A thinker for our times

Global leaders are once again reminding themselves of the insights of the Cambridge academic who hel

John Maynard Keynes has been restored to life. Rusty Keynesian tools – larger budget deficits, tax cuts, accelerated spending programmes and other “economic stimuli” – have been brought back into use the world over to cut off the slide into depression. And they will do the job, if not next year, the year after. But the first Keynesian revolution was not about a rescue operation. Its purpose was to explain how shipwreck might occur; in short, to provide a theoretical basis for better navigation and for steering in seas that were bound to be choppy. Yet, even while the rescue operation is going on, we need to look critically at the economic theory that takes his name.

In his great work The General Theory of Employment, In terest and Money, written during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Keynes said of his ideas that they were "extremely simple, and should be obvious". Market economies were in herently volatile, owing to un certainty about future events being inescapable. Booms were liable to lead to catastrophic collapses followed by long periods of stagnation. Governments had a vital role to play in stabilising market economies. If they did not, the undoubted benefit of markets would be lost and political space would open up for extremists who would offer to solve economic problems by abolishing both markets and liberty. This, in a nutshell, was the Keynesian "political economy".

These ideas were a challenge to the dominant economic models of the day which held that, in the absence of noxious government interference, market economies were naturally stable at full employment. Trading in all markets would always take place at the "right" prices – prices that would "clear the market". This being so, booms and slumps, and prolonged unemployment, could not be generated by the market system itself. If they did happen, it was due to "external shocks". There were many attempts to explain the Great Depression of the 1930s along these lines – as a result of the dislocations of the First World War, of the growth of trade union power to prevent wages falling, and so on. But Keynes rightly regarded such explanations as self-serving. The Great Depression started in the United States, not in war-torn Europe, and in the most lightly regulated, most self-contained, and least unionised, market economy of the world. What were the "external shocks" that caused the Dow Jones Index to fall from 1,000 to 40 between 1929 and 1932, American output to drop by 20 per cent and unemployment to rise to 25 million?

He set out to save capitalism, a system he did not much admire, because he thought it the best hope for the future of civilisation

We can ask exactly the same question today as the world economy slides downwards. The present economic crisis has been generated by a banking system that had been extensively deregulated and in a flexible, largely non-unionised, economy. Indeed, the American capitalism of the past 15 years strongly resembles the capitalism of the 1920s in general character. To Keynes, it seemed obvious that large instabilities were inherent in market processes themselves.

 

John Maynard Keynes was a product of Cambridge civilisation at its most fertile. He was born in 1883 into an academic family, and his circle included not just the most famous philosophers of the day – G E Moore, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein – but also that exotic offshoot of Cambridge, the Bloomsbury Group, a commune of writers and painters with whom he formed his closest friendships. Keynes was caught up in the intellectual ferment and sexual awakening that marked the passage from Victorian to Edwardian England. At the same time, he had a highly practical bent: he was a supreme example of what Alasdair MacIntyre calls “the aesthete manager”, who partitions his life between the pleasures of the mind and the senses and the management of public affairs. After the First World War, Keynes set out to save a capitalist system he did not particularly admire. He did so because he thought it was the best guarantor of the possibility of civilisation. But he was always quite clear that the pursuit of wealth was a means, not an end. He did not much admire economics, either, hoping that some day economists would become as useful as dentists.

All of this made him, as his wife put it, "more than an economist". In fact, he was the most brilliant non-economist who ever applied himself to the study of economics. In this lay both his greatness and his vulnerability. He imposed himself on his profession by a series of profound insights into human behaviour which fitted the turbulence of his times. But these were never – could never be – properly integrated into the core of his discipline, which spewed them out as soon as it conveniently could. He died of heart failure in 1946, having worked himself to death in the service of his country.

The economic theory of Keynes's day, which precluded boom-bust sequences, seemed patently contrary to experience, yet its foundations were so deep-dug, its defences so secure, its reasoning so compelling, that it took Keynes three big books – including a two-volume Treatise on Money – to see how it might be cracked. His attempt to do so was the most heroic intellectual enterprise of the 20th century. It was nothing less than the attempt to overturn the dominant economic paradigm dating from Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

He finally said what he wanted to say in the preface to The General Theory: "A monetary economy, we shall find, is one in which changing views about the future are capable of in fluencing the quantity of employment and not merely its direction." In that pregnant sentence is the whole of the Keynesian revolution.

Keynes's understanding about how economies work was rooted in his theory of knowledge. The future was unknowable: so disaster was always possible. Keynes did not believe that the future was wholly unknowable. Not only can we calculate the probability of winning the Lottery, but we can forecast with tolerable accuracy the price movements of consumer goods over a short period. Yet we "simply do not know" what the price of oil will be in ten, or even five, years' time. Investments which promised returns "at a comparatively distant, and sometimes an indefinitely distant, date" were acts of faith, gambles on the unknown. And in that fact lay the possibility of huge mistakes.

Classical economists could not deny the possibility of unpredictable events. Inventions are by their nature unpredictable, especially as to timing, and many business cycle theorists saw them as generating boom-bust cycles. But mainstream economics, nevertheless, "abstracted" from such disturbances. The technique by which it did so is fascinatingly brought out in an argument about economic method between two 19th-century economists, which Keynes cited as a fork in the road. In 1817, Ricardo wrote to his friend Thomas Malthus: "It appears to me that one great cause of our differences . . . is that you have always in your mind the immediate and temporary effects of particular changes, whereas I put these immediate and temporary effects quite aside, and fix my whole attention on the permanent state of things which will result from them."

To this, Malthus replied: "I certainly am disposed to refer frequently to things as they are, as the only way of making one's writing practically useful to society . . . Besides I really do think that the progress of society consists of irregular movements, and that to omit the consideration of causes which for eight or ten years will give a great stimulus to production and population or a great check to them is to omit the causes of the wealth and poverty of nations . . ."

Keynes sided with Malthus. He regarded the timeless equilibrium method pioneered by Ricardo as the great wrong turning in economics. It was surely the Ricardo-Malthus exchange he had in mind when writing his best-known aphorism: "But this long run is a misleading guide to affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again."

Ricardo may have thought of the "long run" as the length of time it took storms to disperse. But under the influence of mathematics, economists abandoned the notion of time itself, and therefore of the distinction between the long run and the short run. By Keynes's time, "risks", as he put it, "were supposed to be capable of an exact actuarial computation". If all risks could be measured they could be known in advance. So the future could be reduced to the same epistemological status as the present. Prices would always reflect objective probabilities. This amounted to saying that unregulated market economies would generally be extremely stable. Only very clever people, equipped with adequate mathematics, could believe in anything quite so absurd. Under the influence of this theory, governments withdrew from active management and regulation of economic life: it was the age of laissez-faire.

Keynes commented: "The extraordinary achievement of the classical theory was to overcome the beliefs of the 'natural man' and, at the same time, to be wrong." It was wrong because it "attempts to apply highly precise and mathematical methods to material which is itself much too vague to support such treatment".

Keynes did not believe that "natural man" was irrational. The question he asked was: how do we, as rational investors, behave when we – unlike economists – know that the future is uncertain, or, in economist-speak, know that we are "informationally deprived"? His answer was that we adopt certain "conventions": we assume that the future will be more like the past than experience would justify, that existing opinion as expressed in current prices correctly sums up future prospects, and we copy what everyone else is doing. (As he once put it: "Bankers prefer to be ruined in a conventional way.") But any view of the future based on "so flimsy a foundation" is liable to "sudden and violent changes" when the news changes. "The practice of calmness and immobility, of certainty and security suddenly breaks down. New fears and hopes will, without warning, take charge of human conduct . . . the market will be subject to waves of optimistic and pessimistic sentiment, which are unreasoning yet in a sense legitimate where no solid basis exists for a reasonable calculation."

 

But what is rational for individuals is catastrophic for the economy. Subnormal activity is possible because, in times of crisis, money carries a liquidity premium. This increased "propensity to hoard" is decisive in preventing a quick enough fall in interest rates. The mainstream economics of Keynes's day viewed the interest rate (more accurately, the structure of interest rates) as the price that balances the overall supply of saving with the demand for investment. If the desire to save more went up, interest rates would automatically fall; if the desire to save fell, they would rise. This continual balancing act was what made the market economy self-adjusting. Keynes, on the other hand, saw the interest rate as the "premium" for parting with money. Pessimistic views of the future would raise the price for parting with money, even though the supply of saving was increasing and the demand for investment was falling. Keynes's "liquidity preference theory of the rate of interest" was the main reason he gave for his claim that market economies were not automatically self-correcting. Uncertainty was what ruined the classical scheme.

The same uncertainty made monetary policy a dubious agent of recovery. Even a "cheap money" policy by the central bank might not be enough to halt the slide into depression if the public's desire to hoard money was going up at the same time. Even if you provide the water, you can't force a horse to drink. This was Keynes's main argument for the use of fiscal policy to fight a depression. There is only one sure way to get an increase in spending in the face of falling confidence and that is for the government to spend the money itself.

This, in essence, was the Keynesian revolution. Keynesian economics dominated policymaking in the 25 years or so after the Second World War. The free-market ideologists gave this period such a bad press, that we forget how successful it was. Even slow-growing Britain chugged along at between 2 and 3 per cent per capita income growth from 1950-73 without serious interruptions, and the rest of the world, developed and developing, grew quite a bit faster. But an intellectual/ideological rebellion against Keynesian economics was gathering force. It finally got its chance to restore economics to its old tramlines with the rise of inflation from the late 1960s onwards – something which had less to do with Keynesian policy than with the Vietnam War. The truth was that "scientific" economics could not live with the idea of an unpredictable world. So, rather than admit that it could not be a "hard" science like physics, it set out to abolish uncertainty.

The "new" classical economists hit on a weak spot in Keynesian theory. The view that a large part of the future was unknowable seemed to leave out learning from experience or making efficient use of available information. Rational agents went on making the same mistakes. It seemed more reasonable to assume that recurrent events would initiate a learning process, causing agents to be less often surprised by events. This would make economies more stable.

The attack on Keynes's "uncertain" expectations developed from the 1960s onwards, from the "adaptive" expectations of Milton Friedman to the "rational" expectations of Robert Lucas and others. The development of Bayesian statistics and Bayesian decision-theory suggested that agents can always be modelled as having prior probability distributions over events – distributions that are updated by evidence.

 

Today, the idea of radical uncertainty, though ardently championed by “post-Keynesians” such as Paul Davidson, has little currency in mainstream economics; however, it is supported by financiers of an intellectual bent such as George Soros. As a result, uncertainty once more became “risk”, and risk can always be managed, measured, hedged and spread. This underlies the “efficient market hypothesis” – the idea that all share options can be correctly priced. Its acceptance explains the explosion of leveraged finance since the 1980s. The efficient market hypothesis has a further implication. If the market always prices financial assets correctly, the “real” economy – the one involved in the production of goods and non-financial services – will be as stable as the financial sector. Keynes’s idea that “changing views about the future are capable of influencing the quantity of employment” became a discarded heresy.

And yet the questions remain. Is the present crisis a once-in-a-lifetime event, against which it would be as absurd to guard as an earthquake, or is it an ever-present possibility? Do large "surprises" get instantly diffused through the price system or do their effects linger on like toxic waste, preventing full recovery? There are also questions about the present system that Keynes hardly considered. For instance: are some structures of the economy more conducive to macroeconomic stability than others?

This is the terrain of Karl Marx and the underconsump tionist theorists. There is a long tradition, recently revived, which argues that the more unequal the distribution of income, the more unstable an economy will be. Certainly globalisation has shifted GDP shares from wages to profits. In the underconsumptionist tradition, this leads to overinvestment. The explosion of debt finance can be interpreted as a way of postponing the "crisis of realisation".

Keynes did not have a complete answer to the problems we are facing once again. But, like all great thinkers, he leaves us with ideas which compel us to rethink our situation. In the long run, he deserves to ride again.

Lord Skidelsky is the author of "John Maynard Keynes" (three volumes), published in hardback by Macmillan