A Few Hares to Chase: The Life and Economics of Bill Phillips

By Cornish, Selwyn | Agenda: A Journal of Policy Analysis and Reform, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

A Few Hares to Chase: The Life and Economics of Bill Phillips


Cornish, Selwyn, Agenda: A Journal of Policy Analysis and Reform


Alan Bollard, A Few Hares to Chase: The Life and Economics of Bill Phillips

(Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2016)

Thomas Carlyle called economics 'the dismal science'. Some aspects of economics may fairly be described as 'dismal'. But it would be a particularly harsh judgement - and an inaccurate one - if that description were applied to the discipline as a whole. If the increasing size of biographies (and autobiographies) of economists is used as the measure, it would appear that economists are anything but dismal. Take John Maynard Keynes, for example. Robert Skidelsky's life of Keynes covers three volumes, totalling some 1,758 pages; Donald Moggridge's single-volume biography of Keynes is 941 pages in length. And Keynes was only 62 when he died! Susan Howson's life of Lionel Robbins is 1,161 pages; Peter Groenewegen's life of Alfred Marshall is 864 pages; and Marjorie Harper's biography of Sir Douglas Copland, The Australian National University's first Vice-Chancellor, is 548 pages. These economists must have been doing some interesting things to warrant such prolonged engagement by their biographers - and most assuredly they did.

Bill Phillips, the author of the eponymous 'Phillips Curve', and the subject of A Few Hares to Chase, was many things: modest, sober, unpretentious, imaginative, inquisitive and a genius; but rarely, if ever, dismal. Alan Bollard, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, and the author of this biography of Phillips, refers to his subject as 'remarkable'. And so he was. Here was a man born on a small dairy farm in 1914 in an obscure part of New Zealand, who went to local schools, qualified as an electrician after serving an apprenticeship with a local hydro-electric authority, worked for some years in the back blocks of New South Wales and Queensland, crossed Asia and Europe on the trans-Siberian railway before the outbreak of the Second World War, enlisted in the RAF in London, was captured by the Japanese while trying to escape at the fall of Singapore, spent the rest of the war in appalling conditions in prisoner-of-war camps at various locations on the island of Java, returned to London via New Zealand after the war, enrolled for a degree in sociology at the London School of Economics (LSE), successfully completed a PhD in economics at LSE, was appointed to one of the most prestigious chairs of economics in the world (the Tooke chair, which had previously been occupied by Friedrich Hayek), wrote one of the most cited articles in economics, accepted a research chair in economics at ANU and died in 1975 at the of 60, lecturing, at the University of Auckland, until the day before he died.

Bollard has written a superb biography of the man, at once concise, elegant and extensively researched. The essential biographical details of Phillips's life are told against the backdrop of local and world history, with the contemporary events linked to the personal story in such a way that the two appear to be seamless. To achieve this feat successfully without appearing to be contrived is an exceptional skill, adding as it does to the pleasure of reading the book.

During his undergraduate studies in sociology - for which he showed little interest or aptitude, and obtaining a poor third as a result - Phillips began to consider economics. With the assistance of another returned serviceman who was studying at LSE for an economics degree - Walter Newlyn - Phillips built a hydro-mechanical model of a Keynesian macro-economy, using perspex tanks and tubes through which water was pumped. The model, known commonly by the acronym MONIAC (Monetary National Income Automatic Computer), which went through a number of increasingly complex versions, demonstrated what might happen to output and employment if aggregate demand were to change or policy was altered. Senior economists at LSE, including James Meade and Lionel Robbins, quickly saw its potential as a teaching device and orders soon poured in from universities (the University of Melbourne acquired one), governments and central banks. …

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