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Obituary: Tony Thirlwall

By Alan Carruth (University of Kent), Jagjit Chadha (NIESR), Amanda Gosling (University of Kent), Miguel León-Ledesma (University of Kent) and Roger Vickerman (University of Kent).

The life and academic journey of Tony Thirlwall were marked by a dedication to, and love of, economic science, leaving an enduring legacy on ideas, concepts, and people that extends far beyond the University of Kent. Tony was instrumental in shaping the ideas of economists both in his intellectual tradition but also, because he was so generous with his time, even those with whom he disagreed. He was a child, literally, of the war, but also of the progressive society and hope in the better future that would follow.

Born in April 1941, he was educated at Harrow Weald County Grammar School, where he had been taught by the future Home Secretary Merlyn Rees. Tony went up to Leeds as an undergraduate in 1959 and on to a Master’s programme at Clark University in Massachusetts in 1962; then Cambridge in 1963 to begin a PhD, before moving back to Leeds, drawn by his early mentor, Arthur Brown, to his first academic appointment in 1964. He completed his doctoral research in 1968, investigating the nature and causes of regional disparities in the UK, with a particular focus on unemployment and regional employment policy.

In 1966, he made the landmark move to the newly-established University of Kent at Canterbury. This marked the beginning of an academic journey that saw him rise swiftly from Lecturer to Professor of Applied Economics by the age of 35. And he stayed at Kent, in Keynes College, for the rest of his long career, with the exception of visiting spells at academic and policy institutions around the world. Tony was a member of the RES Council (1979-89) and Executive Committee (1981-87) and edited the conference volumes of the Confederation of European Economic Associations.

He enjoyed academic life in Keynes College, and it became very much his working home. At one point in the early 1990s, the University created Departments and there was discussion of moving the economists from Keynes to join the other economists in Eliot College. Tony said with his usual wit that it would be a shame for Eliot College to have to be renamed Keynes College. The move to Eliot never happened and the Eliot economists moved to Keynes. Tony was often to be found in the Keynes staff common room enjoying a morning coffee, discussing with colleagues how to put the economic world to rights.

As a teacher and supervisor, Tony’s approach was characterized by a clear and organised delivery and high expectations of students. All who had been taught by him were inspired both by the subject matter and by the discipline that economics imposed on the thought process. His breadth of reading and knowledge, and his ability to remember data, were legendary. All this scholarship was clear to see in the influential textbook Growth and Development: with Special Reference to Developing Economies, first published in 1972 and now in its tenth edition. The later volumes were authored jointly with his second wife and collaborator, Penélope Pacheco López. Tony had a great deal of enthusiasm for supervising students, both undergraduate and graduate, sharing stimulating ideas, and challenging established wisdom. There was always a steady stream of graduate students from around the world – often first attracted to Kent on the basis of his reputation – with whom he often co-authored papers and maintained enduring relationships.

Tony’s scholarly output was prolific, amounting to 18 books, 12 edited volumes, and more than 200 chapters and articles in journals. It encompasses fields such as regional divergence, the balance of payments and growth, financial liberalisation, development, and trade, all drawn together by a consistent Keynesian view of the macroeconomy.

His celebrated “Balance of Payments Constrained Growth” model, published in 1979, also known as “Thirlwall’s Law”, argued that economic growth was constrained by the current account of the balance of payments, and hence long-run growth was a function of the income elasticity of exports over imports. This “law” not only had a widespread academic impact, but was also influential in policy institutions such as ECLAC, UNCTAD, and the ADB. The idea stemmed from his previous work on Kaldorian cumulative causation models of regional growth differences. Later, he was the biographer and literary executor of Kaldor, who was, together with Keynes, his main intellectual influence.

The ability to bring together scholars from all over the world to discuss ideas stemming from the work of Keynes and later writers in the series of Keynes seminars, held at Keynes College in the University of Kent, reflects his international standing. A Festschrift published in 2006 is further confirmation of his reach. Tony was an inveterate correspondent with other scholars, first by letter, later by email, and often leading to published debates.

Outside of academia, Tony was a very good schoolboy runner and, when a student at Cambridge, ran for the university in the annual Oxford-Cambridge cross country race. When he turned forty, he took up Veterans athletics and in the national championships in Barnsley in 1982 he came second in the 800 metres and third in the 400 metres. He then represented Great Britain in the European Veterans Championships in Strasbourg in the same year. He could also be seen on a university football pitch from time to time in the annual staff-student match. Later, he took up tennis and played regularly at the Polo Farm Tennis Club until his illness forced him to retire.

He died on 8 November 2023, and leaves two children, Alexandra and Lawrence, from his first marriage to Gianna Paoletti; and a son, Oliver, from his second marriage to Penélope Pacheco-López. Four grandchildren, Ben, Sam, Sienna and Lorenzo also survive him.

Colleagues at the School are very sad to lose such an irreplaceable colleague and friend, and have great memories of his time among us.

Anthony (Tony) Philip Thirlwall, economist, born 21 April 1941; died 8 November 2023.