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1.5 Keynes and the Birth of Macroeconomics

Although it is important to remember that economists before Keynes discussed

what we now call macroeconomic issues such as business cycles, inflation,

unemployment and growth, as we have already noted, the birth of modern

macroeconomics as a coherent and systematic approach to aggregate economic

phenomena can be traced back to the publication in February 1936 of Keynes’s

book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. In a letter

written on 1 January 1935 to a friend, the writer George Bernard Shaw, Keynes

speculated that ‘I believe myself to be writing a book on economic theory

which will largely revolutionise – not, I suppose, at once but in the course of

the next ten years – the way the world thinks about economic problems’. That

Keynes’s bold prediction should be so accurately borne out is both a comment

on his own self-confidence and a reflection of the inadequacy of classical

economic analysis to provide an acceptable and convincing explanation of the

prevailing economic situation in the early 1930s. Keynes recognized that the

drastic economic situation confronting the capitalist system in the 1930s threatened

its very survival and was symptomatic of a fundamental flaw in the

operation of the price mechanism as a coordinating device.

To confront this problem Keynes needed to challenge the classical economists

from within their citadel. The flaw, as he saw it, lay in the existing

classical theory whose teaching Keynes regarded as not only ‘misleading’ but

‘disastrous’ if applied to the real-world problems facing the capitalist economies

during the interwar period. For Keynes, capitalism was not terminally ill

but unstable. His objective was to modify the rules of the game within the

capitalist system in order to preserve and strengthen it. He wanted full employment

to be the norm rather than the exception and his would be a

conservative revolution. As Galbraith (1977) has noted, Keynes never sought

to change the world out of personal dissatisfaction: ‘for him the world was

excellent’. Although the republic of Keynes’s political imagination lay on the

‘extreme left of celestial space’, he was no socialist. Despite the prompting of

George Bernard Shaw, Keynes remained notoriously blind to Marx. In his

opinion, Das Kapital contained nothing but ‘dreary out of date academic

controversialising’ which added up to nothing more than complicated hocus

pocus. At one of Keynes’s Political Economy Club meetings he admitted to

having read Marx in the same spirit as reading a detective story. He had

hoped to find some clue to an idea but had never succeeded in doing so (see

Skidelsky, 1992, pp. 514–23). But Keynes’s contempt for Marxist analysis

did not stop those on the right of the political spectrum from regarding his

message as dangerously radical. For Keynes the ultimate political problem

was how to combine economic efficiency, social justice and individual freedom.

But questions of equity were always secondary to questions of efficiency,

stability and growth. His solution to the economic malaise that was sweeping

the capitalist economies in the early 1930s was to accept ‘a large extension of

the traditional functions of government’. But as Keynes (1926) argued in The

End of Laissez-Faire, if the government is to be effective it should not

concern itself with ‘those activities which private individuals are already

fulfilling’ but attend to ‘those functions which fall outside the private sphere

of the individual, to those decisions which are made by no one if the state

does not make them’ (Keynes, 1972, Vol. IX, p. 291).

The most plausible explanation of the Great Depression is one involving a

massive decline in aggregate demand. Both Patinkin (1982) and Tobin (1997)

have argued forcefully that Keynes’s major discovery in the General Theory

was the ‘Principle of Effective Demand’ (see also Chapter 8). According to

the classical macroeconomic system, a downward shift of aggregate (effective)

demand will bring into play corrective forces involving falling prices so

that the final impact of a reduction in aggregate demand will be a lower price

level with real output and employment quickly returning to their full employment

levels. In the classical world self-correcting market forces, operating

via the price mechanism, restore equilibrium without the help of government

intervention. While it could be argued that the US economy behaved in a way

consistent with the classical model during the 1920s, it certainly did not in

the decade after 1929. The classical model could not adequately account for

either the length or depth of the economic decline experienced by the major

economies of the world. Indeed those economists belonging to the Mises–

Hayek–Robbins–Schumpeter Austrian school of thought (see Chapter 9)

believed that the depression should be allowed to run its course, since such an

occurrence was the inevitable result of overinvestment during the artificially

created boom. In their view the Great Depression was not a problem which

policy makers should concern themselves with and intervention in the form

of a stimulus to aggregate demand would only make things worse. The choice

was between depression now or, if governments intervened inappropriately,

even worse depression in the future.

The current consensus views the behaviour of economies during this period

as consistent with an explanation which focuses on aggregate demand

deficiency. However, this deficient aggregate demand explanation is one that

a well-trained classical economist, brought up on Say’s Law of markets and

slogans of equilibrium, would find hard to either understand or accept. Indeed,

explanations of the Great Depression that downplay the role of aggregate

demand and instead emphasize the importance of supply-side factors have

recently made a comeback (see Cole and Ohanian, 1999, 2002a). For those

economists determined to find an explanation for the economic catastrophe

which had befallen the economic systems of the Western world, the Great

Depression had a depressing impact on their enthusiasm for laissez-faire

capitalism.