A tribute to Jim Perkins


A Tribute to Jim Perkins

James Oliver Newton (Jim to his friends) PERKINS presented always as a lovable, eccentric, Cambridge-trained macro-policy economist who came before every Commerce student at Melbourne from the late 1950s to the late 1980s; he touched their lives and disarmed most of them with his idiosyncrasies. I first set eyes on Jim in August 1963 when he presented a lecture for about 500 final-year school students on balance-of-payments issues in the PLT at Melbourne. Even then his quirks and good manners shone through, addressing all his answers to our questions “through the Chair” and insisting that all his assumptions be made explicit.

Jim became teacher, then colleague and friend, to a number of us who graduated at Melbourne and went onto the staff there, in my case with 50 years exactly of academic association as his student and colleague. In addition, I saw Jim in the UK many times, mostly in London and Cambridge, and as a near neighbour in Brighton. I learned much from his insights and testing questions as I drove him, often,to his home. (Jim never drove in Australia, since he migrated here 60 years ago. He regaled me with stories of embarrassing driving in the Army in the early 1940s).

Jim was classically old-school in his approach to learning and teaching; he managed to reflect the most logically, rigourous mind, yet struggled with the simplest algebra; he could explain Dickey-Fuller tests but not simple least-squares estimation. His philosophy was Keynesian-interventionist macro but libertarian Free-Trade micro. In his mind, there were no contradictions in any of this.

Jim Perkins treated all student and academic questions and suggestions with great respect; he dressed almost always in a collar, tie and jacket, though not Saville Row; he kept fit by active sport (quite substantial running, later shuffling) and never lost his intense interest in cricket (combining an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game with very limited personal practical ability, which we judged from many years of Institute-Department cricket matches that Jim promoted for nearly 3 decades.)

Jim Perkins was at his best academically when exposing inconsistencies between advocated economic and social policies and the professed public-policy goals of the advocates, using evidence and logic to drive home, always with classic English diplomacy, the inconsistencies. Methodically, he would take a list of objections to foreign capital inflow, flexible exchange rates and stimulus packages, providing counter-arguments or alternative approaches  that made certain “policy mixes” (his favourite economic concept”) optimal.

Jim was half a generation too late to encounter the great J M Keynes at Cambridge, but he mixed closely with Keynes’s students and contemporaries: notably Brian Reddaway, the Robinsons, James Meade, Nicky Kaldor, Richard Stone and David Champernowne, all of whom were still there when I first went to Cambridge in 1970. But Jim had the fullest association and respect for Denis Robertson, Jim’s Cambridge PhD supervisor.

Jim married Australian Ruth in Brighton, Melbourne in 1955 and by 1960 Jim had settled fully into Melbourne as his permanent home.  He published much on the economic linkages between Britain and Australia, proudly announcing in his 1960 book the recent arrival of his daughter Caroline as a product of Britain and Australian relationships. In later life Jim cared for her with much love and affection, just as Caroline did for Jim.

 Jim loved a good (clean) joke and always the lighter aside, banter and repartee, striving to compose send-ups in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, accompanied by an array of ‘musical’ instruments. It was a common judgment that the superb content overcame some other aspects of the performance.

The light approach came into Jim’s teaching as he would often burst into song or use the most colourful phrases to bring to life what could be very boring aspects of monetary and macro-economics. My personal favourites were “jawboning” to explain influences the central bank might have on the trading banks, and the “oppy-doppy ratio” to describe what was effectively the terms of trade in international economics.

I reject the assertion that Jim was disorganized. I once entered his room to discuss the crawling-peg exchange rate concept. Without hesitation, Jim’s hand delved into a messy pile of papers almost a metre high on his floor, pulling out a draft of his paper on the subject. Not even a Geiger-counter was needed!

After his retirement, 27 years ago, Jim came to the Economics Department more days than not, engaged in discussions where he could and kept up with domestic and world events. Younger members of the Department will have seen him about. I suspect that few got the know him.

I shared some aspects of Jim’s dedicated religious life with him: he was devout, dedicated and consummately caring for others. To reflect those characteristics, he endowed a generous scholarship to enable academic interchange between Britain and Australia, his ongoing theme. It is most fitting that Jim survived to see the first Perkins scholar arrive from Britain in January 2016, just weeks before he died on 14th February:  most significantly, not just (St.) Valentine’s Day, but also the anniversary of Australia in 1966 (and Britain, in 1971) adopting decimal currency.

Vale Jim Perkins – they don’t make them like him anymore - and they made very few of them before.


Neville Norman, Economics Department, Melbourne

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