Thursday, 3 September 2015

Abba Lerner's Job Application: Unsuccessful.

If you have applied for a job recently, you know the drill: you do your best selling yourself to some headhunter/recruitment officer; you lodge the job application, and, after a while, with luck (often you don't get even that) you get a standard reply letter saying "unfortunately in this opportunity"…

Sounds familiar, yes?

Well, how do recruitment officers decide when an applicant is a good candidate for a job?


This is how Lionel Robbins -- with John Maynard Keynes' help -- decided about Abba Lerner:
"Between 1933 and 1939 Lerner published twenty-nine articles and notes, some of which made a lasting mark on the discipline, on both its substance and folklore. In a country that was not unready to appoint to a professorship in Oxbridge on the basis of a single article, Lerner should have been professor many times over. But his achievements were counterbalanced in British eyes by religious origin, dress, and manners: Abba Lerner, Jew from Eastern Europe and then the brick and grit of the East End, bare feet in sandals (because, he said, his feet sweat), unpressed trousers hanging, shirt collar open, was a hippie before his time.
"In some things he could be difficult; in others he was too permissive. He had a disconcerting way of saying what he thought. The would-be genteel folk of academe could not see him twirling a sherry glass and making small talk in wood-paneled common rooms. The story is told, based on unpublished letters, that Professor Lionel Robbins of LSE consulted Keynes in this regard when a post opened at the London School. Lerner was an unavoidable candidate.
"Keynes Brit-wittily replied by referring to Lerner's origin as from the Continent. Maybe, he wrote, if they found a job for Lerner as a cobbler during the day, they might wear him out and have him teach in the evening. Lerner did not get the job. He probably continued to pay for his particularities when he moved to the other side of the Atlantic. At any rate, he did not receive a post at a major university until very late in his career."
At least, that is David S. Landes' account, which he included in "Abba Ptachya Lerner (1903-1982), a Biographical Memoir" (National Academy of Sciences. Washington D.C. 1994, PDF) at Paul Samuelson's suggestion.

After reading the draft version of the paper, Samuelson wrote in the margin:
"Somewhere, you [Landes] should hint why Lerner never had the job offer Lange did. Jew; socialist; bohemian; libertine; no team player; genius." (see here)
Yann Giraud (whose research on Paul Samuelson's papers led to this subject) adds some more details to the story (quoting a second reliable source):
"When Lerner was considered for a professorship at the LSE, Robbins wrote to Keynes, in order to get his opinion on Lerner. In response, Keynes wrote the following: 'He is very learned and has an acute and subtle mind. But … if there is any fault in his logic, there is nothing to prevent it from leading him to preposterous conclusions … In thinking over the problem of Lerner's future, I feel in my own mind that the really right solution would be to make him take up some manual craft of a kind which would not exhaust him and would leave him free to pursue his own studies in dialectic in the evenings. I should like to see Lerner as a printer's compositor, or as a cobbler, or grinder of lenses like Spinoza; - free from 5 or 6 o'clock onwards to discuss high subtleties with his friends and to pursue, like the Talmudist that he is, the curious aspects of truth which appeal to him'. (reproduced from Colander and Landreth 1996, pp. 113-5)."


There is a point to this -- apart from exposing Keynes' anti-Semitic mediocrity. Lerner's "faulty" logic -- according to Keynes, Lerner's opportunistic muse -- apparently led Lerner to functional finance: that, it seems, was his "preposterous conclusion".

This, as Prof. Bill Mitchell clearly understands -- even if the very idea is anathema to Keynes' online mujahideen  -- makes of Keynes a very unsuitable choice for MMT icon, just like Keynes' allegiance to the marginalist theory of value and distribution makes of him a very poor patron saint of Post Keynesianism (see here).

Now, readers are free to choose: either they stick to the Prophet and forget about the Gospel, or they pick the Gospel and kick the Prophet. But you can't have your cake and eat it.


Call me a boorish proletarian if you will, but I can't believe nobody ever had the balls to punch Keynes.


    Wikipedia lies! Let's change it. Can I count on your help Magpie?

  2. Magpie can you create a Wikipedia page that explains MMT.
    In other words change the page "money creation" so that it describes the way money is created. Delete the other stuff.
    Baby steps...

    1. Sorry, Random, no can do.

      My personal policy is not to edit anything Wikipedia:

  3. May be Abba Lerner was not Keynes's type

  4. Nice post. Canada's federal government also turned him down. A real shame.

    He was also mistaken for being a social credit advocate. Lerner was great. A product of part-time evening classes at university, I believe, which is incredible.

  5. It's interesting that the same debate is happening today in the UK. The 'pragmatists' tok about 'political reasons' for doing things against the simple approach of simply fixing the problem. The result is on going subsidies for the wealthy for no good reason other than the politicians not having the guts to call time.

    This is an interesting read of the difference between Keynes and Lerner.

    Keynes, Lerner, and the Question of Public Debt

    Tony Aspromourgos

    History of Political Economy, 2014, vol. 46, issue 3, pages 408-433