Saturday, February 20, 2010

The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by John Maynard Keynes

John Maynard Keynes's work has been receiving renewed attention these last two years. Much of what has been said about Keynes's work has, of course, been wildly inaccurate, and a reappraisal of Keynes's ideas as he expressed them himself only too timely.

Keynes's key book is, of course, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, which I suspect is yet another of those old, large books routinely mentioned but rarely read-all the more so given its reputation for difficulty. In the preface Keynes informs the reader that he is chiefly addressing his fellow economists, even if he hopes "that it will be intelligible to others." His intellectual starting point, in his presentation of his argument, and indeed, his thought process, is the neoclassical state-of-the-art as it stood in the 1930s, much of it recognizable to anyone acquainted with marginalism, but many of his references and much of his terminology is comparatively obscure now, especially to non-specialists.

Nonetheless, the difficulty of Keynes's manner of presentation is not a reflection of some great obscurity on the part of the book's ideas, which are actually fairly simple, and it should be noted, presented quite accessibly at a number of points inside the text itself (such as the outline offered in chapter three, and the summary in chapter eighteen).

Essentially, Keynes's argument is that the classical, "Ricardian," supply-side view of economics, is wrong. Consumption is the end of all economic activity, and without consumption-without "effective demand" (a concept Keynes borrows from Thomas Malthus)-there is no incentive to produce. Demand depends on income, but not only income, because of a crucial, previously unconsidered factor-that the "propensity to consume," both that of the community and the individual, declines with increasing wealth, making society vulnerable to shortfalls in this area. The money in the hands of working people is the money most completely and reliably spent on consumption, making effective demand dependent on employment, which in its turn is dependent on investment, while investment is dependent on the incentive to invest (purchases of capital assets out of income). This, in turn, depends "on the relation between the schedule of the marginal efficiency of capital and the complex of rates of interest on loans of various maturities and risks."

In other words, businessmen have to expect that the return on their investment will be higher than the cost of the capital involved for investment to appear worthwhile - and this confidence a fickle thing because of two related aspects of life economics had previously tended to overlook in its fixation on the idea of unfailingly rational, utility-maximizing Economic Man. This is the reality that human beings make decisions in conditions of uncertainty, one result of which is "that a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than on a mathematical expectation, whether moral or hedonistic or economic." And that, in turn, means that "economic prosperity is excessively dependent on a political and social atmosphere which is congenial to the average business man," and also that "slumps and depressions are exaggerated in degree" - as was the case with the Depression during which Keynes was writing.

This image of economic life naturally led to certain prescriptions, perhaps the most famous of which is the pursuit of a low interest rate, so that the marginal efficiency of capital, and with it, employment-creating investment, are attractive. (Indeed, Keynes specifically suggests in chapter twenty-two the path of remedying the trade cycle by lowering the interest rate, ideally "abolishing slumps and keeping us permanently in quasi-boom.") However, as he states in the final chapter (where he offers his most focused treatment of his theory's implications for policy), it also seems to him that merely tinkering with interest rates would be inadequate to attain that goal, and so he called for "a somewhat comprehensive socialisation of investment . . . [as] the only means of securing an approximation to full employment." (Indeed, a drastic redistribution of income is a step governments might take to stimulate consumption as booms go on-again, rather than putting an end to growth.)

Keynes makes very clear in his book that he did not anticipate the abolition of inequality or private initiative, let alone economic individualism (even if he viewed the reduction of inequality as an object that was both desirable and achievable). He also anticipated the socialization he described as coming about slowly, and still leaving the economy relatively decentralized.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, Keynes also recognized the limits of his ideas. There was, as he noted in chapter fifteen, limits to what the monetary authorities could do-cases where governments could do little to increase or decrease liquidity. Similarly, there is virtually no discussion of deficit spending in this book. (Indeed, this only gets one mention in chapter eight, where it is discussed as a situation in which governments might find themselves while providing unemployment relief in hard times, not as some cornerstone of his theory.) Given the emphasis on putting money into the hands of those who have least and therefore can be counted on to spend what they can get, it is also quite clear that upper-class income tax cuts are a dubious form of economic "stimulus" from the standpoint of his theory.

Why all the confusion, then? Given how often ideas like these are received secondhand, a measure of distortion was inevitable, especially given the hostility they have attracted in some quarters. This would seem to have been exacerbated by the broader inattention to macroeconomics common in the field, the fact that the synthesis of Keynes's thought with the neoclassical thinking he set up his theory against became so pervasive, and the subsequent evolution of Keynesianism into successor schools (some quite far removed from the initial theories). When all that is taken into account, the errors seem tiresomely predictable rather than surprising.

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