Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Roger E. Backhouse & Bradley W. Bateman's "Capitalist Revolutionary"

Roger E. Backhouse is Professor of the History and Philosophy of Economics at the University of Birmingham. Bradley W. Bateman is Provost and Professor of Economics, Denison University.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Capitalist Revolutionary: John Maynard Keynes, and reported the following:
Our book is about John Maynard Keynes, the economist who suddenly entered the news bulletins after the financial crisis erupted in 2008. When we first turned to page 99 of Capitalist Revolutionary, we were not sure how well we would do. The page is split neatly in half, with a new section of the chapter starting in the middle of the page. This did not look auspicious. But Ford Madox Ford turns out to have been right after all. Several important threads of our argument about Keynes are nicely summarized in the transition between the two sections of the chapter.

One of the book’s themes is that the media stereotype does not do justice to Keynes’s views. We claim that he was not an advocate of “big government”, offering a magic formula whereby government can cure unemployment simply by turning on and off a fiscal tap. He was a subtle thinker who was seeking pragmatically to find solutions that would solve the immediate problems that the world confronted during his lifetime – the financial chaos of the world economy after the First World War, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the problems created by the Second World War. We say this in the section that begins on page 99:
Wartime Inflation and Planning for Peace

In The General Theory [his magnum opus], Keynes had developed the tools he needed to diagnose the ills of capitalism, but he had not reached any settled conclusions about the precise cures that were needed, and he was open to experiment. He had written that “only experience can show” how far the state should operate on the propensity to consume or the incentive to invest. Recall also his later comments, quoted above, that his book “does not offer a ready-made remedy as to how to avoid these fluctuations” and that his proposed cures “are not worked out completely” but were “subject to all sorts of special assumptions and are necessarily related to the particular conditions of the time.” But this caution and pragmatism concerning policy were lost on some of his “Keynesian” followers, who, infused with the ethos of social engineering that was pervasive after the Second World War, used his theories as the basis for simple policy prescriptions much more in keeping with the magic-formula mentality that lay behind the Treatise [his previous big book].
Another central thread in our argument is that, though he was renowned for changing his mind, Keynes held a consistent vision of capitalism as being inherently unstable (a view that resonates with the economic turmoil that we are going through now). Moreover, to stabilize capitalist economies he thought it was necessary to make sure that investment was maintained at a high level. The two and a half sentences at the top of page 99, just before the section we have already quoted, obviously do not make this argument because they are the tail end of a section, but we do find mention of investment as well as the argument that he was a pragmatist moving back to views he had previously held.
[there] could be no presumption that investment would be sufficient to maintain a high level of employment. But Keynes’s view of policy is closer to their ideas of incremental change and limited government intervention than it was to his own vision of activist interest-rate policy in the Treatise. As his ideas swung back toward the traditional Cambridge theory of the trade cycle, with its emphasis on the expectations of the future, the extent of his activism moved back toward the more subtle Cambridge approach to economic policy.
Keynes was misunderstood because he advocated limited government, yet wanted government to be active in stabilizing the economy. This involved careful management that took into account the crucial role played by expectations. Page 99 does not say all of this, but the key words and phrases are there: investment, limited government intervention, activism, expectations of the future, and subtlety.

Looking at page 99, the big idea that is missing is Keynes’s moral critique of capitalism. Why? We dealt with that in the previous chapter and page 99 is in the chapter on his economic theory.
Learn more about Capitalist Revolutionary: John Maynard Keynes at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue