Posted by Alex M Thomas on March 1st, 2012
The recent global financial crisis has led to a renewed interest in the works of John Maynard Keynes. In part, this is motivated by the intellectual failure of contemporary economics and the search for important insights into the working of the real and financial sectors. Another part owes to the dissatisfaction with conventional economics and restoring the research programme of Keynes seems to point at a better alternative. Together, revisiting the works of Keynes does assume great importance in the current economic and political climate. Two books stand out in this regard: Robert Skidelsky’s Keynes: The Return of the Master and Peter Clarke’s Keynes: The Rise, Fall, and Return of the 20th Century’s Most Influential Economist. Both of them were published in 2009. This blog post is a critical examination of these two books.
According to Skidelsky, ‘the root cause of the present crisis lies in the intellectual failure of economics’ (p. xiv). To avoid such crises in the future, Skidelsky encourages economists to think of economics ‘as a moral, not natural, science’ (p. xvi). We are quite aware of the affinities between Malthus and Keynes, on the role of consumption. Besides this, Malthus had a similar vision of economics (political economy as it was known then) as Keynes. That is, Malthus also views economics as a ‘science of moral and politics’; For Keynes, economics is a ‘moral science . . . it deals with introspection and with values . . . it deals with motives, expectations, psychological uncertainties’ (p. 81). Keynes’s economics and broader ideas, argues Skidelsky, aids in contemporary economic thinking and policy making. In particular, the role of uncertainty is emphasised.
The intellectual stature of Keynes is something that is well-established. Skidelsky provides the readers with a statement from the philosopher, Bertrand Russell: ‘Keynes’s intellect was the sharpest and clearest I have ever known. When I argued with him, I felt that I took my life in my hands, and I seldom emerged without feeling something of a fool’ (p. 57). In any case, Keynes was extremely active in academic and policy discussions.
Keynes argues that investment is determined by expectations and depending on the state of confidence, investment would increase or decrease. This renders investment unstable, as a policy variable. In addition, if savings are greater than investment, it diverts resources ‘from the wider economy into financial speculation and conspicuous consumption’ (p. 69). Consumption is seen as the stable component of demand. Keynes also clarified the very important distinction between decisions to save and actual saving. Firstly, ‘If everyone wants to save more, firms will sell less and therefore output will fall, unless the inducement to invest is increasing at the same time (p. 91). This is the paradox of thrift, a simple enough idea but very powerful which had not been presented clearly so far. Therefore, if increases in saving are not matched by increases in investment, it will cause a fall in output and employment. In short, ‘It is spending, not saving, which creates output and employment; and when spending falls short of earnings, unemployment results’ (p. 91). Skidelsky captures the most important conclusion of Keynes’s General Theory which is ‘that a decentralized market economy lacks any gravitational pull towards full employment’ (p. 97).
So far, so good. However, when it comes to Keynes’s views on classical economics, Skidelsky falls prey to the conventional view. The conventional view being that Keynes attempted to disprove the economic theories of classical economissts such as Smith, Ricardo and Malthus. This view is far from the reality. (For a concise account of this, see my short article in the DSE Journal.) In fact, Skidelsky, being very faithful to Keynes’s words calls Arthur Pigou a classical economist (see p. 104). Suffice it to say here that classical economists such as Smith, Ricardo and Malthus maintained that unemployment could be a permanent feature of capitalistic economies. By classical economists, Keynes actually meant the (neoclassical) economics of Marshall and Pigou. In the following paragraphs, we will see that Clarke deals with this issue in a more satisfying way.
We need to read Keynes today, says Clarke, because of his ‘lifelong commitment to the strategy of institutional reform through reasoned argument’ (p. 23). This means that we need to understand the historic and political context in which he lived. Also, reading ‘Keynesian economics’ is no substitute for understanding Keynes. In fact, as Clarke informs us: ‘After dining with a group of American Keynesian economists in Washington, DC, in 1944, Keynes said at breakfast the next morning: ‘I was the only non-Keynesian there’’ (p. 168).
Similar in spirit to Brtrand Russells’ comment, Clarke shares with us that ‘Friedrich von Hayek, Keynes’s most formidable academic opponent, wrote that ‘he was the one really great man I ever knew, and for whom I felt admiration’’ (p. 10). Clarke sheds light on the not often discussed aspect of Keynes’s life – his training in economics. Alfred Marshall, Keynes’s family friend, taught economics to Keynes. ‘It was the usual Cambridge system of individual supervision, one hour a week for the eight weeks of the teaching term – the only formal instruction in economics that Keynes ever received’ (pp. 24-25). In any case, this doesn’t matter and clearly, it didn’t matter. For him, economic theory was not an end in itself (like the classical economists). ‘The whole point lies in applying them to the interpretation of current economic life’ (p. 49). In this quest, there are no roles for dogmas. Hence, he expressed his dissatisfaction with both anti-capitalist as well as free trade dogmas. However, the latter emerged as his primary target (p. 68). On the free trade system, Keynes writes the following: ‘It is not intelligent, it is not beautiful, it is not just, it is not virtuous – and it doesn’t deliver the goods’ (p. 72). To this end, by writing the General Theory, Keynes wanted to change the thinking of economists first and foremost. This is why the General Theory is ‘a concentrated assault on inside opinion as the necessary prelude to converting outside opinion’ (p. 77). Given those difficult times, the theoretical and policy oriented intervention of Keynes was essential. For, ‘Many people [were] trying to solve the problem of unemployment with a theory which is based on the assumption that there is no unemployment’ (p. 148).
We have already pointed the crucial distinction between saving and investment. Clarke puts forth the importance more clearly. ‘At the time, saving remained prized and honoured as the key to economic recovery. Keynes’s serious point is to distinguish saving (or thrift), which is essentially negative, from the real motor of economic growth, investment (or enterprise)’ (p. 106). Furthermore, Keynes is correct when he states: ‘I think it makes a revolution in the mind when you think clearly of the distinction between saving and investment’ (p. 107). Too much saving diminishes income. ‘It is a paradox because it seems natural to suppose that if individual saving enriches the individual concerned, it must also enrich the community’ (p. 152). Despite these crucial differences between saving and investment, much of the modern theories of economic growth seems to take the equality for granted; thanks to the single-good models and continuous production functions.
The commentary by Clarke on Keynes’s view of classical economics is historically accurate and therefore more satisfying than that of Skidelsky. The following extracts bear testimony to this. ‘Keynes later took him [Pigou] as representative of the ‘classical school’, devoting seven pages of the General Theory to a demolition of Pigou’s The Theory of Unemployment (1933)’ (p. 108). ‘Orthodox economics assumed that the system reached its own equilibrium through the effect of interest rates in reconciling the level of investment to the amount of saving available – through flexible prices, of course’ (p. 131). ‘‘Classical’ economics – really Marshallian orthodoxy – said an infinitely adjustable price mechanism will deliver equilibrium via interest rates’ (p. 134). Finally, Keynes’ friend and a reviver of classical economics, Piero Sraffa, is said to have brought the terms ‘effective demand’ to the attention of Keynes. ‘Keynes decided to salute Malthus as yet another brave Cambridge pioneer by purloining his term ‘effective demand’ to describe his own theory of output as a whole’ (pp. 143-4).
The two introductory books on Keynes by Clarke and Skidelsky attest to the intellectual and practical relevance of his work. A few points are in order. First, a perfectly competitive economy does not have intrinsic forces that result in full employment. Secondly, saving and investment are conceptually distinct variables. Finally, economic theory is a means to understanding contemporary society and not an end in itself. I let Clarke have the last word: ‘Keynes’s name is thus rightly invoked to license fresh approaches to the novel economic difficulties of our own era – to tackle them actively rather than take refuge in inert doctrinal purity’ (p. 180).