Sir Dennis Holme Robertson

The English economist Sir Dennis Holme Robertson (1890-1963) was a major figure in the development of economic theory in the 20th century, particularly in the fields of monetary and business cycle theory and policy.

Dennis Robertson was born on May 23, 1890, the son of the Reverend James Robertson, clergyman and headmaster of Haileybury. Educated at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge, Robertson gained through his brilliance an abundance of medals, prizes, and honors. A large part of his first notable book, A Study of Industrial Fluctuations (1915), was written at the age of 22, when he was still in his third year of his economic studies. During World War I he served in Egypt and Palestine, winning the Military Cross and, according to rumor, narrowly missing the Victoria Cross.

Robertson was elected fellow of Trinity College in 1914 and reader in economics at Cambridge University in 1930; he remained at Cambridge until 1938. At that time he was named the Sir Ernest Cassel professor of economics at the University of London. He resigned this post in 1944 to return to Cambridge as professor of political economy, a position that he held until his retirement in 1957. He died of a heart attack at Cambridge on April 21, 1963.

A brief assessment of the contributions of any one of the Cambridge economists of the immediate post-World War I period is singularly difficult. The source of the difficulty is in large part in the close working relationship and in the free sharing of ideas among men like Robertson, A. C. Pigou, R. G. Hawtrey, and John Maynard Keynes. Keynes himself remarked at the difficulty of distinguishing his own original ideas from those of his co-workers. Nevertheless, in Robertson's Banking Policy and the Price Level (1926) and a number of articles, most of which are collected in Economic Fragments (1931), are to be found, partially concealed by clumsy mathematics and confusing terminology, attempts to work real factors (such as saving and investment) into a discussion that had been previously dominated by purely monetary variables (such as the quantity of money). Also to be found are the origins of period analysis, which became so useful to economists in the following decade.

With the publication of Keynes's Treatise on Money (1930) a rift developed between Robertson and Keynes for reasons that are not entirely clear. From this time on, Robertson was particularly critical of and unwilling to accept either Keynesian theory or Keynesian policies. Although it might be argued that his contributions would have been greater had he not approached Keynesian thought as he did, his criticisms did produce positive results. His work contributed to the clarification of the inconsistencies in Keynes's definitions of saving and investment as well as to a better statement of the liquidity preference theory of interest. During World War II Robertson handled financial relations between Great Britain and the United States and played an important role in the Bretton Woods Monetary Conference.


Further Reading on Sir Dennis Holme Robertson

Ben B. Seligman, Main Currents in Modern Economics: Economic Thought since 1870 (1962), devotes a chapter to Robertson's life and work. Also useful is Terence Wilmot Hutchinson, A Review of Economic Doctrines, 1870-1929 (1953).