Joan Robinson

Joan Robinson

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Joan Maurice (Robinson), the third child in the family of one son and four daughters of Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice and his wife, Helen Maurice, was born in Camberley on 31st October 1903. Her great-grandfather was Frederick Denison Maurice, the Christian Socialist. Her biographer, G. C. Harcourt, claims that she "continued the family tradition with distinction, always a rebel with a cause". (1)

Robinson was educated at St Paul's Girls' School, London, and from 1922 at Girton College. While at Cambridge University she came under the influence of Maurice Dobb. He was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. According to Phillip Knightley, the author of Philby: KGB Masterspy (1988) "Dobb was probably the first academic in Britain to carry a Communist Party membership card. Without Dobb, communism would never have gained the prominence in Cambridge that it did." (2) He visited the Soviet Union in 1921 and when his train crossed the frontier he said, "how thrilling to be moving across this sacred soil at last." (3)

Other students influenced by Maurice Dobb, included John Cornford, John Bernal, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean, David Haden-Guest and James Klugmann. (4) Victor Kiernan later recalled that Dobb's teaching had helped them to understand the development of society: "We felt, all the same, that it could lift us to a plane far above the Cambridge academic level. We were quite right, as the rapid advance of Marxist ideas and influence since then has demonstrated. Our main concerns, however, were practical ones, popularising socialism and the USSR, fraternising with hunger marchers, denouncing Fascism and the National Government, warning of the approach of war. We belonged to the era of the Third International, genuinely international at least in spirit, whey the Cause stood high above any national or parochial claims." (5)

Dobb's friend, Eric Hobsbawm, has argued: "He joined the small band of Cambridge socialists as soon as he went up and... the Communist Party. Neither body was then used to such notably well-dressed recruits of such impeccably bourgeois comportment. He remained quietly loyal to his cause and party for the remainder of his life, pursuing a course, at times rather lonely, as a communist academic." (6) According to Joan Robinson, not all of his students agreed with his political views. A group of "hearties" seized him and threw him "fully dressed into the River Cam" in a futile effort to teach him sense. This happened to Dobb more than once; but his persecutors became bored and eventually left him alone. (7)

She obtained second classes (division one) in parts one and two of the economics tripos (1924 and 1925). In 1926 she married Edward Robinson. They had two daughters. She was appointed to an assistant lectureship in economics and politics at Cambridge in 1934, and became a university lecturer in 1937. According to G. Harcourt: "Robinson's incisive mind made her a powerful critic; her insight and intuition, whereby she provided logical arguments of great penetration (without the help of modern mathematical techniques), allowed her to make significant contributions across the whole spectrum of economic theory. She also made a special study of the socialist countries, especially China, which she frequently visited. She fervently hoped China would create a society in which not only would poverty be vanquished but also the potential of all its citizens would be realized in an environment of co-operation, hard work, and mutual respect and affection - inevitably, as she was to admit, an impossible dream but not the less noble for that." (8)

As well as Maurice Dobb she was also influenced by Alfred Marshall, Gerald Shove and Richard Kahn. Joan Robinson published The Economics of Imperfect Competition (1933) and Essay on Marxian Economics (1942). During this period she was considered to be the leading expert on John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx. She has also been praised for "her role in putting Marx's insights back on the agenda of modern economics". Her most important book was The Accumulation of Capital (1956).

It has been claimed that Joan Robinson did not mind upsetting people with her work: "Never one to mince words, possessor of a civilized wit, sometimes bleakly rude, not always fair but always honest, as hard on herself as on those she criticized, Joan Robinson more than any other economist of the twentieth century became a model for progressive radicals, fearlessly following arguments to conclusions no matter how incompatible they proved to be." (9)

Joan Robinson died in Cambridge on 5th August 1983.

In 1926 she married (Edward) Austin Gossage Robinson (1897–1993); he was later professor of economics at Cambridge University and was knighted. She was appointed to an assistant lectureship in economics and politics at Cambridge in 1934, and became a university lecturer in 1937, reader in 1949, and professor of economics in 1965.

Robinson's incisive mind made her a powerful critic; her insight and intuition, whereby she provided logical arguments of great penetration (without the help of modern mathematical techniques), allowed her to make significant contributions across the whole spectrum of economic theory. She fervently hoped China would create a society in which not only would poverty be vanquished but also the potential of all its citizens would be realized in an environment of co-operation, hard work, and mutual respect and affection - inevitably, as she was to admit, an impossible dream but not the less noble for that.

(1) G. Harcourt, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) Phillip Knightley, Philby: KGB Masterspy (1988) page 30

(3) Quoted by Harry Pollitt in Andrew Boyle, The Climate of Treason (1979) page 77

(4) Andrew Boyle, The Climate of Treason (1979) page 47

(5) Victor Kiernan, London Review of Books (25th June, 1987)

(6) Eric Hobsbawm, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(7) Joan Robinson, interviewed for the book, Andrew Boyle, The Climate of Treason (1979) page 47

(8) G. Harcourt, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(9) G. Harcourt, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

Joan Robinson - History

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, with pgl 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 the Journal 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."

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 later Essays in the Theory of Economic Growth, 1965, that she expounded most fully on the theories of bastard golden ages and creeping 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, if only sparingly.

Texas doctor, who killed wife with poisoned pastry, was eventually gunned down in murder-for-hire as sordid story later became made-for-TV movie starring Sam Elliott and Farrah Fawcett

Joan Robinson Hill was not supposed to die like this.

She was the adopted daughter of a Houston oil millionaire, a socialite with a passion for horses. Her riding skills were so extraordinary that a reporter was once moved to write that his "goosepimples get goosepimples" while witnessing her performance in competition.

Money, beauty, talent, and horses — the woman had everything.

On top of it all, she was married to a millionaire doctor, one of the top plastic surgeons in the region.

It did not seem possible that such a charmed life could end so horribly, after days of agony.

But in the early morning of March 19, 1969, Hill was being treated for low blood pressure, infection and uncontrollable diarrhea in an ill-equipped hospital. Around 1:30 a.m. she sat up, vomited a large amount of blood and took her last breath.

The doctors never managed to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with her.

Her husband of 12 years, John Hill, 38, was sleeping in another part of the hospital at the moment of her death. He came to her room, moaning "No, no, no" and making all kinds of noises befitting a grief-stricken husband, wrote Thomas Thompson, in his 1976 bestseller "Blood and Money."

Still, few were surprised that by the first week of June he was remarried — to bombshell divorcee Ann Kurth.

Hill and Kurth had met when they had gone to visit their kids at summer camp.

That same month, Joan's father demanded that his daughter's corpse be exhumed and reexamined. Ash Robinson was certain that his son-in-law, eager to marry his new flame, had somehow poisoned Joan. Robinson gathered evidence, including recollections of friends who had dined with the couple at their home.

The dinner guests told of the doctor's strange pastry ritual. He carefully handed the delicacies out, making sure that Joan got the éclair. He refused to let her switch for other goodies.

This was enough to convince Robinson that the pastries were tainted. He also gathered gossip about the couple's rocky marriage. They argued a lot. The doctor was annoyed that his wife spent so much time with her horses. She objected to his hobbies — music and other women.

The second autopsy found that Joan might have died from viral hepatitis, but it was impossible to say for sure. The body had been embalmed before the first autopsy, making it difficult to come to any solid conclusion about the cause of death.

It wasn't much, but Robinson would not give up. In February 1970, Hill was indicted for murder by omission. This rarely used charge pertains to cases where people have the opportunity to save someone, but fail to do so.

Dr. Hill, prosecutors argued, withheld medical care that could have kept Joan alive. Even the hospital he chose was substandard.

It was a slim case, but by the time he came to trial in February 1971, Dr. Hill had another problem — the fury of his new ex.

The Hill-Kurth romance had soured quickly and the couple divorced after a stormy nine months. Kurth was given the rare opportunity to publicly, in front of a jury, dump on the man who dumped her.

Her performance on the stand was the stuff of legend. Kurth told of their courtship, and how he yearned to marry her but Joan would not let go. She recalled that she saw him growing something in petri dishes in the bachelor pad he had set up after his separation from Joan in 1968. But the most damning words focused on what happened after Joan was dead and Dr. Hill had taken his second wife.

Trouble erupted almost overnight. He screamed at her in outbursts of paranoia and, finally, tried to murder her by slamming the passenger side of their Cadillac into a concrete bridge. When that didn't kill her, he came after her with a needle and syringe. She was certain that it contained some kind of poison. Only the intervention of passersby in a car kept her alive.

Joan Robinson - History

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 prominent but controversial family. Her great-grandfather was Frederick Denison Maurice, one of the founders of the Christian Socialist movement, who went on to become Knightsbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy at Cambridge in 1866. 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 the selective 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 and Keynes, she graduated in 1925 and, one year later, married economist Austin Robinson, then a research fellow at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. In 1926, the Robinsons moved to Gujarat, India, where Austin served as tutor to a young maharajah. The bevy of local servants released newly-married Joan from conventional domestic duties, allowing her to explore India, and its economic situation in particular. She did some teaching in local schools and got involved in a research committee on Anglo-Indian economic relations.

The Robinsons returned to Cambridge in 1928, when Austin Robinson was appointed lecturer (assistant professor) of economics. For this reason (and others), Joan Robinson was unable to obtain her own separate appointment and had to content herself with a rather informal relationship with the university. In 1931, 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 1930, 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. The Circus met over the course of 1930-31. 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).

Jo Ann Robinson: A Heroine of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Mugshot of Jo Ann Robinson in the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Montgomery County Archives.

Born on April 17, 1912, in Culloden, Georgia, Robinson distinguished herself early as the valedictorian of her high school class, went on to become the first person in her family to graduate from college, and then fulfilled her dream of becoming a teacher.

She taught in the Macon, Georgia, public schools for fives years while earning a master's degree from Atlanta University. She also pursued English studies at Columbia University in New York City. She moved to Montgomery in 1949 to teach at Alabama State College.

In Montgomery, she became active in the Women's Political Council (WPC), a local civic organization for African American professional women that was dedicated to fostering women's involvement in civic affairs, increasing voter registration in the city's black community, and aiding women who were victims of rape of assault.

Dress sewn by Rosa Parks, 1955-1956.

Soon after arriving in Montgomery, Robinson was verbally attacked by a public bus driver for sitting in the "whites only" section of the bus. When she became the WPC's president the following year, she made desegregating the city's buses one of the organization's top priorities.

The WPC repeatedly complained to the Montgomery city leaders about unfair seating practices and abusive driver conduct. But the group's concerns were dismissed, leading Robinson to begin laying plans for a bus boycott by the city's African American community. Following Rosa Park's arrest in December 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person, Robinson and a few associates jumped into action. They copied tens of thousands of leaflets and distributed them across the city, calling for a one-day boycott.

Following the overwhelming success of the one-day boycott, Montgomery's black citizens decided to continue the campaign, establishing the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to organize the effort and electing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the MIA's president.

Charles Moore's photograph of Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rev. Ralph David Abernathy at the Ebenezer Baptist Church during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Robinson chose not to accept an official MIA position for fear of jeopardizing her job at Alabama State, but she worked behind the scenes as a member of the MIA's executive board, wrote and edited the MIA weekly newsletter, and volunteered in the carpool system that helped African Americans get to and from work. In his memoir of the boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King said of Robinson, "Apparently indefatigable, she, perhaps more than any other person, was active on every level of the protest."

Despite Robinson's efforts to stay out of the limelight, she was among a group of boycott leaders arrested but never tried. She was also targeted with several acts of intimidation. One local police officer threw a stone through her window, and another poured acid on her car. Eventually, Alabama's governor ordered the state police to guard the homes of Robinson and other boycott leaders.

Walking by Charles Henry Alston. Walking recalls the bus boycotts in the 1950s and anticipated the civil rights marches of the 1960s. The work not only depicts the spirit and conviction of the civil rights protest, it also references the significant role of women and youth in the movement.

The boycott continued until December 20, 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated seating on buses unconstitutional.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was one of the first successful protest of segregation in the Deep South, inspiring other nonviolent civil rights protest. It also established Dr. King as a prominent national figure. Robinson was especially proud of the role that women played in boycott's success, saying:

Women's leadership was no less important to the development of the Montgomery Bus Boycott than was the male and minister-dominated leadership.

Jo Ann Robinson

In a 1976 interview, Robinson pointed out, "That boycott was not supported by a few people it was supported by 52,000 people."

After the boycott victory Robinson continued to teach at Alabama State until 1960, when she and other faculty supporters of student sit-ins at the college resigned. She went on to teach at Grambling College in Louisiana, then moved to Los Angeles, where she taught in the public school system until her retirement in 1976.

Her memoir, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, was published in 1987. In it she expressed her great pride in the boycott's success. She remained actively involved in her community and in local politics until her death in Los Angeles on August 29, 1992.

With the opening of the National American History and Culture, courageous African American women like Jo Ann Robinson are finally receiving the recognition they so richly deserve. I hope all take pride in helping bring the forgotten stories of unheralded African American heroes into the spotlight, elevating the African American experience to its rightful place at the center of our nation's history!

Joan Robinson and MIT

Roger Backhouse remarks in “MIT and the Other Cambridge” (History of Political Economy 46, supplement) that the capital theory controversy came to be seen by most of the economics profession as a waste of time. Joan Robinson's 1953 paper “The Production Function and the Theory of Capital” started the controversy. An abbreviated version, published in the second volume of her Collected Economic Papers, made clear that her critique came in two parts. The “constructive” part drew attention to the phenomena of reverse capital deepening and re-switching of techniques and attracted the interest of theorists at MIT and elsewhere. The “negative” part concerned the problem of getting into equilibrium and was, for Robinson, the essence of the controversy. A close reading of the literature shows not only that Robinson was never credited with an understanding of the Achilles' heel that plagues dynamic general equilibrium models, but also that the problem, though variously recognized, was essentially ignored. The suggestion that the capital theory controversy was a waste of time fails to recognize that Robinson had drawn attention to a fundamental unsolved problem in economic theory.

Joan Robinson's “Secret Document” A Passage from the Autobigraphy of an Analytical Economist

The Modern Archives, King's College, Cambridge University contain a carbon copy of a three-page single spaced manuscript with the title “A Passage From The Autobiography of an Analytical Economist” (RFK/16/2/134–139, hereinafter “Autobiography”). Joan Robinson's initials are typed at the end of the document, which is dated October 1932.

In October 1932, Heffer, the Cambridge University student bookstore, published Joan Robinson's methodological pamphlet, Economics is a Serious Subject , and she delivered the manuscript of The Economics of Imperfect Competition to Macmillan (Joan Robinson to Richard Kahn, October 30, 1932, RFK/13/90/1/19). The Autobiography was apparently drafted shortly after these two projects were completed. The typescript in Modern Archives, which seems to be the only extant copy, was not made until some months later. In a letter of March 2, 1933, Kahn suggested adding “a long section to your secret document if you can do so without spoiling it,” regretting that he had not asked her for a copy (RFK/13/90/1/162–67). She replied somewhat mysteriously, alluding to a superstitious reluctance to having it typed but admitting that eventually it would have to be done (March 23, 1933, RFK/13/90/1/205–208). Since the carbon copy refers to page 275 of her book, the Autobiography was not typed until she had seen the final set of page proofs, and perhaps not until the book had appeared.

Joan Robinson: The Prominent Woman in the History of Economics

One of the most influential women in economic history is Joan Robinson. She studied and promoted Keynesian theory throughout her extraordinary career and published multiple famous works that supported her innovative ideas on the topics in her field of economics. She is remembered today as one of the first great female economists with success in everything she attempted.

Joan Violet Maurice was born on October 31st of 1903 in Camberley, England, and died on August 5th in 1983 at age 79. Her father was a Major General in the British Army during WWI and apparently the two were quite close, he even lived with Joan and her husband in their house during his final years before his death. Throughout her educative life she studied at the University of Cambridge, where she met her husband, and fellow economist, Austin Robinson. She earned her degree in economics in 1925 at twenty-two years old, and soon after married Austin Robinson in 1926, changing her name to Joan Robinson. She went on to become a lecturer at Cambridge while being married to Robinson. She then entered the field of Monetary economics while still completing research and performing lectures on Keynesian theory.

Around the same time, she became a mother to two daughters, filling her world with even more responsibilities on top of focussing on the success and thriving of her career. In 1965 Robinson became a full-time professor at Girton college, teaching about monetary economics as well as supporting Keynesian theory economics. In the 1930’s Robinson shared her views and participated in the Cambridge debates, where she helped to further promote John Maynard Keynes’ economic theories and beliefs. In 1933 she published “The economics of Imperfect Competition” where she wrote about analyzing, distributing, and allocating along with the idea and concept of exploitation. Throughout her long career Robinson wrote and published multiple books and study guides structured to easily explain Keynes’ economic theory to people who don’t specialize in that field.

Within her many works she seemed to push the Keynesian theory model beyond its theoretical frame, opening up new ways of learning and thinking about the way we practice economics. The famous economist became the first woman to be named an honorary fellow of Kings College in 1979. As Joan Robinson grew older, she became more and more interested in China and the economics they had there, comparing it to the traditional economic style that she had known for the entirety of her career. she grew to admire Mao Tse-Tung’s China and Kim II Sung’s North Korea. She travelled to China on multiple occasions, and recorded all of her observations and notes in many books throughout the years, like China: An Economic Perspective in 1958, The Cultural Revolution in China in 1969, and Economic Management in China in 1975. Robinson also published other and more popular works known as The Accumulation of Capital in 1956, Economic Philosophy in 1963, and the Introduction to Modern Economics in 1973. Her books and articles were very well known and circulated rapidly throughout the economic community. They possibly inspired other economists to pursue newer and more innovative ways to practice their profession and left a mark on the economic community.

All of her many works and published books were considered quite innovative and significant within the world of Keynesian economics, and it was ultimately believed that Robinson should have won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1975 for all of her contributions towards the world of economics as a whole. She worked hard and tirelessly throughout her career and many people believed that she deserved proper recognition for her incredible efforts, but others did not agree. She ended up losing the Nobel Prize for Economics, ultimately for being a woman within her time period. She most definitely deserved the award, but unfortunately, not everyone believed that, and sadly for all the wrong reasons. She made many positive contributions to the world of economics, specifically within the realm of Keynes’ theories and her field of monetary economics a branch of economics that deals with framework and analyzing money as a currency and how money is seen as a convenience to the public good. She also invented the word “Monopsony” which defines a market situation in which there is just one buyer.

Joan Robinson spent most of her recorded adult life studying and working to improve the success of her career, but here are some interesting facts about the iconic economist!

After they were married, Joan and Austin Robinson spent their first two years as spouses in India where Austin tutored the Maharajah of Gwalior and Joan taught at a local school. Before Robinson passed away she was ill and in a coma for several months beforehand. Joan belonged to the “Cambridge Circus” which was just a name for a group of economists that supported John Maynard Keynes’ theories. She also facilitated a movement called “The Cambridge Capital Controversy” which attacked neoclassical views against the capital, saying it could be measured.

In conclusion, Joan Robinson was quite possibly one of the most famous and memorable female economists in history, and should be remembered as a great contributor to Keynes’ economic theory as well as a contributor to the world of economics in general. Although she was not properly honored with a Nobel Prize, she can be remembered and noticed as an innovative and influential woman of her time who helped to shape the style of economics that people study today.

Joan Violet Robinson

Robinson's first major book was The Economics of Imperfect Competition. In it she laid out a model of competition between firms, each of which had some monopoly power. Along with American economist Edward H. Chamberlin, whose Theory of Monopolistic Competition had appeared only a few months earlier, Robinson began what is known as the monopolistic competition revolution. Many economists believe that most industries are neither perfectly competitive nor complete monopolies. Robinson's and Chamberlin's books are what led them to that belief.

In her first book and with some early articles, Robinson showed a distinctive writing style. She was clear and analytic and managed to put complex mathematical concepts into words.

Later in the thirties Robinson became part of the "Cambridge Circus," a group of young economists that included later Nobel Prize-winner James Meade Roy Harrod Richard Kahn her husband, Austin Robinson and Piero Sraffa. These economists met regularly to discuss their work and especially to discuss Keynes's famous 1936 book The General Theory, both before and after it was published. Much of Robinson's own published work at the time, especially her Introduction to the Theory of Employment, clarified ideas that Keynes had not made clear. Robinson was the first to define macroeconomics, which became a separate field of inquiry only with Keynes's book, as the "theory of output as a whole."

In 1954 Robinson's article "The Production Function and the Theory of Capital" started what came to be called the Cambridge controversy. Robinson attacked the idea that capital can be measured and aggregated. This became the Cambridge, England, position. Across the Atlantic, Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow defended the by-then traditional neoclassical view that capital could be aggregated. Robinson won the battle. As historian Mark Blaug put it, Samuelson made a "declaration of unconditional surrender." Yet most economists still think that aggregating capital is useful and continue to do it anyway.

Whether or not Robinson's gender prevented her from winning the Nobel Prize, it seems to have slowed her advance in academia. She taught at Cambridge University from 1928 until retiring in 1971, but in spite of a very productive career, she did not become a full professor until 1965. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the year her husband retired from Cambridge.

The Accumulation of Capital. 1956.

The Cultural Revolution in China. 1970.

Economic Heresies: Some Old-fashioned Questions in Economic Theory. 1971.


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