Adolph Lowe (born Adolf Löwe) was for a long time the eminence grise of the New School for Social Research.
Born in Stuttgart, Germany as Adolf Löwe (changed the spelling of his name later to "Adolph Lowe"). Lowe studied law, philosophy and economics at Munich and Berlin, receiving his doctorate from Tübingen in 1918. A veteran of World War I, Lowe helped plan the postwar demobilization of the German army, and served in the Socialization Committee which sought to nationalize the German economy. In 1922, Lowe joined the Ministry of Labor Economics of the Weimar Republic, becoming head of international statistics in the Federal Statistical Bureau in 1924..
In 1926, Adolph Lowe was appointed professor of economics and sociology at the University of Kiel. Lowe founded the Kiel Institute of World Economics, a center dedicated to business cycle research whose other members included Fritz Burchardt, Gerhard Colm, Jacob Marschak and Hans Neisser.
Lowe's famous 1926 WWA article was a cogent critique of the existing division between business cycle literature and equilibrium economic theory, and called for the development of a endogenous theory of economic fluctuations. Drawing on a Central European tradition that stemmed from Marx's scheme of extended reproduction, Lowe found a new manner of conceiving motion in business cycle theory. Lowe's concern with changing multisectoral structure over the cycle, as outlined in his 1926 essay, preceded and inspired a similar notion in the young Friedrich Hayek's business cycle theory. Lowe's own subsequent work, in particular the analysis of the "traverse" from one growth equilibrium to another (1952, 1954, 1976), has its roots in this paper.
Lowe left Kiel to become professor of economics at the University of Frankfurt in 1931. There, Lowe came into fruitful contact with Horkheimer, Adorno and other members of the "Frankfurt School" of sociology - an influence that never left him. As a cosmopolitan, social democrat, ex-member of the German Socialization Committee and an architect of the Weimar Republic, Adolph Lowe's position in Nazi-controlled Germany was quite untenable. Lowe was the first professor in the social sciences fired by the Nazis in 1933. Lowe promptly left for England in 1933 to take up a position at the University of Manchester. When World War II began, Lowe found his position as an "enemy alien" caused discomfort - in spite of his naturalization and past history and he resolved on leaving England in 1940. His Price of Liberty (1936) outlines some of his impressions of Great Britain.
During his stay at Frankfurt and Manchester, Lowe moved away from business cycle research he had pursued at Kiel and towards social philosophy and economic methodology. His famous 1935 Economics and Sociology, was exactly what its subtitle indicates: a "plea for cooperation in the social sciences". As he outlined there and in a few follow-up articles (1936, 1942), conventional economic equilibrium theory rested ultimately not only on a rather debatable conception of mechanistic rationality but also conditional on the assumption of the constancy and uniformity of individual behavior. This assumption, in Lowe's view, was not only unrealistic, but also unnecessarily restrictive and removed most of what was interesting (and necessary) for the analysis of economic motion. Lowe's doubts about the assumption of the "universality" of specific economic behavior echoed the position of the German Historical School of previous generations. His hopes for fruitful interaction between economics and sociology in this regard also dovetailed with his interest in the role and structure of universities (1937, 1940).
Lowe arrived in the United States in 1940, to join the New School for Social Research, and became the director of the "Institute of World Affairs" - the New School's attempt to resurrect the old Kiel Institute. His indefatigable efforts in this regard led him to temporarily suspend his work on economic methodology and social structure.
His 1951 article attacking the "mechanistic approach" to economics signalled his return to this field. His pre-war questions began to take a more definite form around this time - namely, in two issues which dominated the rest of his career, the "economic traverse" and "instrumental analysis". Underlying both of these concepts was the recognition of changing and heterogeneous behavioral patterns - the crux of Lowe's pre-war musings. If this is granted, then the approach of orthodox economic theory practically irrelevant as the object of study was continuously changing. As noted, the analysis of the "traverse", already contained in his Kiel work, but only really formulated in the 1950s (e.g. 1952, 1954, 1955), addressed the issue of movements from a particular growth path to another and the detailing of the implied adjustment paths and the modifications in behavioral and economic structures which both engender and are implied by them. Thus, the dynamics behind the traverse, he envisioned to be related to socio-economic evolution which should not, indeed could not, be considered an exclusively economic phenomenon. He continued developing his ideas on the relationship between evolution and growth, in particular, outlining the role of changing behavior and multiple behavior patterns on the resulting economic process. His position is perhaps best outlined in his masterful and inspiring On Economic Knowledge (1965).
Lowe's "instrumental analysis" proposed to sidestep the problem of tractability implied by changing structure by considering a type of economics which combined both prescribed behavioral patterns and economic analysis when dealing with economic policy. In Lowe's view, behavior was endogenous - both to economic structure and economic policy. As any economic analysis or prescription is conditional on a particular type of behavior, then Lowe concluded, economic policy must ultimately tackle the twin tasks of "setting" the behavioral configurations and using the "appropriate" theory implied by that behavior.
Lowe's work on the traverse and instrumental analysis is best laid out in his two great works, On Economic Knowledge (1965) and The Path of Economic Growth (1976) and his article "Toward a Science of Economics" (1969) - which were received with bewilderment by much of the economics profession. Not quite used to any kind of post-eighteenth century thinking, economists were caught between accusing him of being an "anti-theorist", an "authoritarian" or simply a troublemaker. Of course, he was none of these (except perhaps the last). Firstly, as noted, he gave a central role to economic theory in his system - indeed, if anything, he perhaps allowed for too many economic theories. Furthermore, Lowe went to great pains to note that his "instrumentalism" is far from a prescription for socialist policy. Indeed, Lowe stressed quite the contrary: that freedom is ultimately only possible in a constrained scenario - indeed, it can only be "defined" within constraints. Lowe's notions of "constrained freedom" and "spontaneous conformity" were standard concepts long familiar to sociologists and philosophers - nay, even earlier (cf. Goethe).
In fact, in a modern light, Lowe's position is almost self-evident. If one recognizes the mutability of economic behavior, then policy must ultimately take behavioral considerations into account. In recognizing that economic policy can set the parameters within which individual behavior operates, Lowe thus sets out a proposition similar in tone to the later "Lucas Critique" of econometric policy-making. Where Lowe goes one step ahead of Lucas, then, is in suggesting that these parameters should themselves be considered as policy instruments - which not too radical a proposition by modern standards when one considers, say, the "reputation" debate on monetary policy and inflation and indeed, the Public Choice school. Thus, in modern light, the charges of "incipient authoritarianism" that were heaped upon Lowe during the 1960s and 1970s seem obviously untenable. However, to Cold War contemporaries, Lowe's propositions were uncomfortable - even though Lowe suggested examples that ought to be familar to them (e.g. how is laissez-faire sustainable without anti-trust legislation?).
Almost alone among economists, the American Institutionalists recognized that Lowe's analysis resonated with their own work - and appropriately granted him the Veblen-Commons Award. In his subsequent lecture (1980), he reiterated his position on instrumental analysis - and chastising economists of all stripes for overemphasizing either theory or empiricism. Like Veblen almost a century before, Lowe reiterated that the need was for a new economics which could incorporate the insights of both and, at the same time, stretch far beyond them.
Lowe "retired"(sic) in 1963, remaining at the New School as a lecturer, until he returned to Germany in 1983. Lowe died at the ripe old age of 102. Until the end of his life, he still clung optimistically to his great and as yet unfulfilled hope: the fruitful interdisciplinary communication between economics and sociology.
Major works of Adolph Lowe
Resources on Adolph Lowe
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