Obituary: Geoff Harcourt - Scholar, Sportsman and Humanitarian

Obituary by John Hatch

Geoff Harcourt died at the age of 90 in Sydney on Tuesday December 7th

Geoff was an inspiring man who made a lasting impression on all those who met him.  As a talented academic economist, he helped to build an excellent Department of Economics at Adelaide University at a time when Universities were much more receptive to free-thinking, eclectic scholars than perhaps they are now.  Geoff was a gregarious humanitarian, interested and knowledgeable in many of the social sciences, but he also had other great passions, sport, literature, particularly Australian, social reform, even religion and certainly family.  He was as close as one can now be to what people call a Renaissance man; complex, hard to put in any pigeon-hole, often with anomalous views and a broad sense of humour, and the absurdities of human affairs.  One can imagine him agreeing with one of Beethoven’s final comments, “The comedy is over”.

Geoff was born in Melbourne, an older twin to brother John.  In his own words, his was an “Assimilationist Jewish household”.  He went to Methodist Wesley College which may explain why in his early twenties he became a Methodist, and again in his words, “A Christian Socialist”.  At this time he was doing a B.Com and then a Masters at Melbourne University, an experience he described as “Heaven on Earth”.  He had been advised in a future-career appraisal that he couldn’t manage University and should consider being a chicken farmer.  He clearly took to the world of ideas.

He was an excellent student and moved quite quickly from conventional accounting interest to the more rarefied field of theoretical economics, and by good fortune ended up doing his Doctorate at King’s College Cambridge, where the great John Maynard Keynes had been a few years before, and Keynes remained a hero for the rest of Geoff’s life.

Geoff moved rapidly in the academic world, appointed lecturer at Adelaide University 1958, then Lecturer and a Fellowship at Trinity Hall College Cambridge in 1963.  He returned to Adelaide in 1967 and was appointed to a Personal Chair and he remained until 1982.  From 1982 until his death, he continued to work as a prolific academic economist in Cambridge and returned to Sydney and the University of NSW in his later years.  His impact on a great number of students was huge, both on account of his entertaining lectures and his personal interest in them.  He developed innovative ideas such as The Adelaide Plan, an analysis of the rampant inflation of the 1970s and 1980s, and the idea of indexation.  Some readers may recall using his textbook, Economic Activity, published with Peter Karmel and Bob Wallace.

Geoff’s gregarious personality led to a string of high-profile academic visitors to the Adelaide Economics Department including Nobel Prize winners and politicians.  In 1972 he published probably his best academic work, an esoteric but highly acclaimed account of an international spat largely between Cambridge (UK) and Cambridge (USA) theorists, entitled Cambridge Controversies.  This gave him an international reputation, which for an Australian economist was a great achievement and also illustrated his love of the contest!

Geoff loved sport, particularly cricket, and Aussie rules which he played until his late 40s.  Despite his small stature he was fearless.  I recall him once saying that getting a hundred on the Adelaide Oval would cap all his other achievements, even probably his later Order of Australia.  In lectures he laced arcane economics with sport and literature so that notes, and students took notes in those days, were not always ideal for students’ revision.  Some people found Geoff’s rather deep Christian Socialism odd at a time when conventional religion was already waning, at least amongst the intelligentsia.

Geoff was a great family man, raising four children all with successful, if highly varied careers.  He and his wife Joan lived in and visited many overseas countries and this is not wholly conducive to domestic harmony, but the Harcourts survived.

Geoff’s humanitarian interests were wide and passionate.  He opposed very publicly the Vietnam War and he constantly barracked for the underdogs both in sport and life.  He was a great patriot and loved Australia, but Geoff’s greatest gift was his optimistic and generous view of humanity at large which beguiled both his supporters and opponents.  Perhaps because of this he never founded a formal movement, but his influence was profound.

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