H.E.R.O. Profile—Joan Robinson
Not Known Enough
A trailblazer, iconoclast, innovator, and disruptor in economic theory and academia, Joan Violet Robinson (nee Maurice) (1903-1983) would profoundly contribute to thought that remains iterated today. As a post-Keynesian and Cambridge Neoclassical economist, her realm of thinking was predicated heavily on the demand-side, emphasizing low taxes and high government expenditures to galvanize spending through incentive.
Leveraging her prestigious, private school education at St. Pauls’ Girls School and Cambridge University (1921-1925), her defining characteristic of relentlessly challenging the status quo through critical thinking provided her a spotlight and reputation in the male-dominated profession during periods of patriarchal dominance. During undergraduate studies, Marshallian orthodoxical thought was widely indoctrinated across Cambridge academia, which laid the groundwork for Joan’s foundational economic knowledge. Robinson “graduated” (without collecting a diploma due to gender norms) and adventured with her newly-wed husband Austin Robinson to India, where she was permitted by locals to investigate markets, educate local schools, and serve on Anglo-Indian economic relations committees.
Great Depression and Theory
Upon returning to Cambridge (1928), however, Robinson’s career drastically changed in response to a contemporary critique of Marshall’s model of perfect competition alongside the global disruption of the Great Depression, which would both significantly influence her future works and faithfulness to Keynesian’s work. The Marshallian self-functioning, self-managed, economic system had numerous implications which would be the thoughts that Robinson would use to dismantle perfect competition (firms would rise until Diminishing Marginal Returns, in which other firms with lower operating costs would enter market); supply and demand determining price; and a modeled response to unemployment (cut wages to spur the production level of activity). Her and Keynes would tackle these theories – even briefly formulating the “Cambridge Circus” where both Robinsons, Kahn, Straffa, and Meade would critique Keynes’s famous “General Theory” – with the pioneering of imperfect competition as well as an economical response to the Great Depression. Upending Marshal’s intuitive, mainstream, ‘natural-looking’, beautifully symmetrical model of naturally derived equilibriums from supply and demand through her theories of imperfect competition and a new MR=MC equilibrium would jump-start her professional career. Her recognition within her university, however, stagnated, as it took significantly longer than necessary for Robinson to climb the professor hierarchy, which mainly can be attributed to gender norms of the time.
Robinson ideologies acted more philosophically than economically, as many mainstream economic metrics – such as GDP, price index, econometrics – would not be recognized or heavily practiced due to technological limitations. Additionally, Robinson’s advocacy for anti-mathematization of economics fueled her work and thinking. Her methodology for producing her remarkable theories revolves around a more observational, analytical, and critical-thinking lens as opposed to data, algorithmic, or math driven models seen in contemporary times.
Extraordinarily, her thought still remains echoed today, with modern empirical literature asserting that corporations operating as monopsonies in the labor market have suppressed wages, indicating that imperfect competition is relevant and real. For example, her innovation of “monopsony” particularly rings loud in US government today, as legislators and court hearings use Robinson’s word (monopsony) for anti-trust cases surrounding Apple and Amazon, illustrating how their labor market power depresses wages. Existing during a period of mass globalization, industrialization, and productivity, yet without the technological advancements made possible by computers, Robinson’s theories provide insight to the most advanced, substantiated economic thought in the pre-technological boom age.
All-in-all, Robinson’s robust and extensive contributions to Cambridge Neoclassical thought and the Keynesian economic revolution are arguably deserving of a Nobel Prize. Even looking at a modern-day introductory economics curriculum, concepts like monopsony and imperfect competition – along with her contributions to Keynesian’s plethora of ideas – are still prevalent and taught as foundational knowledge. Her courage to divert from status quo of economics while facing gendered institutional setbacks within academia has long been underappreciated and uncredited. Understanding Robinson’s work provides deeper insight into the pre-technological, theoretical side of economics and a more intricate comprehension of the origins of Keynes’s movement – which is widely popular in academic and political economics today.
Punt, Anefo. “Economic Congers in VU, Joan Robinson , JG Knol and Andrew Glyer.” Nationaal Archief, 9 May 1973, https://www.nationaalarchief.nl/onderzoeken/fotocollectie/ac2bddce-d0b4-102d-bcf8-003048976d84. Accessed 8 Apr. 2022.
Fonseca, Gonçalo. “HET: Cambridge Keynesians.” The History of Economic Thought, Institute for New Economic Thinking, hetwebsite.net/het/schools/cambridge.htm. Accessed 8 Apr. 2022.
Fonseca, Gonçalo. “Cambridge Neoclassicals.” The History of Economic Thought, Institute for New Economic Thinking, hetwebsite.net/het/schools/english.htm. Accessed 8 Apr. 2022.
Fonseca, Gonçalo. “HET: Joan Robinson.” The History of Economic Thought, The Institute for New Economic Thinking, hetwebsite.net/het/profiles/robinson.htm. Accessed 8 Apr. 2022.
“Girton150 Festival: Joan Robinson: Iconoclast.” YouTube, uploaded by Girton College, University of Cambridge, 5 Nov. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=9WhU1wxVHPo&t=771s.
Carter, Zachary. “Opinion | The Woman Who Shattered the Myth of the Free Market.” The New York Times, 26 Apr. 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/04/24/opinion/joan-robinson-economy-monopoly-labor.html.