Tuesday, December 7, 2021

RIP Sir Geoffrey C. Harcourt

 Yes, Geoff Harcourt died yesterday at age 90, not sure what of. It seems I am writing too many of these recently, but his passing deserves notice.  He is most famous for his book from 1972 Some Cambridge Controversies in the Theory of Capital, which expanded on an earlier JEL paper on the topic. This has long been viewed as the clearest general discussion of that topic there is, although many people were involved in those controversies, from Piero Sraffa Joan Robinson through Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow, to quite a few others, including Don Harris, father of current US VP Kamala Harris, with even me getting in on it in some later stages with a few articles. But he wrote the definitive work, which may also have been so definitive because he explained the whole thing so well.

From Adelaide, Australia originally and to which he returned for the later years of his life, he spent much of his career at Cambridge University in UK, becoming for several years the President of Jesus College there. I first met him on a visit there in 1973, just after his most famous work was published, and I found him engaging and personable, a genuinely nice guy.  And I have never heard anybody dispute that judgment.  I saw him a number of times in later years, and had not reason to change my judgment on that matter, always very friendly and outgoing.  He was one of those rare economists who had some of his  children follow him the profession. Most of us are such cranky types our children want nothing to do with it.

He wrote on many topics regarding Post Keynesian economics (or post-Keynesian economics as he preferred to spell it), while his work on the Cambridge capital theory controversies was the most famous.  However, I would like to note a special element of his career.  I am not going to dredge through the gory details, but Post Keynesian economics has been rife with splits and controversies, some of these becoming both heated and personalized, with national characters involved.  

There have been as many as six different schools of it identified, with the Modern Monetary Theory a more recent addition.  But I note three older ones that split to some degree along national lines and where the arguments became very heated.  At the most extreme opposite ends were the Americans who following Paul Davidson have emphasized the idea of uncertainty coming from Keynes.  At its opposite end are the "neo-Ricardian" Sraffians based mostly in Italy, but also with many in Britain, incuding in the past at Cambridge, notably Sraffa himself from Italy at Cambridge. They emphasized comparing long-run equlibria, with an emphasis indeed on the capital theory controversies, making it look that Harcourt would be in their camp. But he may have been more in a more strictly based camp, the neo-Kaleckians. But the later leader of the neo-Ricardians was Pierangelo Garegnani from Italy.

Anyway, during the 1980s for quite a few years there was summer camp for Post Keynesians where many of these would show up in Trieste, Italy. I never attended one of these, but I heard about them. This is where these debates became open and heated and personalized, with Davidson and Garegnani especially duking it out. I was told that it came to pass that when a prominent person from one side would give a seminar, those from the other camp would go out to hang out on the beach.  In any case, apparently there at these camps, it was Geoff Harcourt, liked and admired by everybody, who made the greatest efforts to overcome these differences and make peace, if not adjudicate intellectual rights or wrongs. For better or worse, he was unable to overcome the personalistic feuding.  But some of us know that he tried with the best intentions, and it was something so very typical of him.

Of course he had reached a substantial age, but I know that he was still putting out a few papers from time to time up until very recently.  He will be missed.

Barkley Rosser


Sandwichman said...

My understanding of the Cambridge Controversies comes largely through his writing. A huge contribution!

marcel proust said...

The first mention of Paul Davidson is a reference by first name only (or so I infer): thereafter (i.e., the 2nd time) by last name only. It might encourage readers to invest more in this post if their uncertainty were lessened on this point (pun intended); the obvious way would be to follow convention and refer to him either consistently throughout or by "Paul Davidson" the first time and "Davidson" thereafter.

Not Trampis said...

It took a long of time to understand the Cambridge controversies.

his son is an economist down under

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

marcel proust,

Meeci for pointing that out. I have added "Davidson" to the first reference. I had thought I had done that.