Getting the writing bug – and keeping it

Today’s spiel is dedicated to the second-oldest asset that I have managed to hang on to through the years, and its role in inspiring my writing bug.

The item, an ancient parchment, most likely from an ink-jet printer, I have somehow lugged around with me for 26 years without even thinking about. You can view this relic in all its yellowing and stained glory, thanks to the wonders of modern cloud-based data storage, a digital scanner and the link at the bottom of this page. Note: Beware of reading too much of it if you are maths-averse!

The paper’s primary author is John Gibson, a perpetually youthful-looking professor of economics at the University of Waikato. At the time of the paper’s writing, I was John’s part-time research assistant for the year. This was my first insight into what seemed a slightly odd world at the time, pondering quietly, recording your thoughts, thinking up new ways of thinking about the world, and collecting and analysing data to support or refute your ideas. This new world of research intrigued me.

As a side-bar, here’s a quick summary of the 1991 paper for which I did the number-crunching and earned a naming-credit.

If you are operating in a competitive market, and Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ of market forces is working properly, then supply and demand should meet at an equilibrium price where all parties are maximising their collective happiness. (You can tell I’m summarising, right?) In this world, the best way to get ahead is to be an efficient operator who out-competes new entrants on price. The most efficient businesses are the most profitable businesses, and when prices go up it’s because costs have gone up. However, in some industries in particular, it may be that businesses have opportunities to reach spoken or implied agreements to keep prices elevated and hence increase their collective profitability at the expense of consumers’ welfare. Just to clarify, yes collusion is cheating and often illegal.

What the Gibson 1991 paper did was to outline these two hypotheses about industry profitability – the ‘collusion hypothesis’ and ‘efficiency hypothesis’ – and collect and analyse 1987 New Zealand data to test which seemed to have more support from the evidence. The paper concluded, somewhat sadly, that: ‘Results are ambiguous but are less inconsistent with the collusion hypothesis. Another cross-section must be studied before stronger claims can be made.’

While this experience in research piqued my interest, and subsequently my consultancy career, it wasn’t until I went ‘back to school’ at the University of Otago at the turn of the millennium that my research and writing interests came fully to the fore. From there I have had between one and half-dozen published papers per year for almost every year of the past 16 years, along with many other plans and reports that bear the name of a client or employer.

A frequent collaborator in the past decade has been Dr Beat Huser, an environmental strategy advisor and monitoring expert at Waikato Regional Council with a musical Swiss accent and chirpy disposition. Together we have worked on not just one but two regional monitoring programmes, ensuring that the lessons learnt from the first were used to enhance the second. The current evolution is called Waikato Progress Indicators – Tupuranga Waikato, an online dashboard of 32 environmental, social and economic indicators. Monitoring and analysing this data has given rise to a number of research areas, including looking at ways to better present and summarise the data using some fancy mathematics as well as design elements such as a score card and ‘circles of well-being’ for the region. Most recently, the Waikato region participated in the 2016 Quality of Life Survey, enabling a time series to begin to be built up following its prior 2006 participation. Over time, we are finding out more and more about the long-term trends and connections between different aspects of regional well-being.

So why the passion for research? Well firstly because it suits me in terms of reasonably flexible hours etc, which I can work around my day job. I also have an arthritic spine, so sporty activities are out. But more than that, the older I get the more compelled I am to write. Even if it’s not published under my name, or won’t see the light of day in any way, it doesn’t worry me.

I read the other day about something called hypergraphia – a behavioral condition in which you have an intense desire to write. Well, maybe that’s it, doesn’t sound tooo bad. Let’s just go with that.

Oh, and in case you were wondering – from the first sentence of this stream of consciousness – the oldest asset that I have managed to hang on to through the years is actually my greatest asset. Lisa, my wife and bedrock.

References

Gibson, J., Killerby, P. and Ward, B. (1991) “Collusion and efficiency explanations of industry profitability: An assessment of some New Zealand evidence”, paper presented to the New Zealand Association of Economists Conference, Lincoln University, Lincoln, New Zealand, August 1991.

Huser, B., Killerby, P. and Patterson, M. (2016) “Towards a wellbeing index for the Waikato Region”, New Zealand Planning Quarterly, March 2016.

Huser, B. and Killerby, P. (2017) “Waikato Progress Indicators – Tupuranga Waikato: Summary Update May 2017”, Waikato Regional Council Technical Report 2017/16 (pending publication).

Killerby, P. and Huser, B. (2014) “Development of the Waikato Progress Indicators (WPI)”, Waikato Regional Council Technical Report 2014/44, August 2014 (122pp).

Killerby, P. and Huser, B. (2017) “Quality of Life Survey 2016 – Waikato regional results”, Waikato Regional Council Technical Report 2017/11 (March 2017).