BCom (Melbourne), PhD (London)

Alf Hagger 1922 – 2010

Alf Hagger, an exemplar of the post-War quantitative revolution in Australian economics, has died in Hobart. Alf was born in Melbourne in 1922. His father’s career was a commercial one, and Alf chose to pursue a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Melbourne. The outbreak of the war in the Pacific meant that the lecture theatre would be put aside for the parade ground of the University Rifles. But Alf’s enduring ‘national service’ was to take place in Department of Manpower and National Service, under the formidable direction of Sir Roland Wilson (later to be Menzies’ Secretary to the Treasury). It was presumably due to the good offices of Wilson that at War’s end Alf was seconded to one of Wilson’s mentors, D B Copland in his capacity as inaugural vice chancellor of the ANU. In Canberra Alf also worked with L F Giblin, the eminence grise of economic policy (and father figure to both Wilson and Copland).

When Alf won a scholarship to pursue his studies overseas he did not choose Cambridge, the most common destination of Australia’s exports of economic intellect at that time. Instead he chose the London School of Economics. Among the senior staff Alf was lectured by R G D Allen, author of Mathematical Analysis for Economists, the first such text. Younger mathematical talent included William Baumol, and James Durbin, who had just crafted the ‘Durbin-Watson statistic’ (the ‘Watson’ being Geoff Watson, a student contemporary of Alf at the University of Melbourne). It was the LSE that furnished Alf with the intellectual equipment that propelled his career, and on completion of his dissertation in 1952 (an analysis of some recently developed methods of forecasting aggregate spending) he returned to Australia an embodiment of the new quantitative economics. There were others treading this path in Australia, of course; and some had traveled it earlier, most notably Roland Wilson, but none pursued it with Alf’s tenacity - producing, over the next 55 years, a steady flow of journal papers and books (13 in all) on quantitative economics.

In Alf’s view, mathematics could reveal a simplicity obscured by words. As Geoff Watson recalled of the dominant view at Cambridge, ‘They believed you had to do it with words, which was bloody hard. You have to be very clever to say all these things, for example marginal utilities is quite hard to define in words but mathematically trivial’. Alf would agree, and allow that the mathematics at issue would be ‘trivial’ to a mathematician. But the essential simplicity of mathematical economics was all part of Alf’s quest for clarity. In contrast to second-rate mathematical economics of today, his aspiration was not to cast mysterious allure over verbal banalities; but to deflate pretension. The mathematical project, as he envisioned it, was highly complementary to his plain and precise demeanour.

His initial focus was on ‘mathematical theory’; The Theory of Inflation: a Review (1964) is representative. With the headlong expansion of computational power, his talents turned to applied econometrics. Modeling the Australian Economy (1979) is a careful account of this new art. In retrospect, his rationalist temperament overestimated the sufficency of ‘the clear and precise’ that this new art accommodated. Alf never conceded that the fruit of such modeling didn’t match the bright hopes of its creators.

By 1970 he had an international reputation, and his presence at the University of Tasmania attracted staff to a department which, because of its supposed remoteness, was difficult to staff. He could have secured a chair at any of the new universities established in Australia in the preceding decade, but he chose to stay at Tasmania, achieving continuous active service of more than 50 years. The title of his last paper, in 2010, reflected his commitment to Tasmania and applied research; the regional economic effects of a reduction in carbon emissions.

Through the passing decades Alf was content to remain at reader level. This was to avoid the drudgery of professorial administration, he said. But it is also true that he was reluctant to ascend any podium; he was a retiring man, and preferred undemonstrative company. (Alf believed that part of the secret of Don Bradman was that he did not exalt in his own performance while on the pitch). Granted, Alf was not strictly without performance himself; students would come to recognise his discreet rituals. They also discovered, perhaps to their surprise, that Alf could be a very amusing dinner companion. But the severities of the Australia into which he was born were etched into his outlook. I am sure Alf would be withering about economists’ research into ‘happiness’; economics was all about heeding the austere imperatives of life.

If Alf was austere, he was not a cold; on the contrary, personal bonds were important to him. Towards the end of his life he became concerned to trace the lineage and ties that bound him to his predecessors, and authored or co-authored biographies of Tor Hytten (the Vice Chancellor of the University of Tasmania in the 1950s) and L F Giblin. There was in his relation with several senior students a definite paternal dimension; and – in his ageing and decline – several of these students adopted some of the duties of a son towards him. That itself is tribute enough.

William Coleman, Australian National University.

  • Hagger, AJ (2004) Economics in the University of Tasmania: The First One Hundred Years. Hobart, Tasmania: Economic Society of Australia (Tasmania).
  • Groenewold, N, Hagger, AJ and Madden, JR (2003) Interregional Transfers: A Political - Economy CGE Approach, Papers in Regional Science, Vol 82, pps 535 - 554.
  • Groenewold, N, Hagger, AJ and Madden, JR (2003) Competitive Federalism: A Political Economy, General Equilibrium Approach, Australasian Journal of Regional Studies, Vol 6, pps 451 - 465.
  • Hagger, AJ and Groenewold, N (2003) Time to Ditch the Natural Rate?, Economic Record, Vol 79, No 246. September 2003, pps 324 - 335.
  • Coleman, William and Hagger, AJ (2001) Exasperating Calculators: The Rage Over Economic Rationalism and the Campaign Against Australian Economists. New South Wales: Macleay Press.