Idlers and good-for-nothings

I’m in the midst of a book on the coming of Keynesian economics into the world and the disappearance of classical theory. I have just now finished a section discussing the first Keynesian textbook ever written, Lorie Tarshis’s The Elements of Economics, which I thought I might share a bit of which with you.

Tarshis’s text made Samuelson and other economic writers more cautious in how they discussed Keynesian theory. A passage such as the following would never again enter a Keynesian text, as accurate a reflection of the theory though it may actually have been.

“To put it bluntly, employment and income, in money terms, can be expended to respond equally whether the government sponsors useful public works like highway construction, or completely useless ones like digging ditches and filling them up again. In either case, because the income of the newly employed would be higher than before, they would increase their spending, so that the output of consumers’ good would be expanded and the upward swing begun. Naturally we should prefer projects which directly add to our real wealth. Flood-control projects, highways, parks, school buildings, research projects, housing, and so on are better than leaf-raking and useless excavations. But the latter are better than nothing, for even though the projects are useless, carrying them out leads to an increased output of consumers’ goods. And even though the men responsible for the increased demand were idlers and good-for-nothings, their dollars, in our economy, are as powerful as any others in increasing consumption, income, and employment.” (Tarshis 1947: 518)

Possibly the most revealing passage in the entirety of Keynesian literature.

It was overrun the following year by the first edition of Samuelson’s Economics, in part because Samuelson’s was a much better book, but also because he was a bit more candid about what Keynesian theory meant in practice.

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