The Dunera: kicking off an exciting life

An excerpt from the Dunera News. (for those who don’t know, the Dunera was the prison ship on which my father was deported to Australia in 1940 with the Battle of Britain raging around them). The exerpt is an autobiographical sketch by Richard Sonnenfeldt (1923–2009)

I was brought up as a German boy but, being Jewish, was lucky enough to be sent to boarding school in England in 1938. I was deported on the Dunera, sent to Hay, but again lucky to be released along with six others, taken back to Sydney and on to the Dunera. The ship developed trouble, we were taken off at Bombay and freed – being left in the hands of the Jewish Relief Committee.
It took six months for the US Consul to verify my credentials and issue me with a US visa. I arrived in New York in April 1941 and joined my family who had caught one of the last boats out of Lisbon. I wanted to enlist but was not accepted due to being of German origin. But a further 18 months on in 1943, I was given US citizenship, drafted and served in the Infantry in Italy and France. Then with the third and seventh armies in Germany and Austria. I saw battle at the Bulge and was there at the liberation of Dachau concentration camp, something I never forgot. Continue reading

Australia: blokey from the get-go

It’s Raining Men! Hallelujah?
Pauline Grosjean and Rose Khattar

We document the implications of missing women in the short and long run. We exploit a natural historical experiment, which sent large numbers of male convicts and far fewer female convicts to Australia in the 18th and 19th century. In areas with higher gender imbalance, women historically married more, worked less, and were less likely to occupy high-rank occupations. Today, people living in those areas have more conservative attitudes towards women working and women are still less likely to have high-ranking occupations. We document the role of vertical cultural transmission and of homogamy in the marriage market in sustaining cultural persistence. Conservative gender norms may have been beneficial historically, but are no longer necessarily so. Historical gender imbalance is associated with an aggregate income loss estimated at $800 per year, per person. Our results are robust to a wide array of geographic, historical and present-day controls, including migration and state fixed effects, and to instrumenting the overall sex ratio by the sex ratio among convicts.

Keywords: Culture, gender roles, sex ratio, natural experiment, Australia
JEL: I31 N37 J16

Clever new piece of work on what drove the industrial revolution

Human Capital and Industrialization: Evidence from the Age of

by Mara P. Squicciarini, Nico Voigtlaender – #20219 (DAE EFG)


While human capital is a strong predictor of economic development today, its importance for the Industrial Revolution is typically assessed as minor. To resolve this puzzling contrast, we differentiate average human capital (worker skills) from upper tail knowledge both theoretically and empirically. We build a simple spatial model, where worker skills raise the local productivity in a given technology, while scientific knowledge enables local entrepreneurs to keep up with a rapidly advancing technological frontier. The model predicts that the local presence of knowledge elites is unimportant in the pre-industrial era, but drives growth thereafter; worker skills, in contrast, are not crucial for growth. To measure the historical presence of knowledge elites, we use city-level subscriptions to the famous Encyclopedie in mid-18th century France. We show that subscriber density is a strong predictor of city growth after 1750, but not before the onset of French industrialization. Alternative measures of development confirm this pattern: soldier height and industrial activity are strongly associated with subscriber density after, but not before, 1750. Literacy, on the other hand, does not predict growth. Finally, by joining data on British patents with a large French firm survey from 1837, we provide evidence for the mechanism: upper tail knowledge raised the productivity in innovative industrial technology.

Unveiling of a portrait

Just a note to let people know of the unveiling of a magnificent portrait of my father, discovered some years after he died. It’s in Canberra on Tuesday afternoon.

Here’s the invitation. Perhaps I’ll see you there.

Professor Rabee Tourky
Professor Bruce Chapman
Emeritus Professor Bob Gregory

request the pleasure of your company on behalf of the
Research School of Economics and Crawford School of Public Policy

at the portrait unveiling ceremony of the late
Professor Fred H Gruen

to celebrate and recognise his significant contribution to
Economics and Australian Public Policy at The Australian National University

Launch talk by Dr Martin Parkinson, Secretary to the Treasury

5.30pm – 7.30pm Tuesday 6 May 2014


Ground Floor Foyer
ANU College of Business and Economics Building 26C
Kingsley Street, Acton

Refreshments will be provided


A postcard from 1968

I remember a long long time ago – in fact it was nearly fifty years ago I went with my family on a three week trip to Alice Springs and the Northern Territory. Dad didn’t spend much time with us as he was working while Mum, David and I tried to enjoy ourselves. Mum located a riding school and we went riding quite a few days. We went to the rock, where Mum, famous ever after in family culture, took one look at the climbing face of the rock and decided that if we stumbled and fell and lost hold of the single chain going up the rock, we might easily die. So we were forbidden from climbing the rock.

We were scandalised. In any event I still remember the trip quite well. Dad’s work meant nothing to me then but it was quite historic. It was work with two other academics – I think Colin Tatz and Sol Encel – on the likely consequences of giving aborigines equal pay.  The next year they got it of course, though it was never about their interests. They were not heard in the case and remained unrepresented. The white unions didn’t like competing against cut price labour.

In his part of the report focusing on economics, Dad concluded firstly that aborigines should be given equal pay, but also that demand for aboriginal labour would fall and so recommend support for aboriginal stockmen (I don’t know what kind, presumably the original documents can be located, but I don’t know where they’d be and I’ve not looked.) In the upshot Dad was (I expect) quite shocked to be attacked quite stridently as a racist. His saying that some aboriginal stockmen would lose their jobs was racist apparently.

Anyway, racist or not, he was right.

Continue reading

The other Berlin Wall that came down: The collapse of communism and the spread of ideas

Book Translations as Idea Flows: The Effects of the Collapse of Communism on the Diffusion of Knowledge
by Ran Abramitzky, Isabelle Sin


We use book translations as a new measure of international idea flows and study the effects of Communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe on these flows. Using novel data on 800,000 translations and difference-in-differences approaches, we show that while translations between Communist languages decreased by two thirds with the collapse, Western-to-Communist translations increased by a factor of four and quickly converged to Western levels. Convergence was more pronounced in the fields of applied and social sciences, and was more complete in Satellite and Baltic than in Soviet countries. We discuss how these patterns help us understand how repressive institutions and preferences towards Western European ideas shaped the international diffusion of knowledge.

1954: The no-spin zone

This doco is worth watching for its own sake. (Why are media organisations so dumb and unprepared to allow embedding of their videos – given that the vids themselves come with ads that are hard to avoid – but I digress …) What struck me is how different it would be today.

The film is for the Board of Works, which would have paid for its production and it functions as an ad for an elaborate process of city planning they’d been going through. In fact I think we do the actual planning a lot better today, with the involvement of the community handled much better. I could be wrong about this, but the impression created by the doco is that it was a very technocratic and top down process with people’s input being had via surveys etc. Today we hold lots more meetings, and get lots more people involved and so lots more energy in the process.

So, if that’s all good, what’s all bad is that today the corresponding bit of PR would be a product of the PR profession, which would ensure that the whole thing sounded like a smarmy pack of lies. It would be full of PR speak, hollowman speak. It would be obsessed with a feelgood factor and with staying “on message”. There’s none of that, rather lots of information, much of it just by the way, and then a strong call to action at the end – get involved and (please) get behind our plan. With a genuine call for civic mindedness and intergenerational generosity.

Postscript: graph supplied by John Walker below. 

Predictions versus outcomes in 2013?

In the last 5 years, I have made a point of giving clear predictions on complex socio-economic issues. I give predictions partially to improve my own understanding of humanity: nothing sharpens the thoughts as much as having to actually predict something. Another reason is as a means of helping my countries (Australia/the Netherlands) understand the world: predicting socio-economic events is what social scientists should do, even if they will often be wrong.

Time to have a look at my predictive successes and failures over the last few years, as well as the outstanding predictions yet to be decided. Let us start with what I consider my main failure.

                 Failed predictions

The main area I feel I haven’t read quite right is the conflict in Syria, as part of the general change in the whole Middle East. I am still happy with my long-run predictions for that region, where I have predicted that urbanisation, more education, reduced fertility rates, and a running out of fossil fuels will lead to a normalisation of politics in a few decades time. But at the end of 2012 I was too quick in thinking the Syria conflict was done and dusted. To be fair, I was mainly following the ‘intrade political betting markets’ which was 90% certain Assad would no longer be president by the end of this year, but the prophesised take-over of the country by the Sunni majority has not quite happened. The place has become another Lebanon, with lots of armed groups defending their own turf and making war on the turf of others. The regime no longer controls the whole country, but is still the biggest militia around.

What did I fail to see? I mainly over-estimated the degree to which the West would become involved. Continue reading