Obituary: Sir Austin Robinson
Saturday 05 June 1993
To the discerning, Austin Robinson was the unsung hero of Cambridge economics. Through selfless service, often as secretary, sometimes as chairman of the Faculty Board of Economics and Politics, before and after the Second World War, Robinson, more than anyone else, enabled the various opposing factions of the faculty to coexist, and its intellectual life thereby to thrive.
He was the guiding spirit behind the creation in the 1960s of the building which now bears his name; it was christened so at his 90th-birthday party in the faculty coffee room, at which he gave a typically eloquent account of his supervisions by CR Fay, who was 'full of enthusiasms and excitements (but) completely innocent of any real understanding of Marshallian economics', and by Gerald Shove and Dennis Robertson. Most of all, he contributed, unobtrusively but profoundly, to the various revolutions in economic thinking that occurred in Cambridge and the profession generally. He himself thought that the 1930s were the most 'creative period' in which to be an economist. For it was then, he argued, that the 'revolutions' in value theory, welfare economics, employment theory and the quantification of economics occurred.
Both in the 1930s, when he had two spells working on Africa, including a visit to Northern Rhodesia, and during the Second World War, when he held posts in the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Production and the Board of Trade, Robinson proved himself to be an able civil servant. He combined hard work with attention to detail and a clear understanding of what the problems were and what their feasible solutions could be. He made important contributions to manpower planning and to an understanding of the structural changes that would need to be made in order that the United Kingdom could export enough to cover its imports after the war. Had he wished, he could have been a permanent civil servant. But, despite Sir Stafford Cripps's efforts to secure this, winkling him away from Cambridge on two occasions - a year in London helping draft the Economic Survey for 1948 and the Economic Survey for 1948-52, six months in Paris with the OEEC ensuring that the Marshall Plan would go through - Robinson decided to return to academic life. He had had no family life for seven years and he 'knew (he) was not tough enough to carry on indefinitely under the pressure that (he) had worked during the (war) years'.
He certainly fooled us all; even allowing for his long life, the breadth and depth of his subsequent, indeed all his contributions are remarkable. He was assistant editor and then joint editor of the Economic Journal for 36 years and Secretary of the Royal Economic Society for 25 years; treasurer of the International Economic Association for nine years and its president for three years. Many of the volumes of the latter's conferences are edited or jointly edited by Robinson. He was associated with the National Institute for Economics and Social Research; he carried a full lecturing load at Cambridge (at his lectures in the 1950s I first learnt to call Britain 'this country'). In the 1920s and 1930s when he became a Fellow, first of Corpus Christi and then of Sydney Sussex, he had many supervision pupils, as well as two years (1926-28) tutoring the young Maharajah of Gwalior when, soon after they married, Austin and Joan Robinson went to India.
Austin Robinson was the 'son of an impecunious parson'. Scholarships took him to Marlborough and then Christ's College, Cambridge, to read Classics. But first (this was 1916) there was service in the Royal Naval Air Service, followed by testing and delivering new flying boats. This period was to remain an extremely significant episode in his life, about which he was writing in the month before he died. After the war he came up to Cambridge, not an orthodox pacifist yet a member of that generation of returned service people 'naive (perhaps but) sincere' who were determined to see that war was never again used to settle differences between nations. Though he obtained a First in Classics after 15 months, his wartime experiences together with Keynes's lectures on The Economic Consequences of the Peace - 'a revelation' - determined him to become an economist. He wanted to understand how economies function, or malfunction, and what could be done about this. All his writings reflect this noble motivation.
He wrote two books in the 1930s, The Structure of Competitive Industry (1931) and Monopoly (1941); both were in the Cambridge Economic Handbook series and both are now regarded as classics (Dennis Robertson asked him to write the second: the first grew out of his preparations). Naturally he and his first book were important influences on Joan Robinson when she wrote The Economics of Imperfect Competition (1933). Austin Robinson's 'very bright' pupil Charles Gifford introduced Joan and Richard Kahn to the book's central concept which Austin himself named 'marginal revenue'. Joan Robinson also reported that an 'ingenious' scheme to make monopolists behave 'was first suggested by Mr Robinson in an answer written in an examination'.
Robinson was a member of the Cambridge 'circus' which, he argued, was an important irritant which helped Keynes to make his major pearl, The General Theory (1936), as he moved on from A Treatise on Money (1930). Robinson was Keynes's close and trusty colleague for many years. His devoted and arduous role in editing (with Elizabeth Johnson and then Donald Moggridge) the 34 volumes of Keynes's Collected Writings has ensured that Keynes's own legacy to future generations is secure. A serious limitation of the subsequent development of Keynesian thought at Cambridge after Keynes's death in 1946 was that Robinson's stress on the need to understand, empirically and theoretically, the behaviour of firms, industries and regions as well as the overall workings of the economy did not receive anywhere near enough attention.
Partly because of his early Indian experience and his work on Africa, a considerable proportion of his published work is concerned with the practicalities of economic development. Ever the pragmatic interventionist, he had no time for the niceties of pure theory or the misleading philosophy that maintains that only freely competitive markets can bring about socially desirable outcomes in either developing or developed economies. His 'fierce arguments' in supervisions with Fay taught Robinson first to identify the problem, then to combine theory and empirical understanding in order to frame down-to- earth policy suggestions, which in turn were as careful to take in political constraints as they were to exploit a deep understanding of the economic processes themselves. Sir Alec Cairncross's chapter on 'Austin the Economist' in his forthcoming biography of Austin Robinson will be required reading for anyone aspiring to be, what his subject was par excellence, an applied political economist.
To the end of his life, though ultimately physically frail, Robinson remained mentally vigorous and alert. During the recent scare about French cheese, he was asked at lunch in Sidney Sussex by a Fellow in his late eighties whether they should eat it. Robinson said: 'It is only dangerous for pregnant women and old people - and we do not belong to either category.' Some of his best papers were written in his late eighties and early nineties, especially his superb autobiographical essay 'My Apprenticeship as an Economist'. His 1947 obituary of Keynes in the Economic Journal is probably his best article: lucid and balanced, subtle, perceptive and affectionate, its judgements will stand the test of time and its prose is worthy of Keynes's own.
Austin Robinson was a polite and courteous person, certainly a workaholic yet proud and mindful of his family and friends as well as of his country, faculty and college. He could be stubborn and imperious, but his kindly concern for particular individuals and his devotion to the underprivileged of all manner of societies aptly fulfilled his early hope that while 'not a crusading Christian . . . he (would) retain the essentials of . . . Christianity'.
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