World War I and the Task of Rebuilding:

From John Maynard Keynes (1920), _The Economic Consequneces of the Peace_ <>:

Very few of us realize with conviction the intensely unusual, unstable, complicated, unreliable, temporary nature of the economic organization by which Western Europe has lived for the last half century. We assume some of the most peculiar and temporary of our late advantages as natural, permanent, and to be depended on, and we lay our plans accordingly. On this sandy and false foundation we scheme for social improvement and dress our political platforms, pursue our animosities and particular ambitions, and feel ourselves with enough margin in hand to foster, not assuage, civil conflict in the European family.

Moved by insane delusion and reckless self-regard, the German people overturned the foundations on which we all lived and built. But the spokesmen of the French and British peoples have run the risk of completing the ruin, which Germany began, by a Peace which, if it is carried into effect, must impair yet further, when it might have restored, the delicate, complicated organization, already shaken and broken by war, through which alone the European peoples can employ themselves and live....

What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man that age was which came to an end in August, 1914! The greater part of the population, it is true, worked hard and lived at a low standard of comfort, yet were, to all appearances, reasonably contented with this lot. But escape was possible, for any man of capacity or character at all exceeding the average, into the middle and upper classes, for whom life offered, at a low cost and with the least trouble, conveniences, comforts, and amenities beyond the compass of the richest and most powerful monarchs of other ages. The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or be could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend. He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice....

This chapter must be one of pessimism. The Treaty includes no provisions for the economic rehabilitation of Europe,—nothing to make the defeated Central Empires into good neighbors, nothing to stabilize the new States of Europe, nothing to reclaim Russia; nor does it promote in any way a compact of economic solidarity amongst the Allies themselves; no arrangement was reached at Paris for restoring the disordered finances of France and Italy, or to adjust the systems of the Old World and the New. The Council of Four paid no attention to these issues, being preoccupied with others,—Clemenceau to crush the economic life of his enemy, Lloyd George to do a deal and bring home something which would pass muster for a week, the President to do nothing that was not just and right. It is an extraordinary fact that the fundamental economic problems of a Europe starving and disintegrating before their eyes, was the one question in which it was impossible to arouse the interest of the Four. Reparation was their main excursion into the economic field, and they settled it as a problem of theology, of polities, of electoral chicane, from every point of view except that of the economic future of the States whose destiny they were handling....

If we take the view that for at least a generation to come Germany cannot be trusted with even a modicum of prosperity, that while all our recent Allies are angels of light, all our recent enemies, Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, and the rest, are children of the devil, that year by year Germany must be kept impoverished and her children starved and crippled, and that she must be ringed round by enemies; then we shall reject all the proposals of this chapter.... But if this view of nations and of their relation to one another is adopted... heaven help us all. If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long that final civil war between the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victor, the civilization and the progress of our generation. Even though the result disappoint us, must we not base our actions on better expectations, and believe that the prosperity and happiness of one country promotes that of others, that the solidarity of man is not a fiction, and that nations can still afford to treat other nations as fellow-creatures?...

Understanding the Great Depression:

John Maynard Keynes (1932), "The World's Economic Outlook," _Atlantic_ <>

Keynes: The immediate causes of the world financial panic -- for that is what it is -- are obvious. They are to be found in a catastrophic fall in the money value, not only of commodities, but of practically every kind of asset. The 'margins,' as we call them, upon confidence in the maintenance of which the debt and credit structure of the modern world depends, have 'run off.'... Debtors of all kinds find that their securities are no longer the equal of their debts. Few governments still have revenues sufficient to cover the fixed money charges for which they have made themselves liable. Moreover, a collapse of this kind feeds on itself. We are now in the phase where the risk of carrying assets with borrowed money is so great that there is a competitive panic to get liquid. And each individual who succeeds in getting more liquid forces down the price of assets in the process of getting liquid, with the result that the margins of other individuals are impaired and their courage undermined. And so the process continues.... We have here an extreme example of the disharmony of general and particular interest.... Practically all the remedies popularly advocated to-day are of this... beggar-my-neighbor description. For one man's expenditure is another man's income. Thus, while we undoubtedly increase our own margin, we diminish that of someone else; and if the practice is universally followed everyone will be worse off. An individual may be forced by his private circumstances to curtail his normal expenditure, and no one can blame him. But let no one suppose that he is performing a public duty in behaving in such a way. The modern capitalist is a fair-weather sailor. As soon as a storm rises, he abandons the duties of navigation and even sinks the boats which might carry him to safety by his haste to push his neighbor off and himself in. Unfortunately the popular mind has been educated away from the truth, away from common sense. The average man has been taught to believe what his own common sense, if he relied on it, would tell him was absurd.... Meanwhile the problem of reparations and war debts darkens the whole scene...

Paul Krugman, "Introduction" to John Maynard Keynes, _The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money_ <>

Krugman: The message of Keynes: It’s probably safe to assume that the “conservative scholars and policy leaders” who pronounced The General Theory one of the most dangerous books of the past two centuries haven’t read it. But they’re sure it’s a leftist tract, a call for big government and high taxes. That’s what people on the right, and some on the left, too, have said about The General Theory from the beginning. In fact, the arrival of Keynesian economics in American classrooms was delayed by a nasty case of academic McCarthyism. The first introductory textbook to present Keynesian thinking, written by the Canadian economist Lorie Tarshis, was targeted by a right-wing pressure campaign aimed at university trustees. As a result of this campaign, many universities that had planned to adopt the book for their courses cancelled their orders, and sales of the book, which was initially very successful, collapsed. Professors at Yale University, to their credit, continued to assign the book; their reward was to be attacked by the young William F. Buckley for propounding “evil ideas.”
But Keynes was no socialist – he came to save capitalism, not to bury it. And there’s a sense in which The General Theory was, given the time it was written, a conservative book. (Keynes himself declared that in some respects his theory had “moderately conservative implications.” [377]) Keynes wrote during a time of mass unemployment, of waste and suffering on an incredible scale. A reasonable man might well have concluded that capitalism had failed, and that only huge institutional changes – perhaps the nationalization of the means of production – could restore economic sanity. Many reasonable people did, in fact, reach that conclusion: large numbers of British and American intellectuals who had no particular antipathy toward markets and private property became socialists during the depression years simply because they saw no other way to remedy capitalism’s colossal failures.

Yet Keynes argued that these failures had surprisingly narrow, technical causes. “We have magneto [alternator] trouble” he wrote in 1930, as the world was plunging into depression. And because Keynes saw the causes of mass unemployment as narrow and technical, he argued that the problem’s solution could also be narrow and technical: the system needed a new alternator, but there was no need to replace the whole car. In particular, “no obvious case is made out for a system of State Socialism which would embrace most of the economic life of the community.” [378] While many of his contemporaries were calling for government takeover of the whole economy, Keynes argued that much less intrusive government policies could ensure adequate effective demand, allowing the market economy to go on as before. Still, there is a sense in which free-market fundamentalists are right to hate Keynes. If your doctrine says that free markets, left to their own devices, produce the best of all possible worlds, and that government intervention in the economy always makes things worse, Keynes is your enemy.

And he is an especially dangerous enemy because his ideas have been vindicated so thoroughly by experience. Stripped down, the conclusions of The General Theory might be expressed as four bullet points:
  • Economies can and often do suffer from an overall lack of demand, which leads to involuntary unemployment
  • The economy’s automatic tendency to correct shortfalls in demand, if it exists at all, operates slowly and painfully
  • Government policies to increase demand, by contrast, can reduce unemployment quickly
  • Sometimes increasing the money supply won’t be enough to persuade the private sector to spend more, and government spending must step into the breach

To a modern practitioner of economic policy, none of this – except, possibly, the last point – sounds startling