Alan Danks: Economics Teacher

Prepared in March 1994 shortly after Alan’s death in December 1993. He was 79.

Keywords: History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy;

I last met Alan Danks in the Wellington Public Library, standing there among the book stacks, with an enormous pile of novels for the week’s reading. He talked of how he never considered himself an economist, but only an economics teacher, for when he was young there was not an economics profession in the public service and business. This exceptionally tall man always looked down on me, seemingly ending his sentences with an unspoken “boy”. Yet it was a modest remark. “Only” an economics teacher: he was a great economics teacher, the best I had.

I used to joke he never taught anything. In the first half of each lecture he would tell us what the previous lecture was about; in the second half it was what the next lecture would be about. And so we were elegantly led through the details and delights of economics into a world of pattern and purpose.

In those days the majority of students were not greatly interested in economics: accountants required to take the subject as a leavening to an otherwise narrow training. Professor Danks managed superbly the challenge of keeping them interested, using contemporary illustrative material, with a genial humour and a great sense of theatre. (Did he ever participate in amateur drama? Perhaps his size ruled that out, and his lecture theatre functioned as a a stage.)

Consumer theory was enhanced by references to homely jam, and to the latest fashion. (Did it included hula hoops, or has my memory confused a student fantasy discussion on the feasibility of the – in those days none-to-slim – pedagogue performing with one?) In welfare economics up popped the proposition that even if the recently installed parking meters generated no net revenue to the local council, there could still be a net benefit from introducing them. The effects of barriers to entry on competition was contrasted with a one-man businesses everyone round town was setting up in old warehouses, and where rents were falling. There were illustrations from the novels he was reading. To mention fiction in today’s economic climate would be far from politically correct. Economics for Danks was, like works of imagination, an insight to life. I am so glad my last memory of him is with that pile of reading.

Not that he lacked system and rigour in his teaching. I recall how he took us through, step by step, the derivation of the consumer maximizing condition (that was where the jam came in). It took two whole lectures. By coincidence, my mathematical lectures at the same time covered in a couple of lines the mathematical technique (the lagrangian) for the same result. I made the obvious calculation that at a line of mathematics a lecture, a mathematician could clean out economics pretty quickly. It was only with maturity that I realised how the Dank’s exposition covered many more ideas with much greater subtlety than the crude mathematics: that 200 odd lines of mathematics was not a degree in economics.

And of course the mathematician has to learn to write. I was in Dank’s first year tutorial – in those years professors taught just about everything, and all the time. Distressed by my mark for my first essay (as a science student I had not written anything much for two years), I took it to him, who said the analysis was fine but the presentation wanting. Learning to write was ‘like making love. No one could teach you [was there a ‘boy’ at this point?]. You had to learn with practice.’ (One is still practising.)

Alan Danks never claimed to be a mathematical economist, but through natural ability – and probably from having to teach school maths to 3F – he had a grasp of the essentials which left many more professing economists behind. Compatible with his style and humour plus neat illustrations cloaking deep analysis, was William Baumol’s wonderful Economic Theory and Operational Analysis which he used in his third-year course. It purported to be a simple text, but work your way through it and you had mastered a lot of economics that life as an economic professional needed.

That is what I meant by his modesty. To say Alan Danks was only an economics teacher implies all economists are not teachers. One could, of course, say that Alan was acting as a full economist in his pamphlet on Social Credit, and his work in the administration of the Canterbury Hospital Board and the University Grants Committee, and to that seminal report of the 1972 Royal Commission on Social Security, on each of which he sat.

But that demeans the man’s achievements as teacher. Perhaps the only true member of the economics profession is the teacher concerned with explaining the world rather than pursuing an agenda of her or his own or sponsor. In which case Danks was a very successful economist.

My third year class of the early 1960s, who so much enjoyed Baumol’s text and its presenter, included a future secretary of the Treasury and two future directors of the NZ. Institute of Economic Research, some of whom were diverted from a planned career in accountancy. Danks gave up teaching shortly after to become a Wellington administrator – a ‘proper’ economist. Soon after New Zealand economics turned away from erudition, explanation, and (let us be honest) entertainment. Losing teacher Alan Danks symbolised that change.