One of the most prominent economists of the century, Joan Robinson incarnated the "Cambridge School" in most of its guises in the 20th century: she started as a cutting-edge Marshallian and after 1936; as one of the earliest and most ardent Keynesians and finally as one of the leaders of the Neo-Ricardian and Post Keynesian schools. Robinson's contributions to economics are far too numerous to elucidate fairly. Unlike most economists, she was not a "one idea" person, but rather made many many fundamental contributions to very different areas of economics.
She was born Joan Violet Maurice in Surrey, England to a controversial family. Her father, Major General Sir Frederick Barton Maurice, gained notoriety in the aftermath of World War I by accusing Prime Minister Lloyd George of misleading parliament and nation during war.
After being educated at St. Paul's Girls School in London, Joan began studying economics at Girton College, Cambridge in 1921. After a thorough soaking in Marshallian economics at the hands of Pigou, she graduated in 1925 and, one year later, married Austin Robinson, a fellow economist at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. In 1926, the Robinsons went to Gujarat, India. There, she got involved in a research committee on Anglo-Indian economic relations. They returned to Cambridge in 1928, when Austin Robinson was appointed assistant professor of economics. For this reason (and others), Joan Robinson failed to obtain her own separate appointment and had to content herself with a rather informal relationship with the university until 1931, when she finally became junior assistant lecturer in economics. Despite her well-known abilities and achievements, she would proceed very slowly along the Cambridge academic ladder.
The Cambridge the Robinsons left behind was quite different from the Cambridge they returned to. The economics of Alfred Marshall had been profoundly shaken by the 1926 critique of of Piero Sraffa. Joan Robinson made decisive contributions in two directions in the hope of recasting and thereby "saving" Neoclassical economics: imperfect competition and general equilibrium.
Inspired by Piero Sraffa's "pregnant suggestion" that monopoly, rather than competition, was the "general" case, Joan Robinson's wrote her 1933 treatise introducing the theory of imperfect competition to economics. She showed how to handle production theory via the marginal revenue curve (introduced here by. Kahn), away from the extremes of monopoly and perfect competition. Her 1934 follow-up articles emphasized the interrelationship between the "special case" of perfect competition and the marginal productivity theory of distribution. Harvard's Edward Chamberlin independently discovered the similar theory of "monopolistic" competition, where the emphasis was on product differentiation. Chamberlin itched for a fight, but never got one. Robinson was quick to move on beyond her theory - - in spite of its success in the textbooks.
The second avenue was sketched out in her famous 1941 article. Here, she showed how "rising supply price" can be derived from a general equilibrium context and thus dodge Sraffa's critique (which is why it elicited so much praise from Jacob Viner). This, together with her discovery of the elasticity of substitution, were her seminal contributions to the Paretian Revival of Neoclassical economics.
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, she -- together with her husband Austin Robinson, her intellectual companion Richard Kahn, her mentor Piero Sraffa and research student James Meade -- formed the famous "Cambridge Circus" to discuss John Maynard Keynes's recent Treatise on Money. Over the years, the group's discussions were channeled to Keynes himself -- who wrote his subsequent General Theory in 1936 in light of the Circus' debates. Robinson's famous 1933 articles precipitously announced what was to come. In the aftermath, Joan Robinson wrote two faithful book expositions (1937a, 1937b) of Keynes's work, making her one of the main propagators of the Keynesian Revolution in economics.
Joan Robinson was appointed a full lecturer at Cambridge in 1937 and somehow found time to give birth to two daughters in the interim. It was around this time that she came into contact with Michal Kalecki, whose own contributions seemed to have anticipated (and, in her view, superseded) Keynes's. Prompted by Kalecki, Robinson soon 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 help draw Marxian economics from its half-chewed existence in political ideology. Although unimpressed by the labor theory of value, Robinson identified Marx's "extended scheme of reproduction" as his most exciting contribution.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Robinson's activities continued apace. During the war, she had 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, Robinson 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: namely, the "generalization of 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 1952 book.
In 1954, Joan Robinson produced her famous article on the problems of capital aggregation, generally considered to be 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 collection 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 us determine the quantity of capital demanded and supplied and yet in order to obtain this unit we already need to know its price. Hence, we are using price to determine a quantity ("capital") that we are then going to use to determine price! The reasoning is circular.
How problematic is this? This is where Robinson provided the next few steps. In what she called the "Ruth Cohen Curiosum" (Real Wicksell Effects), she showed how it could yield bizarre relationship between choice of technique and rate of profit. This was introduced in her 1956 The Accumulation of Capital, which she hoped to be her great contribution to the Oxbridge program, to extend 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 called the "Neo-classical Theorem") were laid out. Her work on growth paralleled and complemented that of 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, but widened her attack to assault the entire Neoclassical theory of production and distribution. Robinson is thus 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" theories) and trying to revive the original message of Keynes's General Theory. Her many popular writings (1962, 1966, 1970, 1971, 1978, 1979, 1980) brought her an even greater pominence with a wider public. She was invited to address the American Economic Association in 1971, wherein she gave one of her most provocative deliveries. An attempt to bring the Cambridge approach to a wider audience culminated in the publication of a rather unique "principles" textbook with John Eatwell in 1973, but it failed to make a substantial headway.
Robinson was also intensely interested in problems in underdeveloped and developing countries - a natural outgrowth of her work on growth - and made substantial contributions in that direction as well. However, in later years, Robinson embarrassed many foes and friends alike with her far-too-laudatory comments of Mao Zedong and the Chinese cultural revolution.
Robinson 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. In 1979, she became the first female fellow of King's College. Her lack of a Nobel prize has been considered one of the saddest "oversights" of the modern economics profession - or one of the most outrageous cases of deliberate neglect. Nonetheless, the real "prize" is better than any Nobel: while other prominent economists drop into obscurity, 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.
Despite her many contributions to high theory, Robinson never
mastered mathematics. She even relied on others (notably
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 mathematization of economics. As she
put in a favorite comment, ""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).
Joan Robinson died on August 5, 1983, within a month of Piero Sraffa.
Major Works of Joan Robinson
Resources on Joan Robinson.
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