Obituary: Christopher Dow

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The Independent Culture
CHRISTOPHER DOW was one of the most distinguished applied economists of our time. His career spanned the whole post-war period: from 1945, when he joined the Treasury, right up to last month when he was putting the finishing touches to his final book which is to be published next month.

He worked in four institutions at the heart of macro-economic research, advice and policy-making: the British Treasury, the Bank of England, the OECD in Paris and the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR), and was prolific and pervasively influential in all of them.

One could always recognise a Dow paper by the invisibility of its style. There were not only - of course - no cliches, infelicities or obscurities; there were no elegant turns of phrase either. There was nothing but the exposition or the argument. It was almost as if one wasn't reading at all.

Dow dealt with complicated questions, where evidence is always partial, theories are very difficult to test and value judgements lurk in the most apparently banal propositions. It was a pleasure to have such matters simplified and clarified by a man who knew that at bottom none of them were in the least simple or clear. It must be said that it could also be frustrating to anyone (which includes most of us at one time or other) who wanted more than the known facts or theories would justify. He refused to do the reader's work for him.

His deep fastidiousness of mind, combined with a somewhat reticent and understated manner probably meant that his contributions to economic policy and understanding were not as widely recognised as they should have been, especially by those of a dogmatic or superficial turn of mind. A horde of such people stormed the citadels of economic power in the late Seventies and early Eighties under the banner of monetarism - a theory that held that all one had to do to cure inflation was to control the growth of the quantity of money. Those who, like Dow, believed that it was much more difficult and complicated than that, were apt to be dismissed as fuddy duddy and obstructionist. But he had the last laugh. His book, written jointly with Iain Saville, A Critique of Monetary Policy: theory and British experience (1988) was devastating in its reasoned demolition of monetarism. Delay in its publication and the unexcitingly careful nature of its conclusions muted its public impact. But its arguments had been well rehearsed in official circles before publication and are in great measure embodied in the current Bank of England approach to monetary policy.

Dow was born in 1916 and educated at Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School and University College London (of which he became a Fellow in 1973). He served in the Royal Air Force in the Second World War and began his professional career in 1945, when he joined the Treasury as an Economic Adviser.

For the next nine years he worked in the Economic Section of the Treasury, a small unit of professional economists - for many years there were no more than a dozen - who aimed to bring economic thinking and methods of analysis into a distinctly unregenerate and seat-of-the-pants institution. In 1954, with the strong support of Sir Robert Hall, then Head of the Economic Section, Dow moved to the NIESR.

Up to this time the NIESR had been somewhat of a backwater. The Hall- Dow plan was to build it into a centre for macro-economic analysis and research which would be able to challenge and second-guess the Treasury, which - almost unimaginably today - was then virtually the only source of economic forecasts. In his eight years at the Institute as Deputy Director Dow did much to bring about this transformation, setting up the quarterly Review and helping to build up a centre of excellence and an interchange of staff with Whitehall to the benefit of both sides.

These years were also marked by what he would have regarded as the most important events of his life: his marriage to Clare Keegan and his conversion to Catholicism, both of which proved deeply enduring.

Then, after a brief return to the Treasury the Dows left for Paris for 10 years at the OECD, where Dow was Assistant Secretary-General. These were probably the happiest days of his life. Professionally, he presided over a large expert multinational staff and had no shortage of challenges to meet. He was at the centre of international economic affairs over a period which began with the high noon of the Bretton Woods system, saw its slow painful break-up and final collapse and ended with the catastrophic quintupling of oil prices.

Personally, the Dows were able to live in some style in a city they found very sympathetic. Dow always had a love for France and all things French. For many years the family took their annual holiday near Montelimar. He had a wide knowledge and a deep love of French literature and he liked what he saw as the French guilt-free attitude towards life.

Towards the end of his time in Paris, he was asked if he would let his name go forward as a candidate for a chair in economics at Oxford. He did so and was duly appointed. But Leslie O'Brien, then Governor of the Bank of England, and needing someone as Economics Director of the Bank, persuaded Dow that his talents would be better employed, and that he would be happier, if he did not leave the official sector for academe. Oxford's loss was the Bank of England's gain. O'Brien did not personally benefit from his inspired recruitment as he retired almost at the moment Dow arrived. But for the next 11 years - until his 65th birthday in 1981 as Executive Director and thereafter as Adviser - Dow worked as a close confidante to the next Governor, Gordon (now Lord) Richardson.

It was a partnership that worked wonderfully. Richardson, a subtle man, but not a professional economist, appreciated the distinction of Dow's mind and came to value his judgement on economic questions and to enjoy his contributions to the Bank's debates over a wide area. For his part Dow, by judicious recruitment of outside talent and encouragement of that within, enormously raised the standing and reputation of the Bank's economic department, provoking in due course a healthily jealous response in the Treasury.

Finally, having reached an age beyond that which most bureaucracies do not allow even the grandest to remain, Dow left the Bank to return after a busy 22 years to the NIESR, this time as a Visiting Fellow. Actually, he visited more frequently than that title usually implies: four or five days a week right up to his death in his 82nd year. And at a time when others garden or play golf or read other men's books, he set to and produced two major works of his own: the critique of monetary theory and a highly original book (about to be published) on the recessions the UK has experienced since the First World War, seeking to see what we can learn from both their similarities and their differences.

Dow's achievements were recognised by a Fellowship of the British Academy in 1982, but not - scandalously one might think - by any appearance in the Honours List.

Like any serious person, Christopher Dow cannot be defined by his professional interests and achievements. The importance of his family and religion to him has already been mentioned. In addition he derived a nourishment from all the arts. Painting in particular, which he practised in a modest but serious way, meant a great deal to him.

John Christopher Roderick Dow, economist: born Harrogate, North Yorkshire 25 February 1916; Assistant Secretary-General, OECD, Paris 1963-73; Executive Director, Bank of England 1973-81; Advisor to the Governor of the Bank of England 1981-84; FBA 1982; Visiting Fellow, NIESR 1984-98; married 1960 Clare Keegan (one son, three daughters); died London 1 December 1998.

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