Thursday, September 6, 2012

Robert Giffen the Economist

Sir Robert Giffen is a famous Scottish economist born in 1837. Giffen is most well known for the economic phenomenon that bears his name the Giffen Good. A Giffen Good is a good with a positive sloping demand curve, meaning that as the price rises people buy more of that good. This is a very rare occurrence in the real world and the best known example are potatoes during the Great Potato Famine in Ireland. Granted there is some controversy surrounding the real origin of the discovery, some scholars claim he may have never mentioned it and it was a simple misattribution by the economist Alfred Marshall.

Not including the Giffen Good, Robert Giffen had a substantial influence in Economics and Finance in Great Britain. He was assistant editor for the popular magazine The Economist. he published extensively regarding several topics in economics and public finance including Essays on Finance 1879 & 1884 and The Growth of Capital 1890. During his life he was also the Head of the Statistics Department for the Board of Trade, President of the Royal Statistical Society, and an elected member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Last but not least he was also knighted under the Order of the Bath.

I first heard of Robert Giffen in my high school economics class but became familiar with him more during my  Micro Economic Theory course, where we explored the economics of Giffen Goods. I do not feel that Giffen is of particular interest to this course, but his legacy as a economic journalist is something that I respect because he helped present economics in a way that is digestible by the general population. (Which isn't done as much as it should be I think.)


  1. Let me make a case for relevance of Giffen, if only tangentially. It may be that when the economy performs very badly, such as during the Irish Potato Famine, we see forms of economic behavior that we would not otherwise witness. One wants to know if now,since the burst of the housing bubble, we're witnessing some of those extreme forms or if what we have is the new normal. Only history will tell for sure.

  2. We are seeking a male lineal descendant (surname Giffen) to participate in our global Giffen/Giffin DNA project.