Published by EH.NET (March 2008)

J.E. King, editor, A Biographical Dictionary of Australian and New Zealand Economists. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2007. xix + 337 pp. $170/?85 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-84542-869-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Steven Kates, Department of Economics, Finance and Marketing, RMIT University, Melbourne.

In spite of what you might think, this is not just a reference book, wonderful though it is as a reference book, but a book to be read through from cover to cover with immense pleasure and much profit.

It is self-described as “a biographical dictionary.” Dictionaries are not meant to be read through but consulted when needs be. I therefore adopted the strategy of beginning with just those economists I had personally known and working my way out from there.

In editing this dictionary, John King, Professor of Economics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, determined that only those who are no longer among us should be included ? a wise decision. Life is too short to be worried about all of us remaining economists, many of whom would no doubt have deeply resented not having been included. In making the decision he did, King ensured that no one alive would have grounds for serious complaint about their exclusion nor would they be in any hurry to make it into the second edition.

There were, as it turned out, quite a considerable number of economists I had known included in the text. And the more I read the more astonished I became at how little I had really known about any of them, yet how rich and varied their lives had been. And as I read on I found that I was no longer skipping past any of the entries to get to the next one among my past associations but would just go on to read each entry in sequence. And it was thus that I spent a brilliant Sunday afternoon reading through the entire lot.

What we have are short vignettes on 130 economists with some connection with Australia or New Zealand. Some were born, lived and died down under, some passed through briefly on their way elsewhere, and still others arrived from somewhere else to make their homes in the antipodes.

Some were professional economists typically associated with universities, while others were amateurs with enough of an influence on economic questions in their own times to keep their names alive among economists. Some had brilliant international reputations, while others are remembered now only because of how deranged their views were seen to be. Some appeared to lead quiet, sedentary lives while others appear to have lived the life of an Indiana Jones.

But what gives the book its excellence is the way in which the entries are written. Most have been put together by those with an obvious affection for their subjects. There is fulsome recognition of the achievements of each of the economists examined. And at the end of each entry, which range from just over a page to six pages in length, we know quite a bit about who they were as distinct individuals and something about their contributions to economics within Australia and New Zealand.

Moreover, the balance between their personal stories and their contributions to economics is for me just right. The aim surely is about describing who each of these economists were as people, not their contributions to the economic literature. For that, one may turn to libraries and journals. What we have here are attempts to capture their personal lives, quirky and individual as they might be, which is what a biographical dictionary is truly for.

And should one want to know more about any of the economists discussed or about their work, there is a quite comprehensive bibliography at the end of each entry provided a listing of their most important writings and further sources on the life histories that may be found elsewhere.

Also welcome is the subtle, probably unintended, pitch made for economic history and the history of economics as vehicles for learning the economist’s trade. With both areas of economics under siege at the moment, I might just quote from one such entry as a reminder that these are ways in which the subject matter of economics can be learned. Of one economist, it was said that his: “early training in law and in the historical dimensions of economics can be said to have laid solid intellectual foundations for his ability to make clear and insightful policy responses to the visible requirements of war finance, intergovernmental financial relations and policies for recovery from depression.” This is a reminder that delving into “the historical dimensions of economics” is one of the ways economists can and do learn their craft.

If I have a criticism it is this, minor though it may be. I have my misgivings whether any of the 130 economists listed should be described as “the greatest economist ever to have lived, worked and died in Australia” (Trevor Swan as it happens) or as said of another, “that he was the most significant Australian figure in economics before 1950, both nationally and internationally” (in this case L.F. Giblin). These judgements may well be true, but how do we know? These were the only statements in the entire volume that looked out beyond their own entries to make comparisons with others and to stake claims for their subjects which were not factually based.

Lastly, although many of the 130 economists lived active lives, there is no one to match our Bill Phillips, the inventor of the Phillips Curve and builder of the fabled Moniac (and if it comes to that, my own nominee for the most influential economist ever to have been born, lived and died in this part of the world). And what an amazing life! John Nash, beautiful mind or not, is as nothing in comparison with Phillips. If someone wants to make the most gripping imaginable film about an economist, Phillips is the one. If you don’t believe me, just read his entry, just read his entry for yourself.

Steven Kates lectures in economics at the RMIT University in Melbourne. He is about to publish, in the winter edition of the History of Economics Review, a previously unpublished and undocumented letter from Keynes to the American economist, Harlan Linneus McCracken, titled: “A Letter from Keynes to Harlan McCracken dated 31st August 1933: Why the Standard Story on the Origins of the General Theory Needs to be Rewritten.”