Keynes and Keynesian Economics in Light of the Financial Crisis

The economic societies of the United States meet over the first few days of the year, with the meeting this year in Boston. This is the full conference program which is gigantic. My interest is what is being said about the sad state of economic theory and its inability to provide guidance on how to find our way out of the present low state of our economies. This was the part of the conference I was most interested in myself:

Keynes and Keynesian Economics in Light of the Financial Crisis

So in its own way, you might say that these issues were on the agenda. However, not only was this the sole manifestation across the hundreds of papers given during the conference, but this was also not in any way part of the mainstream program, only tucked away as part of the program devoted to the history of economic thought. Clearly, none of this is of any genuine interest to virtually the entire profession. Nevertheless, all credit to Robert Dimand for putting the session together, and for treating this as the serious contemporary issue it is. These were the papers found in this session.

Keynes and Financial Crises
ROBERT DIMAND (Brock University)

The global economic and financial crisis that began in 2007 has renewed interest in Keynes’s analysis of whether the economic system is self-adjusting and of his proposals for ending depression. This analysis is complemented by Keynes’s more specific accounts of financial crisis, notably in his incisive “The Consequences to the Banks of the Collapse in Money Values” (in his Essays in Persuasion, 1931) and his Harris Foundation Lectures, a body of work that is much less well-known.

Keynes, Wages and Employment in Light of the Great Depression
HARALD HAGEMANN (Universität Hohenheim)

The wage-employment relationship is one of the central and most controversial issues in the General Theory. . . . and etc for another 200 or so words.

James Meade and Keynesian Economics
SUE HOWSON (University of Toronto)

James Meade (1907-1995), although Oxford-educated, was one of the very first Keynesians, a member of the Cambridge “circus” which met to analyze and criticize Keynes’s just published Treatise on Money in the early months of 1931. Not only did he use Keynesian ideas in his writings throughout his long career; he was a major player in the implementation of Keynesian policies in Britain during and immediately after World War II. My paper will discuss his encounters with Keynes and his use and development of Keynesian economics in his own academic and policy work.

Not that you should think that Keynesian economics was mentioned nowhere else. It showed up one more time, under “Heterodox Macroeconomics”, a session put on by the Union for Radical Political Economics. But I do love his first line, which is something the rest of the profession would prefer to forget. I’ve put it in bold just because, and left the rest in just to see how tedious this stuff can be.

Keynes is Dead — Long Live Marx

Many liberal/progressive economists envisioned a new dawn of Keynesianism in the 2008 financial meltdown. More than five years later, it is clear that the much-hoped-for Keynesian prescriptions are completely ignored. Why? Keynesian economists’ answer: “neoliberal ideology,” which they trace back to President Reagan. Using a Marxian method of inquiry, this study argues, by contrast, that the rise/dominance of neoliberalism has much deeper roots than pure ideology, that the transition from Keynesian to neoliberal economics started long before Reagan was elected President and that the Keynesian reliance on the ability of the government to re-regulate and revive the economy through policies of demand management rests on an optimistic perception that the state can control capitalism. Contrary to such hopeful perceptions, public policies are more than simply administrative or technical matters of choice. More importantly, they are class policies—hence, continuation/escalation of neoliberal policies under the Obama administration, and frustration of Keynesian/liberal economists. The study further argues that the Marxian theory of unemployment, based on his theory of the reserve army of labor, provides a much robust explanation of the protracted high levels of unemployment than the Keynesian view, which attributes the plague of unemployment to the “misguided policies of neoliberalism.” Likewise, the Marxian theory of subsistence or near-poverty wages provides a more cogent account of how or why such poverty levels of wages, as well as a generalized predominance of misery, can go hand-in-hand with high levels of profits and concentrated wealth than the Keynesian perceptions, which view high levels of employment and wages as necessary conditions for an expansionary economic cycle.

The largest single problem with economic theory today is that economists do not even know they have a problem. But the second most important problem is that what ought to have been the most important part of the entire program was relegated to students of the history of economic thought, which is the one area of economic theory economists are trying to rid themselves of. It’s as if these are issues so completely settled that no one any longer has to waste their time thinking about any of it at all.

AND LET ME JUST ADD THIS: From the Wall Street Journal, The Depression That Was Fixed by Doing Nothing. Before Keynes, there was no such thing as a Keynesian stimulus, but recessions got fixed anyway:

Beginning in January 1920, something much worse than a recession blighted the world. The U.S. suffered the steepest plunge in wholesale prices in its history (not even eclipsed by the Great Depression), as well as a 31.6% drop in industrial production and a 46.6% fall in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Unemployment spiked, and corporate profits plunged.

What to do? “Nothing” was the substantive response of the successive administrations of Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding. Well, not quite nothing. Rather, they did what few 21st-century policy makers would have dared: They balanced the federal budget and—via the still wet-behind-the-ears Federal Reserve—raised interest rates rather than lowering them. Curiously, the depression ran its course. Eighteen months elapsed from business-cycle peak to business-cycle trough—following which the 1920s roared.

That was what they did, but with the low state of economic knowledge today, there is little likelihood anyone will understand why it worked.

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