David R. Henderson  

DeLong on Skidelsky on Keynes

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Time passed. The death toll from WWI mounted toward ten million, Keynes became angrier and angrier at this civilization-breaking catastrophe, and angrier and angrier at the politicians who could see no way forward other than mixing more blood with the mud of Paaschendale. At the Versailles peace conference the new democratic German government was treated as a foe rather than a potential ally, and the object became to extract as much in plunder and reparations from Germany as possible. Jan Christian Smuts wrote about how he and Keynes sat at night and "rail[ed] against the world and the coming flood. And I tell him that this is the time for Grigua's prayer (the Lord to come himself and not to send his Son, as this is not a time for children). And then we laugh, and behind the laughter is [Herbert] Hoover's horrible picture of thirty million people who must die unless there is some great intervention. But then again we think that things are never really as bad as that; and something will turn up, and the worst will never be. And somehow all these phases of feeling are true and right in some sense..." (HB [Hopes Betrayed], page 373).
This is from Brad DeLong's review of Robert Skidelsky's biography of John Maynard Keynes. Brad reprinted it on his blog in April.

Many of my political allies see no good in Keynes. I've never had that attitude and the main reason, I think, is that when I was 19, I found, at the annual Winnipeg Hospital book sale, an original copy of Keynes's Economic Consequences of the Peace and read about the first half of it, enough to get the gist. I paid 25 cents for it. (It burned in my 2007 fire.) I read that first half in one night's sitting. There's quite a contrast between the clarity of that book and the fuzziness and imprecision in the General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, which, after three attempts, I have never gotten all, or even close to all, the way through. This is in contrast to my friend Alan Reynolds. When I visit friends, I like to pull books out of their library and see how they have marked them up. Alan's copy of GT is full of long comments in the margins, and not the Murray Rothbard-style putdowns, but thoughtful and respectful.

Keynes was passionate about not punishing the Germans for World War I and courageous enough to quit his job and write about it. What economic adviser nowadays has the guts to do that? Elsewhere, I have written about Keynes's willingness to criticize his own Liberal Party.

Here is my biography of Keynes in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

HT to Michael Davis.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
noiselull writes:
What economic adviser nowadays has the guts to do that?

William Easterly?

Brian Tracey writes:

Nicely done article!

Even better, it lead me to your "Keynes a la Mode." Thanks for "revealing" the feeble efforts of Backhouse and Bateman!

Brian Tracey

Eric Falkenstein writes:

Keynes was very interested in policy, as such, we should treat him like a politician: net net. Sure, he had some brilliant insights that have stood the test of time (eg, German reparations counterproductive at some level, the Ellsberg paradox), but his most important insights have been counterproductive: seeing the economy top-down w/o micro roots, using partial equilibrium analysis to extrapolate comparative statics, the broad justification for government spending on anything as productive as digging-then-filling ditches when unemployment is greater than the natural rate (ie, always).

David R. Henderson writes:

@Eric Falkenstein,
What does "net net" mean?

Eric Falkenstein writes:

Heh. The limitations of the printed word when using idioms. That's salespeak for 'net', where it acts to distinguish net vs gross, and somehow sounds wrong when you just say 'net' in speech.

For example, there's a politician who liked dogs, children, didn't drink too much or womanize but killed millions of Jews and started WW2. I would say that while he had some positive character attributes, net net, he was a bad man. Then there's a guy who invented calculus and the three laws of motion, but spent most of his time on alchemy and biblical numerology: net net he was a genius. It's looking at the balance sheet in its entirety.

Edmund writes:

You've never read the General Theory? I'd be interested to know what parts, specifically, got you down, if that were possible. I read it as an undergrad and rather enjoyed it.

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