The Economics Of Just About Everything

In the words of the ANU Research School of Economics’ Emeritus Professor Bob Gregory, it would appear that Andrew Leigh can do everything. Leigh graduated from the University of Sydney with a dual honours degree, and has enjoyed a career of which most would be envious: a stint as a solicitor at a Big Six firm and a High Court associateship with legal paragon Michael Kirby, an MPA and PhD from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a swift rise as an economist and academic now followed with a similarly swift rise in Federal politics. Regardless of one’s politics, one has to concede that Leigh is, to once again quote Bob Gregory, an “extraordinary person.” It comes as no surprise then that someone as prodigious and prolific as Leigh has turned his hand to what is now his third book published since he entered Parliament.

The Economics of Just About Everything was launched on Tuesday July 29th at the ANU Commons to a standing-room only crowd.  Drawing upon Leigh’s academic work at the ANU, the book consists of eclectic applications of economics to areas as diverse as convict shipping in the 17th century, to dating, weight loss, sports performance and more. The point of this is to dispel the popular image of economics as being purely about money.

If Leigh’s book sounds somewhat like Freakonomics, it’s not by accident. Bob Gregory, MC on Tuesday evening, jokingly referred to Stephen Levitt as “Australia’s Andrew Leigh” . In my interview with the author, Leigh is more modest “I am nowhere near Levitt’s league.” He is, however, clearly a fan, writing “the Freakonomics revolution has taken too long to get to Australian universities.” The Economics of Just About Everything aims to achieve a similar goal to Freakonomics: broadening the appeal and application of economics and to revitalise interest in the field. “[I wanted] to tell an engaging story about how economics is useful not just for people who want to invest in the stock market but also for people who want to lose weight and quit smoking.”

When asked why he decided to write the book, Leigh describes “a deep sense that economics can be more interesting than it is sometimes depicted in the popular press.” With economics in decline, now representing 1 in 50 undergraduate students, Leigh is passionate about the importance of having more people study Economics at university. “I am really keen to paint a picture of economics that will really encourage high school students and university students to choose to study Economics. I think it will help build a better society, but I also think having more people with economics training is good for businesses, community groups and individuals themselves.’”

This passion is clearly reflected by the Research School of Economics. When asked about the Research School, Leigh says he sees the school’s strength in its “very diverse range of economists,” concerned about “making [an] impact on policy’ in addition to their academic work. For students, this means “[anyone] keen to learn about the economics of real life… can do plenty of that at ANU.” Rabee Tourky, ANU’s new Director of the Research School of Economics, stated on Tuesday evening that it’s in Australia’s national interest that the ANU have one the best economics schools in the world. Tourky envisions ANU’s School of Economics as the “home of economics in Australia” and views Leigh’s book as an important accessible insight into how economists think.   For Leigh, however, the book represents much more. In his speech on Tuesday evening, Leigh reflected on the role of luck in economic advantage, pointing to examples in height and beauty in income as evidence that success should not be placed on too high a pedestal. Asked about how this view reflects his political positions, Leigh said, “If there’s a link from my previous book Battlers and Billionaires, which focused on inequality, and The Economics of Just About Everything, it’s that luck matters.” Identifying himself as progressive, Leigh opines that “progressives tend to believe that many of our outcomes are due to luck,” such as the challenges we face in life or “being born with a set of genes which are well rewarded by the community at the time we’re born.”

“The example I always imagine was if I was born 5000 years ago, where a slight build and bad eyesight means that I would have been easy prey for sabretooth tigers. Conversely, the kind of blokes who would have done very well against sabretooth tigers do quite badly in today’s labour market.”

With an accomplished academic career behind him and having established a promising start to his parliamentary career, it’s safe to say Andrew Leigh has done very well with the luck afforded to him.