When the financial crisis struck, it was back to the economics Max Corden learned in the 40s and 50s — a golden age of economics in which conceptual simplicity was a feature not a bug and the central criterion of good work was its generality and usefulness — rather than the conspicuous cleverness that defined later economics.
(Cross posted from The Mandarin) This has been adapted from Nicholas Gruen’s address at the launch of Max Corden’s memoirs Lucky boy in the lucky country at Queens College, University of Melbourne on May 29.
The German philosopher Hegel said “the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings at dusk”. It’s an oracular way of putting an arresting and, if the truth be told, deeply melancholy thought.
In our fallen world, so much of life is revealed to us in retrospect. Reflection and wisdom come too late to be useful. In some ways, Max’s penchant for economic theory is an assertion of optimism against that melancholy. For by the fragile and imperfect construction of theory we try to build bridges between the events of the past and those of the future. We want to be ready next time. But therein lies a challenge. We want our theory to be useful, a point to which I’ll return.
The owl has been visiting Max lately. In an earlier discussion with Ross Garnaut to try to coordinate what we’d each speak about, I mentioned to him that my father was less conscious of his Jewish roots and less reflective of his past than Max. “Exactly like Max” said Ross. My father died twenty years ago and Ross says that Max’s deeper interest in his past has grown considerably since then.
Still that owl has a habit of creeping up on one. It was only towards the end of my father’s life that I gained any real interest in his history. It was much later again when I realised that all those things that migrants’ kids said – for instance about the strange food they ate at home – were also true for me, at least in small ways. A couple of decades ago I wouldn’t have noticed Max’s Europeanness. I barely noticed my father’s. But I do now.
I was invited to speak at this launch because of my father’s friendship with Max and the similarity between Dad’s and Max’s stories. I don’t know if Max knows some of the eerie similarities. I’ll tell you one. As Max tells us, in May 1938 he started two terms at the Streete Court School in Westgate-on-Sea in Kent.
He would meet Dad in Australia twenty years later at Monash University and write a paper together. They’d become closer friends another twenty years after that as respective heads of their centres at the ANU. Indeed Max writes in his memoirs “I don’t think I have met anybody in my life whom I have admired so much for his personality and balanced judgement”. But all those years back at Streete Court School, Max was just six miles or so up the road from Herne Bay College where my father had been boarding since 1936. Continue reading