The Economic Mind in America: Essays in the History of American Economics

By Malcolm Rutherford | Go to book overview

15

THE SOCIAL CONSCIENCE OF AN AMERICAN ECONOMIST

Alvin S. Johnson as advocate/reformer

Jerry L. Petr1

INTRODUCTION

Alvin Saunders Johnson (1874-1971) was a noteworthy twentieth-century American economist. As one who wrote his doctoral dissertation at Columbia under John Bates Clark, later supervised the dissertation of Frank H. Knight at Cornell (a dissertation that became Risk, Uncertainty and Profits), and served as president of the American Economic Association (AEA) in 1936, Alvin Johnson can be placed squarely in the American neoclassical economic mainstream. He attained high position in a fundamentally conservative discipline that prided itself on its scientific prowess, and that, frequently, celebrated the laissez-faire implications of its analytical models. Yet, in important respects, Johnson was not representative of the stereotypical dispassionate scientist, absorbed in manipulation of deductive models (under the cloak of scientific detachment) to the neglect of pressing social issues (that would have required “normative” emotionalism). Defiant of any disciplinary dogma that relied on the logical beauty of hypothesized market outcomes to achieve a social optimum, Johnson stands as an intriguing intellectual puzzle. He was both a master of the disciplinary core of equilibrium analysis, and a servant to humanitarian values—values which drove him to innovative and interventionist policy prescriptions that ranged far beyond the antiseptic analysis of his disciplinary home.

One purpose of this chapter is to illuminate that contrast between the professional activism of Alvin Johnson as advocate/reformer versus the frequently venerated model of the dispassionate scientific investigator of economic phenomena. At the height of Johnson’s professional power, the more conventional posture of analytical detachment was well represented by Frank Fetter, who had preceded Johnson in the AEA presidency by a quarter of a century (in 1912). Fetter celebrated the maturation of American economics

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