Cameo: Spencer D. Pollard, 1910-1989

Unique among the first generation of American Keynesians, James Tobin was an undergraduate (at Harvard) when he read The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. In 1936, his tutor for Principles of Economics (“EcA”) asked the 18 year old Tobin to spend their tutorials discussing “this new book from England.” As Tobin recalled:

“I was just a sophomore in college and I hadn’t had any economics — I was just taking the introductory course. I didn’t know enough to know that I should be scared, so I started out reading The General Theory.”

Tobin’s fame is assured. But who was this consequential tutor? Spencer Drummond Pollard, Tobin tells us, “was no respecter of academic conventions,” and a graduate student in labor economics. His dissertation (1940) was on “Some problems of democracy in the government of labor unions, with special reference to the United Mine Workers of America and the United Automobile Workers of America.”

We know also, though perhaps we shouldn’t, what Keynes’s associate Roy Harrod thought of Pollard. In a 1934 letter to Richard Kahn, Harrod wrote:

“Pollard is a very different case. I was deceived in the first instance by a too facile tongue. He was doing research and did not write one regular essay. He is awfully nice and well-meaning and he is also persistent. He has on his own thought out this thesis which tho’ simple seems to me rather interesting … but owing to his vile American education and perhaps to some lack of nature – ability, he has been terribly slow in working it up into anything like formal shape. He cant write. And he cant marshal his ideas in proper logical order. I think he would be quite interesting at the club, but of course he is vastly inferior to Smith.”

Pollard passed through the ranks of the Popular Front, as head of the ill-starred Educational Film Institute at NYU. The EFI was endowed by GM executive Arthur P. Sloan as part of his broader effort to promote “wider knowledge of basic economic truths generally accepted by authorities of recognized standing and as demonstrated by experience.” Sloan’s brother Harold, an economics professor who wanted “to make America a nation of economic literates,” hired 29-year-old Spencer Pollard to head the EFI.

Pollard co-wrote the institute’s most notable production, Valley Town, directed by Willard Van Dyke, scored by Marc Blitzstein, and with voiceovers written by Ben Maddow, who  be blacklisted in the 1950s for his proximity to the Communist Party. A minor version of Diego Rivera’s conflict with Nelson Rockefeller followed: though Sloan had envisioned “the creation of entertaining motion pictures on live social problems, such as displacement of men by machines,” he was unhappy with Valley Town’s bleak modernist rendering of a steel town abruptly expelled from the capitalist production process. The film, which premiered at a Steel Workers Organizing Committee convention in 1940, was recalled and re-released in a more anodyne form. EFI folded shortly thereafter.

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Pollard became a practitioner and professor of the science of labor arbitration. Apparently, “Berkeley hired [Clark] Kerr as a professor simply to fill a vacancy caused by the resignation of Spencer Pollard” (Pollard spent most of his academic career at USC.) Scraps of his case record provide a glimpse of the contours of postwar employment:

“The Opinion and Award of the Arbitrator, Mr. Spencer Pollard, are dated July 26, 1966, and the Award states that Mary Jaramillo, an employee of petitioner, ‘did not engage in strike misconduct.’ Petitioner seeks vacation of the Award on the grounds that the Arbitrator refused to permit witness Ofiicer Gottesman, one of two Police Olficers who witnessed the alleged rock throwing incident involved, to complete his testimony at the arbitration hearing and refused to consider the testimony.”

“In the Consolidated case, Spencer Pollard declared, ‘In the judgment of the arbitrator, the issue here is not whether the company may discharge an employee disloyal to the United States but whether the company may itself decide whether an employee is disloyal or not and take action against the employee on its own decision.'”

“Arbitrator Spencer Pollard expressed the same thought in refusing to interfere with a one-month suspension given to an employee who overstayed his vacation by four days. Although the penalty seemed harsh, it was moderate in view of contractual authorization for discharge in that case.”

In 1971, Pollard reviewed David McClellan’s selections from Marx’s Grundrisse. He was fluent enough in new Marxisms to note that, according to Louis Althusser’s periodization, the Grundrisse “reflects the beginning of Marx’s mature thought.” He even compares (in the middlebrow pages of the Saturday Review) the precise wording of Pour Marx against the English translation. By way of conclusion, the labor arbitrator offers a technician’s credo:

“By now our experience with capitalism, communism, socialism, and the in-betweens may well have justified the conclusion that none of these economic systems has such an invisible hand, though each of them seems to have a visible foot, kicking holes into such supergoods as freedom, justice, and peace. If we want to enjoy these supergoods, their production cannot be entrusted to an invisible hand. Their existence must be fabricated, no matter what form society takes. If we induce, or assign, enough labor, capital, land, and enterprise to the creation of freedoms, for example, we can have a number of them. Producing them requires constitutions, congresses, courts, police, attorneys, associations, clerks, schools, books, and whatever pertains to these agencies. If we want good human relations, as another example, we need educators, counselors, conciliators, referees, contracts, pacts, treaties, and the personnel to operate them. Each supergood requires its own industry—the peace industry, the justice industry, the freedom industry, as well as an industry to take care of the bads we produce along with our goods.”

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