Joan Robinson, the doyenna terrible of moderns economics, has yet again been passed by for a Nobel Prize.
That is not news.
Each year since 1969 - the first year the Nobel prize in economics was awarded - the Swedish Academy of Sciences has seen fit to honor someone besides Mrs. Robinson. But by now few living economists - and certainly who have not yet been named a Nobel laureate - have made contributions of the depth and breadth of the 75-year-old Cambridge scholar.
But last week, the Royal Academy not only ignored Mrs. Robinson again, but called into question the sensibility of annually making an award for achievement in economics - the only "social" science for which a Nobel is granted - by giving the prize to a scholar whose contributions to economics, while insightful, has been ignored by most practising economists.
Business school students are likely to have heard of Herbert A. Simon of Carnegie-Mellon University, but 1970 laureate Paul A. Samuelson said that while the award made sense, he judged that most younger economists probably never had heard of Simon.
The same cannot be said for Mrs. Robinson. With the late E.H. Chamberlin of Harvard University, she holds a hallowed place in textbooks on economic theory for developing a framework to analyze the large gray area between perfect competition (which economists long had known seldom if ever existed) and monopoly.
It was a 30-year-old disciple of Lord Keynes that Mrs. Robinson wrote her "Economics of Imperfect Competition," the same year Chamberlain turned his doctoral thesis into "The Theory of Monopolistic Competition."
Later, the controversial Mrs. Robinson tried to bring the tools of modern economics to Marxian analysis and made substantial contributions to growth theory. She has been a leading critic of economists who have married the analysis of the old classical economists to that of Keynes: the so-called neoclassical economists, of whom the brilliant Samuelson, who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the principal architect and exponent.
Mrs. Robinson's admirers feel that it is her outspokenness about what she feels is the paucity of relevent analysis in modern economics, her eccentricity (in at least one recent instance, a former student reports, she snuck into a class at Cambridge to needle one of her neoclassical colleagues) and her socialism that so far have cost her the prize. It never troubles her to flail those modern economists - especially in the United States - whom she believes misunderstand much of Keynes. It is fair to say that, of late at least, she seldom makes her points with undue grace or tact.
In previous years, those who make the Nobel award, although they never talk of it publicly, could have justified passing Mrs. Robinson on several grounds. Her most important contribution to economic theory occurred in 1933. The Nobel Prize is supposed to be awarded for recent work. Furthermore, her recent work has not been up to the caliber of her earlier scholarly endeavors.
Until last week, those were legitimate defenses. But last Monday, the Swedish Academy chose to give the Nobel award in economics to a scholar for work he did 20 years ago, work that has been disregard by most economists. Simon has not even been active in economists for the last two decades, turning his attention instead into using the computer to study human thought processes.
Simon postulated that economists are wrong when they assume that businesses and consumers are lightning-quick calculators who always make decisions that maximize either their profits or their level of satisfaction. Instead, using a more psychological approach, Simon said the economic actors are approximators who set reasonable ("satisfactory," as Simon put it) goals for their behavior that may or may not be (and usually are not) "maximizing."
Probably true, most economists respond, but the assumption of maximizing behavior is sufficiently close to the way individuals and businesses behave that the "satisficing" postulate does little damage to economic theory.
On the other hand, Mrs. Robinson's postulate of imperfect competition is undoubtedly a major contribution. Her co-discoverer of imperfect competition (if discovery is the proper term in this type of science) unfortunately died two years before the first economics Nobel was awarded. But Italian economists Piero Sraffa, from whose 1926 article both Chamberlin and Mrs. Robinson built their elaborate theories is alive, and would be a worthy co-winner with her.
Beyond her contribution to orthodox theory, Mrs. Robinson also made a valiant attempt to merge Marxian analysis with modern economics, in the process dismissing as rubbish (and not central to Marx' arguments about the long-run breakdown of capitalism) the notion of the labor theory of value. Her critical analysis of Marx has not made her a darling of Socialist apologists for marxism either.
To this day, Mrs. Robinson remains prolific, making contributions to growth theory and continually trying to debunk the neoclassical notions that for the purposes of analysis capital can be lumped together as one big homogenous entity.
And she remains spry, cutting an eccentric swathe across the Cambridge campus, warding off the chill with her serape, needling her neoclassical colleagues, carrying what she thinks is the real message of her mentor Keynes to the economics profession.
And so long as she remains active, she will remain an embarrassment to the Swedish Academy of Sciences.