Joan Robinson

Honored by:Elizabeth Hoffman & College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Brick location:G:17  map

A Reminiscence of Joan Robinson
by Alvin L. Marty

Joan V. Robinson was my tutor at Cambridge for the two-year period 1949-1951. This circumstance came about as follows: I was awarded the Ehrman Studentship to Kings College. Cambridge, at that time, was a renowned center for economics. On hand were a roster of luminaries: R. F. Kahn who was the bursar of Kings, Nicky Kaldor who conducted an informal seminar on capital theory for visiting economists, Piero Sraffa, D. H. Robertson, Harry Johnson (then a slim Canadian ex-army officer), and Joan Robinson. Unfortunately, Keynes had died a few years earlier, so I was not to meet that formidable presence. However, Mrs. Keynes, Lydia Lopokova, was in evidence and could be seen lunching with Richard Kahn, calling him "Dickie" in a cajoling but affectionate tone.

I was given rooms on the top (third) floor of A. Wilkins building and, in consideration of my California origin, the sparsely furnished bedroom was provided with an electric heater. Directly below me were rooms occupied by the gentle, mole-like E. M. Forster, who was then working on the libretto for the Britten opera "Billy Budd." Below Morgan Forster, on the first floor, resided the economist, A. C. Pigou, about whom the story was told, perhaps apocryphal, that when it was proposed to install bathtubs for the undergraduates (at that time Kings was all male), Pigou objected. "But they are only here for three months at a time." The tubs were installed.

I was assigned Mrs. Robinson as my tutor. Every Friday evening I slipped an essay under the door of her home at 67 Grange Road and the next day at 10 a.m., I was received by her in a small study.

Mrs. R. would sit on a hassock, smoking with a long cigarette holder (it appeared to me to be very long), wearing a peignoir, her greying hair pulled into a tight bun in the back, her intelligent eyes set in an expansive brow, focused on me. The scene bore a vague resemblance to Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein: the same heavy solidity and presence. But there the resemblance ended. Mrs. R., if not quite a dish, was certainly comely. And the difference between her and Stein was made more evident by a pen sketch which sat on a small table, next to the hassock of a woman, stark naked, sitting on a hassock, her hands covering her face.

That first session, we discussed Hick's theory of the business cycle. I was prepared to discuss the difference between Hicks, and/ for example, Kondratieff or Speitoff. Mrs. Robinson would have none of it. She impaled me with a question, "And what do you (the emphasis on you) think causes the business cycle?" I mumbled something about technical innovations and waves of optimism and pessimism and fell into a sullen silence.

Mrs. R. was a first-rate tutor. When I wrote "investment," she inserted the word "the rate of" directing my attention to the dimensionality. She was willing to nail you to the wall and I couldn't wait to get back at her. My chance came when, at a lecture, she spoke of the marginal propensity to import. She should have said the income elasticity of demand for imports. At my next tutorial, I pointed this out. She focused those intelligent eyes on me and replied nonplussed "quite right." In her next class, she noted that in her last lecture she had made a "misprint." So much for my minor triumph!

Mrs. R. disliked Americans, American foreign policy, and "American" economists. Only two American economists were worth their salt (by which she meant worthy of comparison with her English compatriots) -- Paul Samuelson and Joseph Schumpeter (Schumpeter was an Austrian emigree who taught at Harvard). The rest of the herd were dust. And even Paul sometimes went off the deep end. In England she had a somewhat grudging respect for Hicks, an open admiration for Roy Harrod whom she called "a genius type," and liked Ralph Turvey whom she wanted to entice to Cambridge from L.S.E. (London School of Economics). At Cambridge, she worked hand in glove with R. F. Kahn. I once saw her emerging from his rooms at Kings at 2 a.m. -- a pencil and notebook in her hands. Although some economists now cannot abide Mrs. R.'s lack of mathematics (the use of which would, in fact, have made her verbal proofs easier to follow), it should be pointed out that her proofs were scrutinized by Kahn, who was trained in physics and was a competent mathematician. Indeed, many of the proofs were Kahn's, as Mrs. R. acknowledged. Her avoidance of mathematics bordered on affectation. However, it had the advantage of highlighting that economics is about people. To use Mrs. R.'s phrase "don't forget the mental juice" -- (a real person picks up the phone at the Fed. and buys bonds). And anyone who dismisses Mrs. R. as intellectually inadequate should be directed to her remarkable test, Exercises in Economic Analysis, a work of unsurpassable brilliance.

Mrs. R did have her blind spots. I once asked her what determines prices and she responded “money wages.” What then determines money wages? She replied, “unions.” And that was that. Of course, this was unsatisfactory. But anyone who insisted on this would run the risk of being called by her, a “bastard Keynesian” (one of her labels) or simply a fool. Joan Robinson was too tough a bird to swallow the General Theory whole, but the epigone of Keynes quoted the General Theory as though it were bible, agonizing over its more obscure passages, spending a lifetime in disputations over what Keynes really meant- necrophiliacs pecking at the entrails of the General Theory.

A word about Mrs. R’s written style. Her prose was lucid, direct and pithy. After setting forth someone’s argument, she would use a favorite expression “What is this meant to teach us?” In her review of Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy she wrote... “his argument blows like a gale through the pedantry of static analysis.” And she concludes, “But no matter whether it convinces or not, this book is worth the whole parrot house of contemporary orthodoxies, right, left or center.”

Although she disliked Americans, Mrs. R. had a soft spot for her Italia, Asian and Indian students. Perhaps this was because they were more likely to be socialists than were Americans, and Mrs. R. was, in the tradition of British upper class intellectuals, a socialist. It would have been of interest to hear her comments on the demise of the socialist experiment in the Soviet Union.

Mrs. Robinson only became Professor Robinson in 1965. The reason for this delay is not clear. A contributory factor may have been the Oxbridge tradition. Each department had a limited number of Professorships and a chair was already occupied by her husband, E.A.G. Robinson. In an earlier period, the tradition was that each department had one Professor. In Cambridge, when  Alfred Marshall retired as the Professor, his chair, called in his honor, the Marshall chair, went to A.C. Pigou, and then to D. H. Robertson. At Oxford, Roy Harrod never became a Professor. A Chair was given to Sir Hubert Henderson, which much rankled Harrod who was more distinguished. Later things loosened up (at Cambridge, in part, because of E.A.G. Robinson's retirement), more professorships became available and along with Mrs. R., Kahn and Kaldor became Professors.

Why then did Joan Robinson, who belonged to the small group of internationally distinguished economists and has remained the preeminent women economist of the 20th century, not win the Nobel Prize? I suspect that a number of factors were involved.

Mrs. R. did not suffer fools gladly. And for her the majority of the economics profession fell into the category of fools. Her manner was abrupt to the pint of acidity and she was quite capable of carrying on a vendetta against those she disliked. At one point in his career, gentle Dennis Robertson gave up his chair at Cambridge and fled to a Professorship at L.S.E. so hounded did he feel by Mrs. R. and Kahn. When he returned to Cambridge, Robertson couldn’t bring himself to speak to her. At the Marshall Society seminar, Mrs. R. would turn to him, address him as Dennis and put a question to him. Robertson never looked at her directly and responded by addressing Piero Sraffa. Mrs. R. made a lot of enemies and that doesn’t help matters in the politics of winning a Nobel Prize

And of course there was the fact of her being a woman, which may have cut both ways. On the liability side was the attitude towards women as highlighted by the treatment of the well-known economist Mary Paley Marshall, who coauthored with her husband, Alfred Marshall, The Economic of Industry. Alfred Marshall, voted against the motion to allow the few women at Cambridge to take the tripos exam in economics and thereby qualify for a degree in economics. Mary Marshall never did get her degree in economics. Given the vestigial remnants for this attitude, it must have been hard to swallow an outspoken female who could cut most meale economists down to a very small size. And Mrs. R. did cut off as many heads as the Red Queen in Wonderland. Let me give an instance of this. In the 60’s, Mrs. R. visited the University fo Chicago, a tough place with no quarter given at seminars. At that time, Mrs. R. looked rather like a frail grandmother and the graduate students were like sharks who smelled blood. They attacked, the gentle grandma responded and the seminar room was littered with the decapitated heads of Chicago graduate students. 

And there was the ideological factor. Mrs. R. was a socialist, and a militant one. She was dismissive of people with different values and was supportive of young economists of the same persuasion. These were not necessarily economists of the highest ability. The appointments to Cambridge made by Robinson and Kahn near their retirement shared their social values and were not, in my opinion, made solely on the basis of merit. Despite the presence of some outstanding economists, Cambridge today has lost its preeminence. The effect Mrs. Robinson’s politics had on the Nobel committee is a matter of conjecture.

Joan Violet Robinson (1903-1983) was the daughter of Brigadier General Maurice who left the British Army in dispute with the authorizes on a matter of principle. (Disputatious unorthodozy was part of Mrs. R.’s inheritance.) Her mother was Helen Marsh whose faher was a Professor of Surgery and the Master of Downing College, Cambridge. Mrs. R. was married in 1926 to E.A.G. Robinson whose field was Industrial Organization. They had two daughters.

I last saw J. Robinson in the early seventies at an economics convention in New Orleans, U.S.A., where she was a keynot speaker. She was standing alone in a secluded corner of a hotel lobby. I approached and asked if I could do anything for her. “Oh no,” she replied, “I am awaiting an assignation”.

Submitted on 4/19/95