Academic journal article History of Economics Review

Douglas Copland and the Aftershocks of the Premiers' Plan, 1931-1938

Academic journal article History of Economics Review

Douglas Copland and the Aftershocks of the Premiers' Plan, 1931-1938

Article excerpt

In the crucible of the 1930s Douglas Copland became an economist of international repute. In this article I consider some of the professional activities and policy advocacy Copland undertook in that decade. He might have reminded some of John Maynard Keynes with an active life and a practice of popularising economics via public channels in order to shape a more effective stabilisation policy. As an inherent educator Copland felt the public, as voters, were entitled to know how the authorities were dealing with economic problems. Never an ivory tower academic, Copland was drawn into myriad of professional and public activities that exacted a toll on his health. While a propensity for involvement in public affairs may sometimes distract an economist from pursuing research, Copland used the involvement in public policy formation to set the markers for enlightened economic management.

1 Introduction

In retirement old generals polish their medals while old professors look over their resumes. In his last years Douglas Copland ensured that his achievements and honours were up to date with the publishers of Who's Who, Debretts and other volumes of that ilk. Given that he had started, but never finished, writing an autobiography, this was perhaps the best way of broadcasting the ambit of his career, especially for the dramatic decade of the 1930s when Copland was a household name in Australia.

While Roland Wilson (1951) had hailed L. F. Giblin as 'the grand old man' of modern Australian economics, he could have easily bestowed similar praise on his old mentor, Copland. He didn't though. In modern times there has been a tendency to besmirch the achievements of Copland. It became fashionable with the postwar generation of economists to belittle his contribution to inter-war Australian economic thought, especially that relating to stabilisation policy. Copland was well aware of the chiselling away at his reputation. Commenting to a friend while reading Roy Harrod's biography of Keynes he wrote:

   Still reading Keynes and I remember most of the controversy and the
   discussion he was involved in from the 1920's onwards. A few of us
   had been working on similar lines and I have somewhere a set of
   memorandums to the government of NSW from 1932 to 1936 urging with
   all the persuasion I could muster an expansionist policy, but we
   could not get past the Commonwealth Treasury. It would be fun to
   dig them out now and circulate for the younger brethren who still
   think we are past praying for. I'm sure he [Keynes] would disown
   Coombs and his school if he was with us now. (1)

By that reflection Copland revealed not only his close dealings with Keynes, but also his fear that a Keynesian creed obsessed with full employment and nothing else was taking hold of the postwar Australian economics fraternity. It also showed Copland's pride in the policy advocacy and controversies that he had actively participated in during the 1930s.

A leading businessman, Herbert Gepp, who knew Copland, hailed him as the 'Keynes of the Commonwealth' (cited in Harper 1986, p. 46). He meant that more in terms of Copland's contributions to shaping Australian public policy than in terms of his theoretical rigour; and it was in the 1930s that Copland was an applied economist par excellence. As the elected Chairman of the 1931 Experts Committee, Copland played a part in shaping the policies behind the Premiers' Plan that has since become legendary. It was true also that he bore the brunt of much ill-informed criticism from many quarters.

Drawn into a myriad of professional and public activities, Copland might have reminded some of Keynes with his public life and his practice of popularising economics via public channels in order to shape a more effective stabilisation policy. As an educator Copland felt the public, as voters, were entitled to know just how the authorities were dealing with the Depression. …

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