Outspoken economist leaves ChCh

PHILIP MATTHEWS
Last updated 14:15 16/08/2014

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On the first day of his last week in Christchurch, economist Eric Crampton perches on a stool at Black Betty cafe, orders two espressos and passes one over to his interviewer. Then he starts to explain why he is leaving.

Is it the push of Christchurch or the pull of Wellington? Crampton arrived here in November 2003 to take up a position at the University of Canterbury. Nearly 11 years later, he and his young family are leaving.

It is not the weather. As a Canadian, he thinks Christchurch has "the world's perfect climate".

On Monday he starts as the head of research at the New Zealand Initiative think tank, which evolved out of two earlier free-market groups, the Business Roundtable and the New Zealand Institute. He has put in an offer on a house in Khandallah. His only just repaired home in South Brighton is ready to go on the market.

He will lead a research team of five. His presence will allow executive director Oliver Hartwich to get out of the office, lift the initiative's low profile and raise funds.

Hartwich must also shake off some history. The Business Roundtable was a vehicle for Roger Kerr but it was limited by an adherence to 1980s free-market reforms and close links with the ACT party.

Crampton has not seen any party affiliation at the New Zealand Initiative.

"They're trying damn hard to not have any," he says. "They're trying to go where the data takes them and I will be keeping a hard line on that."

As examples of evenhandedness, he says that both Deputy Prime Minister Bill English and Labour leader David Cunliffe have been invited to speak. And when Crampton was a guest speaker at last year's ACT conference at wealthy backer Alan Gibbs' farm?

"I gave them heck for not focusing enough on civil liberties. I talked about the mess in the Christchurch rebuild. How moving away from the state-directed planning that ACT supported could have been useful."

He was still an economics lecturer then. While the New Zealand Initiative "pestered" him for a year before he said yes, Canterbury University's downsizing made the jump out of academia easier than otherwise.

"Had the university been able to continue as it had it would have been a much harder decision."

The economics side of the Department of Economics and Finance has shrunk from 20 people before the earthquakes to 10 now, with staff numbers linked to student numbers.

"It will pick up again. The main problem for the university is there's nowhere for students to live.

"It is harder to put on as many offerings with fewer staff and you can wish that the world were other than it was, but if the money isn't there, they can't do it."

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There is that harsh economic realism on one hand, but there is also a government "that only seems to care about pushing students through STEM subjects". In academic jargon, STEM means science, technology, engineering and maths.

Canterbury was Crampton's first job after graduate school. He did his undergraduate study at the University of Manitoba "because I grew up on a farm outside of there". Graduate school was George Mason University near Washington DC.

And New Zealand? Well, he applied for jobs everywhere but we looked interesting in other ways. As a classical liberal, Crampton believes the state's role in our lives should be as limited as possible. He liked New Zealand's relatively relaxed regulatory environment.

Did you ever read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, he asks. For him, New Zealand is Wonko the Sane.

He explains. Wonko the Sane was a character so appalled to find that even boxes of toothpicks need instructions, he declared the rest of the world an asylum and his own home to be the outside of the asylum.

"New Zealand has largely been the outside of the asylum," Crampton says. "People aren't scared to let others take risks. The US has gone nuts on tort law."

In a roundabout way, this leads to his disappointment with Christchurch after the earthquakes, or at least the Government's response. It was neither fully regulated nor deregulated, but an unhappy medium.

"You can have the Government come in and do it quickly and well. Or you can leave it to individual property owners and let the distributed decisions of everybody figure out what the city is going to look like. We got stuck with the worst of both."

If you decide to build a convention centre, you should decide very quickly where it will go so that hotel owners and others can respond. Precincts will emerge organically.

Instead, a convention centre announcement took 3 1/2 years. Bars and restaurants drifted to other parts of town. Some took their insurance money out of the city entirely.

Even when Crampton gets to Wellington, he will continue thinking about this.

He wants to find out who at Treasury suggested the green frame in the Central City Development Unit plan.

"I don't know what they were thinking. They thought it was a virtue to keep downtown property prices up but look at the shops that were on Manchester St. There is no way that the cashflow from those businesses would pay to replace the buildings. You had second-hand bookshops, barber shops, junk markets. It was fun and thriving."

As for "expropriating people" to build high-end apartments in the green frame: "Compulsory purchase? It's just smelly."

He has a lot to say about how the post-quake period has been handled. He says much of it in a chapter in Once in a Lifetime, a book of responses to Christchurch, to be launched at the end of the month.

He uses the word "confusopoly" to describe the competing layers of bureaucracy and governance in Christchurch. A month after the February 2011 quake he wrote that "Gerry Brownlee and Bob Parker are doing their best to wreck what I'd always found best about New Zealand - that folks were free to pursue their vision of the good life and to bear their own risks so long as they weren't burdening anybody else".

The worst thing we could do now is to go ahead with the planned covered stadium.

"The city just doesn't have the money. I went to my first rugby game at the temporary stadium a few months ago. I've had a hard time understanding rugby but I've been getting it taught to me. I understand ice hockey.

"Anyway, it's a great facility. It was packed out instead of half empty. That place could go for a long time yet. It doesn't have the capacity to host big test matches but how often do those come up?

"Should you spend $500 million for three events a year? It would be like buying a bus because sometimes you have the whole family visiting, and making that your daily driver. It's dumb."

Crampton has been a reliable commentator in the media and on his blog, Offsetting Behaviour.

This fits with a belief that academics should be public intellectuals, looking outward not inward.

"We're not supposed to be just creators of knowledge, we're also supposed to be guardians of it and communicators of it."

The Canterbury University academic Denis Dutton was a big influence. Among other things, Dutton maintained the hugely successful Arts and Letters Daily website as a clearing house for the world's best cultural coverage.

The pair were close. Crampton was at Dutton's hospice when the Boxing Day quakes hit in 2010, just two days before Dutton's death.

But even Dutton's public work was tolerated rather than encouraged by the university, Crampton says.

"The funding environment is bums on seats plus peer-reviewed journal articles. The critic and conscience stuff is nice but it doesn't bring in any money. If you can do it on top of the other stuff, then it's fantastic.

"The university never seemed to know what to do with Denis. How long did it take him to make associate professor? The university knows what it rewards. There is not as much place for folks like Denis now. Any recognition he got at Canterbury came after his international recognition."

In a way, Crampton might be more free to be a public intellectual in his new role outside academia.

The New Zealand Initiative is funded by about 40 corporate members and while major reports must be signed off the board, headed by former Business Roundtable chairman and lawyer Roger Partridge, the minor stuff will be left to him.

He has a few things in mind. He is keen to work out how to fix EQC - like many in Christchurch, personal experience has given him a few pointers.

That reminds him. Besides the loss of the world's best climate and a house by the beach, the shift to Wellington has other pluses and minuses.

"It's great being in a real downtown again," he says.

"But it's also terrifying. You've got all these buildings with unreinforced masonry just standing there."

- The Press

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