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The Gypsy Economist: The Life and Times of Colin Clark

Author(s):Millmow, Alex
Reviewer(s):Darnell, Adrian

Published by EH.Net (April 2022).

Alex Millmow. The Gypsy Economist: The Life and Times of Colin Clark. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2021. xx + 396 pp. $119.99 (hardback), ISBN: 978-981-33-6945-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Adrian Darnell, Retired Professor of Economics, Durham University.

 

Colin Grant Clark was born in 1905; he was educated at Winchester College and Brasenose College, Oxford, from where he graduated in Chemistry in 1928. His interest in statistics and economics was born of studying statistics in his curriculum and having attended some of Lionel Robbins’ lectures extra curricula. Clark’s interest in economics was furthered at the Oxford Labour Club and then within the University Adam Smith Society, to which Clark’s greatest contributions were to illuminate theoretical discussions with voluminous statistics designed to bring the conversations ‘down to earth.’ Robbins introduced Clark to Hugh Dalton and later William Beveridge, for whom he worked as a research assistant at the London School of Economics in 1928–29; he then worked with Allyn Young and in 1929 left London for Liverpool, where he worked for Alexander Carr-Saunders. During this time he ran unsuccessful parliamentary campaigns as a Labour candidate in North Dorset (1929), and later at Liverpool Wavertree (1931) and South Norfolk (1935).

In 1930 he was (to his surprise, apparently) appointed as research assistant to the newly convened National Economic Advisory Council (NEAC). However, when Clark was invited by Ramsey MacDonald (an avowed protectionist) to write a case for protectionism Clark (who favoured devaluation and expansion of the domestic economy) chose to resign in 1931 rather than compromise his principles. Keynes, a member of the NEAC, having been impressed by Clark’s command of data, then secured him a lectureship in statistics at Cambridge.

In 1937 Clark accepted a position with the Queensland government and stayed in Australia in various government roles, all of which afforded him the opportunity to pursue his own research. In 1951 he took secondment to the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, and then to Chicago (1952), before taking the Directorship of the Agricultural Economics Research Institute at Oxford (1952–69). He returned to Australia in 1969 as the Director of the Institute of Economic Progress at Monash (1969–78) and finally he was a Research Consultant to the Department of Economics at the University of Queensland until his death in Brisbane in 1989. Today Clark is, perhaps, best known for his work on national income and development economics.

This biography is a most illuminating account of Clark and his work, the man and his times, and provides a comprehensive assessment of his many economic contributions. The picture painted is of a most stimulating and heterodox thinker, a man who had no formal training in economics or economic methodology, and a man who revelled in being annoying!

Clark was a prolific writer of books and academic and newspaper articles and a broadcaster whose work appears to have attracted both praise and criticism, not always in equal measure. The source of much criticism had two sources: his lack of training in the subject and a suspect methodology were often evident; and his later work, especially after his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1940, seemed to some to rely (often implicitly) upon Catholic thought, as distinct from economic thought and evidence.

Clark’s methodological approach was clearly influenced by his chemistry studies, and his ‘scientific’ economics stressed ‘the careful systemisation of all observable facts, the framing of hypotheses from these facts, predictions of fresh conclusions on the basis of these hypotheses, and the testing of these conclusions against further observable facts’ (1940, p. vii). He expressly prioritised observation over theory: he praised Australian economists for their ‘respect for observed facts in preference to long chains of theoretical reasoning’ (1940, p. ix), but his lack of a theoretical framework and an overreliance on (not always robust) data was criticised. Clark believed ‘many of the laws of economics could be deduced from comparative observations rather than from an a priori position’ (p. 43), did not recognise that observations are always seen through a particular window of theory, and expressly relegated economic theory. His approach relied heavily on the quality of statistics, and his early work on national income sought, successfully, to provide good data. The National Income 1924-31 was a major work, developing the earlier work of Bowley and Stamp (1927); he brought quantitative flesh to Keynesian concepts and, for the first time, distinguished between national income and national product.

This work was well received but, like almost all his work it seems, it attracted criticism in at least equal measure. There is a recurring theme to the reception he generated: he was regularly criticised for sloppiness, poor methodology, and allowing unstated principles (notably Catholic principles) to influence his analysis. One example must suffice. Clark’s (1967) Population Growth and Land Use was described as ‘a source of pleasure, information and challenge’ (Spengler, 1968, p. 228, in Millmow p. 279) but the book’s controversy stemmed from the level of scholarship on the one hand and his views on birth control on the other. Davis (1968, p. 133) observed that ‘the tools of scholarship are casually handled with frequent omission of authors, dates or titles, occasional misspellings, ambiguous labelling of charts and tables, use of derived figures and unexplained inconsistencies, disregard of contrary arguments and evidence’ and concluded that ‘Clark’s reputation and his skill with words and numbers give his argument a halo of credibility that may mislead the untrained eye’ (in Millmow, p. 284). Davis further suggested that Clark had ‘massaged his data to fit his thesis.’

Clark was nominated several times for the Nobel prize yet was never successful (p. 7). Millmow, I think, has more than adequately answered the question ‘why not?’. Clark’s work lacked a firm theoretical foundation and he ‘took delight in entertaining perverse views’ (p. 4). He was never appointed a full professor of economics and chose not to pursue his pioneering early work on National Income Accounting, moving on to write in less prosaic areas of economics. That Clark was well known for holding and promulgating unorthodox views may also have been a factor, especially as Millmow’s biography leads the reader to conclude that he deliberately sought to annoy.

Two examples may suffice. First, in 1962, speaking to the theme of the problems of growth in the Australian economy he drew upon his ideas of the last 20 years and asserted that it took ‘Australia a long time to learn’, that Australia had foolishly ‘set out to manufacture everything’, ascribed Australia’s ‘mediocre growth’ to protectionism, low levels of education, low growth of the labour force, developing industry at the expense of agriculture, and especially an ‘aversion to competition’ and a dependency on ‘government to put things right’ (pp. 309-10). One discussant (Crawford, 1962, p. 30) observed ‘we have been given a typical Colin Clark production . . . bristling with comment calculated to irritate, very revealing of his own prejudices on many subjects, it is nonetheless full of shrewd insights and worthwhile provocations’ [my emphasis]. Not only were his comments designed to irritate, but this was typical.

As a second example, Clark spoke in a debate on abortion law reform in Sydney in 1972. On the other side of the debate was Germaine Greer. Clark remarked to Greer, “I don’t know what to call you: Miss Greer or Mrs?” to which she replied, “Call me Doctor” (cited in Wyndham, 2012, p. 359).

Here we have a splendid biography. Clark, the idiosyncratic polymath shines from every page, but the title is troubling. While Arnold’s The Scholar Gypsy may well have been Clark’s favourite poem (p. 11), since that poem’s subject is an Oxford scholar who gives up his academic life to join a band of Gypsies, absorbing their customs and seeking the source of their wisdom, the picture of Colin Clark painted by Millmow doesn’t quite fit. Clark never gave up academe and nor does he seem to have sought to absorb others’ customs nor seek their sources of wisdom: on the contrary, he comes across as more interested in having others absorb his ways of thinking and understand his wisdom.

References

Bowley, Arthur L., and Josiah Stamp. The National Income 1924. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927.

Clark, Colin G. The National Income 1924-31. London: Macmillan, 1932.

Clark, Colin G. The Conditions of Economic Progress. London: Macmillan, 1940.

Clark, Colin G. Population Growth and Land Use. London: Macmillan, 1967.

Crawford, John Grenfell. ‘Discussion.’ In John Wilkes (ed.), Economic Growth in Australia. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1962.

Davis, Kingsley. ‘Colin Clark and the benefits of an increase in population.’ Scientific American 218(4): 133-138 (1968).

Spengler, Joseph, J. ‘Review of Population Growth and Land Use by C. Clark.’ Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 380: 228 (1968).

Wyndham, Diana. Norman Haire and the Study of Sex. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2012.

 

Adrian Darnell is Retired Professor of Economics at Durham University. He has published extensively on econometrics and its history.

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII