A tribute to Ian Mclean: Economic Historian, former colleague and friend

In remembrance of Ian McLean by Ralph Bayer

Dear friends,

With great sadness, I’d like to let you know that Ian McLean has passed away. Ian was one of the leading economic historians in Australia, a colleague and a friend. Many of you, particularly if you are an Alumni of the School of Economics, will have known Ian as their inspiring teacher in economic history. Of those of you who might not have met Ian in person, many will have read his incredibly insightful book “Why Australia Prospered” on the economic history of Australia. I would like to share a few very personal thoughts to honour and remember Ian.

Instead of writing a classical obituary, I would like to talk a bit about the positive impact Ian had on myself, his students, on young academic economists from all over the world and finally on the School of Economics at Adelaide.

Ian’s research focused on the economic history of Australia and other settler economies. The main focus was on determinants of differential economic performance of settler economies with similar starting points. Why did Australia do so well, when Argentina with similar initial conditions did not do well? Was is luck, good management or were there deeper systemic reasons? Ian’s research showed what is widely accepted today: historically determined institutions matter a lot.

While this insight seems trivial today, this was not always the case. For a long time, the classical wisdom pointed to the endowment (resources and labour force) as the driver of success. Ian showed in his work how the subtle interplay between endowments, institutions and individual incentives shape long-run growth paths of economies. The reoccurring theme of Ian’s capstone work “Why Australia Prospered” is the analysis of how these factors impact the ability of an economy to adjust to shocks. With this, Ian’s work is very relevant today as we are wondering how our society and economy can adapt to the shock caused by the COVID pandemic. In fact, I really would have liked to hear what Ian had to say on this.

It would have been very useful and extremely enjoyable to be able to sit with him over a weak decaf latte and think things through - or even better over a bottle of a nice red, he might have stashed away in his cupboard many years ago. The impossibility of this forces my mind back to 2002, when I had just arrived in Adelaide fresh from graduate school. Ian, immediately after my arrival set out to make me feel comfortable in the new and somewhat foreign place. Within weeks I had seen Hahndorf, toured the Barossa and Clare and had watched the Melbourne Cup in a pub in Angaston. Ian was extremely generous with not only his time and attention. A semester after my arrival, Ian went on a sabbatical to his beloved Berkeley, were he visited his friend and co-author Barry Eichengreen. While away, Ian lent his new car to me, a youngish, punk-rock loving novice to Australian roads. I repaid his trust with a little dent acquired the day before his return, such that I could not get it quietly fixed before he arrived back. Ian didn’t mind.

Ian provided the same help and warmth to all the freshly minted economists Adelaide hired at that time. We all felt extremely welcome. I am sure that this had a significant impact on my choice to settle in Adelaide rather than to just transition through.

We would always talk about economics during the many drives, lunches and dinners. The chats were fabulous. I learned so much. Ian would lecture on the big picture questions to me, explain facts and connections I had not thought of before. Ian’s economic mind worked like a giant empirical macroeconomic model. He did not need complex stochastic general equilibrium models or vector autoregressions. Language and consistent reasoning were sufficient. The clarity of mind required to do this was a rare gift Ian possessed. All too often, non-technical representations of economic theory lack consistency. Ian always very carefully thought his ideas through and discussed them over and over again with others, until no inconsistencies could be found anymore.

This thoroughness and fear of others finding holes in his research, was so strong that Ian would rather leave some research in the drawer, when he was not one-hundred percent certain that he was right. Ian’s refusal to conform to the norm of lime-light stage performers and commentators in the profession, was an expression of his fear of potentially making a statement that would not hold up to scrutiny. A bit more of this cautiousness would suit the profession of today quite well, where many of us try to publish papers with fatal flaws by knowingly covering them up.

When I arrived at Adelaide the School of Economics had come through rocky times. A fierce battle about potentially moving the School to the Faculty of what is Arts today, had left its marks. The financial situation of the University was also less than ideal. In this period Ian was involved in transforming the School (together with other seniors at that time) from a traditional Australian department to a school with international standards. Hiring from the international market, introducing a proper PhD program, establishing teaching assistantships, protecting the research time of junior faculty, and introducing a more pronounced research culture are just some milestones achieved with Ian’s involvement during this time.

Ian was extremely passionate about these things. This passion led him to take on the Head of School role, when there was a shortage of suitable candidates. Despite the fact that Ian was not keen on doing this, he did a very good job. The pressures and stress weighing on a Head of School who strives for perfection had a strong impact on Ian’s wellbeing, though. Ian decided not to renew his term. Nobody could change his mind, neither the Dean nor the colleagues who would have loved him to go on. I was surprised. This would become some kind of a theme.

His experiences during the time as Head of School also convinced Ian that it was time to return to what he really loved, research. Hence, Ian decided to free himself not only from the pressures of administration but also from teaching. Ian soon after this retired from his faculty position and continued as a research fellow. This was in preparation for providing time and freedom to have one more giant research push, the writing of “Why Australia Prospered.”

I was lucky enough to be some kind of a sounding board for much of the book. Over many two-hour long lunches, Ian talked through the mechanisms he thought were determining the economic performance of Australia at different points in time, while I tried to find holes. I vividly remember how Ian step-by-step arrived at some rather new and to some unconventional conclusions. An example is the view that Australia’s protectionism between the wars and right after the Second World War, was probably near-optimal given the circumstances. It was a slow and apparently painful process for Ian.

Getting closer to the completion of the book, Ian then declared that he would fully retire, once the book was finished. I did not believe it. When Ian asked me to set up a computer for him at home, I did it but believed that he would not really need it.  I believed that he would be at the department most of the time anyway. Just as I was wrong with my judgment that he would never give up his teaching, since he was so passionate about it, I was also wrong this time. Once the book was finished Ian gave up his office at the department and immediately moved all his research files to the garden shed. As far as I know he only once retrieved anything from there, when he received a request for some data he had hand collected.

In the meantime (I had become deputy head and also acting head for a semester) it became clear that we needed to revamp our first-year offering of economic history. I realised that I had learned a lot about the Australian Economic History during those many lunchtime sessions and decided to tackle this and teach the new course myself. This is the story how a German, applied game theorist came to teach a course in Australian Economic History. It is probably the same as with remakes of movies. The remake is vastly inferior to the original. At least, I have now made hundreds of first-year students read Ian’s book. Amazingly it works reasonably well – and this in a time where it is otherwise difficult to get students to read anything longer than five pages.

I had many times asked Ian to come and give the odd guest lecture in the course. He always declined and said he was done with this. I still underestimated his determination to stick to his decision. As time went on interactions became less frequent and I lost contact.

Today with some regret and a tear in my eye I realise that I missed him already before he was gone. Vale, Ian!

Ralph Bayer

Tagged in School of Economics and Public Policy