Joe Hendren

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Thank you Wolfie!

On Friday I recieved the news of Dr Wolfgang Rosenberg's death aged 92. For a large part of the 20th century Wolfgang was one of New Zealand's most prominent left-wing economists.

A lot of the left shys away from debates over economics, often suspicious of the unstated assumptions about human nature made by the domineering neo-liberal economic theories. Some of this suspicion is justified, but often this has left the left in a position of arguing in favour of social goals (eg higher benefits, cheaper housing) and leaving the economic case to one side.

For me, I gained a lot of insight from the work of Wolfgang Rosenberg and Bruce Jesson, especially in regards to a New Zealand context, and I would recommend both to any lefty who wants to gain greater confidence in engaging in economic debates.

Wolfgang's 1993 book "New Zealand can be different, and better" is one of the first 'economics' books I ever read. It still remains an excellent introduction to Keynesian economics in a New Zealand context and a strong critique of the so called 'new right'. In a review of the book Brian Easton lays down the Rosenberg challenge.
"Those who wish to challenge Wolfgang Rosenberg’s policy prescriptions must confront the outstanding performance of the New Zealand economy in the first part of the postwar era. In the three decades from the mid-1930s, following the recovery from the depths of the interwar depression: the economy grew as fast as – or faster than – the rest of the OECD; the rate of inflation was slightly below the average; the overseas debt was not compromising; and there was full employment....Rosenberg explains this nirvana by the economic policies pursued at the time They involved a commitment to policy goals such as full employment, an expansionary fiscal stance, a high level or government intervention in markers and – most notably – border protection by import controls. He argues that as we have moved away from this policy mix. the economic performance has deteriorated The further we have moved. the worst the outcome."
Wolfgang liked to use tables of figures to illustrate his points. I found a table in the book on New Zealand's public debt levels to be particuarly enlightening. Roger Douglas told New Zealand he had "no option but" to sell off state assets to reduce public debt. Yet one look at a table in Wolfie's book demonstrates NZ debt levels rose from $21,878m in 1984 to $39,961 in 1989 (public debt reached $46,674m in June 1992). Some conclusions suggest themselves. Douglas didn't really care about New Zealand's debt levels and/or his policies were a self defined failure. Perhaps he was simply incompetent.

While I never got to meet Wolfgang, the stories my friends have told about him are inspiring. Wolfgang provided a great example in the way he remained intellectually active for as long as his health would allow. After his retirement he wrote books. He also studied for a law degree, cycling around Christchurch as a practicing lawyer until he was 83!

The next time I raise a glass, I will quietly raise it for you Wolfie :)

On Friday Murray Horton of CAFCA distributed the following message celebrating Wolfgang's life and his contribution to the left.
It is with great regret that I inform you that Wolfgang Rosenberg died today, aged 92. He had been in poor health for the best part of a decade. A Berliner, Wolf arrived in NZ in 1937 as a refugee from Naziism (he had relatives and friends murdered in the Holocaust). Germany’s loss was New Zealand’s gain.

He was an academic at the University of Canterbury from 1945 until his retirement in 1980, finishing up as a Reader in Economics. Following his compulsory retirement from academia he started a new career as a Christchurch lawyer, and practised in the courts until ill health forced him to finally retire at 83.

During his 70 years in New Zealand Wolf became a wellknown public figure as one of the country’s foremost Leftwing economists, with a string of books to his name, not to mention a ceaseless flow of articles and Letters To The Editor. He was actively involved in virtually every Christchurch Left/liberal organisation and publication that you could name over those decades, from the Canterbury Council for Civil Liberties to the former Monthly Review, to name but two. He was involved in all the big campaigns, such as those against the Vietnam War and NZ’s ties to apartheid South Africa, plus those of recent years.

He was a staunch proponent of socialism and travelled extensively in what used to be known as the Second World (or as the papers called it, the Communist bloc). He was the founder and driving figure behind the NZ Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Society, and spent many years fostering friendly relations with that country.

He was a member and supporter of CAFCA from our foundation, more than 30 years ago, and he regularly wrote for Foreign Control Watchdog until his deteriorating eyesight would no allow it. Wolfgang Rosenberg was a major public figure in the New Zealand of the second half of the 20th Century.

He is survived by Ann, his wife of 60 years, and his children, George, Bill and Vera, and grandchildren.

The funeral will be at 1.30pm on Tuesday 20 February at Lamb and Hayward's chapel at 467 Wairakei Road, Burnside, Christchurch. In lieu of flowers you can make a donation to the Howard League for Penal Reform, for which there will be a collection box.

Messages can be sent to: 26 Beckenham Street, Christchurch 8024,

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At 12:55 pm, Blogger Rich said...

Underpinning NZ's success was Britain's choice to offer preferential market access to a small group of nations of which NZ was one. Because NZ had a big relative advantage in agricultural products, it was able to prosper as the captive farm for a much larger nation.

Rather than allowing the wealth from this to accumulate in the hands of the few, economic "inefficiency" ensured that money was redistributed. (As Easton points out, this contrasts with using the tax/welfare system to redistribute wealth as practiced in traditional social democratic societies). You could call this "Socialism run by Conservatives".

This had positive aspects - we had an society that was economically more equal. It did however help entrench social conservatism.

Once Britain decided to pursue her own best interests of trading with the EU (and more freely with the rest of the world) then this economic model became unsustainable.

At 11:03 am, Blogger Uroskin said...

It's intriguing that import controls featured largely in the policy assumed to have sustained the post war boom for NZ. But then as soon as the EU/UK imposed import controls in the 1970s, it all came crashing down. So it looks like restrictions on free trade are a lose-lose policy. NZ can only boom again if there is free trade everywhere. (NZ membership of the EU would be a start, but ideally, the world needs more globalisation, not less)

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