The first post on Reading Keynes provided an outline of the reasons why this is a good idea. It is clear that economics is broken. We need a new macroeconomics for the 21st century, one which can solve the massive problems which humanity as a whole is facing on political, social, economic, and environmental dimensions. Keynes faced similar problems, and found solutions which guided economic policy in the mid twentieth century. It is always useful to absorb the insights of our predecessors, before trying to build upon them. Such a methodology is essential for the advancement, progress and accumulation of knowledge. Our current stock of human knowledge is based on the collected insights and labors of hundreds of thousands of scholars, accumulated over the centuries. We would return to the stone ages if we were to reject it as being full of contradictions and errors (which it is). Instead, progress occurs by absorbing the past accumulated wisdom, and trying to remove the errors, or add missing insights, building on our heritage, rather than discarding it and starting over from scratch.
Several of the central Keynesian insights into the causes of the Great Depression never made it into the economics textbooks. However, our goal in studying Keynes goes far beyond just the re-discovery of these lost Keynesian insights. A central goal is to apply and illustrate a radically different methodology for studying economics in particular, and social science in general. This is derived from a study of The Methodology of Polanyi’s Great Transformation. This is an extremely important point, which we proceed to amplify and explain further.
1. Problems with contemporary economic theory arise from a fundamentally flawed methodology, which is incapable of learning from real world experiences. As Romer said, macroeconomics has gone backwards for the last several decades. This is because the methodology currently in use does not lead to progress and accumulation of knowledge. Very briefly, this is because current methodology is the Axiomatic-Deductive Methodology of Greek Geometry, which was never successful in dealing with natural phenomenon. Instead, what is needed is scientific methodology as practiced and demonstrated by Ibn-ul-Haytham. Unfortunately, logical positivism created massive confusions and misunderstandings regarding scientific methodology, which persist to this day, despite the fact that logical positivism has been rejected.
2. Why have modern economists adopted and practiced a deeply flawed methodology? This is a complex and tangled tale, but its origins lie in the Battle of the Methodologies (Methodenstreit) in the 1890’s. In this battle, the German Historical School of Schmoller, which advocated a contextual and historical approach lost to the Austrian School of Menger, which advocated a more scientific, mathematical and a-historical methodology. The details and consequences have been explained at length in “How Economics Forgot History” by Geoffrey Hodgson. As a consequence of the economists’ search for scientific laws which are universal invariants, economic theorists have invented an artificial world of maximizing robots without history, culture, institutions, and social norms.The process of economic modelling — learning to think like an economist — involves translating economic problems to this artificial world and then calculating the results. This can be done because all the robotic agents behave in predictable ways, and the environment is sterilized of all particular historical, social, environmental elements. However, most often, economic outcomes in this artificial world bear no resemblance to outcomes in the real world. Mistaking a highly distorted map for the territory, economists are confused when real world phenomena do not match the results of their models.
Some of the key methodological issues which we will try to develop in this re-reading of Keynes are highlighted below:
3. Theories cannot be separated from their historical context. Thus Keynesian theory can only be understood within its historical context. We cannot understand Keynesian theory as a collection of principles and/or mathematical laws, taken out of context and understood to apply to all economies across time and space. When placed within it historical context, Keynes becomes much easier to understand.
4. Even more important, theories interact with history. Human being formulate theories in order to try to understand and explain changing social circumstances. When circumstances change rapidly, theories are devised to understand the change. These theories, whether right or wrong, are used to respond to changes, and thus end up shaping history. From this perspective, it is important to study Keynes, regardless of whether his theories were right or wrong, because economic policies from mid-twentieth century onwards were guided by his views. Thus Keynesian theories have shaped economic history. There is a complex interaction of theories and history, and we cannot understand history without theories, just as we cannot understand theories without their historical context.
5. Because of the central importance of point 4 above, we provide a simple illustration to clarify it. As described in greater detail by Polanyi, the process of enclosures of common land deprived the masses of access to livelihood and created poverty on a large scale in England. Large numbers of authors described the problems and searched for causes of this phenomena. However, the analysis of Malthus, which blamed the problem on the excessive fertility of the poor, came to dominate. His theories deeply influenced the Poor Laws, and the British response to poverty, and thus millions of lives. Even though Malthusian theories about the arithmetic increase of food and the geometric increase of population were empirically incorrect, we must understand Malthus to understand the economic policies and circumstances of England at that time.
Accordingly to widely accepted methodological principles underlying the development of modern economics, theories are formulated without historical context. In addition, economics is studied in isolation from politics and society. We propose to study Keynesian theories within their historical context. This will substantially enrich our understanding of Keynes. In addition, the historical context includes the political, social, and economic environment, which will allow us to see that economic events cannot be studied in isolation, since all these dimensions of human lives interact with each other. Again our approach goes against a core methodological commitment of modern economics, which insists that economics can be separated from political and social circumstances and studied in isolation.