This 1000 word article is the third in a series of posts on Re-Reading Keynes. It traces the impact of Keynesian theories on the 20th century, as necessary background knowledge for a contextual and historically situated study of Keynes. It was published in Express Tribune on 4 Nov 2016.
The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) has created awareness of the great gap between academic models and reality. IMF Chief Economist Olivier Blanchard said that modern DSGE macroeconomic models currently used for policy decisions are based on assumptions which are profoundly at odds with what we know about consumers and firms. More than seven different schools of macroeconomic thought contend with each other, without coming to agreement on any fundamental issue. This bears a striking resemblance to the post-Depression era when Keynes set out to resolve the “deep divergences of opinion between fellow economists which have for the time being almost destroyed the practical influence of economic theory.”
Likewise, today, the inability of mainstream economists to predict, understand, explain, or find remedies for the Global Financial Crisis, has deeply damaged the reputation of economists and economic theories. Recently, World Bank Chief Economist Paul Romer stated that for more than three decades, macroeconomics has gone backwards. Since modern macroeconomics bears a strong resemblance to pre-Keynesian theories, Keynesian theories have fresh relevance, as described below.
In the aftermath of the Great Depression, economic misery was a major factor which led to the Russian Revolution and the rise of Hitler in Germany. Conventional economic theory held that market forces would automatically and quickly correct the temporary disequilibrium of high unemployment and low production in Europe and USA. Keynes argued that high unemployment could persist, and government interventions in the form of active monetary and fiscal policy were required to correct the economic problems. Many have suggested that Keynes rescued Capitalism by providing governments with rationale to intervene on behalf of the workers, thereby preventing socialist or communist revolutions. There is no doubt that strong and powerful labor movements in Europe and USA derived strength from the economic misery of the masses, and also took inspiration from the pro-labor and anti-capitalist theories of Marx. While it is hard to be sure whether Keynes saved capitalism, we can be very sure that Keynes and Keynesian theories were extremely influential in shaping the economic landscapes of the 20th Century.
Keynes actually met Roosevelt (FDR) to try to persuade him of the necessity of an aggressive fiscal policy and of running budget deficits, in order to lift the US economy out of recession. He was only partially successful. FDR, like nearly all political leaders as well as economists of the time, was convinced of the necessity of balancing budgets: this is the same ‘austerity’ being touted today as the cure for economic problems. Leading economists like Lionel Robinson and Friedrich Hayek argued in favor of austerity, and said that Keynesian remedies were dangerously wrong. They held the view that the Great Depression had been caused by excessively easy monetary policies in the pre-Depression period, and Keynesian interventions in the form of further easy monetary and fiscal policies would only prolong the agony.
FDR was not quite convinced by Keynes, but was politically savvy enough to announce that he would not balance the budget on the backs of the American people. Accordingly, he did go against his personal convictions, as well as his campaign promises of balancing the budget, which he believed to be a sound and necessary economic policy. Keynes felt that the economic policies of FDR were timid and hesitant, and prolonged the recession un-necessarily. In light of contemporary experience of the tremendously aggressive expansionary monetary policy in the post-GFC era, we can see that bolder steps by FDR would not have caused the harms that he was afraid of. In fact, after the economy recovered somewhat, FDR went back to conventional wisdom and started reducing budget deficits in 1936. This created a mini-recession which has been labelled the “Roosevelt Recession of 1937”. Duly chastened, FDR embraced Keynesian policies with greater conviction, and increased deficit spending right up to the second World War. It was the effectiveness of Keynesian policies that led even arch-enemy Friedman to state that “We are all Keynesians now,” though he later recanted. Indeed, he master-minded the Monetarist counter-revolution in the 1970’s which eventually led to a rejection of Keynesian insights, and a return to the pre-Keynesian ideas of austerity as a cure for recessions. Forgetting the hard-learned lessons of Keynes led to a recurrence of problems very similar to those faced by Keynes in the form of GFC 2007.
Following the GFC, there has been a resurgence of interest in Keynes and Keynesian Theories. In the “Return of Depression Economics”, Krugman argued for the continuing relevance of Keynes, and stated that we could end the Great Recession immediately by implementing Keynesian policies. China implemented Keynesian policies, and used a fiscal stimulus of $586 billion spread over two years, to successfully combat the global recession created by the GFC. Unlike countries forced to implement austerity, which further wrecked their economies, the Chinese economy was able to perform well in the aftermath of the GFC. The Shanghai index had been falling sharply since the September 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, but the decline was halted when news of the planned stimulus leaked in late October. The day after the stimulus was officially announced, the Shanghai index immediately rose by 7.3%, followed by sustained growth. Speaking at the 2010 Summer Davos, Premier Wen Jiabao also credited the Keynesian fiscal stimulus for good performance of the Chinese economy over the two years following the GFC.
Meanwhile, even IMF acknowledged the failure of austerity, the anti-thesis of the Keynesian policy. Massive damage was caused to Greece, Ireland, Portugal and other economies which were forced to tighten budgets in response to the recession. In the see-saw battle between Keynesians and Monetarists, after three decades of darkness, the Keynesian star seems to be rising. Strange as it may seem, many fundamental insights of Keynes were never actually absorbed by conventional economists. Keynes himself said that he had the greatest difficulty in escaping the habits of thought created by an economics education. Mainstream economists never made this escape. As a result, Keynesian theories remain an undiscovered treasure offering deep insights into current economic conditions.
The website page has many links to related materials on L3: Impact of Keynes