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Keynes’s General Theory at 80

Author(s): Robert Skidelsky

In 1936, John Maynard Keynes's magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, was published. How much of Keynes's theory, which revolutionized the way policymakers approached economic problems, still holds up?

From Project Syndicate:

In 1935, John Maynard Keynes wrote to George Bernard Shaw: “I believe myself to be writing a book on economic theory which will largely revolutionize – not, I suppose, at once but in the course of the next ten years – the way the world thinks about its economic problems.” And, indeed, Keynes’s magnum opusThe General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, published in February 1936, transformed economics and economic policymaking. Eighty years later, does Keynes’s theory still hold up?

Two elements of Keynes’s legacy seem secure. First, Keynes invented macroeconomics – the theory of output as a whole. He called his theory “general” to distinguish it from the pre-Keynesian theory, which assumed a unique level of output – full employment.

In showing how economics could remain stuck in an “underemployment” equilibrium, Keynes challenged the central idea of the orthodox economics of his day: that markets for all commodities, including labor, are simultaneously cleared by prices. And his challenge implied a new dimension to policymaking: Governments may need to run deficits to maintain full employment.

The aggregate equations that underpin Keynes’s “general theory” still populate economics textbooks and shape macroeconomic policy. Even those who insist that market economies gravitate toward full employment are forced to argue their case within the framework that Keynes created. Central bankers adjust interest rates to secure a balance between total demand and supply, because, thanks to Keynes, it is known that equilibrium might not occur automatically.

Keynes’s second major legacy is the notion that governments can and should prevent depressions. Widespread acceptance of this view can be seen in the difference between the strong policy response to the collapse of 2008-2009 and the passive reaction to the Great Depression of 1929-1932. As the Nobel laureate Robert Lucas, an opponent of Keynes, admitted in 2008: “I guess everyone is a Keynesian in a foxhole.”

Having said this, Keynes’s theory of “underemployment” equilibrium is no longer accepted by most economists and policymakers. The global financial crisis of 2008 bears this out. The collapse discredited the more extreme version of the optimally self-adjusting economy; but it did not restore the prestige of the Keynesian approach.

 To be sure, Keynesian measures halted the global economy’s downward slide. But they also saddled governments with large deficits, which soon came to be viewed as an obstacle to recovery – the opposite of what Keynes taught. With unemployment still high, governments returned to pre-Keynesian orthodoxy, cutting spending to reduce their deficits – and undercutting economic recovery in the process.

There are three main reasons for this regression. First, the belief in the labor-market-clearing power of prices in a capitalist economy was never wholly overturned. So most economists came to view persistent unemployment as an extraordinary circumstance that arises only when things go terribly wrong, certainly not the normal state of market economies. The rejection of Keynes’ notion of radical uncertainty lay at the heart of this reversion to pre-Keynesian thinking.

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