Obituary: Geoffrey Colin Harcourt

11 Apr 2022

I have seen full many economists since I first commenced to roam, But nowhere yet such an economist have I seen.

Modified from Banjo Patterson, an Australian poet Geoff greatly admired.

Geoff and his twin brother John were born in Melbourne on the 27th of June 1931. Geoff attended the University of Melbourne where he flourished while studying accounting and economics, achieving first class honours, and subsequently a M. Com. While at the University of Melbourne, he was exposed to the economics of Keynes and the Cambridge School, which exerted a profound influence on all his subsequent work. During this time, he met and married Joan Bartrop, the love of his life, with whom he had four children: Wendy, Robert, Tim, and Rebecca, whom Geoff referred to as his “balanced growth path.”

Geoff was awarded a PhD scholarship to study at Cambridge, where he was supervised by Nicholas Kaldor and Ronald Henderson. He absorbed the atmosphere and the intellectual stimulation of being among the great Cambridge economists. Joan Robinson, in particular, was an important influence. Geoff attended her lectures, and closely studied her 1956 magnum opus The Accumulation of Capital, which had a deep effect on his subsequent development; Geoff, with Prue Kerr, would edit and write the introduction for the third edition of the book. He was awarded a PhD in 1957 for his thesis, “a study of the implications of the use of historical-cost accounting procedures to set prices and dividends, and levy taxes in a period of inflation”.

Cambridge became Geoff’s centre of gravitation. He returned often, before moving there permanently in 1982 to take up a University Lectureship. In 1990 he become a Reader in the History of Economic Theory, until retiring in 1998, when he was made an Emeritus Reader. He was a Fellow at Jesus College during that time, and its President from 1988-89 and 1990-92. In between, he was appointed to a lectureship at the University of Adelaide in 1958, and then to a personal Chair in 1967, and Professor Emeritus in 1988. After his retirement from Cambridge, he became a visiting Professorial Fellow and then an Honorary Professor at the School of Economics at the University of New South Wales, where he spent his last decades. In the light of this, it is not surprising that Geoff regarded himself as “an Australian Patriot and a Cambridge Economist” (Harcourt 1995).

Geoff received many significant awards during his life, and in 2018 he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia for his “eminent service to higher education as an academic economist and author, particularly in the fields of Post-Keynesian economics, capital theory and economic thought.”

Geoff was driven by a strong commitment to social justice, which also informed his academic and policy work. He had a life-long commitment to equity and equality, working towards alleviating poverty and against social and racial discrimination. He also had a great love of sports, both as player and spectator, particularly Australian football and cricket. In honour of his passion for Australian football, many of his papers are written in four quarters.

Geoff had a gift of putting people at ease, talking to anyone, from the Crown Prince to awestruck students, while displaying his mischievous sense of humour. He was genuinely interested in everyone he met. Geoff loved jokes and didn’t really mind their origins. I fondly remember Geoff and I driving from Cambridge to Canterbury for a conference. On the way down I told Geoff a joke, on the way back he told it to me. Needless to say, his telling was a substantial improvement.

Geoff’s contribution to economics, both theory and policy, was outstanding. In over 30 books and 400 articles, numerous lectures, seminars, and interviews he had a significant impact on the discipline. Geoff made economics more humane, and humanised the “dismal” science. His contributions to economics covered a broad range of areas from esoteric pure theory to applied policy, always with the aim of trying to make the world a better place. He provided original insights, and was able to explain difficult and complex ideas in an accessible form, while often showing his sense of humour.

In his important article and subsequent book on the Cambridge capital controversies, Geoff provided a masterful guide to one of the most technical debates in economics; Cambridge University Press is publishing a 50th anniversary edition of the book later this year, with a new preface by Geoff, and afterwords by Avi Cohen and Tiago Mata.

T he capital theory controversies were a series of debates in the 1950s-1970s on high theory, between economists mainly based in Cambridge, England (Joan Robinson, Piero Sraffa, Luigi Pasinetti) and at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Paul Samuelson, Robert Solow). Although the debates were ostensibly about the problem of measuring capital, they were ultimately about the nature and meaning of capital, and the question of the most appropriate way to analyse a contemporary capitalist economy. Geoff unravelled the debates so that they became intelligible, with both clear style and humour, evident particularly in the chapter and section titles, such as the section pointing to an error by Kaldor titled ‘Excuse me, Professor Kaldor, but your slip is showing’.

Geoff was a founder and major contributor to post-Keynesian economics throughout his intellectual life – culminating in his books, The Structure of Post-Keynesian Economics and the two volume The Oxford Handbook of Post-Keynesian Economics. He enriched economics by making it more accessible through his clear, and often humorous, writing style and in his many biographical essays. These went behind the masks of economists to reveal not only their economic insights, but also the people that developed those insights. This is especially apparent in his definitive biography of Joan Robinson, co-written with Prue Kerr.

Underlying his theoretical contributions lay the importance of policy, on which Geoff not only wrote copiously, but also acted by advising governments and commenting on contemporary issues. He believed that academics in general, and economists in particular, have a duty to advocate policies which would lead to a better world. Associated with writing and advocacy was a belief in a “need for direct action if other more orthodox means proved ineffective” (Harcourt 2011, p.124) – which Geoff displayed with his important role in Australia’s anti-Vietnam War movement.

Everyone who knew Geoff values the wonderful human being he was, as well as being a world-class economist. He enriched the lives of everyone around him. On a personal note, Geoff was my teacher, colleague, collaborator, mentor, and most importantly a very warm and dear friend. Geoff welcomed me into his academic and family life, and I share the immense sense of loss at the passing of such an inspiring human being. Geoff will be greatly missed. He was a true scholar and gentleman, and the world is so much a better place because of him.

Peter Kriesler, University of New South Wales

References and further readings

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: Cambridge University Press.

Harcourt, G. C. 1995, “Recollections and reflections of an Australian patriot and a Cambridge economist” Banca Nazionale del Lavoro Quarterly Review, 48, 225-254

Harcourt, G.C. (2006): The Structure of Post-Keynesian Economics: The Core Contributions of the Pioneers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harcourt, G.C., Kerr, P. (2009): Joan Robinson, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Harcourt, G. C. 2011 “Post-Keynesian theory, direct action and political involvement” Intervention 8 (1) 117 – 128

Harcourt, G. C. and Kriesler, P. 2013 ( eds) The Oxford Handbook of Post-Keynesian Economics. Volume 1: Theory and Origins, and Volume 2: Critiques and Methodology. New York, Oxford University Press

Robinson, Joan (2013) The Accumulation of Capital 3rd Edition, in the Palgrave Classics in Economics Series, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK