Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Few Hares to Chase: The Economic Life and Times of Bill Phillips - Alan Bollard

The Phillips curve is world famous in 'Economy  land'. Its inventor was an engineer, a genius, a man who led a pretty exciting life and contributed to economics in many different ways. Born and raised on a remote farm in rural New Zealand, the first part of his life was a search for adventure. During the Depression he worked in construction, and roamed the roads and outback of Australia picking up casual work from gold mining to crocodile hunting. In 1937 he traveled through militarizing Japan, a guerrilla war in Manchuria, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and growing tension in Europe. On the outbreak of war, he joined the RAF and re-armed planes in Singapore before incarceration in a Japanese Prisoner-of-War camp. There he learned languages, invented gadgets, and built a clandestine radio. No longer seeking adventure, life was now a search for economic stability. Demobbed, Phillips scraped a sociology degree at the London School of Economics (LSE), before convincing a skeptical faculty to let him build a hydraulic model of the economy. This beautiful, complex machine was a great success and Phillips was headed for serious economics. Subsequently, he developed new ideas for stabilizing economies, began to use electronic computers, developed the Phillips curve, showed ways to help an economy to grow, and developed new techniques to model economies. Always innovative, he later worked on stabilizing the Chinese economy, wracked by the Cultural Revolution. Dr Bill Phillips pioneered a dozen new directions in economics, making him one of the most innovative and influential economic pioneers.  

 Not long before his death in 1975, the New Zealand economics community wanted to recognize Phillips for all his achievements. So they published a commemorative book, with chapters written by all the international economists and they presented a copy to Phillips on his birthday in November 1974.  Sixty years old and wheelchair-bound after a stroke, he carefully accepts the book. He clearly can't move or speak very well, and is just as clearly frustrated by this.
He listens as he's told it's a recognition of all his achievements.  His response is typically modest, and understated. He just says: "Oh, I didn't do much. I just set off a few hares for people to chase."


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