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Clark, Colin Grant (1905–1989)

by A. G. Kenwood

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Colin Grant Clark (1905-1989), economist and public servant, was born on 2 November 1905 in London, son of James Clark, a merchant who had lived in Queensland, and his wife Marion Nellie, née Jolly. Colin was educated at the Dragon School, Oxford; Winchester College; and Brasenose College, Oxford (BA, 1927; MA, 1931; D.Litt., 1971). As an undergraduate he studied chemistry. In 1928 he won the Royal Statistical Society’s Frances Wood memorial prize. In 1928-29 he worked on social surveys of London and Liverpool as a research assistant before joining the Economic Advisory Council, set up by the government in 1930 to examine unemployment in Britain. Next year, on the recommendation of J. M. (Baron) Keynes, also a member of the council, he was appointed a lecturer in statistics at the University of Cambridge. He unsuccessfully stood as a Labour Party candidate in British parliamentary elections of 1929, 1931 and 1935. On 27 July 1935 at the parish church, Carbrooke, Norfolk, he married Marjorie Tattersall, a secretary. In the late 1930s he converted to Catholicism, the tenets of which, according to some critics, were to influence his ideas.

On leave from Cambridge in 1937-38, Clark took up visiting appointments at the universities of Sydney, Melbourne and Western Australia. In Brisbane he met the Queensland premier, William Forgan Smith, who offered him the posts of director of the Bureau of Industry, government statistician and financial adviser to the Treasury, vacant after the resignation of Jim Brigden. He accepted and commenced duties in May 1938. In 1940 he produced his seminal work, The Conditions of Economic Progress. Reviewers recognised the immense energy and labour involved in amassing the vast amount of statistical data that enabled Clark to compare real product over time and across nations, but criticised his reluctance to use the material to develop theoretical constructs. The absence of theorising, however, reflected his conviction that `economics should be based on the empirical observation and classification of what has actually been happening’. He believed that there was limited room for theorists and that the majority of economists should be content to build a structure of ordered knowledge through the constant testing and retesting of economic theories against observed facts.

In The Economics of 1960 (1942), Clark produced a twenty-year econometric forecasting model for the world economy. Analysing capital investment as a determining factor in growth, he first used the terms `capital hunger’ and `capital satiation’. Not surprisingly most of his long-range estimates proved to be wrong, but his prediction of a long and sustained period of postwar growth based on `capital hunger’ was correct.

Clark promoted rural development and population decentralisation in Queensland, goals that had dominated that State’s economic policy since the 1930s and had much in common with Catholic social thought at the time. His policy advice reflected his vision of the `good’ society in which a type of democratic capitalism prevailed, offering maximum opportunities for economic independence through small-business activities. In 1947 he was appointed under-secretary of the newly formed Department of Labour and Industry, but following differences of opinion with the premier, Vince Gair, he resigned in 1952.

Returning to England Clark became director of the Institute for Research in Agricultural Economics, University of Oxford. His previous work on international comparisons of real income, which focused attention on the classical problem of economic growth, was a starting point for the study of economic underdevelopment by drawing attention to the wide disparities in real income between countries. He traced the changing sector balance between agriculture, secondary industry and services as real incomes rise, while his particular interest in economic underdevelopment led him to a study of agricultural productivity and the economic consequences of population growth. Addressing the need for rapid development in poor countries, he opposed neo-Malthusianism and stressed the economies and benefits arising from a dense population. He claimed that there was enormous potential for growth in labour productivity within agriculture. His cursory treatments of very-low-income countries, however, perhaps a result of the relatively limited data available at the time, served to weaken his argument; furthermore, in many densely populated countries, subsistence farming has shown little capacity to increase output per head. In 1964-66 Clark served on Pope Paul VI’s Commission on Population and Birth Control.

Retiring from his post at Oxford in 1969, Clark became a fellow (1969-78) at Monash University, Melbourne, and a research consultant in economics (1978-89) at the University of Queensland. He returned to the study of the relationship of capital investment to long-term economic growth, first analysed in The Economics of 1960. The burst of high investment, he now argued, was the up-swing of a fifty-year cycle which came to an end in the 1970s and was followed by a period of much slower economic growth as the world economy entered an age of `capital satiation’.

Over the course of his career Clark produced more than fifty pioneering and influential contributions to applied economics. They included studies of rural national product; a questioning of capital investment as a determining factor in economic growth; and a study of the limits on taxation and proposals for its reduction. Opposed to big government, he believed that with lower taxation people generally would be better able to make provision for their own welfare needs. He has been described as the first economic statistician, but it could equally be argued that he was very much a political economist, since he regarded economics as subservient to political science, and ultimately dominated by moral philosophy. Perhaps this somewhat old-fashioned approach to economics, with his attitude to economic theorising, explains why he did not receive the recognition that his work deserved. To some extent the Economic Society of Australia redressed this in 1967 when it named him, with Trevor Swan, an inaugural distinguished fellow. Earlier Clark had received honorary degrees from Tilbury University, the Netherlands, the University of Milan, Italy, Monash University and the University of Queensland.

Quiet and good-humoured, Clark had a remarkable memory that could always be called upon to settle an argument. He lived simply on a small farm by the Brisbane River at Kenmore, and often looked unkempt. Survived by his wife, who had been a constant support throughout their marriage, and their eight sons and one daughter, he died on 4 September 1989 at Auchenflower, Brisbane, and was buried in Mount Gravatt cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Sills (ed), International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: Volume 18, Biographical Supplement (1979)
  • G. M. Meier and D. Seers (eds), Pioneers in Development (1984)
  • A. G. Kenwood, `The Use of Statistics for Policy Advising’, in D. Ironmonger et al (eds), National Income and Economic Progress (1988)
  • Economic Record, vol 16, Dec 1940, p 262, vol 65, no 190, 1989, p 296, vol 66, no 195, 1990, p 329
  • Economic Journal, vol 51, Apr 1941, p 120
  • People (Sydney), 10 May 1960, p 32
  • Times (London), 5 Sept 1989, p 16
  • Clark papers (University of Queensland Library).

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Citation details

A. G. Kenwood, 'Clark, Colin Grant (1905–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 2 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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