The combative economist

by Joel Yanofsky, BA’77, MA’81

Don’t believe anything until it’s officially denied.

The above quote, almost matter-of-factly mistrustful, has graced Tom Naylor’s office door for the past two decades, roughly half the time he’s taught economics at McGill. Coincidentally, the warning on the door, attributed to Irish writer Claud Cockburn, could just as easily serve as the title of most of Naylor’s 12 books, especially his latest, Counterfeit Crime: Criminal Profits, Terror Dollars, and Nonsense.

According to Naylor, the new book is his “angriest and most cynical” to date. It matches its author’s corrosive style with his lifelong disposition for debunking officialdom’s conventional wisdom. “There’s a lot of stuff in this book I’ve wanted to get off my chest for a long time,” Naylor adds from his office in the Leacock Building.

Of course, this may be the hardest thing to believe about the consistently controversial and combative Naylor. After taking on everything from rampant consumerism (Crass Struggle) to state-sponsored crime (Patriots and Profiteers), you can’t help wondering how he has anything left to get off his chest. “I tend to be quite frank,” he says, a rare understatement from a man not normally given to understatement.

And the truth is there isn’t much new for Naylor to say in Counterfeit Crime. He rounds up many of his usual subjects and suspects – from Wall Street bankers to right-wing fundamentalists. He also revisits his favourite theme – the real possibility that government policies on crimes like money-laundering and intellectual copyright are intended to hoodwink an increasingly “somnolent public.” What is new this time, though, is how urgent, how vehement Naylor is sounding. Take, for example, the way he gives the last word on the war on terror to the most unexpected and, for many, the most outrageous source imaginable:

“Western leaders ought to follow the sound advice that the late Osama bin Laden advanced to the US and, by inference, to the West at large. ‘Pack your bags and go home.’ That, I suspect, would do considerably more to protect their citizens from harm than increased high-tech surveillance, tighter physical-security measures, and harsher laws against so-called terrorist financing.”

And while Naylor, 68, describes himself as an introvert – “like most people who become academics” – he has always courted controversy in his writing and his classroom. In four decades at McGill, he has lectured to an estimated 8,000 students, often informing them, by way of an introduction, that if they’re looking for “the key to prosperity” by studying economics, they’re in the wrong place.

“If that’s what they want, I tell them to learn a trade, become a plumber, or an electrician, because that’s what we’re going to need in the future. How do they react to this advice? With horror.”

When it comes to his own field of study, he also tends to be dismissive. “I was never interested in being an economist, per se,” he says. “I don’t respect disciplinary boundaries. Just the opposite, I think they’re ridiculous.”

His disdain for boundaries has led to him exploring a “mishmash of themes” and becoming comfortable with an array of academic labels, including political economist, criminologist, historian. “My research is all over the place,” he says. “I’m getting overwhelmed. In fact, I’ve given away three libraries.”

In the early 1990s, he also turned his 1986 book, Hot Money and the Politics of Debt, into a board game. In Hot Money: A Game of Saints and Sinners, players roll the dice and choose, for instance, between a career as a missile manufacturer or a gun runner. You win, Naylor explains, by figuring out “who the real crook is!”

Recently, he’s shifted his focus and concern to ecological economics, a topic he hopes to work on for the remainder of his time at McGill. For Naylor, this issue couldn’t be more important or simpler. We keep writing cheques the environment can’t cash.

“It’s a finite planet and the economy is just too big for the biosphere,” he explains. “People ought to be aware of that.”

What has never concerned Naylor is making mistakes. “I don’t think anything’s wrong with being wrong about things that really matter,” he says. “What I keep trying to hammer home to my students is that education is a learning process. I don’t give a damn what your conclusions are as long as you mustered some evidence for your argument. I don’t want to be told what I already know.”

Naylor comes by his predisposition for argument naturally. Despite growing up in “a dinky little Southern Ontario town,” he and his three siblings all ended up with PhDs and one went on to become the president of the University of Toronto. “I don’t think I set out to disturb things,” he says. “I think things deserve to be disturbed. It was part of my upbringing.”

It’s no coincidence either that he chose to come to McGill and Montreal at a time when “all the anglos were starting to leave.” It was the beginning of the seventies, and “there were debates everywhere,” he recalls. “All kinds of things were possible.”

But if he’s more cynical about university life now than he was then, he still believes that in a world increasingly controlled by market forces and manipulative governments, universities remain a last refuge of independent thought. McGill has certainly been that for Naylor, a man whose shyness and outspokenness manage to coexist. In the end, he admits, “There’s not much I haven’t said.”