Date of Passing: 05/10/2001
Ross Parish, who died in September last year, was an outstanding applied economist. In many ways he was an old-fashioned academic. He was not one to seek research funding, nor was he a self-promoter, and often he was not well organised. Rather he had an extraordinarily perceptive mind, ingenious in seeing the relevance and application of basic economic principles. Frequently he would stop colleagues in their tracks by viewing a problem from a simple but not initially obvious perspective - one that illuminated and often provided a solution.
Like many of the best Australian economists of his generation, Ross’s background was in agricultural economics. In the 1940s and 1950s Keynesian macroeconomics and its extensions dominated the syllabus in economics faculties at many Australian (and British) universities. Agricultural economists had to know their price theory and reaped their rewards on a larger stage as Keynesianism faded.
Ross was raised on a dairy farm near Kempsey in northern New South Wales. Based on his own school experience he later expressed admiration for rural single-teacher primary schools.
After high school and supported by a NSW Department of Agriculture traineeship, in 1946 he enrolled in the Faculty of Agriculture at Sydney University. At Sydney his thinking was influenced not only by agricultural economists (particularly Professor Keith Campbell) but also by philosophers, notably John Anderson and students with whom he associated through the Freethought Society.
In the mid-fifties Ross headed to the University of Chicago for his PhD. He returned to a lectureship at Sydney and then later was appointed to an Associate Professorship and then a Chair at New England. (The University of New England awarded him an honorary doctorate in Economics in 1994.) Stints at the Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome and at Oxford and Stanford followed. Resigning from New England, he spent three years at the World Bank in Washington DC before returning to Australia in 1973 to a Chair in Economics at Monash University, a position he held until his retirement twenty years later. Ross’s ‘free-thinking’, well established in his undergraduate days, continued throughout his life. He was a strong supporter of the activities of the Centre for Independent Studies and contributed to its success in many ways. He was also active in the HR Nicholls Society and Adam Smith Club and, by invitation, was a member of the international Mont Pelerin Society.
His writings in economics were significant contributions to policy debates and always attracted attention. They included a mid-1960s debate in which he argued strongly against the advocates of the Reserve Price Scheme for Wool, a position fully vindicated by events twenty-odd years later. Other public policy issues to which he made important contributions included education, conscription, broadcasting, recycling, road safety and non-price rationing. These and other issues he addressed with the economist’s armoury – much of it teachable (and taught by him) to undergraduates as well as graduates, but usually requiring sophistication to grasp the full implications. His aim was to develop in students what has become known as ‘the economic way of thinking’ (opportunity costs, incentives, substitution possibilities, and so on) - concepts not always well appreciated by non-economists.
In the misleading Australian parlance Ross could be described as an economic rationalist. But if such a term conjures up a picture of an arid, one dimensional economic man it is far from the mark. Apart from being very warm, human and humorous, he was widely read in literature, philosophy, Australian history and more. A proud possession was a well read unabridged edition of the diaries of Samuel Pepys. In music, Monteverdi and Bluegrass illustrate the range of his eclectic tastes.
Health problems placed a heavy burden on Ross in recent years; he coped with patience and courage. His colleagues are not only the better for having known him and enjoyed his company; we are also far better economists.
He is survived by four daughters who provided great support during his illness.
(This note draws on obituaries written by Geoff Hogbin, published in Policy (Centre for Independent Studies) and The Age.)