Obituary: Dick Sargent

13 Jul 2022

Dick Sargent, who died on 14 March 2022 at the age of 96, had a long and productive life. He was a university teacher, a scholar and researcher, a university administrator, and advised governments and banks. He was an all-round economist, with many friends and admirers, and devoted to his family.

He was born in Edgbaston in 1925, the first and only child of his parents. His mother died when he was seven, and he did not see his father from 1939 until after the end of the war; his father spent the war years as adviser on education to the government of India. He had been brought up by his mother’s parents, but his grandmother died in 1941. Even then he displayed his characteristic resilience, becoming head boy at Rugby and winning a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford. He served in the navy for the last two years of the war, before starting his PPE course, in which he achieved First Class Honours. In 1951 he was appointed Economics Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford.

In 1962 he left that post and from 1963 to 1965 was an Economic Consultant at the Treasury and the Department of Economic Affairs. Then, in 1965, he established the department of economics at Warwick University. He was the department’s first chairman and remained as a professor there until 1973. After leaving Warwick he joined the Midland Bank and served as group economic adviser until 1984. He was Houblon-Norman research fellow at the Bank of England (1984-85). At various times he served on the Council of the RES, the council of management of the Henley Centre for Forecasting, and as a governor of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

In 1963 he published “Are American Economists Better?” in Oxford Economic Papers. Read with hindsight, this article indicates not only his view of economics but how he would later shape the economics department at Warwick. After a slightly tongue-in-cheek discussion of measurement (“I think that I have now adequately carried out the ritual of our profession, which prescribes that a question must be shown to be unanswerable before it is actually answered”) he goes on to answer the question. He summarises his answer: “American economists are fundamentally more serious about their subject than we are: and the result of this is that they are better economists, but less useful ones.”

American economists achieved their superiority by seeking precision and using mathematics and statistics, at the expense of jargon if it seemed necessary. They were willing to try things. He contrasts publications on economic growth by Robert Solow and Joan Robinson: Solow approached the subject with “gay vigour”, seeking what could be learned, while Robinson seemed intent on showing why nothing could be learned. Another contrast was specialisation: American economists specialised more.

The economics department he established at Warwick embodied his principles. He welcomed the opportunity to recruit a strong team in a department which emphasized mathematics and econometrics. Former colleagues speak of his kindness, consideration, and honesty, and his success in creating a friendly collegial atmosphere. One of his undergraduates was Gus, now Lord, O’Donnell, who became head of the Government Economic Service, Permanent Secretary of the Treasury, and Cabinet Secretary: “He really did inspire me and was a very good teacher and economist. His legacy is substantial, as I know through my involvement with Warwick University. The economics department is extremely well regarded.” (This quote is taken from a memorial tribute by Dick’s son Simon.) It was entirely fitting, and a source of satisfaction to Dick, that a Chair in Economics at the university was created in his name in 2018.

With the department firmly established, and his own time increasingly taken up with administration rather than economics, he left in 1973 to become Group Economic Adviser at the Midland Bank. He also found time to set up the Clare Group - a collection of economists brought together in 1976 to debate Britain’s economic problems - and carried out much unpaid work for public sector pay review bodies.

He never retired from economics and went on to publish a book and numerous articles, the last only 18 months ago. These are all worthy of attention. In 2004 he published To Full Employment: The Keynesian Experience and After, where he addressed the weak specification of the supply side in Keynesian models, drawing on his earlier work on economic growth. A review by Geoffrey Renshaw, a member of Warwick’s economics department for many years, can be found on the Warwick website. He writes, “This is a lengthy book, and the number of equations and variables is somewhat daunting at first sight. However, total immersion in the algebra is unnecessary as every step in the reasoning is fully explained in the text. Sargent writes very clearly and with a light touch, and the book is a pleasure to read.” Indeed, the book exemplifies Dick’s approach to economics, in both subject and his attention to exposition. In the last few years, he published articles in Economic Affairs, including two on the ‘productivity puzzle’. He also remained willing, indeed eager, to comment on drafts in areas of economics not closely related to his own.

How to sum up such a long and fruitful life? He enriched the lives of his colleagues, students, and friends. As for his family, his son Simon writes, “At a time when less was expected of fathers than today, Dad was an exemplary parent… He would gently provide encouragement and advice or offer consolation, as required. Above all, he gave us unlimited love and affection, and set a wonderful example of decency, integrity and good humour.” Words of Dick’s own are the best conclusion. “I have had much happiness in my life, and the greatest part of it has been in and with my family”.

Geoffrey Wood, City University and University of Buckingham

John Richard “Dick” Sargent, economist, born 22 March 1925; died 14 March 2022.