Lucky boy in the lucky country - Speech, Australian National University

'LUCKY BOY IN THE LUCKY COUNTRY

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MAX CORDEN, ECONOMIST'

AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY

MONDAY, 19 FEBRUARY 2018

I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet today, and recognise Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt, Professor Hal Hill, Professor Bob Gregory, and the extraordinary Max Corden. 

As an empirical economist, I naturally prepared for today’s book launch by looking at the relevant datasets. Two big themes of this book are Max’s passion for migration and his research on reducing tariffs. So I opened up Stata, and looked through various datasets, hoping to find one on Australian attitudes to both questions.

Eventually, I struck digital gold. The 1998 Australian Election Study asked whether tariffs should be used to protect industry. Eleven percent disagreed, a view with which I imagine Max would broadly share. It also asked about the number of migrants that Australia should take, and 11 percent said Australia should take more migrants. Max holds both views, something that is true of 2 percent of Australians. So Max, I’m afraid that your Australian sales are unlikely to ever exceed half a million.

As well as being among the 2 per cent tonight, I’m also pleased to be launching this book because of Max's connection with my late grandfather, Keith Leigh. Keith was fifteen years older than Max, and they were friends at Queen's College. Keith died two years before I was born, so I loved hearing from Max about what my grandfather was like when he was in his prime at the University of Melbourne.

I'm also pleased to be speaking at a book launch for an economist that I admire so deeply not only for his ideas, but also for his style. When I read this book, I'm struck first of all, by the lack of dogmatism. There's a moment there when Max says that Kristallnacht was ‘almost universally unpopular in Germany, even among the generals’, because it offended against the sense of social order. It's an astute observation but also an extraordinarily generous one, from a Jewish person who fled from Germany.

Max talks about the moment where he might have seen Hitler passing by at the age of nine, and says that although he's not quite sure, he thinks that along with the rest of the crowd, he might have given a Heil Hitler salute. How many people would admit that? He discusses his Uncle Willy, whose wife and their three and nine year old daughters were shot in 1941 by the Nazis. In one of the most beautiful passages of the book, Max ponders why Uncle Willy didn't leave Germany and observes that perhaps an obstacle was his pride. It's that ‘crooked timber’ view of humanity - the lack of dogmatism and fixedness, the determination to avoid stereotypes - that makes the early autobiographical part of the book so absorbing. 

Then there's the love of research. Max talks about how the Australian National University laid the groundwork for his academic career to come. It’s appropriate that we're here today, in a room filled with eminent Australian economists. Returning from Oxford to ANU, Max writes that he was struck by the blue skies and felt like he had arrived at ‘Majorca with a university’. Vice-Chancellor, can you put that on a billboard?

Max writes generously about his Nuffield experience, about his mentors and those he admired, of visiting John Hicks in his home in the Cotswolds. Discussing Jim Mirrlees, Max admits that he didn't understand most of what Mirrlees was saying. Back at ANU he writes about the Indonesia Project, the students, his time as President of the Economic Society of Australia and his policy engagement. He talks about the joys of being a travelling international economist. I was reminded while reading Max of the observation that Brian Schmidt made when he won his Nobel Prize, that nowhere else but in ANU could he have engaged so richly with the best thinkers in the world to do the best work in the world. 

Max Corden pays tribute appropriately to Trevor Swan, who taught us that reputation does not always equal published output. He refers to the importance of John Crawford's work, who Max calls ‘one of the world's most useful economists’ – a description that reminds you of Keynes’s aspiration for economists to be more like dentists. Crawford exemplifies the value of focusing on big topics. Small advances in agricultural economics in India have huge social welfare gains to the world.

Max is generous towards others. Of Fred Gruen, he says, ‘I don't think I've met anybody else in my life whom I have admired so much for his personality and balanced judgement.’ It is an apt description of Fred Gruen, but a description that easily be given of Max himself. When I visited the University of Melbourne in the early 2000s, I remember Max being a stalwart of the tea rooms, somebody who was always interested in what you were doing, willing to push you a little further on your research agenda and your methodology.

Max’s approach is always to be modest about his own achievements. It’s the opposite of the way in which so many people become later in life where they want to pontificate and fill the air with their own voice. But for Max, it's the silences, the interest, the ability to listen, the deftness and the curiosity. He did me the honour of coming to the launch of a book I wrote last year, Choosing Openness, and received loud applause when I introduced him to the room. And he acknowledges his luck: as a refugee, in his choice of studies, in the colleagues with whom he worked. 

Now this is a blokey tale. Partly that's the era, partly that is the discipline of economics, partly that's the field of macroeconomics. Here in this room tonight, men outnumber women. But I was struck by the findings of a recent study by Ann Mari May, Mary McGarvey and David Kucera  looking at the attitudes of male and female economists on a number of public policy issues. They ask economists whether market solutions are typically superior to government intervention and find that male economists are more likely to favour market solutions. But I think in our discipline, Max would be more towards the government intervention side of the spectrum.

Male economists tend to favour austerity over redistribution, but again I suspect that Max would be more on the redistribution end of the spectrum. Male economists say that environmental protection is less important than do female economists. But I know from speaking to Max the importance that he places on smart solutions to climate change. And male economists are less likely to worry than female economists about inequality in the labour market, an issue which I know concerns Max deeply. I think it's fair to say that Warner Max Corden has a notably feminine touch to his economic style. 

The story of Australian economic performance is very much one of migration and trade, of engagement with the world and of recognising one's comparative advantage. And that's Max's story too. A story of somebody who brought great luck to Australia when he came here as a refugee. A story of one who continued to travel internationally to engage with the best in the world, drawing home their wisdom.

In this room, adjacent to the world’s most intellectual beer garden, Max reminds us that life is best lived with a sense of fun, of camaraderie, of collegiality, in which the ideas and the friendships intermingle. Max, congratulations on your extraordinary career. It is an honour and a privilege to help launch your autobiography.

ENDS 


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