Geoff Harcourt: rapporteur, raconteur, Political Economist extraordinaire

Internationally renowned Australian political economist Geoffrey Harcourt died, aged 90, on 7 December 2021. The editors of Progress in Political Economy and the Journal of Australian Political Economy honour his contributions. His writing ranged over diverse fields, including national income accounting, the critique of neoclassical theory, the development of post-Keynesian economics, analysis and prescription of economic policy, history of economic thought and economic biography. His personal influence also came through the collegiality he fostered among political economists and the students he taught.

Starting with a first degree from the University of Melbourne, he completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge, then returned to Australia for a Lectureship in Economics at the University of Adelaide where he quite quickly became a full Professor. He subsequently went back to Cambridge to be Lecturer in Economics and College Fellow. After retiring and returning to Australia, he was based at UNSW as an Emeritus Professor for the latter stage of his long and illustrious career.

His strong Cambridge connection loomed large in the book for which he established his international reputation, Some Cambridge Controversies in the Theory of Capital, first published in 1969. In effect, Geoff was the self-appointed rapporteur for the arguments presented in a series of academic journal articles largely written during the previous decade by economists at Cambridge, UK, and at MIT in Cambridge, USA. The former economists criticised the concept and measurement of ‘capital’, as used in neoclassical economic analyses of ‘production functions’ and the ‘marginal productivity theory of distribution’. On the defensive, the neoclassicals used every possible means to deflect the criticisms, but it was evident that the Cambridge, UK contributors effectively won the debate.

Geoff’s book on the capital controversies quickly became – and remains – the standard reference on the topic. It was a theme to which he would return on many subsequent occasions, responding to calls for clarification of the significance of it all with articles such as the enigmatically titled Much Ado About Something. In retrospect, however, the theoretical debate about ‘capital’ did not have the devastating consequences for neoclassical economics that Geoff and the other neoclassical critics thought it should or would have. More’s the pity. Therein lies a good lesson about the tenacity of professional orthodoxies when facing fundamental challenges, especially when those orthodoxies embody ideologies that support powerful class interests.

Recognising the need to go beyond critique to the building of constructive alternatives, Geoff put much of his subsequent professional endeavour into the development of post-Keynesian economics. He was very aware of Marxian, institutional and other schools of thought, but considered that the Keynesian approach, incorporating insights from Michal Kalecki, Joan Robinson, Piero Sraffa, Richard Goodwin and others, would provide the best basis for progress in political economy. Many of Geoff’s subsequent writings sought to synthesise and develop these contributions, including The Structure of Post-Keynesian Economics and books of collected essays, such as The Making of a Post-Keynesian Economist, Fifty Years a Keynesian and Other Essays, and The Social Science Imperialists. The four volumes of Post-Keynesian Essays From Down Under by Geoff, Peter Kriesler, Joseph Halevi and John Nevile provide an impressive compendium of their individual and joint contributions.

The need to relate economic theory to economic policy was always a theme in Geoff’s work. During his early days at the University of Adelaide, apart from his prominent role in the strong social movement against the Vietnam war, he had good ALP connections and wrote prescriptive pieces about progressive directions that Australian economic policy could take. Throughout his career, he always had an eye to the practical challenges thrown up as Australian capitalism’s economic growth was periodically interrupted by recessions and unemployment, as well as being recurrently troubled by bouts of inflation and the persistence of poverty and inequality. Geoff blended his technical skills as an economist of high calibre with a deep ethical commitment to a fairer society.

The personal touch was an ever-present feature in his work, including his contributions to the history of economic thought. Naturally, he was particularly interested in the contributions of Keynesian and post-Keynesian economists, perhaps most particularly Joan Robinson – ‘Joanie’ – about whom he wrote (with Prue Kerr) an excellent book. But he also became a renowned biographer for a broader array of figures who’d made contributions, for better or worse, to economic thought. He was notably generous in writing about mainstream economists about whom other political economists might not have been so kind.

Geoff’s generosity was also fulsomely extended to postgraduate students. When I visited him in Cambridge on one occasion, he had more than a dozen PhD students that he was then supervising. Evidently, he was the go-to person for students that some of his colleagues, for whatever reason, were reluctant to take on. Australian political economists Prue Kerr and Peter Kenyon, with whom he co-authored articles, received his support early in their careers. His generosity in helping many others was renowned. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how many personal references Geoff would have penned for former students and younger colleagues over the decades.

His collegiality also extended to the movement for political economy, both nationally and internationally. When he was President of the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand during the mid-1970s, he responded positively to the request from the dissident political economists in the Department of Economics at the University of Sydney to investigate claims of discrimination. He consulted with Bruce Williams, the former mainstream economist who was then Sydney Uni’s Vice Chancellor and, although one cannot know what advice he tendered to the VC in private, Geoff’s personal involvement in the protracted ‘Political Economy dispute’ gave greater legitimacy to the dissidents’ claims and ambitions.

The annual conferences that he helped to convene in Trieste, Italy, for many years also reflected his concern to foster an international community of post-Keynesian scholars sharing similar ambitions. Subsequently, he was a great supporter of the Society of Heterodox Economists that was formed in Australia and was seemingly ever-present at its conferences, as well as being the ‘life and soul of the party’. He was a notable raconteur, much admired for his inside stories about the lives of famous economists, and much in demand as a public speaker and panel chairperson.

On a personal level, Geoff was characteristically warm, witty, and wise. He thought that political economy mattered, not just as a challenge to mainstream economics but as a foundation for helping to create a world in which nations would coexist in peace and in which more equitable and cooperative social relations would flourish. We celebrate the life and work of Geoff Harcourt, political economist extraordinaire.

Geoff Harcourt’s funeral is scheduled to begin on Friday, December 17th 2021 at 10:00 AM (Australian Eastern Daylight Time) and can be live streamed here. The passcode is 1355.

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Geoff Harcourt: rapporteur, raconteur, Political Economist extraordinaire