The Legacy of Joan Robinson

by Barkley Rosser (originally from Econospeak)

The Legacy of Joan Robinson

Over a week ago Joan Robinson came up in connection with the ongoing controversy over Gerald Friedman’s analysis of Bernie Sanders’s economic plan.  When criticized for apparent problems with it he declared that those who understand what he is doing are “Joan Robinson economists.”  In going after him, Justin Wolfers ridiculed him for this, referring to such people as a “sub-tribe of Keynesians,” which is not inaccurate, but somehow comes across as very sneery.  Noah Smith took this up, declaring that this was the coup de grace by Wolfers, and a commenter on his thread, “Britonomist,” dismissed Robinson as someone who admired the North Korean economy, “maybe the worst economy ever in the world,” with Noah thanking him for this piece of information.  I made some comments on this there, withpgl picking up on this for some further discussion.  Other than to note the reasonableness of  Peter Dorman’s request for  Friedman to provide his model publicly for people to figure out what he is doing (which is becoming less and less important as Bernie’s chances of getting the nomination seem to be approaching epsilon), I have no comments on all of that contretemps.  Rather, on thinking about it I shall  return to Joan Robinson and talk about her and her legacy for modern economics, given that various people have been using her name in vain.

Joan Violet Maurice Robinson (1903-1983) was without doubt the most important woman economist born before 1930 and maybe still the most important woman economist ever.  While she would end her days as a radical leftist, she came out of an elite background, her father a baronet and a major general in the British army in WW I, with her maternal grandfather a famous surgeon who taught at Cambridge University and one of maternal uncles a polymath who advised Winston Churchill.  She was close to her father, who was forced to resign from the British army near the end of WW I for publicly reporting on misconduct by the government in managing the war.  In his final years until his death in 1951 he lived with his daughter in her half of the house she shared with her husband, E.A.G. (Austin) Robinson, whom she married in 1925, who himself was an important Keynesian economist, adviser of the British government, and founder of the International Economic Association, with them producing two daughters.  A story I have from a primary witness is that she had a graduate seminar in her half of the house, and one time there was an unpleasant odor there.  The participants realized that her father was sitting in a chair in the room dead.

While she nearly got a Nobel Prize, and certainly deserved one, she suffered professionally from being a woman.  She was only appointed a Lecturer at Cambridge in 1937, well after she had already published several highly innovative and influential  works.  She was only made a Full Professor at Girton College at Cambridge University (which she had attended) in 1965, the year her husband retired from his professorship.  Rumor has it that she came closest to receiving the Nobel  Prize in 1975, the year Kantorovich and Koopmans got it for linear programming (which created a major stink among mathematicians who said that at a minimum George Dantzig should have shared it).  I do not know if she was thought of as a possible third for them or a replacement for them, perhaps with Piero Sraffa sharing, who also never got one while arguably deserving it, who could have shared it credibly with Leontief in 1973 for input-ouput analysis.  The Encyclopedia Britannica reports that her leftwing political views may have played a role in her not getting it.  I also heard it from a primary source that Assar Lindbeck, the committee’s dominant figure then, once said that if either Joan Robinson or James Buchanan got it, it would be over his dead body, although  Buchanan did get it in 1986, with Lindbeck still on the committee and not dead, although Joan Robinson had  been dead for three years by then.

As evidence that she was clearly in contention in the mid-70s, I shall report something I observed on an elevator in the New York Hilton during the 1973 AEA meetings (the first I ever attended).  Lionel McKenzie, another who never got the prize but should have, was talking to somebody else.  McKenzie told this other person that “they are going to give it to Joan Robinson next for her Economics of Imperfect Competition, but she will refuse it.”  As it was, she never got the chance to do so.

Speaking of that 1933 book, that was her first major publication and remains one of her most important, indeed worthy of a trip to  Stockholm in and of itself.  Among other things in it, she invented the word “monopsony.”  While she later wrote less about monopolistic competition, one can see that it remained very much on her mind if one reads her excellent 1977 article in the JEL, “What are the Questions?” a good overview of how she viewed economics near the end of her life.  She spends quite a bit of it going on about the issue of monopoly power and its importance.  I note that this is one area where her concerns are very relevant to current economics, with many now posing that increased monopoly power in the US economy may be playing a role in secular stagnation.
She was indeed a core Keynesian, one of the three people thanked by Keynes himself in the Preface to his 1936 General Theory.  She also supported Kalecki, whom Keynes had in to  Cambridge, but by all accounts did not like.  In 1937 she wrote her influential essay on “Beggar thy neighbour policies,” which made the concept associated with competitive devaluations widely known, although the term had appeared before previously, used once by Adam Smith and also by a British economist named Gower in 1932.

In 1941 she published her famous Essay on Marxian Economics, in which she rejected the labor theory of value and basically supported redoing Marx along Keynesian and Sraffian lines.  She would indeed later praise both Maoist China and North Korea, but saw China in particular  as possibly offering another way of modifying Marx along useful lines.  However, Robinson was always known for her pithy remarks, and one from that era was “There is only one thing worse than being exploited, and that is not being exploited” (that is, unemployed).

The 1950s may have seen the high water mark of her work.  She set off the Cambridge  capital theory debates with her 1954 paper in the Review of Economic Studies, “The production function and the theory of capital,” in which she took apart the idea of aggregate capital, with Paul Samuelson in 1966 agreeing that she was right.  The first time I ever met Samuelson (in the early 70s) I gave him a hard time about this issue, and he just completely agreed with her and said that capital must be modeled as being heterogeneous.  One of the more hidden but very important roles she played in the 1950s was to work on Piero Sraffa to finally complete his short, but important, 1960 book,Production of Commodities by Commodities: A Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory.  He had been working on it for 35 years, but it was still only a prelude to a critique, not a critique itselfn.  Samuelson claimed that if he had published it in 1930, he would indeed have shared the Nobel Prize with Leontief.

In 1956 she published what is probably her magnum opus, although now widely ignored,The Accumulation of Capital, which in contrast to her later critiques of analytical equilibrium analysis in favor of looking at “historical time,” was in fact a study of various equilibrium growth models, many of  which she provided amusing names  for such as “bastard golden age” and “creeping platinum age.”  She did not generally use formal equations but rather favored figures and graphs backed up by clear verbal descriptions and discussions.  Apparently in 1949 Koopmans asked her to be on the board of the Econometric Society, but she refused on the grounds that she did not want to be part of something that produced things she could not read.  After 1960 her work increasingly moved towards more methodological issues, such as her 1962 Economic Philosophy, as well as work looking at development issues, especially in India, but also her highly controversial work on China and North Korea.

I commented on the China and North Korea matters in the linked-to threads from Noah and pgl, but I shall repeat some major points here.  Regarding North Korea, she visited there in 1964.  She accurately reported that its economy was performing much better than that of South Korea, which many now may not believe, but was true,with a real per capita income probably twice that in the South.  What happened was that the South did not grow after the Korean War in the 1950s under the corrupt Syngman Rhee.  It took off after he was overthrown by the military dictator Park Chung Hee (whose daughter is currently the president in the South), who instituted a strong indicative planning drive run through state-owned banks until  he was assassinated in 1979.  During the 1950s the North Koreans had  successfully followed a Stalin-style command centrally planned forced industrialization, which had resulted in impressive results by 1964.  While it continued to grow for some time after that, the South began to catch up, surpassed it in the early 1970s, and, of course, today is far ahead of the now seriously impoverished North, although it has been able to produce nuclear  weapons.  In 1977, in a single paragraph, she predicted the North would absorb the South. She may not yet have become aware that the South was ahead of the North in per capita income, but she may have been more influenced by the absorption of South Vietnam by North Vietnam only two years earlier in 1975.  She was not completely out of it on her observations of the Koreas.
She can be more sharply criticized regarding her views of China, regarding which she wrote a book defending the cultural revolution.  Apparently before  she died she pulled back on some of her admiration for Mao, but this is clearly an area that one can criticize her political and economic views more than on her observations on the Koreas, where indeed North Korea really was ahead of South Korea when she made her most detailed study of them. But she wrote much more about China than about the Koreas, visiting there on several occasions, although she visited India many more times.

The final, and maybe most important, influence of Joan Robinson today is on Post Keynesian economics, or post-Keynesian economics, with her preferring this latter spelling, the British version.  Indeed, although I cannot  prove it, I have heard it that she was the one who  coined this term, as she did so many others.  That there are two spellings is due to Paul Samuelson also using this term with her spelling to describe what we now call his “neoclassical synthesis,” with him referring to “post-Keynesian eclecticism,” which supposedly represented his position.  When American Post Keynesians got seriously going in the 1970s, led by Paul Davidson who founded theJournal of Post Keynesian Economics,they favored that spelling to distinguish themselves from Samuelson’s formulation, which the British and other non-Americans were never bothered by. In any case, Joan Robinson is widely viewed as perhaps the founder of the movement, varied and eclectic as it is today, or at least the godmother and main inspiration of the movement.  But I  note that it has many sub-varieties, with the Wikipedia entry on it having a curious “family tree” that has 8 different boxes: Keynes’s inner circle (which included  Robinson and her husband), Cambridge Keynesians (which also  included Robinson), early North American Post Keynesians, Kaleckians, Sraffians, Fundamentalists, Kaldorians (I show up on that list), and Modern Monetary, with some other lists adding Institutionalists, and with some people loosely on the tree but not in any box or founding one such as Keynes himself, Richard Goodwin, G.L.S. Shackle, and Hyman Minsky (who always claimed he was not a a “Post Keynesian”), along with some others.

So when Gerald Friedman wrote of “Joan Robinson economists,” I think that he had in mind the general current set of Post (or post-) Keynesian schools, even if he may or may not have been thinking about any particular one.  I note that Bernie Sanders’s top economic adviser on his Senate committee is Stephanie Kelton, on leave from UMKC, who is allied with the modern monetary (not to be confused with the “new monetarist”) school, one of those listed in the Wikipedia family tree (and she is in that box there).  But I know that many others like  Bernie Sanders, and most think well of Joan Robinosn, even if they may not all necessarily agree with Gerald Friedman’s analysis.  But then again, as Peter Dorman has noted, we have not yet actually seen his model, so one can think what one wants, I guess.  But clearly various aspects of Joan Robinson’s thought and career are both relevant and currently influencing many economists today, including many who have never heard of  her through some of her ideas simply entering into basic textbooks, such as “monopsony.”

Barkley Rosser

Note on 5/3/16:  Upon further checking while Joan Robinson did discuss golden ages in her The Accumulation of Capital, it was only in the alter Essays in the Theory of Economic Growth, 1965, that she expounded most fully on the theories of bastard golden ages and creeping and platinum ages, although apparently she initially wrote about them prior to that book.  Also, just for the record, she did use equations from time to time, but only sparingly.