Academic journal article History of Economics Review

A Conversation with Joe Isaac

Academic journal article History of Economics Review

A Conversation with Joe Isaac

Article excerpt

At the HETSA Conference in Melbourne in July 2012, Joe Isaac gave an informal but highly informative and thought-provoking talk on his seventy-year career in economics and the public service. The text that follows is an edited version of conversations between Joe Isaac and John King between October 2013 and May 2014 that drew heavily on Isaac's notes from his conference presentation. It has also benefited from helpful comments from Alex Millmow and Michael Schneider.

King: Can you tell me something about your family, your early education and the origins of your interest in economics?

Isaac: I was born on 11 March, 1922 in Penang, a small island off the west coast of Malaya, which, together with Singapore and Malacca, made up the Straits Settlements, a British Crown Colony and now part of Malaysia. At the time and until the Japanese invasion in 1941 and the family's evacuation to Perth WA, my father was a wholesale general merchant trading by way of exporting and importing, mostly with British India and the Dutch East Indies, as these countries were then known. My family moved to Java soon after I was born and, while I spoke English at home, my early education was in Dutch. After I had completed seven years of primary education my parents moved back to Penang, where trading opportunities were more favourable. I attended the Penang Free School (PFS), established by Stamford Raffles in 1816, to complete my secondary schooling, now of course in English. I was successful in obtaining the Cambridge School Certificate in 1939, topping the list for Penang, Malaya and Singapore, and the London Matriculation certificate in the following year. I should add that the PFS teachers were partly locally trained, some at Raffles College in Singapore, but nearly all the senior teachers were from the UK, graduates from British universities, some with PhDs. I enjoyed the multicultural environment of my youth, which has left me with an enduring regard and respect for people of different cultures.

I covered a wide range of subjects in my schooling, including all science subjects and Latin in the hope of preparing myself for studying medicine at university. However, my father did not favour that course ('doctors have a dog's life' was his frequent assertion) and directed me to study accounting instead. It was on that basis that I commenced a B.Com. at the University of Melbourne, arriving by ship early in March 1941 and taking up residence at Queen's College.

King: Any reflections on the teaching of economics at Melbourne University in the early 1940s?

Isaac: The Melbourne University staff was without the redoubtable Copland and his acolyte Downing, both in Canberra advising the government. Wilfred Prest was the main strength in teaching economics, assisted by the economic historian A.G.L. Shaw and by Jean Polglaze, who taught mainly statistical methods. One of the part-time lecturers, Gordon Bruns, taught demography, while Herbert Burton taught Australian economic history. Dean Gordon Wood, although on the Grants Commission, was very superficial on economics. He was rather more informed on economic geography, but Pat McBride was rather better prepared for lectures. First-year economics was mainly micro, based on Benham's Economics, which Prest taught. He was a good teacher if you could get over a boring delivery. We also had a dose of history of thought based on Alexander Gray's Development of Economic Doctrines in Economics 1. Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers would probably have been prescribed if it had been available at the time. Those intending to do honours were required to do a course on Wicksteed's Common Sense of Political Economy, Volume 1. Second year was either Money and Banking or Economics of Industry. The main texts of the former were Keynes's General Theory, Sayers, Hawtrey and Mills and Walker (Australian coverage). Prest taught the General Theory--quite good but not inspirational. …

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