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Timely reminder of a forgotten father of economics

12 May 2021 0 views No Comment

The Gypsy Economist: The Life and Times of Colin Clark

By Alex Millmow

Palgrave Macmillan, 396pp, $135 (HB), $80 e-book


The name may not ring a bell but more people should know about Colin Clark. Why? Well, for one thing Clark is the person who pioneered the use of gross national product as the basis for studying national economies, and that alone makes him an important figure.

Author Alex Millmow has produced the first biography of Clark, the Anglo-Australian economist whose work in the area of applied economics, economic theory and statistical analysis is of crucial importance in 20th-century intellectual history.

Born in London in 1905, Clark has been largely overlooked since his death in Brisbane in 1989, yet he was in many ways a trailblazer.

As well as pioneering the use of GNP, he was also one of the first economists to foresee Asian industrialisation and the re-emergence of India and China within the global economy. Moreover, as Millmow maintains, Clark was “the first economist to inform the world that the rapid industrialisation of the Soviet Union, including its supposed growth rate, was built on dubious statistics”.

In 1945 Clark “predicted the rise and persistence of inflation when taxation levels exceeded 25 per cent of GNP”. And he was also one of the first scholars to debunk post-war predictions about the perils of overpopulation.

To quote the title of his favourite poem by Matthew Arnold, published in 1853, Clark was a “scholar gypsy” who, as Millmow puts it, “wandered through applied economics in much the same way as he liked to ramble through the English countryside or the Australian bush”. Millmow is president of the History of Economic Thought Society of Australia and, while quite the scholar himself, writing does not seem to come easily. The text is sometimes laboured but he is undoubtedly an excellent researcher and a well-informed economist. As a result he has produced an original and important book.


Millmow is clearly very sympathetic to Clark, but he doesn‘t fudge the evidence. He covers every facet of the life and ideas of his subject, including Clark’s eventual falling out with John Maynard Keynes, with whom he taught at Cambridge in the early 1930s; his standing unsuccessfully for the Labour Party in the 1935 general election; his great love of his adopted country, Australia, to which he moved in 1937; his abandonment of Fabianism; his dedication to Catholicism, to which he was a convert in 1940; and his association with rurally oriented, socially conservative, Queensland Labor governments.

Clark was especially close to Scottish-born William Forgan Smith, Queensland premier from 1932 to 1942, whose nickname was “Foregone”. This was because under his authoritarian rule everything was a foregone conclusion.

In 1938 Forgan Smith appointed Clark director of the Bureau of Industry, state statistician and financial adviser to the state Treasury. He thus became the state’s most senior public servant. In 1940 Clark published The Conditions of Economic Progress, his magnum opus, which was reworked in many subsequent editions.

Clark passionately promoted the value of decentralisation and, long before his peers, advocated shifting Australia‘s economic orientation away from manufacturing towards agriculture and services. Some 30 years before it became a reality, Clark “was accurate, too, in canvassing the idea of Australia’s economic integration within the Asia Pacific”.

It is useful to know that well before his conversion from Anglicanism to a conservative form of Catholicism, Clark was highly critical of neo-Malthusian ideas about the perils of overpopulation. Indeed, Clark and wife Marjorie produced nine children — eight boys followed by a girl, Cecily.

In mid-1952, after falling out with Vince Gair, the divisive Labor premier who had very different views about economic policy, Clark reluctantly left Queensland.

In 1953 he started work at Oxford University. Then, encouraged by fellow anti-communist BA (Bob) Santamaria in the late 50s and early 60s he applied unsuccessfully for senior positions at four Australian universities. In 1969 he accepted a research fellowship at Monash University. After a five-year stint, he and Marjorie moved back to Brisbane, where Clark died in 1989.

The Gypsy Economist is a thoroughly worthwhile read but one that begs a rather more dispassionate assessment. Yet until its publication Clark’s name and his huge contribution to applied economics had faded in the public memory. So in this regard Millmow has done us all a service.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Australian, May 12, 2021, p 12.

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