Saturday, March 29, 2014

Keynes: Cultural Rebel

Paul Krugman’s column today on the psychology of Very Important People, their inability to accept a simple answer to the slump (spend more!) and their urge to pin it on a moral failing like too much public debt and too little skill acquisition, has reminded me of a thought that struck me several years ago when I read Skidelsky’s magnificent three-volume biography of Keynes (especially this and this).

Keynes was an innovative thinker in economics, but he was far more than that.  His other great passion in life was his love for art, theater, dance, good food, and finely made things of all description.  He liked travel.  He liked entertaining and a stimulating conversation.  He liked sex.  In short, he was an aesthete, a man with intense and finely developed tastes who lived for enjoyment.  And ever since his student days, his greatest political commitment was to create a world in which as many others could enjoy these things as possible.

You could pigeonhole him in various ways.  This was very British, of course, and characteristic of a tendency that marked the social and political radicals of the upper-middle class during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Without getting all Ferguson about it, this was also representative of a gay cultural milieu that emerged during the same period (and was linked to the larger cultural radicalism).

In crude terms, it was a backlash against the stifling moralism and (ostensible) self-denial of the Victorians, the Very Serious People of their day.  For a VSP, progress depends on investment, which depends on saving, which depends on self-denial.  This is what we learn from the Robinson Crusoe parable, the sermons on poverty delivered by Nassau Senior, and popular fiction of Samuel Smiles.  If people are enjoying themselves too much, it must be a sign that something is wrong.

As I thought about it, the economic dispute between Keynesians and “classicals” was the tip of a much larger cultural iceberg.  Keynes thought that the slump could be surmounted by more spending, and more pleasure, and to his opponents this was not only wrong but monstrous.  Surely economic breakdown represents moral breakdown at some level, and the remedy of further borrowing and spending can only deepen this descent into moral failure.

Nearly a century later, has it really changed?  Do we see a rational debate over different economic policies based on reasoning (and that includes models) and evidence?  Or are deep-seated cultural biases—economics as a Victorian morality tale—still what it’s all about?


sergedago said...

Pedagogic, excellent.

Unknown said...

Hayek enjoyed Goethe, Vienna music & dancing, and the richest life of the mind in weekly intellectual circle.

Cutlurually Keynes was not more advance -- and in terms of economic Keynes was Hayek's decided inferior, an economic barbarian and primitive, completely ignorant of the extension of maeginalism to the theory of production goods across time.

And it was just here here Keynes' incompetance peoduced bogus, crap economics -- massice error in the conceiving of the natura of savings, and production, as Hayek repeatedly and devistatingly showed.

Keynes "superiority" was all bogus, a false conceit of a a cutltue which Keynes and others in the "Apostle" group admitted was built on a tone of voice indicsting condicence and superiority p, rather than genuine content and substance.

Thomas Pindelski said...

Unknown - suggest you defer future Comments until you attain the age of majority, likely some 16 years hence.

Larry Signor said...

Unknown---Keynes conceited? He lobbied for more generous conditions after WWI so we would not have to endure an unavoidable economic collapse (all allied participants wanted their money now and continued compensation going forward). An impossible situation which led to a massive devaluation of the German mark and eventually WWII. The point being, it was all avoidable, but Keynes was ignored by policy-makers. Todays policy-makers are beginning to come around, but the plutocrats resist.

(hint: there is a spell checker in your browser.) said...

Whatever. It would be nice if you could make an argument. Instead typical Austrian assertions & ad hominem.

State of Thought said...

Amusingly, one could see a proof of the "urge to pin it on a moral failing like too much public debt and too little skill acquisition" in that comment from "Unknown".

What is the complaint about supposed ignorance of [erroneous] Austrian notions if not an accusation of "too little skill acquisition"?

And what is the sniping about "superiority [sic] [being] bogus, a false conceit of a a cutltue [sic]" if not an assertion of moral failing, or at least of cultural failing? Or should that be "cutltue" failing?