Paul Krugman in the Guardian and N. Gregory Mankiw in the Wall Street Journal have written reviews of Robert Skidelsky's Keynes, The Return of the Master. Now Richard Posner in the New Republic gives the book prominent mention in his essay on "How I Became a Keynesian." That's pretty respectable buzz.
But only Andrew Leonard on Salon.com really gets it:
To your run-of-the-mill market fundamentalist, questions of ethics are irrelevant. Capitalism works by satisfying consumer needs and wants. Government should stay out of the way. But Keynes is on the comeback trail because our present-day predicament shows this to be manifestly untrue.Posner bites but can't quite swallow:
Let me give the microphone to Skidelsky. In a paragraph and a half, he asks a set of questions that are at the heart not just of his book, but of our existence on this planet.Keynes looked forward to a saturation of wants. But he did not see this as a natural, but an ethical terminus. Wants were to be controlled not by the size of the stomach, but by a generally accepted conception of "sufficiency" for the good life.If Keynes were alive today, these would be questions he would be asking. And after reading "Keynes: The Return of the Master," one can only conclude that we would be well-served to have him out and about, confounding the status quo with his impertinence.
In terms of arithmetic, he was almost spot on in his predictions of growing wealth, but attitudes have changed less than he expected. Although real incomes in rich countries have doubled in the last thirty years, the populations of these countries work harder than ever and are no happier. This raises the question of why they are still on the growth treadmill. Is it because capitalism needs constantly to expand markets, and ensnare by advertising more and more people into useless consumption? Is it because economists have ignored the fact that, as societies become wealthier, positional goods -- goods which satisfy not our needs, but our longing for status -- become more and more desirable? Is it because globalization has made affluence too insecure and too uneven in its spread for most people in wealthy societies to ease off work? Or is it because we lack any agreed idea of the good life in the name of which we can say "enough is enough"?
And then the challenge to society would be the management of unprecedented voluntary leisure. This was a popular 1930s theme--think of Huxley's Brave New World--but it underestimated the ability of business to create new wants, and new goods and services to fulfill them.Mankiw is unable to find it with a flashlight:
That was merely a mistake, an oddity in Keynes's belief in the possibility of perpetual boom.
According to Keynes, economic downturns are not a fundamental indictment of the market economy. Rather, recessions and depressions arise from insufficient aggregate demand. A smart government can remedy the problem with its monetary and fiscal policy—say, by printing up some money and spending it. Once the right policies are put in place, the thinking goes, the world is safe again for free markets.Krugman is enthusiastic about the book but reserved about the prescription:
Surely it's possible to make the case for a less profound reconstruction of economics than Skidelsky advocates...To again give the microphone to Skidelsky: "Down with Keynsianism, and up with Keynes!"