8 March 2024

Book launch of 'The Shortest History of Economics' by Andrew Leigh, Brisbane


A short history but a big story

Let me begin by acknowledging the elders, customs and traditions of the Jagera and the Turrbul, from both sides of the Maiwar –

And by thanking Carolyn for introducing me, her team for hosting us here, and of course Andrew’s publisher Black Inc and Andrew himself for inviting me to do the honours.

I’m so pleased for this opportunity and for so many reasons, but perhaps above all because it brings together three things I really value.

My gratitude for Griffith and a good excuse to be back here;

Our shared love of books – especially about the economy and the world;

And my respect for Andrew – for his big brain and his even bigger contribution.

Today’s focus is obviously Andrew’s prolific writing – but his writing is only a part of that contribution.

Andrew brings heft and horsepower to our economic team.

He is particularly helpful to me on competition policy and Asian engagement.

And yes – he writes wonderful and thoughtful books in the time it takes most of us to craft a neatly‑worded Instagram caption.

Apparently he wrote this one while waiting in the drive‑thru at Dickson Maccas with his kids!

Ok, perhaps I exaggerate.

But he is prolific.

In this, Andrew belongs in a fine tradition of scholar politicians.

Think of it this way:

This is the tenth book he’s written as a parliamentarian.

Churchill won a Nobel prize for literature but still only managed nine books in office!

Andrew’s passion for accuracy forces me to acknowledge that two of those books were six volumes each!

Only four of Teddy Roosevelt’s 41 books were written while he served as President.

And none of Churchill’s and none of Roosevelt’s were about the economy –

Much as I’d love to have read Teddy Roosevelt on trust‑busting.

So perhaps the nearest Andrew parallel is the politician and scholar, David Ricardo.

Unlike Andrew, Ricardo paid money for his seat of Portarlington, in the UK, in 1819.

Let’s just say this was an ironic way for the person who invented the labour theory of value to enter politics.

His Principles of Political Economy and Taxation is only around 300 pages – not especially long.

That might be just as well though, because as Andrew reminds us, a fellow MP described Ricardo’s argumentative style as “from another planet”.

I’m not sure which planet he had in mind but I don’t think he meant this as a compliment.

So there’s another distinction Andrew has over Ricardo –

Andrew doesn’t just write quickly, and often, he writes with really astonishing clarity.

His approach hews more closely to John Kenneth Galbraith’s belief that “in the case of economics there are no important propositions that cannot be stated in plain language”.

One day we’ll persuade our department of this!

But that’s one of the beauties of this little book with big ambitions.

Andrew sets out to do three things:

Tell the story of capitalism and markets;

Discuss the key ideas and people;

And convey the central role of economics in history.

Tick. Tick. Tick. But he does more than that.

He writes about idealism and the history of light –

The ‘beautiful sewers’ of Victor Hugo –

The ‘human flourishing’ of Amartya Sen –

The economics of war –

And revolutions and recessions –

And health and happiness –

And climate change and social security.

Can I also say on International Women’s Day –

The day after my colleague Katy Gallagher’s absolutely outstanding speech on women’s economic equality yesterday at the Press Club –

With our government’s commitment to appointing women to key roles like Governor of the Reserve Bank and Chair of the Productivity Commission –

And in the immediate aftermath of the announcement we made yesterday to help address the gender gap in superannuation –

That Andrew does an especially terrific job of acknowledging some of the underappreciated women in the history of economics as well.

Like Joan Robinson, Sadie Alexander and Frances Perkins.

And Nobel Prize winners like Elinor Ostrom, Esther Duflo, and Claudia Goldin.

With a big theme and bright grace notes, Andrew reminds us that economic history is long periods of inertia punctuated by big changes.

But somehow despite the constraints imposed on him by the title of this book –

He gives us more than just the punctuation.

The Shortest History of Economics sits neatly among some absolutely wonderful recent longer pieces of economic history.

Tooze’s Crashed, on how a decade of financial crashes changed the world.

Carter’s The Price of Peace, about Keynes – which I just finished and loved.

DeLong’s Slouching Towards Utopia – which I’ve been picking at.

Daunton’s Economic government of the World on how the global economy was built in the twentieth century.

And Harold James’ Seven Crashes – which I haven’t got to yet but I will.

I made time to read Andrew’s book on a flight to Perth and on the way to and from a meeting of G20 economic ministers in São Paulo, Brazil.

If the big travellers here are anything like me, you know those big flights are a rare opportunity to really think and reflect.

Reading Andrew above the Nullarbor and across the Pacific I couldn’t help reflecting on the period I’ve been involved in the economic policy of this country, in different roles in two governments and one opposition –

A period that is really only a few paragraphs and pages towards the end of this book –

But nevertheless a period of a global financial crisis, a pandemic, and a global inflation spike.

I couldn’t help turn over in my head so many of the policy battles and political contests and market movements and inflection points.

And think about what that has all meant for our people and their economy.

The point I’m finishing on is that we are all working out where we fit in the bigger picture –

And in the bigger sweep that Andrew maps out for us with his usual combination of diligence and intelligence.

Andy’s book and all these others I mentioned remind us that history is more than pinning the past to a page.

It guides and teaches us and it illuminates us too.

And it helps us work out where we fit amongst all the churn and change.

Telling a very big story of which he and I are both fortunate to play a modest but we hope meaningful part.

In his case as the most prolific scholar politician in memory.

Congratulations mate on another wonderful book.

And thanks for tapping me to officially launch it here at Griffith among so many friends.