Obituary: Josef Steindl
Saturday 27 March 1993
THOUGH trained initially in the liberal Austrian tradition, the eminent Austrian-born economist Josef Steindl described his economics as 'the product of England and Kalecki'.
Steindl was born in Vienna in 1912 and became an economist because his preference for becoming a biologist 'would have taken too much time'. He had an apolitical upbringing and no links to left-wing movements. Nevertheless he absorbed well the maxim of his first teacher, Richard Strigl, a pupil of Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk, that the discussion of policy depended first upon understanding how economies work.
Steindl worked from 1935 to 1938 at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO), the research institute started by Ludwig Von Mises. After the German occupation of Austria, Steindl lost his job because of his hostility to the regime. Through the offices of Friedrich von Hayek and other Austrian liberals abroad Steindl came to the United Kingdom, first to a lecturing post at Balliol College, Oxford (1938-41), then as a research worker at the Oxford Institute of Statistics; he was one of the remarkable group of European exiles from Fascism then on its staff. They were inspired by their colleague Michal Kalecki, the Polish Marxist economist who independently had discovered the principal propositions of Keynes's general theory in the 1930s. Thereafter Kalecki was Steindl's role-model; indeed, his own work resembles Kalecki's in style, substance and depth more than any other economist of his generation.
In 1950 Steindl returned to Austria. Evidently, for ideological reasons, he could not get a job at the University of Vienna, so he returned to his job at WIFO, retiring in 1978 but remaining actively associated as a consultant with the institute until his death. Last May saw a splendid conference under WIFO's auspices to celebrate Steindl's 80th birthday. In 1970 he was made an Honorary Professor of the University of Vienna and in 1974-75 he was a visiting professor at Stanford University in California.
In the 1980s Steindl was a regular lecturer at the international summer school held at Trieste in August. This allowed younger scholars from all over the world to get to know him personally. At Trieste Steindl formed particularly close friendships with Amit Bhaduri, with whom he collaborated on several papers when Bhaduri spent some time in Vienna, and with the late Krishna Bharadwaj.
Steindl published two books, Small and Big Business; economic problems of the size of firms (1945) and Maturity and Stagnation in American Capitals (1952), both of which are recognised as classics in the literature. In 1990 Macmillan published a volume of his essays of the past 40 years. Steindl's work was marked by austere clarity, precise analysis, thorough and intelligent use of data, a feel for the role of institutions and of historical, political and sociological factors. Most of all, he could sense and set out the overall, systemic irrationalities of what was on the face of it sensible or at least necessary behaviour by the individuals and/or groups that make up the body economic and politic.
In Small and Big Businesses he explained the simultaneous presence of small and big firms in industries by the access which small firms have to niche markets for their products and the segregated markets for their labour; big firms are able to exploit scales of production and of investment which are denied to their smaller rivals, not least by financial limitations, and which allow the big ones permanently to receive monopoly rents. In Maturity and Stagnation he set out the deep-seated sources of systemic stagnation in advanced oligopolistic industrial societies, especially the United States, which derived from the strategic need for individual oligopolists to create excess capacity. The outcome is a long-term tendency for overall investment spending cumulatively to decline.
Josef Steindl was an unassuming, rather solitary person who hated careerism and ruthless ambition. In his work he explicitly identified heroes, villains, and victims - and said so. Like his mentor Kalecki, he had a deliciously dry sense of humour. He wanted his discipline to wipe out unemployment and poverty, so that others could, if they wished, have the opportunity to do what he himself loved so much to do - walk in the mountains, listen to music and enjoy the company of close friends who shared his decent humane values - with a smile.
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