The work of Keynes can be separated into two categories, the general theory and the applied theory. Unfortunately, much of what survives as Keynesianism in today’s lexicon is the applied theory, which essentially consists of the government serving as the facilitator of increased demand during a recession or a depression. I must confess that I myself frequently fail to distinguish between each theory when discussing what I believe to be the failures of Keynesian aggregate demand management. Nevertheless, Keynes’ general theory was an important, but Keynes’ most profound ideas are not the ones that are emphasized in economics today.
Keynes’ applied theory has been the subject of a great deal of criticism and rightfully so. However, his general theory has also been attacked (often by those who oppose his applied theory). These attacks often fail to understand exactly what is important in Keynes’ general theory. There is no doubt that reading Keynes’ General Theory is at times akin to gnawing on a two-dollar steak, but there are profound insights to be discovered.
It is clear from reading Keynes that he either misunderstood some of the classical economists or was not well read in their theory with respect to Say’s Law and monetary disturbances. Nevertheless, this criticism is to some extent aesthetic, as Keynes was arguing as much against the classical economists as he was against the Marshallian market adjustment process. (It is in this argument against the Marshallian adjustment process that Keynes arrives at his great insight, which will be discussed later.)
First and foremost, Keynes’ theory is a monetary theory. It begins with Keynes’ Treatise on Money and is extended through the General Theory. This is often overlooked as Keynes’ applied theory emphasizes the impotency of monetary policy in correcting the shortfalls in aggregate demand that result in recessions. Keynes monetary theory in the Treatise can be outlined as follows. Each businessman has his own subjective expectations of future profitability and other business conditions. If these expectations are pessimistic, businesses will invest less and therefore reduce the amount of securities that are issued. This decrease in the supply of securities leads to excess demand and therefore raises the price of securities and therefore lowers the natural rate of interest. As the market rate of interest begins to decline in accordance with the natural rate, bear speculators who were used to getting the higher rate of return begin to sell some of their ‘old’ securities and therefore the market rate is prevented from completely adjusting with the natural rate and the market ‘clears’ at a point of disequilibrium. The result is an excess demand for money and a corresponding excess supply of commodities.
It is at this point that we must understand Keynes’ profound insight of The General Theory. Keynes’ insight is that in the absence of perfect price flexibility, the adjustment process will come from output rather than the price level (which ran counter to the conventional wisdom of the Marshallian adjustment process). The result is therefore a recession.
Unfortunately, the key insight of Keynes is often highlighted by modern macroeconomists as either the importance of insufficient demand or of sticky prices. Each of these insights downplays the role of Keynes’ general theory and fails to differentiate Keynes from his classical counterparts. The idea of sticky wages and prices is not something created or even truly advocated by Keynes (see the work of Leland Yeager or Clark Warburton for a detailed summary of the lineage of sticky prices). Rather Keynes’ emphasis was on the fact that prices were not perfectly flexible and therefore a reduction of stickiness would not alleviate the problem. (It is actually quite amusing that so-called “New Keynesians” adopted sticky prices in his name when in fact his theory was written in a time of rapidly falling wages and prices.)
The prevailing theory of business fluctuations (in the U.S.) was monetary disequilibrium theory, which held that when there is excess demand for money, there will be deflationary pressure which can only be eased by an increase in the money supply or a decrease in the price level. However, the presence of sticky prices will prevent the necessary decline in the price level and output and employment will fall as a result. In this scenario, the presence of sticky prices is to blame for the downturn. However, in Chapter 19 of the General Theory, Keynes refutes this point, claiming that prices need not be sticky, but only lack infinite flexibility. Further, Keynes points out that if the prices were allowed to change, it may exacerbate the problem by inducing a scenario of debt-deflation (Keynes does not use the term, but it fits his analysis). So while the mainstream continues to adhere to this idea of sticky prices as a product of the work of Keynes, a reading of Chapter 19 suggests otherwise.
The work of Keynes is, of course, not without significant error. His applied theory is clearly a source of frustration. More importantly, however, is the abandonment of the Wicksell-foundation of the natural rate and market rate of interest in favor of the liquidity preference (a topic which would require another post altogether). What’s more, it is not clear to me that Keynes’ general theory is all that general, but rather more specific to the time in which he was writing and specific periods of downturn. Advocates of his theory may disagree with this analysis and point to the current credit crisis as an example that fits with the theory, but I am not convinced that this is the case (nor are the Austrians, of whom I am sympathetic).
This post should by no means be construed as an advocacy of Keynes’ general theory, but rather an emphasis on what he got right – something that is missing from much of the present day discussion. Keynes’ work is best understood as a lineage of evolving ideas (an evolution, which regrettably did not remain wholly consistent with the Wicksell-foundations). His General Theory is certainly a flawed work (this seems to fit, however, with Keynes’ famous quote, “I would rather be vaguely right than precisely wrong”), but his insights regarding output adjustments and disequilibrium should nevertheless be appreciated.