John Maynard Keynes

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John Maynard Keynes : biography

5 June 1883 – 21 April 1946

In the 1920s

Keynes argued against a return to the [[gold standard after the war.]] Keynes had completed his A Treatise on Probability before the war, but published it in 1921. The work was a notable contribution to the philosophical and mathematical underpinnings of probability theory, championing the important view that probabilities were no more or less than truth values intermediate between simple truth and falsity. Keynes developed the first upper-lower probabilistic interval approach to probability in chapters 15 and 17 of this book, as well as having developed the first decision weight approach with his conventional coefficient of risk and weight, c, in chapter 26. In addition to his academic work, the 1920s saw Keynes active as a journalist selling his work internationally and working in London as a financial consultant. In 1924 Keynes wrote an obituary for his former tutor Alfred Marshall which Schumpeter called "the most brilliant life of a man of science I have ever read."

Marshall’s widow was "entranced" by the memorial, while Lytton Strachey rated it as one of Keynes’s "best works".

In 1922 Keynes continued to advocate reduction of German reparations with A Revision of the Treaty. He attacked the post World War I deflation policies with A Tract on Monetary Reform in 1923 – a trenchant argument that countries should target stability of domestic prices, avoiding deflation even at the cost of allowing their currency to depreciate. Britain suffered from high unemployment through most of the 1920s, leading Keynes to recommend the depreciation of sterling to boost jobs by making British exports more affordable. From 1924 he was also advocating a fiscal response, where the government could create jobs by spending on public works. During the 1920s Keynes’s pro stimulus views had only limited effect on policy makers and mainstream academic opinion – according to Hyman Minsky one reason was that at this time his theoretical justification was "muddled" . The Tract had also called for an end to the gold standard. Keynes advised it was no longer a net benefit for countries such as Britain to participate in the gold standard, as it ran counter to the need for domestic policy autonomy. It could force countries to pursue deflationary policies at exactly the time when expansionary measures were called for to address rising unemployment. The Treasury and Bank of England were still in favour of the gold standard and in 1925 they were able to convince the then Chancellor Winston Churchill to re-establish it, which had a depressing effect on British industry. Keynes responded by writing The Economic Consequences of Mr. Churchill and continued to argue against the gold standard until Britain finally abandoned it in 1931.

During the Great Depression

Keynes had begun a theoretical work to examine the relationship between unemployment, money and prices back in the 1920s. The work, Treatise on Money, was published in 1930 in two volumes. A central idea of the work was that if the amount of money being saved exceeds the amount being invested – which can happen if interest rates are too high – then unemployment will rise. This is in part a result of people not wanting to spend too high a proportion of what employers pay out, making it difficult, in aggregate, for employers to make a profit.

Keynes was deeply critical of the British government’s austerity measures during the Great Depression. He believed that budget deficits were a good thing, a product of recessions. He wrote, "For Government borrowing of one kind or another is nature’s remedy, so to speak, for preventing business losses from being, in so severe a slump as to present one, so great as to bring production altogether to a standstill."

At the height of the Great Depression, in 1933, Keynes published The Means to Prosperity, which contained specific policy recommendations for tackling unemployment in a global recession, chiefly counter cyclical public spending. The Means to Prosperity contains one of the first mentions of the multiplier effect. While it was addressed chiefly to the British Government, it also contained advice for other nations affected by the global recession. A copy was sent to the newly elected President Roosevelt and other world leaders. The work was taken seriously by both the American and British governments, and according to Skidelsky, helped pave the way for the later acceptance of Keynesian ideas, though it had little immediate practical influence. In the 1933 London Economic Conference opinions remained too diverse for a unified course of action to be agreed upon.