P5:Intellectual & Theoretical Context

keynesgtFifth Post in a sequence on Re-Reading Keynes. 

Chapter 1 of General Theory is just one paragraph, displayed in full HERE

Briefly: Keynes writes that Classical Economics is a special case of his General Theory. Furthermore, the assumptions required for the special case do not hold for contemporary economic societies,”with the result that its teaching is misleading and disastrous if we attempt to apply it to the facts of experience”

The discussion below borrows extensively, without explicit point-by-point acknowledgement, from Brian S. Ferguson, “Lectures on John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1): Chapter One, Background and Historical Setting” University of Guelph Department of Economics and Finance Discussion Paper No. 2013-06:

1.       RHETORIC: Keynes wishes to persuade fellow economists. Instead of saying that they are all wrong, blinkered idiots, he says that they are studying a special case, which he wishes to generalize. He also acknowledges that he was misled by the same errors, and creates common ground to enable dialog. He is also making a subliminal appeal to the hugely influential General Theory of Relativity published earlier by Einstein.

2.       INVENTION OF MACRO: The revolutionary contribution of Keynes is to study aggregates, instead of micro-level behavior. He is correctly labelled the inventor of macro-economics; prior to him, economists thought that the aggregate behavior would be obtained simply as a sum of the individual behaviors; there is no need to study macroeconomics separately. Parenthetically, it is this same position to which macro-economists retreated in the 70’s and 80’s with the development of DSGE model. Ferguson writes that:

Arguably, prior to the General Theory, most professional economists thought of the macroeconomy in a general equilibrium sense, as an aggregate of a large number of individual markets, and they assumed that the analysis of how individual markets behaved could be carried over pretty much unchanged to the collection of markets which constituted the economy as a whole. There was, it seemed, no need to think of the economy as anything other than the sum of its parts, and an understanding of how those parts worked was sufficient to understand how the economy as a whole worked. After the General Theory, that no longer held. Economists started to think in terms of aggregates.

3.       COMPLEX SYSTEMS: The flaws of this attempt to build macro on micro-foundations are still not well understood by modern economists due to the blinders of methodological individualism. These flaws include the failure to understand “Complexity Theory”, “Emergent Behaviors” and the influence of community and society on individual behavior. Basically, a complex system is one in which the behavior of the system as a whole cannot be inferred or deduced from the study of the individual parts, because it is the inter-relationships and linkages between the parts which create the system.  An extensive discussion of Keynes and complex systems is provided by John Foster, Why is Economics not a Complex Systems Science? Discussion Paper No. 336, December 2004, School of Economics, The University of Queensland. A brief quote from the abstract for the paper:

The macroeconomics of John Maynard Keynes is … an example of … (a) complex systems perspective on the economy. … the reasons why a complex systems perspective did not develop in the mainstream of economics in the 20th Century, despite the massive popularity of an economist like Keynes are discussed …

4.       MISUNDERSTANDING KEYNES: Very few read Keynes, and those who do fail to understand him for several reasons. Conceptual frameworks and background institutional structures (like the gold standard) are taken for granted and implicit in the analysis and discussion, but these have changed radically over time. In addition, “Keynes was inventing a new way of looking at the economy as a whole. He was struggling to develop concepts and invent terms, and many of the terms which he invented are not the ones we use today.” Because of this mis-understanding, revivals of Keynes (Like New Keynesians) often reject principles which Keynes considered central to his analysis, and accept propositions that Keynes firmly rejected.  Another reason for neglect of Keynes is the positivist reduction of scientific knowledge to binaries: true/false. What matters for a statement is whether or not it is relevant and valid for today, not whether or not Keynes said it, or what he meant. As Krugman puts it: Surely we don’t want to do economics via textual analysis of the masters. The questions one should ask about any economic approach are whether it helps us understand what’s going on, and whether it provides useful guidance for decisions. “So I don’t care whether Hicksian IS-LM is Keynesian in the sense that Keynes himself would have approved of it, and neither should you.” If theories have universal, time invariant, validity, then this would be a correct position. However, the basis premise of this re-reading of Keynes is that economic theories must be understood within their historical context.

5.       SAY’s LAW: The crucial issue under debate, tackled in the 2nd chapter of Keynes is: Can unemployment be reduced using fiscal policy and deficit financing? Keynes argues that it can, contrary to the view of classical that “unemployment” is not a problem – Supply and Demand for labor will equilibrate. Say’s Law holds so that the supply of labor will create the demand for it.

6.       CROWDING OUT: A crucial argument against Keynes is the Treasury View: Government investment will crowd out an equal amount of private investment. Government must borrow credit from the same market that private borrowers do. To the extent that Government succeeds in borrowing, private investors will fail in borrowing. This argument fails if the private sector expands the supply of credit in response to increased government demand for borrowing. Therefore the Treasury View is supplemented by two more pragmatic arguments. Second Treasury argument is based on extreme lags and inefficiencies in the governmental bureaucracies selection and launching of major public works projects. Such lags could mean that a intended counter-cyclical investment could be delayed so long as to become pro-cyclical.

7.       PRACTICAL PROBLEMS WITH PUBLIC WORKS: There were other practical, pragmatic aspects to the Treasury View, that governments cannot or should not spend their way out of a recession. To avoid the lags in fiscal policy, one needs “shovel-ready” projects to finance.  One of the most interesting quotes from Ferguson in this regard is:

cash-strapped local governments would cut back on their spending in response to increased central government spending in their areas. … Herbert Hoover, contrary to the image which he has acquired as a consequence of not being FDR, did not cut American federal government spending in response to the Depression, rather he increased it dramatically. … His first policy efforts involved spending federal money on shovel-ready public works projects, meaning projects which were already well into the planning stages and which needed only to have their commencement dates brought forward. In addition to finding that there weren’t anything like as many shovel-ready projects as he had hoped, Hoover found that state governments, whose own revenues were severely stressed by the Depression, responded to inflows of federal money by cutting their own relief spending, and moving to balance their budgets. (Many years later, officials from Franklin Roosevelt’s administration acknowledged that the bits of the New Deal which had actually worked were the bits they had simply taken over from Hoover. By then, though, Hoover’s reputation was pretty much beyond repair.)

8.       GOOD GOVERNANCE: Another very serious pragmatic Treasury concern was that Keynesian policy would lead to irresponsible excessive spending by politicians.

The need to keep the budget balanced had come to be accepted over the years by politicians as a matter of good governance. Treasury officials were concerned that if they accepted Keynes’ argument and gave politicians an excuse to spend in excess of revenue in some circumstances, the floodgates would burst and it would be impossible to prevent politicians from overspending under virtually all circumstances. The concern seems to have been that no matter what the circumstances, politicians would be able to come up for Keynesian reasons for deficit spending. In that fear, the Treasury officials seem to have been vindicated. As for staying on the Gold Standard the concern within the Treasury was similar: adherence to the rules of the Gold Standard was the best safeguard against unrestrained printing of money. (When Britain went off the Gold Standard for good in 1931, Sidney Webb, a member of a previous Labour party government, was reported to have lamented that when they had been in office nobody had told them that they were allowed to do that.)

Among the predecessors of Keynes, Ferguson writes that Keynes views were aligned with those of Malthus and against those of Ricardo on the following key dimensions:

9.       Against Comparative Statics: Keynes objected to Ricardian analysis on the grounds that it analyzed movements from one equilibrium state to another, without considering the disequilibrium transitional paths, and how long the transition would take. This is the context for his famous aphorism that in the long run we are all dead. He believed that studying transitional dynamics was more important than focusing on equilibrium conditions.

10.   Quick Movement to Equilibrium in Labor Markets:  Keynes objected strongly to Ricardian contentions that “labour markets worked efficiently and that wages would adjust quickly to restore equilibrium after a labour market shock.” This belief, widely held, was labeled “classical” by Keynes. Note that this belief is precisely what was resurrected by Lucas and the Chicago School, in their attack on Keynes.

This post covers about half of the Brian Ferguson article, which is about the “theoretical” context in which Keynes was writing. The second half is about the historical context, which we will cover in the next post. The homepage for this project is Keynes.

My author page on LinkedIn Index to my writings: AZPROJECTS. General Posts on Economics: Unlearning Economics. My personal webpage: Transforming Knowledge.

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1 comment
  1. David Chester said:

    The misuse of Says Law of Markets here (paragraph 5) sets the whole of the thinking process along the wrong lines. The Law does not apply to anything other than goods, and the supply of labor is not such a commodity. Then the supply of labor due to the existence of unemployment will not create new work. In fact the limitation is not on available money but on opportunities for entrepreneurs to compete. These opportunities are in the form of useful land sites which are being withheld by land owners whose speculation in their natural resources has some very adverse effects on national progress.

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