Trading Places

Tim HarfordYou don’t often think of economists living the lives of international jetsetters, but Tim Harcourt found himself feeling like at least one fictional superspy during a recent stay in Bangkok. “I had to do a talk in Thailand and my taxi broke down so the hotel put me in a Mercedes,” he remembers. “I had to wear a dinner suit to this party so there I was travelling through Bangkok in a Mercedes wearing a dinner suit. I did feel a little like James Bond.”

It’s tempting to make jokes about Baccarat games with megalomaniacs, watches firing lasers and gorgeous girls surrounding him.

How an economist ended up in such an enviable position is a common theme of late, economists turning up on the bestseller lists with easy-to-digest tomes using the dry principles of cost/benefit analyses, risk and self-interest to explain everything from teen pregnancy to drug abuse.

The movement gathered steam with the global success of Freakonomics, the US collaboration between economist Stephen Dubner and reporter Steven Levitt, and Harcourt’s The Airport Economist is in the Top 10 sellers in Australia following its June 2008 launch. It’s a whistle stop tour of Harcourt’s travels across the world, combining everything from colourful anecdotes of celebrity encounters to the stark facts and figures of Australia’s place in the world of international trade.

It might have been a very different calling from reporting on Australia’s economic opportunities from the four corners of the world. Harcourt’s grandfather was groomed to be a Rabbi in his native Poland, but he was an atheist (‘an occupational hazard’, Harcourt calls it) and an aspiring Bondi Beach lifesaver. He pre-empted the difficulties of being a true-blue Aussie icon with a name like Kopel Harkowitz and changed it to Ken Harcourt, telling his grandson years later he left the Goldbergs to join the Icebergs.

With a culturally rich background and family life, Harcourt not only lives his work, it means his career as an economist is more concerned with people than spreadsheets. At the Reserve Bank he worked under current governor Glenn Stevens on wage accords. With his native South Australia far from booming and the Australian economy in the doldrums generally, Harcourt saw the checks and balances of economics as a tool for change. “When I was a kid there was high inflation and a lot of people out of work,” he explains. “I thought to myself ‘do economics to get unemployment down’.”

Harcourt now wields his powers of persuasion as chief economist for Austrade, the government agency that paves the way for industries and businesses exporting overseas. Part of the department of foreign affairs and trade, Austrade has 60 offices around the world staffed by people who speak the language of export strategy, risk management, networking and legal issues.

At 42 Harcourt’s friendly and talkative. He’s written two books about his adventures and knowledge in the exporting field, has a dedicated page on the Austrade website for his reports, articles, speeches and case studies and can talk international trade like most Sydneysiders talk about rugby league. For an economist, he acts suspiciously like a marketing executive, talking not just about Australia but Austrade itself having a well-known brand.

He believes the sales approach comes with the territory. “Keating and Hawke floated the dollar, opened Australia up to trade and realised we had to be internationally competitive,” he says, “so it’s important to get all the economic fundamentals in place but you’ve also got to sell Australia as a great economy, a great place to invest with skilled people. So my job’s selling Australia to the world and getting people interested in exporting. My boss wants me on Kerri-Anne, he wants me on Fox Sports and Sky News and Sunrise talking to as many Aussies as I can.

“I also have to travel around the world and tell stories about Australians who’ve done well in Bucharest, Tel-Aviv, Brazil — wherever. We have very good fundamentals, skills, products and services but we often don’t believe in ourselves, and telling stories of champions is a good way to inspire other people.”

And nothing, as Harcourt has learned, gets people listening to your story more than a good celebrity angle. When an Australian skin care products exporter enlisted supermodel Megan Gale to lend her name for the Milan-based launch, Harcourt happened to be in Bucharest. He dropped everything to fly to Italy to interview her, asking her what Italians loved not just about her but Australia in general and learning about her own efforts to talk up Australian products to European markets.

He’s crossed paths with Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe during the well-received Australia Week events that sell our technical and creative innovation to America, talked about image and profile with Steve Irwin (‘a lot of Australians didn’t like the image he portrayed but Americans loved it’, Harcourt says) and was a recent conference speaker with Steve Waugh.

Harcourt’s life and times seems to epitomise the new profile of the dismal science. Names like Saul Eslake (ANZ Bank) and Bernard Salt (KPMG) frequently appear not just in the business pages but in stories covering everything from social analysis to politics. Economists are the new ad men, deconstructing and demystifying our ever-more complicated world and hogging bestseller lists in the process.

The cynical will be surprised to hear, however, that the economist-as-pundit isn’t new no matter how much it looks like artificial buzz whipped up by enterprising book publishers. “Even at the height of his writing about the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes would write a column for [British broadsheet] The Daily Standard on savings, investments or unemployment, so he became a great populariser and persuader of economic ideas,” Harcourt says. “When I joined Austrade in 1999 the WTO protests and Battle in Seattle were going on and I thought ‘My God, economists all think free trade’s important but you’ve got to actually persuade the non-believers.’ There’s no point preaching to the converted.”

Such preaching is a task Harcourt takes seriously. An author, blogger and public speaker, he’s visited 43 countries in 4 years selling Australia to the world and vice versa. Just don’t bother asking how he manages a healthy work/life balance. “My business is pleasure,” he reckons, “the only way I could make it more perfect is if my wife and my daughter came with me everywhere.”