P6: Historical Context for Keynes

This post, 6th in a sequence about Re-Reading Keynes, continues to borrow heavily 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. However the first three paragraphs are mine.

Distinguishing between ideologies and science:

Deduction: According to Lionel Robbins, economic theory uses an axiomatic deductive methodology, based on logical deduction from postulates which are “simple and indisputable facts of experience.” This means that there is no possibility of mistakes, and hence no possibility of learning from empirical evidence. If someone claims to have drawn a triangle where three angles do not sum to 180, we would not examine this triangle carefully to see if our law is empirically refuted. This is exactly the defining feature of an ideology – it does not waver in face of empirical evidence to the contrary.  For more details, see Economic Theory as Ideology. This is important because today we are still fighting the same battles, discussing the same questions, which were being discussed at the time of Keynes. Macroecconomics has been going backwards for decades, and there has been failure to learn from experience, due to the adoption of axiomatic-deductive methodology by economists

Induction: As opposed to this, scientific laws derived from induction are always falsifiable – the next experience may refute them. As a result, revisions are frequently necessary, as more and more experience comes in. The central insight of Kuhn is that scientific progress occurs via revolutions, which destroy one established way of looking at the world, and replace it with another. One of the key assertions of Polanyi is that when social change occurs, people devise theories to try to understand the new phenomena. These theories are often wrong, because lack of experience leads to misunderstandings. The ability to arrive at good theories depends crucially on the ability to revise theories in light of experience.

Learning from Experience: To understand economic events, we must study the wrong theories used by early theorists to understand these events, since responses to these events are shaped by these theories. To understand the impact of economic change, we must study both the (objective) events, and the (subjective) understanding of the events by leading theorists, since the response to the events will be shaped by the joint effects of the external objective circumstances and the internal subjective theories about these circumstances.

Flexibility of Keynes: Keynes had this ability par excellence. There are many anecdotes about how he was quick to change his mind, when confronted with empirical evidence to the contrary. In contrast, economists brought up on axiomatic-deductive methodology disregard conflicts with real world data to the extreme that Romer labeled “post-real.” Some of the ways that Keynes revised his theories in light of empirical evidence are discussed by Ferguson.

Keynesian Theories Developed in Light of Experience

“Hawtrey convinced Keynes that the analytical approach of the Treatise on Money was fundamentally wrong. In the Treatise, Keynes focused on the adjustment of prices to changes in economic conditions, with quantity adjustments being something of an add-on. Hawtrey convinced Keynes that the first thing firms do in response to a reduction in demand is not to cut prices, it is to cut output, with price adjustments following later. This ultimately led Keynes to the formulation in the General Theory in which prices are moved aside and the primary adjustment to changes in aggregate demand take the form of changes in aggregate output and employment.”

Many other instances of how Keynes took concrete practical details about the structure of the UK economy into account in formulating and revising his theories are cited by Ferguson. This is an important differentiating feature of Keynesian theory: it takes real world economic structures and experience into account, unlike conventional “post-real” economics.

Pre-War Prosperity in UK:  Ferguson quotes a long passage from Keynes’ Economic Consequences of Peace, idealizing the pre-war UK economy

What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man that age was which came to an end in August, 1914!  …(the poor were comfortable, and had the chance of escaping into) … the middle and upper classes, for whom life offered, at a low cost and with the least trouble, conveniences, comforts, and amenities beyond the compass of the richest and most powerful monarchs of other ages.”

The post-war slump experienced by UK was more disturbing precisely because it seemed that there should be a way to get back to the pre-war prosperity.

Classical Views on Post-War Transition to Peacetime Economy:   As a war economy has to transition to producing peace-time goods, there will a temporary period of transition. How long the transition takes depends on the mix between financial capital and fixed capital utilized in production. Financial capital can easily be transferred, while large proportions of fixed capital would result in delays in transition to new post-war equilibrium.

Initially, as a classical economist, Keynes thought that a return to equilibrium would occur speedily. However, as the 1920’s progressed, unemployment remained high in UK, and Keynes started to have doubts about the classical views. He advocated government intervention to the Macmillan Committee formed to investigate the depressed economy of Britain, because he felt that classical equilibrium mechanisms were taking too long.  Classical economists considered unemployment as part of the business cycle, Keynes came to the conviction that a separate theory of employment was needed.

Puzzle of Long-term Persistent Unemployment:  From a historical perspective, unemployment in the first few years after the First World War was not unusually high: it was, in fact, not much higher, if at all, than its pre-War peaks. What was different after the war was the fact that it didn’t come back down again anything like as quickly as pre-War experience would have predicted. (See Figure below, taken from Ferguson); see also, Creating Full Employment


Classical Explanations: non-Keynesian explanations can be provided for this:

One: was the presence of unemployment insurance, and strong unions. Labor was able to negotiate an eight hour work week with no reduction in wages. All of these increased labor costs substantially, and may have been the source of higher unemployment

Two: There was a post-war boom because of increased earnings and demand by the poorer segments of society. An inflationary boom began in 1919. The government was slow to respond, but raise the the bank rate to 7% 1921 (Keynes had recommended raising it to 10% and holding it there to stamp out inflationary pressures). What had not been anticipated was the extreme sensitivity of economic activity to the interest rate. The result of the 1921 tightening was not just the end of the post-War boom but a drop into recession. In brief, bad monetary policy was responsible.

Three: The return to the Gold Standard, at the pre-World War One parity in 1925. This made the pound overvalued, made British exports expensive, and imports cheap. This caused substantial harm to domestic industries, and led to deepening and prolonging the slump. Furthermore, to prevent outflows of gold, Britain had to raise interest rates, leading to tight money and low investment, contributing further to the slump. Arguably, British recovery dates from 1931, when Britain went off the Gold Standard, this time for good.

Concluding Remarks

Ferguson argues that what we now call a Keynesian model is an intermediate stage of Keynesian thinking as it evolved and does not capture later stages of Keynesian thought as described in the General Theory. We need to study GT in detail to understand the special features of the Keynesian model, which include a different theory of the labor market.

The homepage for this project is  Re-Reading Keynes.My author page on LinkedIn Index to my writings: AZPROJECTS.  My personal webpage: Transforming Knowledge.


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