Robert Rowthorn interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 13th June 2008

0:09:07 Born 1939 in Newport, Monmouthshire; have almost no memories of grandparents as most were dead before I was born; my father was a policeman and mother, a housewife; they were both strong members of the Conservative Party and my father eventually became the Mayor, even though it was a Labour town; had a very strong sense of public responsibility; got a strong sense of justice from them; brought up through the Grammar School system and the Boy Scouts, both very disciplined with corporal punishment; father was a gentle man, mother a bit less so; have an older brother who eventually became an Anglican Bishop in the United States; parents were not very well educated [both went to grammar school, but not university]; father had intended to go to university but his father couldn't afford it; it was always assumed at school that I would go to Oxbridge where many of the pupils went; a steel town so the intake was working class; earlier had gone to a private preparatory school but I don't remember much about it; I was never a big reader as my mother thought it was bad for me to do too much; did maths; went to Newport High School at eleven on passing 11+ exam; there were several good teachers including a philosophy teacher who encouraged me to join the school debating society; there I became a socialist although coming from a collectivist strand of conservatism through my parents; as most interested in maths and not even particularly keen on science;  two of us did scholarship level maths; there was no available teacher so the head of maths gave us books which we studied in the stock room; I developed my self-education talents there; I was quite keen on sport but never much good; very keen on camping and walking, encouraged by the Scouts; being a Scout was like being in an Oxbridge college with its strong community; at that time it was very disciplined with the possibility of rising in rank pretty fast; I became troop leader with huge responsibilities; at fourteen took boys camping alone with only occasional visits from the Scout Master; you respond to responsibility; I was not interested in music which is a great regret; do remember hymns in my childhood; my brother was probably influenced to become a cleric by the religious revival of the fifties; I am a very loose believer although I go to church; my upbringing was church - family - nation - duty, almost identical concepts; I was always a slight outsider in the school, in it but not at the core; think that may be my relationship with institutions in general; I tend not to play a leading role in them unless I have to; remember deciding to give up being a prefect, who could administer corporal punishment, and ran the chess club instead

13:17:06 Politics probably runs in families; in practice I don't think my parents were so different from me; we never argued about politics; we did not have political clubs at school, only at university; went to Jesus College, Oxford on a scholarship to do maths; when I arrived my tutor suggested I shouldn't bother going to lectures but to read the things he gave me and come and see him once a week if I had problems; together with my school training this has left me with an inability to listen to lectures; oddly enough my own lectures used to be very highly rated, though not brilliantly organized; I enjoyed giving them; got a first and a Junior Mathematical prize; I did well at rowing and was in the first eight for Jesus; also went to political clubs and mountaineering; went on various Aldermaston marches for CND but even in those days I was in favour of nuclear power; apart from Thompson, my tutor, did have a specialist called Higman in my third year; I got a post-graduate research fellowship at Berkeley and went there to do maths; not very successful due in part because I had learnt to solve problems in books; knew that there must be a solution if the problem had been published, but you don't learn the philosophical basis of mathematics or to ask interesting questions yourself; at Berkeley went on a special programme called 'Logic and the Methodology of Science' which involved philosophy as well as science; found it very hard to think through the various forms of mathematical logic as I did not understand the purpose; if I went back now would probably be very good as I now understand why people were asking these open-ended questions; I was there for a year then came back to England and switched to economics; it was an interesting period in America as I got attached to the political left; now realize that it was the old left in Berkeley and actually run by communists, but I didn't know that at the time; ironically they were the moderates and as they lost their hold Berkeley became more radical; I also met Brian Van Arkadie who convinced me to do economics; he was descended from a group of Dutch settlers in Sri Lanka and eventually got a job in Cambridge; I shared a house with him in Berkeley

22:28:00 I went back to Jesus, Oxford but was getting nowhere with maths so switched to economics; to start with had no money but I did well and got a back-dated scholarship so could pay back all those friends who had supported me; I did a two-year B.Phil.; I went to Nuffield College for a bit and then got a job in Cambridge as an economist in Churchill College; I was a Teaching Fellow at Churchill and then was poached by Richard Kahn to come to King's after a year; he had very little intellectual influence on me; he was famous because he contributed to the ideas underlying Keynes' General Theory; he invented the multiplier which calculates the extra demand from someone spending money; think he was a great economist; Keynesian economics was a collective enterprise; I think the greatest of that school was D.H. Robertson who was rejected by them and regarded as anti-Keynesian; this is not an opinion that makes me popular in some circles; Robertson wrote a book called 'Banking Policy and the Price Level'  which I think foreshadows almost all the ideas in the Keynesian system; he wrote in a very idiosyncratic language so is quite hard to follow; another great man was Michal Kalecki, who was Polish and at Oxford; his contribution was to formalize it into very good mathematical models and put it in a more coherent framework; in Keynes' 'General Theory' if there is an increase in demand it will only increase the output in the economy if it leads to higher prices; the higher prices then reduce the real wage of workers; these, in real terms, are the essential part of increasing the level of output in the economy; it reduces the standard of living of the workers but encourages employers to employ more people; Kalecki had a different model, a monopolistic pricing model where if a government spends money, firms will increase output without increasing their prices, as long as there is extra capacity in the economy, and will also employ more workers; in this model existing workers don't lose anything as there is no trading between higher prices and employment; it is quite an important difference as it means that the government can manipulate the level of demand up to a point without causing inflation; Joan Robinson promoted Kalecki very strongly and I think she was quite right to do so; in fact, one of the big changes in Keynesian economics which came after Keynes' 'General Theory' was a shift towards Kalecki's way of thinking about it; the intellectual basis was really laid out partly by Kalecki but also earlier by Joan Robinson in her work on monopoly pricing; that I think was her great contribution; my view of the Keynesians in general was that by the time I got to know them they were very much on the defensive; they were probably on the left of most of the American Keynesians, but also Britain was losing influence and so was Cambridge; they thought of themselves as the heirs of Keynes and had the power to determine how Keynes should be interpreted; thought of themselves as natural leaders but found it very hard to adapt to the fact that they were facing an intellectually more competitive environment; in the case of Joan Robinson, she, particularly, reacted in a very authoritarian way and over-politicised debates; I remember an argument I had with her in a tea room a few months after I came to Cambridge; I had gone to read an article by John Hicks, 'Mr Keynes and the Classics'; what he wanted to do was to provide a neat little summary of how Keynes' 'General Theory' tied in with the classical economists; I read it having just read the 'General Theory', knowing nothing about the debates; Joan Robinson thought it a terrible article and argued that it wasn't a true reflection of Keynes' thought despite my noting it was an accurate reflection of what he had said; that was the beginning of a pretty bad relationship with her; an aspect of this period was the ostrich-like approach of the Keynesians here, with one exception, Kaldor; they saw the enemy as the 'neoclassical economists', American Keynesians, and wanted to discredit them; turned to the work of  Piero Sraffa to do it; it produced work that I considered to be a complete side track of no real significance at all; I wrote a critical article in 'New Left Review' which marked the break between me and that school of thought; I became much more a classical Marxist; looking at the Cambridge economists as a whole, there were two strands, the followers (Robinson, Sraffa etc.) and others, Kaldor and to some extent, Pasinetti; Kaldor was a brilliant economist and not in this school at all, not defensive, too interested in creating new ideas; think that the fact that he died relatively young was a great loss; Cambridge economics would have been very different if he had lived another ten years; he was a jolly person, full of life, a wonderful man; he thought capitalism is intrinsically a dynamic system; never thought it stagnant and in need of government to push it; what came out of the Keynesian tradition were people who thought that capitalism naturally tends towards stagnation; Paul Sweezy was in this school of thought; Kaldor thought capitalism too disorderly for stagnation and I think he was right

38:44:01 First read Marx in the later 1960's; believe that Marx's biggest mistake was to believe that there is an alternative to capitalism, to over-emphasise the role of human rationality in planning a complex world economy; however, his analysis of capitalism I think is absolutely brilliant and he has had a great influence; I gave lectures on Marx for many years; two great events in history helped promote Marx's ideas and others did the opposite; the First World War led to widespread belief in the possibilities of central planning; in wartime the objectives of a society are relatively limited and many desires of people are pushed aside; focus on more weapons etc. which the state can often do quite effectively; the 1920's in Russia had the same effect; now looking back at the 20's and 30's in the Soviet Union one can see the enormous cost of central planning and the limited product diversity; communism works best when it focuses on a small number of objectives; great cost in human suffering; not very viable for peace time; the failure of planning occurred when they faced the technological frontier; in Africa today governments could do with more planning because they still need to catch up with technologies; Ha-Joon Chang in my faculty tells me that quite a lot of people involved in the Asian miracle were ex-Marxists, as was Lee Kuan-Yew, and took over their belief in the role of the state but produced a much more limited role; turns out that central planning works best in an economy that has quite an extensive market; paradoxically, communist regimes failed because they tried to do everything; Marx gave some of the basis for reformed capitalism; China has an extensive market economy but the Chinese state retains great capacity; recent earthquake showed how this could be used effectively; think there are some negative things, like Tibet, but it shows an extraordinary achievement; think that in the end the problems will be more political than economic such as how to make the transition to some sort of functioning democracy

47:52:21 Have never been to China or India; never went to China because I was in the Communist Party and we were deeply suspicious of Maoist attacks on the Chinese Communist Party apparatus; later didn't go as suspicious that they would show us what they wanted us to see; have never been to Cuba for the same reason; have been to Japan a few times; have also been to Africa and Latin America but Japan is the most "foreign" country I have been to; I have never seen the internalised discipline of the Japanese, which I admire, anywhere else; I go to America a lot as I am doing a research project in Santa Fe; my interests have shifted though a lot of the people I work with are ex-Marxists; I don't regard myself as left wing any more but as communitarian, basically think that people have to look after each other but not sure of the structures that can achieve that; no longer have confidence in grand schemes where numbers of people will be killed to achieve it; think of the United States as a strange society, in some ways uncivilised; a disintegrated society; their failure to recognise that their dominance is being undermined very quickly; my respect for the United Nations has declined over its stance on Iraq; overweening pride of Bush administration and inability to understand how fragile its dominance is going to be with the rise of India, China, Brazil, and possibly Indonesia; their whole perspective is that somehow they will remain on top forever; their difficulty will be to negotiate the next few decades so that they retain some influence but to learn to live with others; Britain had to face this after Empire; on the grand scale the deaths in Iraq may not compare with other wars but the United States behaved as though they ruled the world; their biggest problem for the future is to negotiate a relationship with the rising powers

53:30:01 First came to King's in 1965; left in the early 1970's when I had an argument with the then Director of Studies, Robin Marris, who accused me of laziness; when I became a Professor approximately twelve years ago, I came back to King's as a Professorial Fellow; during the period when I was not a Fellow I did come in for lunch; feel very positively about the collegiate system; in the last fifteen years a lot of my work has been related to biology and evolution which has really come out of meeting people in King's, especially at dinner - Robert Foley and Chris Gilligan with whom I have worked; I am very interested in philosophical issues and there are a number of philosophers here; also talked to you about anthropology; have been able to leap across disciplinary boundaries which takes place effortlessly here; I think colleges are very good institutions, quite apart from the students, because they are not a place for careerism; typically, whatever subject you work in there is a very small number of you in the college, so you tend to communicate with people on the grounds of interest; Pat Bateson has also had a big influence on me; my main collaborator at the moment is an ex-Ph.D. student of mine with whom I am working on evolutionary models; the third member of the group is his ex-Ph.D. student; the best things I have done intellectually was a post-graduate course in institutional economics where I had freedom to introduce biology or law etc.; Economics Faculty has a reputation for conflict but I am quite fond of it; I did become too isolated when I broke with the Sraffians and my work suffered then; am thinking of reviving that course although I am no longer in the Faculty but it might be too big a commitment; the other thing was that with Carlos Rodriguez , my collaborator, we set up a philosophical/political/economics reading group; we read an article once a week and continued for about four years with post-graduates; I regard that as the most stimulating period in my life; it ended three years ago when I retired and he went back to Chile; made a lot of contacts through it and one of my reasons for thinking of reviving my course is to make contact with post-graduates

1:01:42:08 Got to know Edward Thompson through Sheila Rowbotham, the feminist historian; what most affected me about him was his great faith in ordinary people; a great democrat; he was in the Communist Party for a time but left in 1956 over Hungary; he was insistent on his contribution to English life and fought a long battle with people like Perry Anderson who believed that we had nothing to contribute from this country and that it would all come from continental Marxism; I knew him quite well and used to go and stay in his cottage in Wales; a wonderful person, as was his wife, Dorothy; looking back on the left, its greatest weakness has been its failure to take responsibility for historical events; an example of that attitude has been Eric Hobsbawm whose book 'Interesting Times' showed a failure to recognise that much that has gone wrong in the last 200 years was provoked by the left; not just that it has been defending virtue against the right, it has done many bad things and then produced a reaction from people who were in many cases, desperate to resist them; examples of the Spanish Civil War and Pinochet in Chile; think that that kind of utopian left is dying; that is one of the reasons why I would not regard myself as left wing any more as I do not think there is a simple blueprint; think the reason that people supported the left and refused to criticise it was that they thought they would weaken it; with regard to Stalin, a lot of people find it difficult to confront their past; I supported the communist invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 because I thought it was part of the strategic conflict between East and West and that it was more important to keep the Soviet bloc as a functioning entity than the democratic rights of the Czech people; I now think that it was an absolute disaster as 1968 was a time for a reformed communism in Europe; it might have become capitalist in the end but would have happened without all the failings that occurred after 1991; whether my mistake was moral or mistaken analysis, I'm not sure; have admiration for George Orwell the people he supported in Spain were the people who were most responsible for the war, the very people who were attacking priests etc.; the reason the Communists got support in Spain was that they were for order and moderation; Communists are a strange group as they can be more ruthless than others if they decide it is necessary, on the other hand they also believe in alliances and discipline; the anarchists and Trotskyists that Orwell liked didn't have that discipline although they may not be as ruthless; think '1984' was a marvellous book particularly in the description of "newspeak" and its relevance today; enlightened people can always determine the parameters of debate, and the enlightened people are always us

1:15:51:24 Have worked on almost everything in economics; one of the best pieces I did was in 1977 following the first oil shock; it was a theoretical analysis of the inflation in process; argued that the consequences of such things would eventually cause unemployment; it was intellectually the forerunner of what became the dominant theory in Europe for thinking about inflation for a very long time; second, the work I did on the decline in manufacturing industry, deindustrialization, an early work in which I said it was an inevitable feature of advanced economies; at the time people were not saying that; now believe that we have deindustrialized too far; I had originally thought it an important subject because I come from a steel town where a proper job was an industrial job; I think I underestimated how hard it would be to move to an alternative service economy which could generate decent jobs for people; service economies are more inegalitarian than industrial economies, the middle disappears; one of the biggest problems of democracy now in the West is the decline of an organised working class; this, with trades unions, are the basis for effective political administration; in recent times I have got interested in family disintegration and the decline of families; I did a book on law and economics of family life; north west Europe and America has had enormous instability of families which I think is a disaster; cause is hedonism caused by decline of the notion of need for binding relationships; the old left was "conservative" on these issues; the lower you go down in the social scale the worse the disintegration; think that family disintegration is a serious issue; public policy has affected this as the welfare state underpins family fragmentation; I was an advisor to the Centre for Social Justice, a Conservative Party think tank; work with the group at the Santa Fe Institute; the dominant economic model that economies consist of selfish, amoral people; every economist knows that this is not true but is a working hypothesis; counter examples of altruism and conformism which are now deemed very important in economic life; biologists have started to talk about this and I have been drawn in; the Santa Fe project is an attempt to understand the evolution of human beings; one of the things that inform that is that a well functioning society rests on the way people interact, the social norms, perceptions of moral responsibilities; reflects economists and biologists moving into sociology and anthropology; Adam Smith's 'Theory of Moral Sentiments' and Darwin's 'Descent of Man' full of things about the evolution of altruism; have done an article on this subject and also work on group selection models which combines genetics and social evolution of human beings