Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Blaug & Weintraub: Keynesian Historiography.

(from part i)

Next Blaug examines the question "what did Keynes mean?"

After noting that Skidelsky, Moggridge and Don Patinkin all agree "on the central message of Keynesian economics" Blaug reminds us that Keynesians disagree on many things.

Although otherwise critical of Allan Meltzer's 1988 book "Keynes's Monetary Theory", Blaug adopts his classification of interpretations, which "brings home at the same time the technique of overkill that makes The General Theory the influential book that it is":
  1. "wage and price stickiness;
  2. "intertemporal co-ordination failures;
  3. "elasticity pessimism or what Coddington called 'hydraulic Keynesianism';
  4. "irrational expectations and persistent dynamic disequilibria;
  5. "denial of gross substitution between money and other assets; and
  6. "miscellaneous factors".
Each Keynesian picks one, based on a particular chapter of "The General Theory": the one, in the apostle's estimation, containing the core of the Master's truest teachings.

For example:
"Shackle and Joan Robinson argue that the key to the book is to be found in chapter 12 on 'The State of Long-Term Expectations' and the 1937 Quarterly Journal of Economics paper. Davidson chooses chapter 17 on 'The Essential Properties of Interest and Money' as his favorite chapter."
Perhaps that would explain the lasting influence of "The General Theory": it tells a slightly different story to its varied readership. No matter what others might say, each reader knows -- deep inside -- he/she really understands the Master and can almost see him winking approvingly.


In spite of "Skidelsky's and Moggridge's fine-tooth-combing of Keynes's correspondence" -- writes Blaug -- many puzzles still surround "The General Theory". He, rather mischievously, chose this example:
"[W]hy did Keynes fail to link his own macroeconomic analysis to the theories of imperfect or monopolistic competition when this would have strengthened his own conclusions and made the analysis even more persuasive than it already was?"
Again Blaug sketches the debate. First, he presents Malcolm Sawyer's answer (i.e. strictly theoretical considerations), which Blaug calls the "standard explanation"; then, he summarises Robin Marris' non-standard one:
"[D]islike of Joan Robinson and sexual jealousy because of her love affair with Richard Kahn made Keynes reluctant to use the insights of the Economics of Imperfect Competition".
Be that as it may. While that particular explanation -- unless conclusively proven -- might seem extraordinary, outsiders' first-hand accounts of life at Cambridge (like Amartya Sen's and Joseph E. Stiglitz's) offer some support -- without going into overly personal details -- suggesting fairly catty personal relationships between Keynes' children. So, this cannot be dismissed out of hand, as it cannot be dismissed that Keynes himself could be petty and scheming, even against his own followers, as he was with Abba Lerner.


The picture of Keynes emerging from Mark Blaug's comments contrasts sharply with the picture beloved by Stigler, Popper, and … Keynes himself: over-inflated egos -- perhaps contrasting with reality -- after all, are a job requirement for would-be philosopher-kings (or, paraphrasing Skidelsky, "economists as saviours"). And to be an Eton alumnus and Oxbridge don shouldn't help.

By itself, however, that's not much worse than having bad breath and ignoring it.

Things become more serious when the economist applies for the job.


This leads us to Keynesian historiography/biography (or hagiography, depending on your perspective), with which Blaug opened his review:
"Let me say at the outset that Harrod [authorized "Life of John Maynard Keynes" (1951)] is now so out-of-date as to be worth reading only as a historical document of how one of Keynes's leading disciples attempted to package Keynes five years after his death so as to maximize the spread of his ideas."
In contrast, Blaug is very complimentary to both Skidelsky and Moggridge -- especially Skidelsky -- and it's clear that, in his opinion, neither shows a deliberate bias.

Well, perhaps. But, just in case, as biography matters, maybe one should listen to E. Roy Weintraub (son of the late post Keynesian economist Sidney Weintraub, and a reader of Blaug's review and of Moggridge's and Skydelsky's biographies).

Writing about "Keynesian Historiography and the Anti-Semitism Question", Weintraub seems less sure and tells this anecdote, illustrating Keynesian over-protectiveness of Keynes' image:
"In the 1960s, Sir Roy Harrod was my parents' houseguest for extended periods in each of several years as he came over to the United States to teach summer school at the University of Pennsylvania. One evening at dinner, in my presence, the conversation turned to the then new Michael Holroyd biography of Lytton Strachey, which revealed in print for the first time Keynes's homosexual life before Lydia. My father, a Post Keynesian and a homophobe, said that he for one did not believe it, and moreover Harrod's own biography made no mention of the issue. Harrod replied that his own book 'suggested' it in several passages of obscure prose (e.g., 'They [Strachey and Keynes] had certain affinities …' [Harrod 1951, 90], and 'It was Keynes's great intimacy with Duncan Grant …' [131]), but that no one looking at the photograph of Maynard and Duncan Grant (facing page 130) gazing into each other's eyes could have missed the message. My father of course was appalled. My mother, embarrassed, left the room."
He also points to some curious omissions in Skydelsky's quotes of Keynes (similar to one I've found) and to remarks Blaug himself left hanging without further comment:
"Blaug there wrote that 'these two biographies tell us much about Keynes that we never knew before: his mild anti-semitism, so typical of educated people in the interwar years (Skidelsky 1992, 238–39; Moggridge 1992, 609, 728); his insensitivity about Hitler and indeed indifference to the Nazi experience (Skidelsky 1992, 86–88, 581)' (1213)." (emphasis mine)


Blaug, Mark. 1994. Recent Biographies of Keynes. Journal of Economic Literature. Vol 32, pp. 1204-1215. (paywalled, unfortunately)

Weintraub, E. Roy. 2012. Keynesian Historiography and the Anti-Semitism Question. History of Political Economy (2012) 44(1): pp. 41-67. (freely available) (paywalled)

1 comment:

  1. Jealousy and anti-semitism, that's how sauasages are made.