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Joan Robinson: A pre-eminent economic theorist of the 20th century

A survey of Joan Robinson’s impact on economic theory
Wayne McMillan

Joan Violet Robinson was born in the UK (Camberley, Surrey) on October 31, 1903, to a family that was described by an associate as a ”family of dissenting aristocrats.” Her father, Sir Frederick Maurice, was a major general in the British Army who was stripped of his rank for criticizing World War I policy.

She went to St. Paul’s Girls’ School in London, and then to Girton College at Cambridge. One year after completing her studies – in 1926 – she married Sir E. Robinson, who was a distinguished economist in his own right, who had been a lecturer when she was still a student. They lived in India after their marriage, and she retained a lifelong fascination for that country, as well as for China, which she also visited many times. She began her academic career lecturing at Cambridge University in the early 1930s, and became a full lecturer in 1937, somehow finding time in the interim to give birth to two daughters.

She was made professor of economics in 1965, and was elected to the chair from which her husband had retired.

She retired in 1971. But in 1979 she became the first woman to be named an honorary fellow of Kings College, and in addition was an honorary fellow at Girton College and also Newnham College.

Girton College, Cambridge. “Girton” by inkelv1122 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Joan Robinson was a slender woman of medium height with long white hair – often worn pulled back in a bun – that had not been cut since she was a child. She could frequently be seen engaging in long walks, discussing economics with Nicholas Kaldor, Richard F. Kahn and other economists. Many proteges of Joan, particularly in recent decades,
were young economists from third-world countries. One of them was obliged, not too many years ago, to leave a univers- ity in California for another, whereupon Joan insisted on traveling to California to teach at his university to show support for him, even though she was ill and told not to travel. Despite her acerbic wit and intellectual tenacious- ness, she was seen by people close to her as a warm, loving woman with a sweet smile. Joan Robinson died on August 5, 1983, within a month of the death of Piero Sraffa, and was survived by her husband, two daughters and five grandchildren.

Joan Robinson’s early works catapulted her to the forefront of the economics profession. But rather than follow-up on her own revolution, she decided to become the handmaiden for someone else’s. In 1931, with her husband Austin Robinson, her intellectual companion Richard Kahn, her mentor Piero Sraffa and research student James Meade, she formed the famous “Cambridge Circus” to discuss J.M. Keynes’s recent Treatise on Money.

Over the years, the group’s discussions were channelled to Keynes himself, and he then wrote his subsequent General Theory in 1936 in light of all the Circus’ debates. Joan’s famous 1933 articles clearly announced what was to come. In the aftermath, she wrote two books faithfully expounding Keynes’s work, making her one of the main propagators of the Keynesian Revolution in economics.

It was around 1937 that she came into contact with Michal Kalecki, whose own contributions seemed to have anticipated (and, in her view, superseded) that of Keynes. Prompted by Kalecki, she set out to tackle the work of Karl Marx. Robinson’s 1942 Essay was among the first studies to take Marx seriously as an economist. It effectively helped to draw Marxian economics out of its half- chewed existence in political ideology. Although unimpressed by Marx’s labor theory of value, she identified Marx’s “extended scheme of reproduction” as his most exciting contribution. Together with other writers, most notably Piero Sraffa, she attempted to develop a new approach to political economy, one whose main emphasis was on development and distribution. It questioned the coherence and completeness of main- stream theories of production, growth, and distribution by calling attention to certain points, fundamental but hitherto neglected.

Source: joan-robinson-pioneering-keynesian.html

These points concern the coherence of the concept of capital and the relations of the quantity of capital to both the rate of aggregate economic growth and the distribution of income, especially within a world of disequilibrium, uncertainty, capital accumulation, alternative combinations of inputs in producing goods (called production functions) and the (re)switching from one combination to another, and the institutional and power structure factors underlying the operat- ions of these factors. Her approach was centred in part on a vision of the dual relationship between profitability and economic growth: thus growth depends upon (actual and expected) profits, and profitability depends on growth, a fundamental relationship involving complexities not readily absorbed by conventional economic theory and thereby largely ignored by its practitioners. Joan coined the term ‘monopsony’ where there is one buyer and many sellers. In labour economics it means where you have one buyer of labour and many sellers, wages can be driven down to a minimum.

Finally, Joan Robinson was an incisive interpreter of the history of economic thought. She believed that economics was both (1) a branch of theology and a vehicle for the ruling ideology of each period, that is, an instrument of social control, and (2) an attempt to produce objective scientific knowledge. She felt that economics was inevitably characterized by tensions between these two aspects and that the careful analyst had to separate the two, a task that was not easily accomplished and is likely to be done differently (or to different effects) by different thinkers. Because economics is a serious subject, one needs to be cautious and self-conscious, even skeptical, in its practice.

In the 1940s and 1950s, her activities continued apace. During the war, she worked on various economic committees for the Labour Party and the British government. She made several official trips to the Soviet Union, China and Ceylon. In 1949, she was promoted to reader at Cambridge and settled back on her research.

Inspired by Roy Harrod and Michal Kalecki, she began thinking about the “next step” of the Keynesian Revolution: — the “generalization of the the General Theory”, i.e. extending Keynes’s theory from the static short-run to the dynamic long-run (the “Oxbridge program”). She announced the program in her 1953 book.

In 1954, she wrote her famous article on the problems of capital aggregation, generally considered as the first shot in the Cambridge Capital Controversy that would rock economics in the 1960s. In a nutshell, Robinson pointed out that when we have a heterogeneous collect- ion of capital goods, we are forced to define the “quantity of capital” in value terms. But prices of produced goods (like capital) are determined by costs of production which are, in turn, determined by wages and profits from equilibrium in factor markets. This is already the problem. The entire purpose of a unit of measurement of capital is to help one to determine the quantity of capital demanded and supplied but in order to obtain this unit one already needs to know its price. Hence, one is using price to determine a quantity (“capital”) that one is then going to use to determine price! The reasoning is circular. But how problematic is this? This is where Joan Robinson provided the next few steps. In her so called the “Ruth Cohen Curiosum” (Real Wicksell Effects), she showed how it could yield a bizarre relationship between the choice of technique and rate of profit.

This was introduced in her 1956 work The Accumulation of Capital, which she hoped to be her big contribution to the Oxbridge program, extending Keynes’s theory to account for long run issues.

This was followed up by a more lucid exposition of growth theory (1962). The concept of a variety of “golden age” growth paths (including Golden Rule growth — which she described as the “Neo-classical Theorem”) were laid out. Her work on growth both paralleled and complemented the work of her fellow Cantabrigian Nicholas Kaldor. Together they developed what became known as “Cambridge growth theory”. During the 1960s Cambridge Capital Controversy, Robinson led the Cambridge assault on the American Neo-Keynesians, and she widened her attack to assault the entire neoclassical theory of production and distribution.

Robinson is therefore partly responsible – together with Sraffa (1960) – for the subsequent Neo-Ricardian or “classical revival” at Cambridge. Towards the end of her life, Robinson’s work concentrated mostly on methodological problems in economics (notably, stressing her dissatisfaction with “equilibrium” theory and trying to revive the original ideas underpinning Keynes’ General Theory). Her many popular writings (1962, 1966, 1970, 1971, 1978, 1979, 1980) brought her an even greater prominence with a wider public. An invited address to the American Economic Association in 1971 allowed her to give one of her most provocative deliveries. An attempt to bring the Cambridge approach to a wider audience also culminated in the publication of a unique “principles” textbook with John Eatwell in 1973, but it failed to make a substantial headway.

Despite her many contributions to high theory, Robinson was never able to master mathematics. She even relied on others (notably Richard Kahn) for her simplest diagrams. In a famous incident, she declined an invitation from Ragnar Frisch in 1958 to become vice- president of the Econometric Society. In explaining her refusal, she pointed out that she could not very well oversee a journal that she couldn’t read!

Her negligence was partly motivated by her suspicion of the increasing mathematisation of economics. A favourite of her comments is “I never learned math, so I had to think.” Her occasionally acerbic wit has made her a source of several famous pithy quotes, e.g. “The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.”

(1955) and “economics limps along with one foot in untested hypotheses and the other in untestable slogans” (1962).

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, which was the year her husband retired from his professorship. It is also notable that two students who studied under her won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences – Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz. In his autobiographical notes prepared for the Nobel Foundation, Stiglitz described their relationship as “tumultuous” and Robinson as unprepared for “the kind of questioning stance of a brash American student”. After one term Stiglitz quickly “switched to Frank Hahn” as his supervisor. In his own autobiography notes, Sen described Robinson as “totally brilliant but vigorously intolerant.” She also influenced the thinking of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which seems to have altered his approach towards economic policies.

Robinson was also intensely interested in problems in both underdeveloped and developing countries – a natural outgrowth of her work on economic development – and made substantial contributions in that direction as well. However, in later years, she embarrass- ed many foes and friends alike with her laudatory comments of Mao Zedong and the Chinese cultural revolution. She joined the British Academy in 1958 and was elected fellow of Newnham College in 1962. In 1965, she finally became a full professor and a fellow of Girton College.

Her legendary works have maintained their analytical and inspirational hold on economics. A mere glance at her eclectic and voluminous collection of works remains perhaps among the better testaments to both the depth and breadth of the impact Joan Robinson had on economic theory as a whole.
Major Works:
The Economics of Imperfect Competition (1933)
An Essay on Marxian Economics (1942), Second Edition (1966) (The Macmillan Press Ltd, ISBN 0-333-05800-3)
The Production Function and the Theory of Capital (1953)
Accumulation of Capital (1956)
Exercises in Economic Analysis (1960)
Essays in the Theory of Economic Growth (1962)
Economic Philosophy: An essay on the progress of economic thought (1962)
Freedom and Necessity: An introduction to the study of society (1970)
Economic Heresies: Some Old Fashioned Questions in Economic Theory (1971) (Basic Books, New York, ISBN 0-465-01786-X)
Contributions to Modern Economics (1978) (Basil Blackwell, Oxf, ISBN 0-631-19220-4)

Texts for the lay reader:
Economics is a serious subject: Apologia of an economist to the mathematician, the scientist and the plain man (1932),
Introduction to the Theory of Employment (1937).
The Cultural Revolution in China (1969).
An Introduction to Modern Economics (1973) with John Eatwell
The Arms Race (1982), Tanner Lectures on Human Values

Wayne McMillan is a member of the ERA editorial committee.

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