Honouring Steve Dowrick and Paul Miller, by Andrew Leigh

{re-posted from Andrew’s blogsite. Well said, Andrew}

I spoke in parliament yesterday in honour of two great Australian economists – Steve Dowrick and Paul Miller – who I worked with, and who died much too young this year.
Steve Dowrick and Paul Miller, 2 December 2013

I rise this evening to speak about the passing of two great Australian economists, Steve Dowrick and Paul Miller. Steve Dowrick was born on 7 May 1953 in Dublin, Ireland, and passed away in August of this year. His life and his contributions to the economic profession have been beautifully laid out in an obituary for the Canberra Times by Bruce Chapman and Maria Racionero. I will draw on that obituary in some of my comments today.

Steve and his brothers, Christopher and Nicholas, attended a Quaker school in York that had a strong emphasis on practical social action, which reinforced his commitment to collective action. When he finished high school Steve was offered a place at Cambridge in theoretical physics but spent a year undertaking volunteer work at Blackfriars Settlement, Southwark in London, driving a van for a project named Workshop for the Disabled. It was perhaps that year that he spent working for disabled communities that meant that, when he started at Cambridge, he chose quickly to move out of physics and into areas in the social sciences. He continued to be active on social issues, representing disadvantaged residents at public inquiries on town planning. Steve Clarke has written that Steve Dowrick’s contact with the people of Newport, and in the workhouse in London, gave him some really important insights into the lives and the stress that the poor encounter dealing with the poverty not only in their own lives but also with bureaucracies. Those issues of equality continued to pervade Steve’s work throughout his career.

Steve returned to Cambridge in 1982 to study economics and had the great fortune to meet Deborah Mitchell, another Australian social scientist. They married in York in 1984 and then moved to Canberra. Deborah is now a professor at the Australian National University in the Australian Democratic and Social Research Institute. Their two children, Helen and Lydia, were born in 1986 and 1987. Steve immersed himself in the life of his daughters. Deborah said he was the kind of dad who would rather spend time with Helen and Lydia at night and set the alarm for 4.30 the next morning to attend to unfinished academic business.

In 1996 Steve became the professor of economics and head of department in the Faculty of Economics and Commerce. He was at the peak of his academic leadership career but also his research career. He had worked with John Quiggin to develop a multilateral welfare index, to shed light on global income inequality, and was published in the American Economic Review—no more prestigious journal is there in the profession of economics. Steve also continued to champion and to work with women in the department and was recognised in March this year with a Gender Champion Award on International Women’s Day.

There is a story which perhaps I should not tell but which is too good to hold back from this place. In the last few months of Steve’s life, due to his neurological condition the nursing staff would often ask questions to check on his alertness. The usual question was: ‘Who is the Prime Minister?’ Apparently asked this in June 2013 Steve responded, ‘It’s Julia Gillard at the moment, but ask me again tomorrow and I will probably have a different answer—it will still be correct.’

I greatly enjoyed my interactions with Steve, who was always an insightful presence in academic seminars, coming forth with ideas and suggestions to improve work. He had that great spirit of the best economists of identifying flaws but also helping you to fix them. He was insightful but never cruel in the comments that he delivered. It was a privilege to work alongside him at the Australian National University.

Australian economics has also lost another great scholar in Paul Miller, who passed away in November this year. Deborah Cobb-Clarke and Chris Ryan, two of my colleagues when I was at ANU, and I have been reminiscing on what an extraordinary contribution Paul made to fields in Australian economics that are not overpopulated with scholars. The economics of education and the economics of immigration are fields that have probably lost a tenth of their productive research capacity as a result of Paul’s passing. His 21-page CV attests to his huge intellectual contribution to these vital fields, with research published in the best journals including the American Economic Review.

Paul was also the editor of the Economic Record from 2006 and over-invested in that role. Economics does not always repay the time people give to collective works such as this, and with the devotion that Paul gave to papers, his comments were often more valuable than those of the referees—and I can certainly say this as somebody who had a number of papers published in the Economic Record under Paul’s editorship. He was elected a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in 1997 and inducted into the ANU College of Business and Economics Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame, and in 2011 he was awarded an honorary fellowship of the Economics Society of Australia. His work at the University of Western Australia and at Curtin University was first rate.

I want to acknowledge particularly his wife Tram Le and their two young children: Erin, aged 12, and Andrew, aged 11. I feel particularly for the family, with such young children, for having the loss of such an extraordinary man as Paul. Elisa Birch from the University of Western Australia recounts to me the story that Paul started dating Tram when she was his PhD. student. She says that while it may seem a little taboo, Paul did everything above board. And in fact Tram has said that the vice-chancellor at UWA at the time, Alan Robson, knew more about Paul’s feelings towards her and their relationship than she did at the time.

He was a member of the Fremantle Dockers football club, and probably one of his most happy times in recent years was when he watched Fremantle win the preliminary final to make the grand final. He was able to cheer the Dockers on from the patients’ TV room and even had a glass of wine and a pizza with him, along with his family.

Many scholars have told their stories about Paul Miller, and Elisa has been kind enough to pass some of those on to me. Charles Mulvey tells the story of when Paul and he submitted an article to the American Economic Review. After some suggestion that it might be accepted, Charles suggested that, if it was, they would drink a bottle of 1984 Henschke Hill of Grace. He said one of his most glorious pleasures was sitting on the top-floor balcony of the old economics and commerce building savouring the glorious wine and basking in the glow of the academic coup. Tim Villa, the IT and facilities manager at UWA Business School, talks about Paul as being a ‘friendly chap clad in stubbies and a T-shirt, stalking the corridor barefoot while wearing an expression projecting something between severe purpose and utter bewilderment’. Daniel Kiely speaks about the quality of Paul’s lecturing and quotes one student evaluation in which the student said that Paul was ‘the best lecturer I’ve ever had; the way he did the lectures was amazing; the fact he wrote on each slide explaining everything was extremely helpful.’ And Daniel says that this sort of review was the norm for Paul.

Michael McLure writes to Paul’s children: ‘My main memory of your father, Paul, is that he was a great juggler, not of balls or blades or things like that but of the many things he managed to get done at the same time. It was a wonder to me that any one person could do so much in so little time.’ Mike Dockery speaks about their shared passion for the Freo Dockers and the family holidays in Dunsborough, leading to ‘a valued but far-too-brief friendship’. Michael Kidd remembers Paul as being ‘a bit gruff, but inherently a no-nonsense kind of guy; he was always very helpful, willing to provide comments on drafts and provide references and the like.’ And Ingebjorg Kristoffersen writes about emails sent at 1.30 in the morning and replied to at 1.35, asking: ‘Was that man ever off duty?’

In my own dealings with Paul as another scholar on the economics of education, he was always generous with his time. I enjoyed the opportunities to exchange ideas and I would have greatly appreciated the chance to collaborate with him. I expected that he would continue to enhance our knowledge, as Australians, of these vital issues. It is a loss to Australia’s intellectual community that he has passed, but of course a great loss to his family as well. Rest in peace Steve Dowrick and Paul Miller.

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

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