don't understand economics, urged farmers to abandoned "environmental retards" Federated Farmers, and suggested the government totally restructure the tax and welfare systems.

He's co-authored books setting the record straight on climate change (it's happening), public health (it needs reform), the world's fisheries (they're running out), and the finance industry (it's ropey). When his investment company, GMI, launched its own KiwiSaver fund in 2007, part of his pitch was that all the other providers were doing it wrong. When challenged last year about the fund's underwhelming performance, he said investors and the financial media were ignorant.

Taking an interest in the world is one thing, but the sheer breadth of Morgan's claimed areas of wisdom, and the fact that his personal wealth allows him the time to run around sharing it, have seen him become arguably New Zealand's biggest know-all.

Naturally, he claims to know what he's up to.

Apparently, behind the provocations and the droopy moustache lies the coolly calculating brain of a trained economist who still believes in the miracle of the market and the rationality of people - just so long as they're well-informed (which isn't to say he's a fellow-traveller with the free-market fanatics of the ACT party, whom he considers "mad" and "disgusting").

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Questioning the status quo "is just a natural effect of being trained as an economist. You tend to be looking at the public good."

His methods, as irritating as they may be, are simply about efficiently disseminating high-quality data. "You basically scatter the chooks and then you say, 'Calm down. I've got your attention. Now look at the evidence.' "

But isn't it terribly arrogant to go around telling people they're doing things wrong?

No, says Morgan. "I say, 'Let's go through the arguments. Tell me which one is wrong, and why. If you're prepared to do that and have a rational engagement, I'll continue to stay engaged. Otherwise, go f... yourselves, more or less."'

Half the time, claims Morgan, rational discussion then ensues.

Morgan's 59 and he's been a stirrer for years. He was editor of the school newspaper at Putaruru High, and was suspended a couple of times.

"I led the students out on strike against the teachers who were already out on strike."

Home saw endless dinner-table arguments with parents about the Vietnam War (anti) and Rhodesian independence (he was pro).

After earning economics degrees from Massey and Victoria, Morgan worked for the Reserve Bank, where he developed a hatred of hierarchy.

"I'm essentially unemployable. Always have been. I can't stand the fact that my getting ahead depends on the guy sitting on top of me."

Striking out alone, he launched a racing guide that used econometric techniques to identify the most lucrative bets. It wasn't a success, but his next venture, economic forecasting firm Infometrics, was. By the time he sold up in the late 90s he was loaded. His investment firm, Gareth Morgan Investments, was launched in 2000 and in 2006 his fortunes leapt further when a $75,000 investment in his son Sam's company, Trade Me, turned into a $47m windfall.

Morgan announced he would give this unneeded second fortune away, and set up The Morgan Foundation, which supports conservation projects and development projects.

The foundation also does something called "public policy education". In effect, the hyper-opinionated Morgan now sub-contracts part of his opinion-forming process.

He finds a subject that piques his interest, such as global warming or the Treaty of Waitangi, then gets his team of researchers, plus an external expert or two, to research the hell out of it, often publishing a book of the findings.

"My role tends to be to focus it, bring it to a head and communicate it."

Sure, he could do something similar if he was a journalist, but then he'd have to do what an editor told him.

Yes, he could get involved in politics, but he's far more interested in policy, and "at the end of the day, if an idea has merit the politicians come running".

Does Morgan have to be so stroppy? Why call the Phoenix fans "pathetic" for questioning his comments on the team's playing style? Why call Federated Farmers "retards"? Why call Christchurch environmentalist and film-maker Peter Young a "hypocrite", just because he and Young have different views on how to reach a common goal of saving the Southern Ocean from overfishing?

As a newspaper editorial writer noted last week, "extreme views rarely garner respect". Couldn't Morgan enlighten the New Zealand populace a little more politely and sensibly?

"I get advice of that tenor all the time," he says. "I got it on the cat issue, and vehemently opposed it."

Why?

"Last week I got an email from Virginia Larson, editor of North & South magazine. She said to me, 'It makes me sick. I wrote an editorial on this a couple of months ago, exactly the same sort of view as you, and didn't get a squeak out of anybody.' There's your answer."

Last week, the first line of Morgan's Wikipedia page was briefly replaced with an unprintable bit of abuse. He's come under attack from furious Phoenix supporters on the Yellow Fever fan site. SPCA boss Bob Kerridge has called the anti-cat plan "hare-brained" and blogger David Farrar called Morgan a "fruitcake".

Abuse doesn't bother him. What counts is the engagement. "In the last 24 hours I've sent probably 200 emails to people, for and against."

Not all of Morgan's targets take umbrage. Young didn't mind publicly debating Morgan about the Ross Sea. He thinks Morgan was wrong to accuse a large number of scientists of being "green extremes", but on balance "Gareth is bloody good for New Zealand society. I enjoy his opinion".

The Greens, too, were happy to debate Morgan over the economy.

"He's outspoken and he's got ideas," says Green MP Kennedy Graham, "and you've got to value that." Graham is confident Morgan was wrong, "but there's no subject that should be off-limits for raising for public discussion".

Morgan's vast wealth appears to have made him supremely confident, says Graham, "but I don't get the feeling he's being arrogant. If he's wrong he's prepared to admit it".

Morgan has promised a second round of cat-related trouble-making. His foundation is researching topics including public health, obesity and the future of biculturalism. He'll be using Trade Me money to generate public outrage and education for some time to come.

Morgan recalls something his son Sam said just after the Trade Me sale.

"He said, 'Isn't it amazing when you get all this money? It's incredible - you've just got so many choices. You become so powerful. And s..., you've got to be responsible, don't you!'

"That's the point. With it comes an enormous amount of responsibility. I think about that every day."

Philanthropists like to leave a legacy. What happens once Morgan dies? "I've never thought about that, really. I don't see why the thing can't continue. Certainly all the social development stuff - that's easy.

"The other stuff, the public policy provocation, would probably die with me, because it takes a certain kind of nutcase, really."

- Fairfax Media

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