Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Geoffrey Harcourt (1931-2021)

This overview of Geoff Harcourt's work is insufficient. He was interested in economics as a means to a better world. Consequently, he offered political advice, sometimes in the form of 'package deals', in the context of Australian politics, which I know nothing about. Also, I do not know Australian rules football, rugby, or cricket. Apparently, he was very good at mentorship and at introducing young scholars to the professional community. Capital theory is a very contentious topic, but Harcourt was on good terms with all sides.

Geoffrey C. Harcourt was born on 27 June 1931. He married Joan Bartrop in July 1955. Their children are Wendy, Robert, Timothy,and Rebecca. I had not known that the economist Claudid Sardoni married Wendy and was his son-in-law. He died on 6 January.

Harcourt attended the University of Melbourne as an undergraduate and came to Cambridge in July 1955. Nicholas Kaldor was his PhD. supervisor for a short while, but he later had Ronald Henderson as supervisor. His dissertation compared depreciation allowances at historical costs with capital consumption at replacement cost. What are the implications of these accounting conventions for the choice of technique and for taxes on profits? In Joan Robinson's golden age, historical cost, replacement cost, and the present value of the revenues expected from the use of capital equipment are all equal. Harcourt (1965) is one paper that emerged from this work.

Harcourt returned to Australia, to a lecturing post in Adelaide, in 1958. The rest of his professional life was shared between Cambridge and Adelaide. He lectured on Kaldor's growth theory and on Robinson's The Accumulation of Capital. I gather that Harcourt quite enjoyed working with some of his Australian colleagues such as W. E. G. Salter and Eric Russell.

From August 1963 to the end of 1966, he was in Cambridge, with a fellowship at Trinity. Although he reviewed Sraffa's book and co-wrote a paper on Sraffa's subsystems, he says he was mostly an observer of the controversies.

Now comes the work that Harcourt is most noted for. Mark Perlman visited Adelaide to convince Harcourt to write a survey article for the relatively new Journal of Economic Literature. I believe another author had backed out of surveying capital theory, and that author would not have focused on the Cambridge controversies. Harcourt wrote the first draft of his 1972 book while visiting Keio University in Japan. Cambridge University Press is in the process of re-issuing this classic, long out of print.

He found Noam Chomsky's 'The responsibility of intellectuals' inspiring and participated in direct action in Australia against the Vietnam war. He helped developed the Adelaide plan in the early 1970s, and was on the National Committee of Inquiry for the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in 1978-1979. Harcourt described his approach to political programs as 'horses for courses'. I think he may have also used this phrase to describe his approach to economic theory. His political programs included an incomes policy and something like the Tobin tax to curb speculation.

He took a year study leave at Clare Hall in 1972-1973, before returning to Adelaide University. Sometime in the 1970s Harcourt edited a conference volume on microfoundations, which, I gather, had quite a different flavor than the work of, say, Robert Lucas. Harcourt and Kenyon (1976) is one of a number of Post Keynesian works of the time relating markup pricing to firms' investment plans.

Harcourt left Adelaide for Cambridge in September 1982 and became a fellow at Jesus College. He retired in September 1998. I suppose I should mention somewhere his interest in intellectual history and his short biographies of economists in the Cambridge school, such as Richard Goodwin and Lorie Tarshis. The book by Harcourt and Kerr (2009) on Joan Robinson is an example. Most of his biographies are articles, though.

On 13 June 1994, Harcourt was awarded an Office in the General Division of the Order of Australia (AO). He was the president of Jesus College in Cambridge for most of 1988 to 1992. I do not know when he was in Cambridge and when he was in Adelaide for the last 20 years.

The list of references I append is very selective. I do not list the many volumes he edited or any articles in which he set out political programs or his views on politics and its relation to economics. Barkley Rosser has an obituary. Lars Syll links to an interview with Harcourt. John Hawkins and Selwyn Cornish describe Harcourt as 'the beating hear of Australian economics.' You can read testimonials here.

  • Cohen, Avi J. and G. C. Harcourt. 2003. Whatever happened to the Cambridge capital controversies? Journal of Economic Perspectives 17: 199-214.
  • Hamouda, O. F. and G. C. Harcourt. 1988. Post-Keynesianism: From criticism to coherence? Bulletin of Economic Research. 40: 1-33.
  • Harcourt, G. C. 1965. The accountant in a golden age. Oxford Economic Papers. 17: 66-80.
  • Harcourt, G. C. 1969. Some Cambridge controversies in the theory of capital. Journal of Economic Literature. 7: 369-405.
  • Harcourt, G. C. 1972. Some Cambridge Controversies in the Theory of Capital. Cambridge University Press.
  • Harcourt, G. C. 1982. The Social Science Imperialists: Selected Essays by G. C. Harcourt (ed. by Prue Kerr). Routledge and Kegan.
  • Harcourt, G. C. 1986. Controversies in Political Economy: Selected Essays by G. C. Harcourt (ed. by O. F. Hamouda). New York University Press.
  • Harcourt, G. C. 1995. Capitalism, Socialism, and Post-Keynesianism: Selected Essays by G. C. Harcourt. Edward Elgar.
  • Harcourt, G. C. 2001. Selected Essays on Economic Policy. Palgrave-Macmillan.
  • Harcourt, G. C. 2006. The Structure of Post-Keynesian Economics: The Core Contributions of the Pioneers. Cambridge University Press.
  • Harcourt, G. C. and Prue Kerr. 2009. Joan Robinson. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Harcourt, G. C. and Vincent G. Massaro. 1964. Mr. Sraffa's Production of Commodities. Economic Record 40: 442-454.
  • Harcourt, G. C. and Peter Kenyon. 1976. Pricing and the investment decision. Kyklos. 29: 449-477.


pqnelson said...

I am sad to hear this news. And, I think you got the dates wrong in the title, unless George Harcourt died a decade before he was born.

Robert Vienneau said...

Thanks for the correction. Fixed the title and a couple other grammatical mistakes.

Emil Bakkum said...

Hello Robert. Many years ago I read the book "The structure of post-Keynesian economics" by Harcourt. Subsequently I sent an email message to Harcourt with a rather silly comment (the book did not mention the TSSI in his discussion of Marxism). Nonetheless, Harcourt replied in a kind manner. This displays a servitude and passion, which is rare among humans.

Anonymous said...

Hi Emil, is there any kind of connection between intertemporal equilibrium and the TSSI?