Galbraith's Heterodox Teacher: Leo Rogin's Historical Approach to the Meaning and Validity of Economic Theory

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A Leading Heterodox Economist of the 1930s and 1940s

The great American heterodox economist John Kenneth Galbraith studied with orthodox neoclassical Marshallians and with agricultural specialists, but he also had an outstanding heterodox teacher, Leo Rogin (1893-1947). As a graduate student in agricultural economics at the University of California at Berkeley from 1931 to 1934, Galbraith was "introduced to Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, the early John Maynard Keynes and the great German economists who sought truth in history and of whom only Werner Sombart seriously entered my consciousness ... by Leo Rogin, a teacher who established himself firmly in the affections of all my generation" (Galbraith 1981, 29). "In the early thirties, years before the Keynesian revolution, Leo Rogin was discussing Keynes with a sense of urgency that made his seminars seem to graduate students the most important things then happening in the world" (Galbraith 1971, 349). As a student of Wesley Mitchell (who in turn studied with Thorstein Veblen), Rogin also linked Galbraith to the American institutional tradition. Rogin's Columbia Ph.D. dissertation The Introduction of Farm Machinery in its Relation to the Productivity of Labor in the Agriculture of the United States during the Nineteenth Century (1931) continues to be cited by economic historians (the tardy adoption of the mechanical reaper has a lasting fascination for U.S. economic historians), but his subsequent American Economic Review and Journal of Political Economy articles were about Karl Marx, Werner Sombart, Alfred Marshall, and American economic thought.

Rogin took leave to work for the Labor Advisory Board and other New Deal agencies and was, along with Robert Brady, part of a progressive, pro-New Deal minority among Berkeley economics professors. At the Econometric Society summer meeting at Berkeley, Rogin (1934) spoke about Keynes's Treatise on Money (1930) considered as a policy proposal in the economic arts rather than as a contribution to economic science. Rogin's seven hundred page magnum opus, The Meaning and Validity of Economic Theory: A Historical Approach (1956), was published nine years after his death. As he wrote to a publisher, "[m]y work is not a conventional history of economic thought. It constitutes rather an exploration of the hypothesis that new systems first emerge in the guise of arguments in the context of social reform" (quoted in Winifred Rogin's preface to Rogin 1956, xiii). It was widely reviewed from diverse standpoints (e.g., by John Barthel, J. F. Bell, Alexander Brody, Bob Coats, Charles Gilbert, Donald Gordon, Scott Gordon, Ben Seligman, George Stigler), but the book (like Rogin himself) is now largely forgotten. Rogin's role in introducing Galbraith to classical political economy, Marx, the German historical school, the American institutionalist tradition (Rogin 1933a), the pre-General Theory Keynes, and the New Deal--the main elements (together with The General Theory (1936), published after Galbraith left Berkeley for Harvard) in Galbraith's intellectual heritage--is noted only in a single sentence in each of Galbraith's memoirs of Berkeley in the 1930s (Galbraith 1971, 349; 1981, 29; 1987, 3; interview in Colander and Landreth 1996, 133), a sentence in Richard Parker's biography of Galbraith (Parker 2005, 37), and one in Peggy Lamson (1991, 28). Parker (1999) and Kyle Bruce (2000) examine other early influences on Galbraith's intellectual development, but not Rogin.

At Berkeley, Galbraith "learned Alfred Marshall from Ewald Grether, who taught with a drillmaster's precision for which I have ever since been grateful. Marshall is the quintessence of classical economics and much of what he says is wrong. But no one can know what is wrong if he does not understand it first" (Galbraith 1971, 349-50; cf. Rogin 1936 on Marshall). Economic history, taught by M. M. Knight (brother of Frank Knight of the University of Chicago), might have been expected to suit Galbraith's taste better than Grether's courses in economic theory, but Galbraith recalled Knight's seminar in economic history as "a gifted exercise in irrelevancy" (Galbraith 1971, 350). …