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Welcome to Des Griffin’s blog

Find out about museums and the major issues affecting them and their contribution to society. Their contribution to public issues such as the natural environment, cultural diversity and relations with indigenous peoples are explored.

The blog opens with essays about Australia, including First Nations/Indigenous peoples, climate change, the arts, organisational behaviour and politics.

There are a substantial number of essays dealing with education, especially but not exclusively in Australia. Education and learning and teaching from early years to post secondary education are covered. Included also are essays on economics and policy development including political issues. These are derived from a set of essays which were published as “Education Reform: the Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity” (Springer).

Essays on museums and their effectiveness follow featuring governance, leadership, management and governance of museums, including the management of change, their contribution to learning. An important study of museums around the world is included. The important issue of museums and Indigenous peoples is dealt with.

There is a special section dealing with the best literature on organisations and organisational practice.

Some of my published writings dealing with museums, the arts and some other issues conclude the blog.

What's New

FUTURES

November 6th, 2021

As humanity ends the second decade of the twenty-first century AD there is active consideration in some quarters of what the world will be like after the pandemic, the Covid-19 infection which has brought many countries to a near halt. Consideration of “futures” has been pursued for many years. Unfortunately, that seems to remain no more than an academic pursuit so far as many governments are concerned.

An important element of the exploration of the future is the nature of work and of jobs. That was a topic pursued in 2015 by the Royal Society of New South Wales and “learned” academies concerned with science, technology, humanities and the social sciences in the first of the forums now held at Government House in Sydney toward the end of every year.

The forums invite people notably interested in a particular topic to speak about their ideas. In 2021 the topic is the digital age.

The principal speaker at the 2015 forum on the future of work was the prominent scientist and technologist Dr Alan Finkel. He noted the enormous challenges which would face Australia in future decades.

The challenges addressed in the 2015 forum have only increased in the last six years. Therefore what was said six years ago remains relevant today.

I have added here the text of a paper submitted to the Journal of the Royal Society for its issue concerned with the 2015 forum on work.

This is the abstract.

The future of jobs and work in Australia is reviewed against the background of recent economic and other policies in Australia in the last several decades. The impact of technology is only one of the issues to be addressed. Some of the assumptions as to what factors contribute to prosperity and community wellbeing are explored. The role of government and behaviour of business is considered. Attention is drawn to some recent reports on jobs and the future in Australia and the world and some suggestions offered as to actions that should be taken in Australia to achieve outcomes that benefit all.

PISA 2018 and the Future of Australian Education

March 26th, 2020

The results of the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment or PISA were announced in late 2019. The responses to the results raise issues about Australian education policy and the factors considered most significant. In a summary statement and a set of four essays together with supporting notes, I examine the contrasts between the approach which governments in particular have taken over the last 40 or so years and the issues which really are most important.

Australian education policy focuses on school. What is actually important is the first 4 to 7 years.

Policy concerns standardised testing. That is summative and assumes the primary influence is the teacher and the school class. In fact, it is formative evaluation by the teacher and attention to each child and their progress which makes the greatest contribution. The most important factors are the family, the growing environment and peers.

Most of the discussions in policy concern financial resources. There is general agreement that what is important is how the resources are deployed.

Increasingly, government funding has privileged independent schools and parent choice, sometimes justified as a democratic right. In fact students from independent schools achieve no better results than those from public schools, fuinding of which has been largely left to the states resulting in underfunding of public schools and excessive funding of independent schools.

The most important factors influencing eventual learning outcomes are in the home and the intellectual and physical environment in which the child grows. Issues such as early childhood support and the contribution especially of the mother, social and economic factors such as the work environment of the father, and mother, and opportunities for a diversity of experiences supporting the cognitive growth of the child are critical.

At school the teacher makes an important contribution but the dynamics of the school as an organisation and the role of the principal as learning leader, as well as support for the professional growth of teachers, are vital.

Overall there is inadequate attention to these issues, inadequate recognition of trends, prejudices derived from neoclassical economics and choice theory and a failure to understand that the achievement of 18 year old students, who are tested by PISA, are the accumulated experiences of 18 years and not mainly the influence of school teachers in the previous 2 or three years! Despite PISA reports over 18 years pointing out the negative consequences of inequality in resources, Australian policy, most especially in the last few years, has increased the inequality.

I address the major issues in a summary statement to which the five separate essays, each of which are supported by short notes on related subjects, are linked.

Two shorter essays are contemplated for the near future dealing with learning from the experience of others, the analogue of which in the natural world is convergent evolution, and secondly the folly of efficiency and the analogue of redundancy, both genetic and ecological.

Finally, I intend to summarise some issues about the lessons that First Nations people have given us to learn from their 65,000 years of occupation of Australia. They have been ignored through a combination of arrogance and ignorance which largely continues to this day.

The unfortunate characteristics of contemporary Australia, which Donald Horne long ago pointed to in The Lucky Country, have been largely ignored.

Education in Australia 1973 to 2019

February 28th, 2019

Over the last 15 or so years I have posted on this website many essays about education, especially in Australia including as it concerns government policies. In four essays posted in the last few days I have returned to this topic and summarized two of the most important inquiries of the last several years and the responses to them, both by researchers and academics on the one hand and commentators on the other and the response of government.

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See related articles below

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The first inquiry on the funding of schools has been the subject of a large volume of commentary and argument and some of the recommendations from it have been incorporated in legislation. The second inquiry on teaching has attracted far less commentary

A consistent theme has been that the government response has been inadequate to the purpose whilst the research relevant to the inquiries has been increasingly of high quality: along with developments in other countries, the research has largely been ignored by government.

The first essay related to this post summarises developments from 1996 and the other three concern the two reports by the panels chaired by distinguished business man David Gonski AC.

Gonski, in a speech shortly after the publication of the first report commented on his experience visiting and talking with the people who were consulted in the preparation of the report. His comments contrast very strongly with the general tenor of the commentary in the public sphere, the assertions about teacher quality, union and government bureaucracy involvement.

It would be entirely appropriate for a lot less notice to be taken of much of the commentary in favour of much more attention to the wisdom and knowledge of those who have, through research and experience in the industry, contributed so much to what we now understand. And of course, most of all to the best understandings possible of what would bring the greatest gain to those who should benefit.

One of the most important factors contributing to educational achievement is equity, extra support for those having difficulty for whatever reason from socioeconomic background and health through disability of various kinds. IN the 1970s and the later 2000s under Labor governments, inquiries addressed this issue so far as school education was concerned. However, as we near the close of the second decade of the 2000s more funding is allocated to the more advantaged than ever before. Any attempt to reverse this will be an almost monumental task as those benefitting push back.

There is a parallel with the response to attempts to remove provisions which benefit the advantaged in superannuation, taxation and investment. Support for investment in early childhood has hardly advanced in 50 years, certainly not to the level found in several other countries, in Europe especially.

Australia has almost the most inequitable school education funding of any OECD country. Australia lags comparable OECD countries in terms of participation of younger children in early learning, especially of three-year-olds. The effect is greatest amongst lower socioeconomic status families.

Funding for schools, public and independent schools including Catholic schools, comes from both the Commonwealth and State and Territory Governments. State governments have for the most part reduced their funding though the Commonwealth has maintained they should take up the balance of funding for public schools. Several states claim to have made progress. Victoria promotes itself as the “Education State”; New South Wales has claimed benefits from application of the funding flowing from the agreements with the Gillard government as part of the National Plan.

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Whilst Australia ranks high as a place to live, it ranks low in areas like innovation and funding of scientific research. In business the level of oligopoly is high, one commentator reporting that Australia is referred to as “Treasure Island”. A disturbing example of how conservatism has affected the response to major challenges can be found in availability of digital communication, climate change and energy prices.

Australia is second in the world in delivery of online services, according to a UN survey. But in respect of internet speed Australia ranks 55th in the world.

Contribution to carbon emissions per capita is amongst the highest in the world.

It is true that there have been 27 years of annual economic growth (due principally to action taken by the Rudd government in response to the Global Financial Crisis) and Australia is the second most wealthy nation, after Switzerland, in terms of median wealth per person. In terms of GDP Australia ranks 13; however, GDP is increasingly recognised as an unsatisfactory indicator of actual wellbeing.

Much of the wealth is due to booming house prices: the huge household debt is overlooked. Much of Australia’s wealth is due to exports of resources and not to value created within the country! Comparisons with countries like South Korea and Vietnam, countries overrun by armed conflict in the last 70 years, as well as Scandinavian countries, are revealing!

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These essays review school education and related issues since 1970 and especially since 1996.

Several particularly important statements are below. Following those I list the previous essays which are most relevant to the present discussions.

The following three statements are amongst the most important pronouncements on education policy of the last 50 years. They are from the second report of the panel chaired by David Gonski, entitled “Through Growth to Achievement”, a panel comprising distinguished educators and others, a report drawing on extensive submissions and consultations and on some of the most important relevant research.

“Australia has a strong educational heritage and committed educators. Since 2000, however, academic performance has declined when compared to other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, suggesting that Australian students and schools are not improving at the same rate and are falling short of achieving the full learning potential of which they are capable. As a nation, we need to act now to raise our aspirations and make a renewed effort to improve school education outcomes.

“As a nation, we need to act now to raise our aspirations and make a renewed effort to improve school education outcomes…”

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Enabling all Australian students to realise their full learning potential, and re-establishing Australia’s education system as world-leading, is an ambitious but achievable goal, which requires a commitment to sustained, long-term reform.

The strategy set out in this report, and articulated in the 23 recommendations, will transform Australian school education.

The Review Panel recognises that the scale of these reforms is ambitious, particularly given Australia’s federated education model. The challenges, however, cannot become an excuse for inaction. The evidence is clear; the reforms embedded in the strategy are necessary to achieve educational excellence in Australian schooling.

Taken together, and implemented in a sustained way, these reforms will reverse the decline in student outcomes in recent decades, and prepare current and future generations of school students to succeed in life and 21st century careers…

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“Australia needs to review and change its model for school education. Like many countries, Australia still has an industrial model of school education that reflects a 20th century aspiration to deliver mass education to all children. This model is focused on trying to ensure that millions of students attain specified learning outcomes for their grade and age before moving them in lock-step to the next year of schooling. It is not designed to differentiate learning or stretch all students to ensure they achieve maximum learning growth every year, nor does it incentivise schools to innovate and continuously improve.

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“Although this problem is widely recognised by teachers and educators, schools’ attempts to address the issue are hampered by curriculum delivery, assessment, work practices and the structural environments in which they operate.

“The constraints include inflexibility in curriculum delivery, reporting and assessment regimes, and tools focussed on periodic judgements of performance, rather than continuous diagnosis of a student’s learning needs and progress. This is compounded by a lack of research-based evidence on what works best in education, the absence of classroom applications readily available for use by teachers, multiple calls on the time of teachers and school leaders, and a lack of support for school principals to develop their professional autonomy and prioritise instructional leadership.”

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The following statement is from a review of “Through Growth to Achievement”

“In a world where education defines opportunity, schooling must support every one of Australia’s 3.8 million school students to realise their full learning potential and achieve educational excellence.

“Australian students should receive a world-class school education, tailored to individual learning needs, and relevant to a fast-changing world. They should be challenged and supported to progress and excel in learning in every year of school, appropriate to each student’s starting point and capabilities.

“Schooling should enrich students’ lives, leaving them inspired to pursue new ideas and set ambitious goals throughout life.”

Chris Bonnor, “Gonski’s second coming”, in John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations 1 May 2018

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However, the following statements arguably have more bearing on policy than anything in either of the Gonski reports.

Developments in fake news and fake reality, facilitated by social media, artificial intelligence and complex algorithms, together with conditional ethics, have made the pursuit of rational decisions based on reviewed and agreed evidence very difficult. The proposition that whilst people are entitled to their own views but not to their own facts is not everywhere accepted, as evidence is counteracted merely by assertions of the opposite. We are possibly moving to the margin of the enlightenment, overturning some 400 years of the development of knowledge and understanding.

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It is a tragedy that government continues to see everything through the lens of funding, especially costs. Progress is not anywhere principally linked to money. It emerges from how people work together and how decisions get made, on innovation and creativity, on clear, agreed and supported understanding of what the intention of action is and who is supposed to benefit.

Government’s focus on money does no more than exit the stage by trying to spend as little as possible so that the citizenry and the corporate sector can pay as little in taxes as possible. It is based on the proposition that government creates very little value indeed and that its activities hinder other parts of the economy in creating value. Unfortunately, much of media commentary goes along with this together with an effort to identify potential conflict between players.

The pursuit of small government is an inevitable consequence and has left the community to be governed by people often lacking the necessary knowledge and skills.

The result is the pursuit of populism and a search for someone to blame.

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The following statement, an extract from a response to a proposed health policy initiative by Jennifer Doggett, “Labor’s big-ticket risk-minimisation strategy” (Inside Story 15 February 2019) is pertinent:

Progress … is so slow not because of a lack of mechanisms but because of fundamental differences in the interests of the two levels of government. They have different constituencies, political roles and constitutional responsibilities, and a new federally funded and run health commission won’t change that.

“The real problem is not a lack of independent … policy advice. Governments and oppositions have access to numerous sources, both within the public sector (not only from relevant departments but also through processes such as Productivity Commission inquiries) and outside it … The problem is that this advice is routinely ignored.”

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One of the most important statements about school education is from a study of a school in San Francisco whose 950 students with passports from more than 40 different countries. Despite its test scores putting it at one of the lowest-performing schools in the nation, 84 per cent of its students were accepted to college.

Diane Ravitch, education historian and former administrator wrote in the New York Review of Books March 24 2016, “What [Kristina] Rizga [author of “Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph” (Nation Books)] learned is worth sharing. For one, she discovered that “there are too many politicians, powerful bureaucrats, management and business experts, economists, and philanthropists making decisions about the best solutions for schools.”

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In the last few months,

  • A comprehensive review has found overwhelming evidence of a strong causal relationship between increased school funding and student outcomes
  • a parliamentary audit committee has criticised the Commonwealth Government for failing to account for the way it has distributed funds to schools in accordance with the legislation
  • the secretary of the NSW Department of Education has emphasised one of the most important outcomes of school education: it should equip students to think
  • former NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli endorsed a plan by the ALP to fund two years of early learning  and supported a campaign by the Early Learning and Care Council calling on all political parties to commit to funding two years of age-appropriate, play-based quality learning for all children. The plan to  expand access to pre-school education has been called the next great social policy reform, one that the Morrison Government ignores at its peril
  • Chris Bonnor and colleagues have addressed the disturbing trends in funding of schools and the consequent concentration of disadvantage.

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Continue to the four essays:   

Related articles

These are among the earlier essays most relevant to the present series of four essays

School Leadership and School Autonomy: The outcome of any change in the management structure of schools must be improvement of student outcomes. That school principals might become responsible for budgets and staffing does little more than turn them into glorified administrators. Much of the financial and staffing area is no more than instrumental.

Tests, League Tables and Accountability: A Democratic Right to Know?: … the demand for accountability and transparency, is common. So is the demand for quantitative data to achieve accountability. This is true of transport, hospitals, government services and activities generally. That quantitative data are not always indicators of the most critical aspects of the actions and performance of an enterprise, any more than they are of a person, is ignored in this. There is also the implicit assumption that the people responsible for the enterprise’s activities cannot be trusted.

Public or Private: Marketisation, Parental Choice and Competition: … average educational achievement levels are significantly influenced by the performance of those children who come from less advantaged backgrounds. The debate about the “education gap” is a debate about the distribution of resources within society. Establishing independent schools does not address the education gap in any way. Surveys of achievement internationally show no gain from independent schools when the data is controlled for student’s socio-economic background.

Teaching and School Performance: Amongst recent studies those about Finland are particularly interesting to many. Pasi Sahlberg lists three fallacies of teacher effectiveness common in the US:

  1. teachers work mostly independently, in fact they mostly work in teams
  2. the teacher is the single most important factor in improving quality education, in fact this ignores family background and peer influences
  3. a succession of great teachers in a row would lead to very significant educational improvement of students, arguably judging capability of teachers at recruitment is difficult and superior competence takes time to develop.

The School Education Bunfight or how Populism, Ideology and Political Cowardice distorts Policy: a link is asserted between educational attainment as measured by test scores and economic growth as if all that is needed is to improve educational achievement. The social determinants of education are ignored.

 

Governance and Management fails at the ABC

November 16th, 2018

The turmoil in mid-September 2018 at the ABC, one of the most publicly trusted organisations in Australia, has received huge publicity. Sacking of the Managing Director Michelle Guthrie followed only a few days later by the resignation of the Chair of the Board Justin Milne attracted both criticism and relief. Like the removal of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull only a few weeks earlier, the reasons for Guthrie’s removal remains unexplained.

What is clear is that there are serious doubts as to whether Guthrie was an appropriate person for the job. There are few doubts about Milne on the other hand. Like other members of the board he was appointed with little regard to the needs of the organisation by a process which sidestepped the protocols developed in previous times and the recommendations of a panel established as part of those.

Margaret Simons of Monash University in numerous media, Amanda Meade in The Guardian and Quentin Dempster (a former ABC staffer) in The New Daily have had important things to say about all this and Kerry O’Brien and Matt Peacock, both distinguished former ABC journalists, have also.

In an article a few weeks after the events of mid-September Simons expressed the view that the behavior of both Guthrie and Milne demonstrated a lack of maturity: “The ABC needs grown-ups in charge”. A Four Corners documentary in early November followed the events and interviewed both Guthrie and Milne. But we are no wiser as to the real reason for Guthrie’s departure though Milne’s argument, aired on the Four Corners program, that her leadership was unsatisfactory and a principal reason for her departure was based on gossip.

Two months after the turmoil, there is evidence that the legacy of Milne and Guthrie continues to have impact: a visit to the Ultimo studios by ACTU Secretary Sally McManus was closely monitored by the administration and readership targets are being set for one unit’s stories.

The ABC has suffered serious reductions in funding and there is a well-founded view that the organisation is unsustainable. More staff reductions will likely be required to add to the almost 1,000 who have already gone in the last several years since Prime Minister Abbott reneged on his promise to make no cuts to the broadcaster (or SBS). (There was a tiny increase in staff numbers in the last year.)

What is at the base of all this is a very serious, indeed critical, lack of process in organizational and leadership terms. Political interference based on no more than strong disagreement by government Ministers and Prime Ministers with some of the ABC’’s statements have had an impact even though they were not the subject of actual instructions. The role of the board is unclear to misunderstood, the importance of independence seems ignored, and the essentials of leadership not appreciated. Similar issues can be found in other organisations in business and government. And sport!

Milne sought the resignation of a senior journalist, Emma Alberici, economics correspondent and former presenter of Lateline on TV. She had written an article criticising the arguments advanced by the Government to justify substantial tax cuts for larger corporations. The government argued they would lead to more jobs and economic growth: Alberici wrote that they would not.

The Government’s position has been contradicted by economists including Nobel Prizewinner Joseph Stiglitz. In remarks at the presentation to him of the City of Sydney Peace Prize on November 15 2018 he referred to a study by economist Andrew Charlton which showed small cuts made in 2015 to small business (with turnover less than $2 million pa) mostly went to increase cash reserves though there was an increase in investment of 27%, a smaller increase in job numbers and a very small increase in wage rates). The general behavior of firms in paying dividends rather than investing has led to one commentator referring to their behavior as a Ponzi scheme. The evidence that firms do not devote the proceeds of tax cuts substantially to increasing wages, jobs or growth is substantial.

The question should be asked as to how the chair of the board of a public broadcaster can justify attacking media for reporting statements for which there is already substantial documented evidence. But of course that would be pointless!

The ABC is a public broadcaster and its funding is from taxpayers. The ABC is not an instrument of government policy like departments such as Home Affairs or Environment. The Government has failed to exercise its duty of care, especially in respect of independence and has contributed to a situation where the board lacks sufficient experience and knowledge and certainly is insufficiently diligent in its exercise of governance. It is more than regrettable that a board doesn’t even front up to defend staff of the organisation when they are unreasonably attacked!

Read more at ABC Turmoil: A crisis in governance and government.

Our Common Future

August 9th, 2017

I have added to the pages of this site the text of an introduction which I gave by invitation to a forum on Museum Futures held by Museums Australia 9 years ago.

I do so because of my increasing despair over what is happening in cultural policy and indeed policy more generally in Australia at this time, August 2017. The seeming failure to meaningfully address so many issues from climate change and energy policy to marriage equality, from recognition of the primacy of Indigenous Peoples in their quest to be heard and achieve genuine self-determination, as set out in “The Statement from the Heart” issued after the meetings in Uluru at the end of May, the failure to address issues of inequality, homelessness as well as health and education and so much more, is of the greatest concern.

On ABC RN Breakfast 10 August 2017, Dr Anne Summers spoke of her upcoming Kenneth Myer address at the National Library of Australia.

Dr Summers, journalist and feminist urges “a full reboot” of Australia in the 21st century.

She will argue Australia is no longer equipped to deal with the challenges of the future: “our tendency to elect governments based on slogans rather than policies has left us desperately in need of economic, social, emotional and even spiritual reconstruction.”

In respect of museums the approach has in many cases been worse than dismal, driven by a seeming passion for market economics and small government, policies which have manifestly failed. At the National level, museums and libraries have had years of efficiency dividends applied which have downsized staff and limited programs and most especially what should be a major focus on creativity and innovation. In New South Wales museums policy means trying to move to the inner western suburb of Parramatta a major institution, the Powerhouse Museum, from its site in Ultimo near Darling Harbour, which features the National Maritime Museum and just nearby the ever expanding University of Technology (UTS).

The Executive of the Council of Museums Australia, the organisation established in 1993 to represent museums and museum people, sought in the last couple of years to address ongoing concerns about the level of representation of both arts museums and other museums by changing its name to MuseumsGalleries Australia. Objections to the lack of consultation on the proposal led to the abandonment at the annual meetings in May 2017 in Brisbane, of a constitutional change to give effect to the name change.

The way museum policy, and cultural policy generally, in Australia is being developed needs, as Anne Summers has said, a reboot.

Addressing the future is never just a matter of changing a few words or titles: that is as useful as reorganising the structure and getting a new logo. Nor is it simply a matter of satisfying those who seem to have most influence by “papering over” genuine concerns which significantly affect the way people live their lives by drawing upon a few well-known phrases appealing to fear of change, fear of difference, fear of uncertainty and fear of ideas.

A future of security, of peace, based on tolerance and respect and the opportunity for all to achieve their potential, set out so well by Nobel prizewinning economist Amartya Sen and many others, is being sidelined by nothing more than a wish by those with power and influence to enrich themselves. It represents a massive failure of accountability.

The 2009 report of the UN Development Program pointed to the fact that major advances in health and education had come not from increasing wealth but from the cross-border transfer of ideas. Wealth in not unimportant – though how it is defined and measured is a matter of great importance – but it is not enough. In Australia at this time, the importance of ideas is subservient to the continued pursuit of failed dogma.

Summers decries the deployment of slogans by our political leaders. Amongst the most dangerous is the accusation that a strong leader does not change his mind!

Our Common Future is at risk.

Note: The frequently quoted statement about changing one’s mind when the facts change is usually attributed to John Maynard Keynes. The evidence seems to be that it was actually 1970 Nobel prizewinner Paul Samuelson.