Wisconsin, Labor, Income, and Institutions: Contributions from Commons and Bronfenbrenner: Volume 29 Part 3


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This essay comments on what three eminent UW-Madison economists taught during the first half of the 20th century: John R. Commons (1862–1945), Selig Perlman (1886–1959), and Martin Bronfenbrenner (1914–1997). What we know about what and how they taught varies. Interestingly, little or no effort has been made to preserve records that might inform us about what college and university economists taught their students and when and how new ideas and issues found their way into the teaching of economics. This thought first came to me in the years immediately following my joining the UW-Madison faculty in January 1965. I realized that many of us who gained experience in the policy arena while on leave in Washington DC during the 1960s incorporated that experience into our teaching at all course levels. This meant our students benefited from being on the cutting edge of emerging policy issues, such as poverty, negative income tax, human capital, military draft, and the all-volunteer army, the Kennedy round trade negotiations, tax policy, and cost–benefit analysis. We regularly incorporated these issues into our teaching, usually a half-dozen years before they made their way into the next edition of the textbooks and thus reached a wider student audience. Once incorporated into textbooks, these issues became much less interesting to teach because they had been boiled down to pedestrian textbook-style prose.

Warner Winslow Gardner's notes on The Institutional Theory of John R. Commons (1933) are published here for the first time, as far as the present editors can determine. The typewritten manuscript was found among the Robert Lee Hale papers at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University.2 Gardner (1909–2003) was born in Richmond, Indiana. He went to Westtown School, a Quaker preparatory school in Pennsylvania for five years, and then to Swarthmore College, graduating in 1930. To escape unemployment, as he stated in his recorded reminiscences, Gardner took graduate work on a fellowship at Rutgers University, receiving a Master of Arts Degree in economics in 1931.3 From there he went to Columbia Law School, graduating in 1934. Quite significantly, Gardner attributed his decision of shifting from economics to law to his reading of Commons’ Legal Foundation of Capitalism:It would be 1930–31 and, in the course of that year, I read and was much impressed by a book by John R. Commons at the University of Wisconsin in which he tried to weave together economics and law. I thought, “aha,” here is a field that had real attraction and real potentiality. I ended up with an MA at the end of that year. Instead of going for a Ph.D. in economics, I thought I’d go to law school, study law and try to weave the two disciplines together into a meaningful structure. (Gardner, 1972, p. 16).

Neoclassic economics is a thing of considerable beauty. It yet finds an increasing tendency on the part of those trained in its discipline to rebel from its neatly fitted abstractions and intriguing diagrams. The rebellion stems from two sources. Veblen's sweeping attacks upon its postulates16 shock its theoretical foundations. The rapid changes in the industrial and business world discredited it on another front by bringing into increasingly sharp relief the divergence between the institutional assumptions of the orthodox theory and the conditions actually obtaining. The giant corporation, overhead costs, and the necessity for maintenance of volume, industrial concentration, the trade association, a widening spread among income classes, advertising, the growing inability of the consumer to gauge quality, the resort to reorganization instead of the “going out of business” of the long-run analyses – what place could the orthodox theory give to these important characteristics of the existing business economy?

Martin Bronfenbrenner was born in Pittsburgh in 1914. His father was an eminent bacteriologist and immunologist. His mother was a pioneering historian of science who died in an automobile accident a few months after his birth. Martin received his BA in political science from St. Louis University in 1934 and his PhD in economics from the University of Chicago in 1939. He received a Certificate in the Japanese language from the University of Colorado enabling him to interrogate Japanese prisoners of war (he later said that the experience “developed skills that still come in handy on oral examinations” (Bronfenbrenner, 1987)). He taught at the University of Wisconsin, Michigan State, the University of Minnesota, Carnegie Tech, Aoyoma Gakuin, and Duke University. He was president of the Southern Economic Association, the History of Economics Society, and the Atlantic Economic Association and served as vice president of the American Economic Association. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a distinguished fellow of the American Economic Association.

“Economics is a Serious Subject.” Edwin Cannan.

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Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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