Sunday, January 11, 2009

What was Sandy Cuthbertson like?

Most people who knew Sandy would say that he was outgoing, witty and courageous. He was a good-humoured person. He had the knack of getting people to laugh along with him within moments of meeting them. Above all, he was a good family man, a wise economist and a loyal friend.

I expect that everyone who knew Sandy would have a slightly different view of what he was like. I first met him in 1963 when we were both studying agricultural economics at the University of New England (Armidale, NSW, Australia). Apart from our studies I don’t think we had a great deal in common at that time. I can remember him giving me some critical feedback – probably appropriate – about something I had written for the student newspaper. He wasn’t backward in saying what he thought even then, but he had a pleasant personality and a well-deserved reputation for his sense of humour.

After Sandy graduated from the UNE he went to the U.S. to do a Ph. D. in economics at North Carolina State University. I went to Canberra to work in the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE) and then back to the UNE to do a masters degree. By the time I got back to the BAE, at the end of 1971, Sandy was also working there.

Sandy came back to Australia with a mission to over-turn the prevailing mind-set that the role of economists was to find market failures and to propose remedial government regulation. He presented the then innovative view that additional regulation often made matters worse. For example, the beneficiaries of regulation were often able to use political muscle to ensure that regulatory experiments were continued long after it was clear that the costs of regulation far exceeded the benefits.

Sandy would not have found the BAE to be a particularly fertile place to spread such wisdom. He soon moved to the Industries Assistance Commission (which later became the Industry Commission and then the Productivity Commission). I followed in 1975, joining a different research division of the Commission. There was a fair amount of creative tension – usually friendly – between the different divisions of the IAC, resulting from overlapping responsibilities. Sandy thrived in that environment and established a reputation for being a hard-working and innovative researcher, an entertaining writer and a talented team leader. He certainly brought out the best in the people in his team.

Sandy left the IAC in 1986 to become a founding director and managing director of the Centre for International Economics.

Sandy and I managed to collaborate successfully in 1983 on the one major project on which we worked closely together. We jointly led a project team to prepare a report on the structure of industry assistance in New Zealand for Syntec Economic Services and the NZ Treasury. We had no difficulty in agreeing at an early stage on membership of the project team, the analytical framework, the work plan and the report structure. We put a lot of effort into planning the project and didn’t leave a great deal to chance.

I had thought until very recently that the effort we put into planning that project was largely the result of my own insistance. But I now know that Sandy always put a lot of effort into planning of projects. An outside observer, who was not part of his team, might think the process was spontaneous - perhaps even chaotic - but Sandy always had a good idea where he was heading and how he would circumvent the obstacles in his path.

At a more personal level, I recall that Sandy asked me one day whether I had read John Irving’s novel, “The World According to Garp”. He recommended it highly and suggested that I make time to read some of it every day even though I was very busy. I enjoyed the book - and since then I have read just about every novel that John Irving has written. Looking back now, however, I suspect that what Sandy was really telling me was not so much that this was a great novel, but that I needed to get more humour into my life.

What more can I say? It was a privilege to have known Sandy Cuthbertson and to have enjoyed his friendship.

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