John Maynard Keynes

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John Maynard Keynes : biography

5 June 1883 – 21 April 1946

The [[Great Depression with its periods of world wide economic hardship formed the backdrop against which Keynes’s revolution took place. The image is Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother depiction of destitute pea-pickers in California, taken in March 1936.]]

Keynesian-like policies were adopted by Sweden and Germany, but Sweden was seen as too small to command much attention, and Keynes was deliberately silent about the successful efforts of Germany as he was dismayed by their imperialist ambitions and their treatment of Jews. Apart from Great Britain, Keynes’s attention was primarily focused on the United States. In 1931, he received considerable support for his views on counter-cyclical public spending in Chicago, then America’s foremost centre for economic views alternative to the mainstream. However, orthodox economic opinion remained generally hostile regarding fiscal intervention to mitigate the depression, until just before the outbreak of war. In late 1933 Keynes was persuaded by Felix Frankfurter to address President Roosevelt directly, which he did by letters and face to face in 1934, after which the two men spoke highly of each other. However according to Skidelsky, the consensus is that Keynes’s efforts only began to have a more than marginal influence on US economic policy after 1939.

Keynes’s magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money was published in 1936. It was researched and indexed by one of Keynes’s favourite students, later the economist David Bensusan-Butt.Keith Tribe, Economic careers: economics and economists in Britain, 1930–1970 (1997), p. 61 The work served as a theoretical justification for the interventionist policies Keynes favoured for tackling a recession. The General Theory challenged the earlier neo-classical economic paradigm, which had held that provided it was unfettered by government interference, the market would naturally establish full employment equilibrium. In doing so Keynes was partly setting himself against his former teachers Marshall and Pigou. Keynes believed the classical theory was a "special case" that applied only to the particular conditions present in the 19th century, his own theory being the general one. Classical economists had believed in Say’s law, which, simply put, states that "supply creates its own demand", and that in a free market workers would always be willing to lower their wages to a level where employers could profitably offer them jobs. An innovation from Keynes was the concept of price stickiness – the recognition that in reality workers often refuse to lower their wage demands even in cases where a classical economist might argue it is rational for them to do so. Due in part to price stickiness, it was established that the interaction of "aggregate demand" and "aggregate supply" may lead to stable unemployment equilibria – and in those cases, it is the state, and not the market, that economies must depend on for their salvation.

The General Theory argues that demand, not supply, is the key variable governing the overall level of economic activity. Aggregate demand, which equals total un-hoarded income in a society, is defined by the sum of consumption and investment. In a state of unemployment and unused production capacity, one can only enhance employment and total income by first increasing expenditures for either consumption or investment. Without government intervention to increase expenditure, an economy can remain trapped in a low employment equilibrium – the demonstration of this possibility has been described as the revolutionary formal achievement of the work.

The book advocated activist economic policy by government to stimulate demand in times of high unemployment, for example by spending on public works. "Let us be up and doing, using our idle resources to increase our wealth," he wrote in 1928. "With men and plants unemployed, it is ridiculous to say that we cannot afford these new developments. It is precisely with these plants and these men that we shall afford them."