John Quiggin and Andrew Leigh have posted a couple of reviews of a big one day conference in Canberra held on Thursday in honour of Bob Gregory’s turning 65. It was a very enjoyable event, with a remarkable number of recognised faces in attendance. Bruce Chapman was the main organiser and the event was an extravaganza with high powered speakers, and well chosen parodies coming at the right time. During the last session of the conference Jeff Borland presented a session in honour of Bob with these characteristics
1. It came with a half written paper.
2. It consisted of a few graphs. (The last conference I went to Bob took out a single graph which he called his ‘violin’ and talked to it to a mesmerised audience for 30 minutes or so).
3. It was not based on the half paper, but on a different idea that Bob had had in the previous 24 hours.
Bob loved the conference without taking it too seriously.
Bob’s was celebrated as a lovable rogue with a brilliantly creative mind. I find these kinds of functions rather daunting. I’m sure there won’t be a turnout like that when I turn 65 about 200 to the conference and maybe 500 plus to the dinner. I don’t think there’ll be much of a turnout at all if any functions even resembling Bob’s were held for me. But who knows?
And while there were lots of stories of Bob’s roguishness always on the side of good (like finding all sorts of ruses to hang on to money for his department within the university) it was remarkable in what good standing he was held by the eminent within his own and adjacent professions (particularly the public service). Those little gold buttons on people’s lapels AOs and ACs were out in force but not on Bob’s lapel though he got a gong years ago.
It occurred to me that Bob was an example of a largely atheoretical economist like Steven Levitt is celebrated as being. But the big difference is that where it seems to me that much of Levitt’s work is full of sound and fury but doesn’t signify all that much, Bob’s work has been similarly brilliant and eclectic, but it’s been oriented around themes which not only provide his work with some unity (which is not such a great virtue if you can do good work without unifying themes) but also work that consistently passes the ‘who cares?’ test. Indeed, as told by one of the speakers, ‘who cares?’ is one of the questions Bob wants a satisfactory answer to in order to get interested in research.
Better than nutting out how to detect Sumo wrestlers cheating I reckon. (I concede this is unfair to Levitt, but I’m intending to use Bob as an exemplar of what I found lacking in Levitt when I wrote about him earlier.)
Bob is an old friend of our family (my Dad was in the same university department as him). I remember talking to him about industry policy in the early 1980s and perhaps even as he was speaking coming up with a general law about economists they are the worst listeners in the world. Simply lousy at catching on to what others say, even within their own profession.
I think this theory has held up well in my own experience and the exceptions are few. But the joke is probably on me. Bob gave me a powerful and simple idea which I further developed as I went on thinking about my problem. He was the one to impart knowledge to me, not the other way round even without listening too hard.
Bob’s manner is straightforward to the point of being blunt perhaps befitting his working class origins yet he is completely devoid of ‘blokey’ affectations. He grew up in a family in Coburg (I think) and went to Melbourne Uni one day after he’d finished high school to see what it was like. He only went because it was on the tram in the way into town. Bob had polio when he was a child and walks with a limp and a caliper on his shoe.
Bruce Chapman told a story which captures Bob’s charm. When Bruce was made Head of the Department on Bob’s retirement from the position earlier this year someone had a conversation with Bruce suggesting that Bruce might find the job difficult because “Bob had such a good personality”. When a dispirited Bruce conveyed this comment to Bob, Bob commented “That was a nice thing for him to say”.
Unaffected and disarmingly honest about his own motivations and affections, I think of him as indeed once described him to a gathering – as the Humphrey Bogart of Australian economics. I meant to convey not just his strange, slow but charismatic drawl but also his character unsentimental, tough to the point of roguishness with an unadvertised, indeed sometimes concealed heart of gold. He’s a lovely guy who was given a whole day to bask in others’ high opinion of him and his achievements. Good on you Bob.