Joan Robinson

The Voice in the Wilderness


            Simon and Garfunkle never said hello to this Mrs. Robinson, who had been known by that name to economists long before a notorious Mrs. Robinson appeared on film in 1967.  Instead this academic writer stands out as the most notorious and least excusable of all cases of the Nobel exclusion policy in economic science.  Her heretical greatness rather than her gender seems to have been the reason for the Swedish refusal to recognize her worth, in spite of numerous nominations for that honor and even once making it to the “short list.”[i]  Mrs. Robinson. a major Twentieth Century economist, cast a brilliant light upon Keynes[1], Kalecki, Marx, Sraffa, and the dark underbelly of neoclassicism.  No other example has so dishonored, discredited, and politicized the Nobel Prize than has the loutish attitude its suppliers maintained toward Joan Robinson.  It illustrates perfectly the invidious nature of this particular award, quite aside from the vanity of knighthoods generally.[ii]  Late in the century even a flash of mathematical insight by an orthodox economist could win the Nobel award.  Arguably, these were innocuous immortal marginalia of the kind that the universal genius, Anonymous, gave us in 1662.  An unknown person made the first that I can find of distinct probability measurement along the modern 0 to 1 interval.[iii]  Certainly, the Nobel economists’ mathematical insights did not light up the landscape as did, say, Abel’s proof[iv] or the Riemann hypothesis[v] or Gödel’s theorem[vi], those lightening strikes worth a kingdom.  Instead, in Stockholm, a little of the right kind of puzzle-solving had become worth more than a lifetime of major contribution along the “wrong” line.

            She refused to suffer fools gladly.  Her polemical rudeness, perhaps picked up from persistently reading the vitriolic Marx, generated enemies among the presumptive elite, though a similar incivility seems not to have handicapped Milton Friedman.  At any rate, what does that have to do with a prize supposedly based on scientific merit?  Her exclusion virtually defines the nature of the Nobel Committee during her lifetime, i.e., a familiar historical example of the airless academy that recognizes only front-door geniuses and misses the other kind by locking the windows.  Paul Samuelson, directly familiar with Robinson’s early prestige and with the starring role she had played for some thirty-five years from the 1930s forward, expressed surprise that she was never honored.  A certain parallel occurred in the Nobel in physics when Fred Hoyle was overlooked in the prize that went to William Fowler in 1983 for his work in the nucleosynthesis in stars, a discovery that Hoyle had pioneered in 1946.  Hoyle was a maverick, still championing in 1983 the presumably discredited steady-state universe.  The establishment’s prize-givers dislike mavericks.  One may agree with Milton Friedman’s implication that politics, not gender, explained the neglect of Robinson.[2]  Perhaps the Nobel Committee dreaded the appearance of Mrs. Robinson at the ceremony, where she doubtless would have given the profession holy hell.  In a deeper sense than sex discrimination, Mrs. Robinson was just not one of the boys. 

We first find her at the center of the groundwork that lead to the Keynesian epiphany.  The Keynesian revolution was an aggregate effort emerging from the so-called Cambridge Circus that included, Austin Robinson (her husband), along with Richard Kahn, James Meade, and Piero Sraffa.  In fact, the discussions by the Circus that took up Keynes’ Treatise on Money “…was the beginnings of The General Theory which was just taking form.  What we now know as the Keynesian revolution must thus be considered a collective effort in which Joan Robinson played an important role.”[vii]  The intellectual historian Mark Blaug agrees with this assessment.[viii]  Further, the so-called Robinson-Chamberlin debate of the 1930s was virtually a textbook event that accompanied her pioneering reconnaissance into imperfect competition. While Robinson rejected her early foray into the profession’s standard scholasticism, the Nobel Committee should have had no such liberty.  After all, it was the kind of thing they have primarily rewarded.

Her studies in Marxism were widely known and respected.  Further, it was she who initiated in an early 1950s paper[ix] the Two Cambridges controversy of that decade.  Of course, orthodoxy would hold that against her.  Mark Blaug, who was always quite orthodox himself, thinks that her 1942 book of essays on Marx “remains to this day one of the best books ever written on Marxian economics.”[x] Those essays, reflecting the influence of Kalecki on Robinson, were directed critically toward orthodoxies of both the neoclassical and Marxian genus. She offended both and changed neither.  In it, however, the true Robinson had arrived on the scene.  Finally, she was a major critic of the orthodox methodology associated with neoclassical theory. Recall that she even renounced her own classic, The Economics of Imperfect Competition (1933), for its neoclassical method.

All these instances were widely attended across the profession, usually with controversy and open hostility toward and from Mrs. Robinson.  While her status as a major economist had been secured by her work prior to World War Two, her reputation declined among mainstream economists as her sharp opinions of the profession’s principal line of development marked her as a gadfly.  Had her later publications meekly followed the neoclassical synthesis that trivialized Keynes, and had she expressed her writings in the usual scholastic format, she almost surely would have gone to Stockholm.  She would not, however, have gone as the Joan Robinson that intellectual history will now remember.  Her greatest importance lies in her unorthodox vision and in her writings after 1940.  You would not know this from consulting the wooden histories of economic thought typical of the undergraduate texts.  There she is remembered for the marginal revenue curve and other dry bones from her first and least important book.

Her most significant later work centered on the theory of economic growth, epitomized in her signal publication, The Accumulation of Capital (1956) and further elaborated in a 1962 book of essays on the subject of growth.  In her heavy emphasis on the social context of entrepreneurial decisions to invest, Robinson offered an historically based alternative to the neoclassical models of double-arrowed time, the kind that runs both backward and forward.  Perhaps her greatest achievement was the working out of a consistent left Keynesianism as an alternative to the reduction of Keynes to so much fiddling with the tax rates.

I met her only once toward the end of her life when she visited the campus where I was teaching.  She had crossed the Atlantic to deliver a paper at a conference in Montreal and was staying with a couple of friends in Plattsburgh, New York.  She graciously met students and faculty in small groups but was corralled against her will onto a panel before a large audience.  Given her strong personality, here was a mean feat that was no mean feat.  She expressed her displeasure by becoming monosyllabic during the show.  A member of the audience asked her to explain the difference between Keynes and Post-Keynesians.  Her entire response was, “Keynes was a man.”  As the meeting was breaking up, a student sidled up to me and said, “What a marvelous affair in honor of Mrs. Robinson!  Too bad she couldn’t be here.”  For several years a photograph of that panel with the grim looking Mrs. Robinson was in a display case I had to pass in a hallway.  It was a source of enduring humor in my academic rounds.

            Robinson was the most audacious economist of her time.  She loved economics with a rare passion, thought and wrote about it incessantly, and was simply fearless toward the great and the presumed great of the profession.  While her hopes were far bigger than her influence, she nevertheless was probably the most influential economist off the beaten path, i.e., well away from the pseudo physics.  She was a Keynesian of a far different sort than Americans such as Samuelson.  She had been close to the Keynesian fountainhead.  She understood the necessity of staying within historical time rather than the double-arrowed “logical time” that allows the future to be remembered.  Without demeaning its usefulness, she had little faith in mathematics as the key to understanding economics.  For her, the action was in the real-world economy, its institutional and political milieu.  Economic abstractions were meaningful only to the extent that they were guides for policy (or steps on the way to such guides).  That is why she was Keynesian, and later a devotee of the Polish Keynes, Michael Kalecki (pronounced Kal-es/-ki).  She thought that Kalecki’s independent work, in spite of its thick formalism, a superior articulation of the Keynesian vision.  In my conversations with her, she spoke glowingly of the man.  In publications reflecting upon the subject of Mao and Kim-Sung (the Chinese and North Korean despots), Mrs. Robinson had a screw loose, mistaking their madness as somehow divine.  She got Marx straight, however, and made the best that was in him a part of her own mind.

In her scholastic phase, she had participated in a lively and famous 1930’s debate with Ed Chamberlin concerning imperfect competition.  It was the first serious advance in the understanding of this subject in the hundred years since Cournot.  While she pioneered marginal revenue functions widely used in textbooks (even today), she would largely renounce that early labor as her mind developed beyond it.  The Post-Keynesian movement at Cambridge rose in good part out of her work.  She is remembered as a critical participant in the debate over the standard capital concept that rocked the pseudo-physics community in the 1960’s.  We may safely leave her alleged greatness for the next century to decide, for she was, unless I am mistaken, far above her contemporary judges.[xi] 

            Some of the later Nobel Prizes have gone to relatively minor figures whose work was at best marginal in comparison to the Robinson œuvre.  We have already noted an intellectual historian’s puzzled shrug concerning the triviality and irrelevance he perceived in many an economist’s visit to Sweden compared to the other scientific categories.[xii]  This marginality has become common to the extent that some have thought that the prize in economics cannot meaningfully be given annually, a reflection even among those who, in the first place, actually believe in the prize.    In the meantime, The Economist has suggested that a prize for business might better fit the presumed service to mankind expected of a Nobel Laureate.[xiii]  By the end of the century, the “no award given” notation seemed overdue, and the talk in the Nobel Committee was of expanding the economics prize to cover all social science.[xiv]  Once can only hope that the pseudo-physics disease is not thereby spread further.



[1] In connection with Robinson’s participation in the formation of Keynesian thought, see her paper, “The Theory of Money and the Analysis of Output,” Review of Economic Studies, 1, pp. 22-6 (1933).

[2] If Mrs. Robinson was passed over because of politics, it is hard to make the case for gender bias in the selection of Nobelists in economics during the late 20th Century.  Still, for so long women had to run the gauntlet to enter the profession in the first place.  Women have done well in the literature Nobels.  For the prizes in hard physical science, one should at least consider the charge of bias in the past.  Another questionable example is the celebrated case of the Cambridge graduate assistant Jocelyn Bell, who made the first observations of pulsars but did not share in the 1974 Nobel Prize that went to two of her superiors for that discovery.  See Science 304 (5670). 23 April 2004, p. 489, for Bell’s considered opinion on the matter thirty years later.

[i] See , Rima, Ingrid H.,  The Joan Robinson Legacy, M. E. Sharpe, Inc., Armonk, NY, 1993, p.242.

According to Margaret S. Turner, “Joan Robinson was regularly nominated for the Nobel Prize and at least one year she was on what is called the short list of contenders.”

[ii] In the 1980s, Alan Bullock and R.B. Woodings list her as a matter of course among the 32 top economic theoreticians of the Twentieth Century.  See Bullock, Alan, & R. B. Woodings, (editors), 20th Century Culture, A Biographical Companion, Harper & Row, New York, 1983, p.860..

[iii]  “Anonymous” was probably Antoine Arnauld, a theological eminence, in a book on logic emanating from the monastery at Port Royal.  (See Bernstein, Peter L.,  Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, Wiley and Sons, New York, 1996, p. 70.)  The anonymous idea of measuring probability was a notion for which the time had come.  In the same year (1662) John Graunt’s little book on sampling and inference therefrom came out in England.  Graunt, a notions merchant, published records of births and deaths in London from 1604 to 1661 and wrote an interpretive commentary involving inference from sampling.  The book is entitled Natural and Political Observations made upon the Bills of Mortality.  That universal and polyglot genius, Anonymous, showed up again in those days with the pamphlet “England’s Great Happiness,” defending the idea of economic growth through foreign trade, albeit in his (doubtless his) role of toady to the current king.  Still, economic growth through foreign trade was a new and prescient idea.  Further demographic inferences would, as the century waned, come from the likes of the astronomer Haley and the mathematician Leibnitz  The age of social calculations had dawned.

[iv] Regarding a deep question of unsolvability.  Peter Pesic’s Abel’s Proof (MIT press, 2003) offers a couple hundred pages of delightful and insightful entertainment on this subject area.

[v] Regarding the distribution of prime numbers.  Of the several works for broad audiences, I would recommend John Debyshire’s Prime Obsession (Joseph Henry Press, Washington DC, 2003).

[vi] Regarding propositions that cannot be decided in mathematics.  The non-mathematician, such as the author of this essay, can do well with Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman.  Their “classic”, entitled simply Gödel’s Proof put out in 2001, is pleasantly familiar to me.  Torkel Franzen (Godel’s Theorem, A.K. Peters, Wellesley MA, 2005) has written a lucid non-technical account.  Even the R. B. Braithwaite introduction to the Godel paper as published in English translation in 1962 can be helpful.  It is available in Dover editions from 1992 forward as Kurt Godel, On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems.   

[vii] Beaud, Michel & Gilles Dosteler,  Economic Thought Since Keynes, A History and Dictionary of Major Economists, Routledge, New York, 1997,p. 328.  Originally, La pensee economique depuis Keynes:  Historique. Seuil, Paris, 1993.

[viii] Mark Blaug, Great Economists Since Keynes, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1985), page 208.

[ix] Joan Robinson, “The Production Function and the Theory of Capital,” Review of Economic Studies, 21, pp. 81-106 (1953-4).

[x] Mark Blaug, op cit, p 208.

[xi] Eclipses of this sort happen often in retrospectives of scientists, philosophers, artists, etc..  Sometimes such eclipses are permanent and deserved, at other times, less so or not at all, perhaps moving in cycles.  As examples of undeserved demotions, one thinks of Bernard Shaw, Johannes Brahms, Albert Einstein,  Maynard Keynes, and in literature the once and future great American writer, Thomas Wolfe. 

[xii] Feldman (2000), Feldman, Burton, 2000.  The Nobel Prize, A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige, Arcade Publishing, New York,  pp. 352-325.

[xiii] The Economist, 15 October 1994, page 16.

[xiv] Science, 298 (5593), 18 October 2002, page 528.