Posted by: Dirk | September 9, 2009

(Book review) Keynes – Return of the Master

Robert Skidelsky is the biographer of John Maynard Keynes and a historian with some background in economics. He divided his book in three parts. In the first part, he examines what went wrong and what this says about the present state of economics. He attacks the rational expectations hypothesis, real business cycle theory and the efficient (financial) markets theory. The main criticism is on the assumption of “Bell-Curve Economics”, which describes theories that are based on Gaussian probabilities.

Part II is entitled “The Rise and Fall of Keynesian Economics” and describes Keynes and his economics in the context of the Great Depression. On p. 111-3, Skidelsky points out the difference between today’s mainstream macroeconomics and the idea of Keynes. Some of these points could be argued with more clarity. Skidelsky fails to point out the implication of accepting Gaussian probabilities in financial markets, which is that financial markets can not be a source of “instability”. However, this implication is probably clear to most economists and Skidelsky writes about this elsewhere (p.44).

In part III, The Return of Keynes, Skidelsky focuses mostly on philosophy and political economy. I reckon that this is the most interesting part of the book for most readers. Skidelsky raises “the old question of whether ideas are part of the base or the superstructure of social life – society’s building blocks or weapons in the struggle for power.” (p.115) and then continues to compare the ideas and performance of the Keynesian Bretton Woods System (1951-1973) with that of the neoliberal Washington Consensus System (1980-now).

This is followed by a chapter on the ethics of Keynes. Based on the philosopher G.E. Moore, Keynes ponders first the question on ethics “What is good?” and then follows up with questioning morality: “How ought I behave?” (p. 136). Skidelsky thinks that we do not think about the ethic question anymore, and therefore the pursuit of money is all there is: “What should have been a means has become an end”, he writes about acquiring money (p.142). Some pages later (p. 187) Keynes is quoted on what can be understood as a critique of today’s market-led globalization: “So, in conclusion, ‘Ideas, knowledge, art, hospitality, travel – these are things which should in their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible and above all let finance be primarily national.”

Summing up, this book reopens forgotten discussions which either still are or have again become relevant. What is the role of the government, of the private sector, of households? How does the international situation play out, how is power projected into the international arena? What are we striving for as human beings, and what is the role of markets in the pursuit of happiness? I am sure many economists will not like this book because they think these questions to be irrelevant and outside the realm of economics. However, reality-based economists will surely find lots of value in this timely book and perhaps the legacy of Keynes is a collection of very relevant questions to which each generation needs to find its own answers.

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