Brown Study

Brown Study

1 June 2019

9:00 AM

1 June 2019

9:00 AM

A few months ago, I was cleaning up my study to see what could usefully be discarded, so that my modest home would be left in a vaguely respectable condition when I shuffle off. You don’t want funeral directors wandering through the place saying ‘Look at all those empty gin bottles.’ When you go through this cleansing process, you unearth all sorts of trivia that brings back memories of past events, in many cases long forgotten and, in some cases, best forgotten. One of the latter category that really galvanised my attention was my school report covering those formative years from 1952 to 1957 and, as I gingerly turned it over, there fell from its musty pages a document so shocking that I had to lean against my desk to avoid fainting. And as I assessed the full horror of its meaning, I realised that in the intervening years I had suppressed a dark secret that had now come back to haunt me. My parents had read the document, of course, and decided that the moral blemish it recorded was best hidden from view and never mentioned, in the hope that one day it would be forgotten, the stain might be removed from the family escutcheon and the family obtain some closure. But there it was, emerging now from the primordial swamp, the appalling fact that in 1956, at the University High School, I had been awarded Certificate Honours in Economics.

Honestly, I had done nothing to deserve this black mark. To show that I thought economics was a lot of codswallop, somewhere between astrology and voodoo, I had said as much in class and added some provocative observations like ‘all government spending is wasted’ and ‘no-one  believes in equality.’ All I got for my contribution was a few cuts with the strap for being a smart alec. But despite my attempt to dissociate myself from any affection for the subject or familiarity with it, I must have redeemed myself in the eyes of the economics elite, as, by the end of 1956, I was either beaten into submission or had seen the error of my ways and been awarded certificate honours. And now, as I fingered this incriminating document, there it was, like an old copy of Man Junior found under a mattress, evidence of a lamentable moral descent into a teenage flirtation with economics.

When I left school and moved into law and politics, I saw overwhelming evidence that economics was even worse than I had believed and that it was a lot of stuff and nonsense designed to bamboozle the public. I laughed inwardly when one economic forecast after another collapsed in a miserable heap. And I wondered how it was that the high priests of economics could get away with promoting this opium of the people which never produced anything of value to anyone and was as big a racket as psychiatry or human rights law. Sometimes I was particularly mischievous in meetings with the eunuchs of the Treasury by quipping ‘That might be alright in practice, but will it work in theory?’. Jim Killen and I even invented an outlandish fiction we called the Reverse Plateau Indicator and when I asked him in Question Time how it was going, everyone nodded wisely, believing this arrant nonsense. But at every opportunity, I channelled Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane and denied any association with economics.


Yet, lurking in the darker recesses of my mind was the hideous reality that in 1956 I had been awarded Certificate Honours in Economics and that one day I might be exposed. I thought John Howard suspected me when he asked me to be shadow treasurer, which of course I declined: I knew that one day a journalist would ask me about the GDP price deflator and I would burst into uncontrollable laughter.

So, when I unearthed my honours certificate a few months ago, I knew I was faced with a terrible dilemma. Should I reveal my teenage infatuation or not? I might be able to get away with it simply because, as Julia Gillard would have put it ‘I was very young at the time’ when I flirted with the black art of economics.

Or perhaps I could put the certificate in a sealed envelope marked ‘Not to be opened until 50 years after my death’. But what if Get Up! found out about it and exposed me. What if an ABC and Guardian investigation revealed that I had been a brilliant student of economics and they announced it with a headline like ‘Ex-MP in bizarre cult’.

No, I thought, it was better to beat them to it, to come out and make a grovelling apology. After all, I had a good story. I had got in with a bad crowd and experimented with economics, thinking I could give it up, but had then been hooked on the hard stuff like the trickle-down effect and had become a committed devotee; my school report even said that I showed ‘great promise.’ I would reveal how I had led a miserable life in the closet, coming out only occasionally at night and attending one of the economics societies in disguise.

So I decided to come out.

And I must say it is a relief. I actually feel liberated now that I have unburdened myself. I can talk to other economists openly and without covering up my affliction. I can say things like ‘aggregated non-farm product’ and ‘implicit cash balance’ without laughing. I have found that economists have their own handshake and private clubs where we can be ourselves and have papers delivered on interesting subjects like ‘Early Mayan analysis of cashed-up aggregate demand’ without embarrassment. You can chat up a colleague at meetings by asking ‘Would you like to come home and look at my charts on monetary policy?’. I have even bought new spectacles that make me look like a real economist, just like Emma Alberici.

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