Kenneth Ewart Boulding, 1910-1993: An Appreciation

Article excerpt

My purpose is to offer a glimpse of the vast vision and great knowledge of Kenneth Ewart Boulding, whom I consider to be the most creative social scientist of our time. But first a word concerning the man

He was born in Liverpool on January 18, 1910, of a non-conformist, working-class family. His mother had been a lady's maid. His grandfather was a blacksmith. His father was a plumber who ran his own small business in a shop behind the house, and both his father and grandfather were lay preachers who made the circuit of little Methodist churches several times a year. He was the first of his family to go beyond elementary school. After attending the Liverpool Collegiate School on a scholarship, he won a scholarship in chemistry to New College, Oxford. After a year, he shifted to politics, philosophy, and economics and graduated from Oxford with first class honors. When class bias kept him from a post at Oxford, he came to the United States on a Commonwealth Fellowship, studied at the University of Chicago with Frank Knight and Henry Schulz, and later at Harvard with Joseph Schumpeter. In 1934 he returned to England to take a post at the University of Edinburgh. In 1937, starting with Colgate University, he begin his long and illustrious career in the United States and Canada as a professor at McGill University, at Iowa State University and at the University of Michigan. He retired as distinguished professor of economics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He served as president of the American Economics Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society for the Advancement of General Systems Theory, the Association for the Study of the Grants Economy, and the International Studies Association.

Though he published more than a thousand items in 30 subject areas, I will rely primarily on the three I consider his most encompassing: A Reconstruction of Economics [Boulding 1950], The Image [Boulding 1956], and Ecodynamics [Boulding 1978], perforce excluding the wealth of his contributions on problems of the environment, human betterment, grants economics, agriculture, labor, ethics, religion, Quakerism, peace, war, and the resolution of conflict. Nor do I mention his poetry.

Reconstruction was the work of a young man, an ebullient display of his mental muscles, demonstrating a mastery of the conventional lore of economics. It covers the microeconomic terrain of perfect and imperfect markets with production curves of all varieties, of uncertainty, expectations, gambling, insurance, moving into the equation of saving and investment and other identities of Keynesian macro theory, with a chapter on the Keynesian offset role of government in maintaining full employment. His multifaceted economy in a state of dynamic disequilibrium easily accommodated to the mass unemployment of Keynesian theory.

There is besides in Reconstruction a radical departure from neoclassical economics where the theory of the firm is so formulated that none of its arguments can be tested against the business record. There is no analogue in the observable and recorded to the motivation (profit maximization) and the system of behavior (marginalism) conventionally attributed to the firm. Boulding would root the theory down in the central instrument of business decision: the balance sheet, which details the varying character of throughputs, reflects the strategic deployment of assets, and recounts the birth, growth, and death of the firm. The analytic relevance of the balance sheet and of the asset account is a constant refrain throughout with its most telling demonstration in the relation of cumulating inventories to final outputs.

From the perspective of the balance sheet, the economy is a universe of shifting populations: a population of firms, and a population of assets - capital items, financial items, inventories of materials and of products whose competitive or cooperative interactions may or may not produce a state of equilibrium. …