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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Keynes and Morality Plays

Paul Krugman says  this is a "Great piece by Martin Wolf":

Keynes offers us the best way to think about the financial crisis, by Martin Wolf, Commentary, Financial Times: ...Like all prophets, Keynes offered ambiguous lessons to his followers. ... Now,... in another era of financial crisis and threatened economic slump, it is easier for us to understand what remains relevant in his teaching. I see three broad lessons. ...

The ... most important lesson is that one should not treat the economy as a morality tale. In the 1930s, two opposing ideological visions were on offer: the Austrian; and the socialist. The Austrians ... argued that a purging of the excesses of the 1920s was required. Socialists argued that socialism needed to replace failed capitalism, outright. These views were grounded in alternative secular religions: the former in the view that individual self-seeking behaviour guaranteed a stable economic order; the latter in the idea that the identical motivation could lead only to exploitation, instability and crisis.

Keynes’s genius – a very English one – was to insist we should approach an economic system not as a morality play but as a technical challenge. He wished to preserve as much liberty as possible, while recognising that the minimum state was unacceptable to a democratic society with an urbanised economy. He wished to preserve a market economy, without believing that laisser faire makes everything for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

This same moralistic debate is with us, once again. Contemporary “liquidationists” insist that a collapse would lead to rebirth of a purified economy. Their leftwing opponents argue that the era of markets is over. And even I wish to see the punishment of financial alchemists who claimed that ever more debt turns economic lead into gold.

Yet Keynes would have insisted that such approaches are foolish.

Markets are neither infallible nor dispensable. They are indeed the underpinnings of a productive economy and individual freedom. But they can also go seriously awry and so must be managed with care. ... So the task for this new administration is to lead the US and the world towards a pragmatic resolution of the global economic crisis...

As was the case in the 1930s, we also have a choice: it is to deal with these challenges co-operatively and pragmatically or let ideological blinkers and selfishness obstruct us. The objective is also clear: to preserve an open and at least reasonably stable world economy that offers opportunity to as much of humanity as possible. We have done a disturbingly poor job of this in recent years. We must do better. We can do so, provided we approach the task in a spirit of humility and pragmatism, shorn of ideological blinkers ...


I particularly liked this:

Keynes’s genius – a very English one – was to insist we should approach an economic system not as a morality play but as a technical challenge.

That’s the point of my favorite Keynes quote, where he declared of the Great Depression, “we have magneto trouble.”

What’s been striking me lately is how many people who talk and write about macroeconomics just don’t get Keynes’s essential point — the fact that economies can suffer from insufficient aggregate demand because people want to acquire liquid assets rather than real goods. Not to single out any one commentator, but this morning I read this:

Government spending doesn’t increase aggregate demand. All it does is transfer spending power from one party to another by borrowing from or taxing the public.

That’s exactly the infamous “Treasury view” from the 1920s, against which Keynes had to struggle. And it’s still out there.

Anyway, good for Martin; we’re going to need every possible voice to counter the niggling nabobs of negativism.

More from Krugman on morality tales:

So the crucial innovation in The General Theory isn’t, as a modern macroeconomist tends to think, the idea that nominal wages are sticky. It’s the demolition of Say’s Law and the classical theory of the interest rate in Book IV, “The inducement to invest.” One measure of how hard it was for Keynes to divest himself of Say’s Law is that to this day some people deny what Keynes realized – that the “law” is, at best, a useless tautology when individuals have the option of accumulating money rather than purchasing real goods and services. ...

But the classical model wasn’t the only thing Keynes had to escape from. He also had to break free of the business cycle theory of the day.

There wasn’t, of course, a fully-worked out theory of recessions and recoveries. But it’s instructive to compare The General Theory with Gottfried Haberler’s Prosperity and Depression[3], written at roughly the same time, which was a League of Nations-sponsored attempt to systematize and synthesize what the economists of the time had to say about the subject. What’s striking about Haberler’s book, from a modern perspective, is that he was trying to answer the wrong question. Like most macroeconomic theorists before Keynes, Haberler believed that the crucial thing was to explain the economy’s dynamics, to explain why booms are followed by busts, rather than to explain how mass unemployment is possible in the first place. And Harberler’s book, like much business cycle writing at the time, seems more preoccupied with the excesses of the boom that with the mechanics of the bust. ... Keynes saw it as his job to explain why the economy sometimes operates far below full employment. That is, The General Theory for the most part offers a static model, not a dynamic model – a picture of an economy stuck in depression, not a story about how it got there. So Keynes actually chose to answer a more limited question than most people writing about business cycles at the time.

Again, I didn’t understand the importance of that strategic decision on Keynes’s part the first time I read The General Theory. But it’s now obvious to me that most of Book II is a manifesto on behalf of limiting the question. ...

And Keynes’s limitation of the question was powerfully liberating. Rather than getting bogged down in an attempt to explain the dynamics of the business cycle – a subject that remains contentious to this day – Keynes focused on a question that could be answered. And that was also the question that most needed an answer: given that overall demand is depressed – never mind why - how can we create more employment?

A side benefit of this simplification was that it freed Keynes and the rest of us from the seductive but surely false notion of the business cycle as morality play, of an economic slump as a necessary purgative after the excesses of a boom. By analyzing how the economy stays depressed, rather than trying to explain how it became depressed in the first place, Keynes helped bury the notion that there’s something redemptive about economic suffering.

    Posted by on Wednesday, December 24, 2008 at 05:04 PM in Economics, Macroeconomics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (20)


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