Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Roger Kerr

I'm very late in posting this. Where to start?

Roger Kerr died this weekend. I first met him a couple of years after coming to New Zealand. Gracious and gentle, and utterly without pretence, it was impossible on first meeting to tell just how much of the current New Zealand policy environment was due to his hard work in the 80s and beyond.

But Malcolm McKinnon tells the story. Internal Economics II was the group headed by Jas McKenzie to analyse "the constraints on economic growth, the examination of alternative strategies for improving New Zealand's economic performance, the development of policies to put the preferred strategy into effect, and the promotion of a re-examination of existing policies which appear to conflict with that strategy." Graham Scott succeeded McKenzie. Economics II set about laying the groundwork for the revolution, bringing insights from American economists like Ronald Coase and James Buchanan to New Zealand policy. And here's where Kerr entered:
While Economics II did shift the Treasury's stance on policies, its impact on process was equally significant, and here too the role of individuals was crucial. Among those most frequently mentioned is Roger Kerr. he had joined Treasury as a 32-year-old in 1976 after graduating in French [Canterbury!], working in Foreign Affairs, and subsequently gaining an economics degree - for Deane, he was 'the most outstanding economics student I ever had when I was teaching'. When Graham Scott was promoted to an Assistant Secretaryship in 1981, Kerr became director of Economics II.
Recalls one junior officer of Kerr,
His energy to involve himself in things across the spectrum of the department's work was enormous. And he created the culture of peer review - you were encouraged to critique other pieces of work from across the agency, very widely, encouraged to create ideas, support ginger group discussions, brainstorms, analysts writing papers - he modelled huge amounts of those sorts of behavioru, sending thoughts and pieces to Muldoon and ministers and other agencies 'for your information'. He'd be reading prodigiously.
McKinnon includes this Sunday Star cartoon from 1991.

Kerr's blog has been compiling a list of some of the elegies, including Richard Epstein and Tyler Cowen. I haven't a lot to add. I only met Roger a few times, but we corresponded by email more often. He was always very generous with his time, even writing a note of support for the economics department only a few short weeks ago to help us out a bit during the University's fiscal turmoil. I wish we'd known just how high the opportunity costs of his time then were.

Roger helped introduce me to the set of people to whom a young George Mason type ought be introduced when starting out in New Zealand. When I wound up in a minor stoush with former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer on alcohol regulation, Roger helped to show me how to craft a proper OIA request and helped make sure that the right folks got a copy of the work I'd been doing. He surely had better things to be doing and bigger fish to fry, but he always had time to help out the new kid.

Thanks Roger. The place won't be the same. And all our best to Lady Catherine. 


Update: Seamus adds:
I would draw readers’ attentions in particular to the obit from Richard Epstein, in particular confirming the viewpoint there that, in strict contrast to the caricatured public view of the Business Roundtable and, by extension, Roger, he lived his principles on an everyday basis, making sure that “this organization would not seek to find short-term advantages for its members at the expense of the public at large.”  
His excellent talk to Andrea’s class exemplified this. I think the students were surprised that right from the outset his talk was about “human flourishing”, not about productivity, catching up with Australia, or other narrow concepts. The powerpoint slides don’t do justice to the talk he gave around them, but the final two slides are probably an apt summary of his world view.
 Here are the slides from Roger's talk with Andrea's public finance class.

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