The Legacy of Joan Robinson
This is by Barkley Rosser (I left quite a bit out, including the connections to the Sander's campaign):
The Legacy of Joan Robinson: ... 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 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-output 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 itself. 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. ...
The final, and maybe most important, influence of Joan Robinson today is on Post Keynesian economics, or post-Keynesian economics...
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."
Posted by Mark Thoma on Monday, May 2, 2016 at 08:44 AM in Economics, History of Thought |
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