The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money

Indeed it [the economy] seems capable of remaining in a chronic condition of sub-normal activity for a considerable period without any marked tendency either towards recovery or towards complete collapse

I suspect John Maynard Keynes’ “General Theory” was to the 1930s what Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” was to the 2010s – much discussed, mostly unread. I never made it further than the introduction to Piketty’s tome, but I have finished the 80-odd pages of the General Theory collected in The Essential Keynes.

The General Theory of Employment J.m. Keynes First Edition Rare

The book is why we use the word Keynesian today. It changed the course of economics and politics in the 20th century. The world would be unimaginable without it. When Keynes concluded the book with these now famous words, I wonder if he realised he was talking about himself:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

His technical discussions about liquidity preferences, the marginal propensity to consume, sticky wages, or the marginal efficiency of capital are explained in textbooks far better than I ever could. Instead I’m going to focus on some big ideas still relevant to today:

Breadlines aren’t inevitable

His central insight was that an economy could indefinitely operate below full employment – that involuntary unemployment and breadlines could stay around indefinitely. If this strikes you as obvious, you have Keynes to thank. He wrote at a time when most economists thought the economy always settled at full employment – if there were breadlines, it was because people liked bread.

The attitude seems absurd and callous today, but it was common sense then. In the middle of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover refused to act against rising unemployment. When asked why so many unemployed men were selling apples on street corners, he replied: “Many people have left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples.”

How Apples Became a Weapon Against the Great Depression - HISTORY

Keynes thought the problem was often a lack of investment. Keeping people employed requires a combination of investment and consumption. Factories can employ people because they sell products to people (consumption), and/or investors loan them money to make products to sell to people (investment). When there is insufficient investment, employment will be lower than it could be. Breadlines were not inevitable, nor did they represent an unusually high demand for bread, they were a technical problem, with a technical fix.

Keynes also emphasized what a precious thing it was to have everyone in work. Today, we think of “normal” as a healthy economy with full employment. We reserve “abnormal” for big crises or recessions, when things go wrong. Keynes inverted this, he thought that a healthy economy with full employment was a “rare and shortlived occurrence.” Societies had to work hard to maintain a healthy economy – there was nothing inevitable about it.


Keynes thought that investment was lower and more unstable than it needed be, because our expectations about the future were so fickle. Investment depends, in part, on how people feel. Keynes, whose first work was a philosophical treatise on probability (with blog favorite Bertrand Russell), thought human life was governed by deep uncertainty. We create stability with stories about what the future will be like. Sometimes these stories rest on analysis and calculations, other times stories rest on the simple fact that everyone believes them. Unfortunately, stories about the future are often incorrect. Being wrong makes people pessimistic, and if investors feel pessimistic, they expect lower returns, and when they expect lower returns, they invest less, and when they invest less, there is less employment. All of this may occur without any actual changes to the fundamentals. Think about Gamestop.

human decisions affecting the future, whether personal or political or economic, cannot depend on strict mathematical expectation since the basis for making such calculations does not exist; and that it is our innate urge to activity which makes the wheels go around, our rational selves choosing between the alternatives as best we are able, calculating where we can, but often falling back for our motive on whim or sentiment or chance

An important corollary to this is the idea that just because people can, does not mean they will. Low interest rates and lots of savings are powerful incentives for people to invest money, but they do not guarantee people will invest. Uncertainty about the future means people often choose to sit and wait:

For whilst the weakening of credit is sufficient to bring about a collapse, its strengthening, though a necessary condition of recovery, is not a sufficient condition

A brief aside: China and Investment

If investment is prone to shortfalls, then economies are vulnerable to the extent that they rely on investment to drive growth, as opposed to consumption. Since any level of employment is supported by some combination of consumption and investment, for example a 50:50 split, as employment (and output) grows, an increasing amount of investment will be required. At $100 of output, $50 of investment. At $1000, $500, at $10^10, $10^5 and so on. If the split between consumption and investment does not change, it is conceivable that a country runs out of worthwhile new investment opportunities before it uses up spare investment funds. To counter this, countries need to increase the percentage of income that people consume, say shifting the balance to 80:20. This is pattern is visible when you look at development:

China struggles with this problem today. For decades, growth has been driven by state-directed investment, but there are only so many railways, ports, and new apartment blocks an economy can productively absorb at once. The government needs to increase how much people consume out of their income. Unfortunately, high inequality means the majority of the population has little disposable income – the rich only spend a small proportion of their total income. A limited social safety net means what little they do have is often saved rather than consumed. Switching to a more consumption-heavy growth strategy is easier said than done. Years of investment have enriched parts of society and industry who have no interest in redistributing their wealth across society.

It’s a serious challenge for China, and if you’re interested in learning more, I recommend following Michael Pettis.

Contingency and change

Keynes shows a deep appreciation for the fact that observations are often contingent or conditioned on other, invisible, factors. If I failed to notice I was sitting in a silent carriage, I would be incorrect to assume only introverted people used trains. Individual and collective behavior is often the product of the rules, customs, culture, and organizations that surround us, not some intrinsic factor.

This allowed Keynes to, for example, look at investment behavior, and explain it in terms of changes in patterns of ownership, the regulation of certain markets, and the availability of different financial instruments – as opposed to some inherent behavioral characteristic of the investor. That is not to say he thought everything was contingent, but he showed an appreciation for it’s importance.

It also allowed him to move beyond describing what is, to imagining what could be:

But we must not conclude that the mean position thus determined by ‘natural’ tendencies, namely, by those tendencies which are likely to persist, failing measures expressly designed to correct hem, is, therefore, established by laws of necessity. The unimpeded rule of the above conditions is a fact of observation concerned the world as it is or has been, and not a necessary principle which cannot be changed.

The state, the private sector, and economy

“Keynesian” means different things, to different people, at different times. In the 1940s and 50s economists in the US suspected of being Keynesian were accused of being communists. In 1971, Richard Nixon said “we are all Keynesian now.” Today, it means supporting government spending in a recession. Keynes was more nuanced.

Keynes saw a role for government beyond just providing unemployment benefits and occasional stimulus packages. He was skeptical that private investment decisions would lead to socially advantageous outcomes. Left completely in private hands, investment would tend to be below the level required for full employment, leading to a persistent state of under-employment. He thought the state should manage the level of investment in the economy to ensure full employment. This need to socialise investment led to his famous passages calling for the “euthanasia of the rentier:”

The social object of skilled investment should be to defeat the dark forces of time and ignorance which envelop our future. The actual, private object of the most skilled investment today is ‘to beat the gun’ … to outwit the crowd, and to pass the bad, or depreciating, half-crown to the other fellow….

There is no clear evidence from experience that the investment policy which is socially advantageous coincides with that which is most profitable.

Now, though this state of affairs would be quite compatible with some measure of individualism, yet it would mean the euthanasia of the rentier, and, consequently, the euthanasia of the cumulative oppressive power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity-value of capital.

At the same time Keynes was no revolutionary. The euthanasia of the rentier was going to be “nothing sudden, merely a gradual but prolonged continuance of what we have seen recently in Great Britain, and will need no revolution.” He wanted government to maintain full employment, precisely to avoid the mass social upheaval and revolutionary unrest he had seen in Germany or Russia. As long as a sufficient level of investment and consumption was ensured in the aggregate, Keynes thought private actors and markets should determine how it was employed:

When 9,000,000 men are employed out of 10,000,000 willing and able to work, there is no evidence that the labour of these 9,000,000 is misdirected. The complaint against the present system is not that these 9,000,000 men out to be employed on different tasks, but that tasks should be available for the remaining 1,000,000

His hesitation over revolutionary socialism stemmed from his liberalism. Keynes valued creativity and individuality; his friends were poets, philosophers, and artists, not accountants. His economics was a way to build a world where that would be protected and encouraged. Soviet homogeneity threatened this vision as much as mass unemployment.

But, above all, individualism, if it can be purged of its defects and its abuses, is the best safeguard of personal liberty in the sense that, compared with any other system, it greatly widens the field for the exercise of personal choice. It is also the best safeguard of the variety of life… For this variety preserves the traditions which embody the most secure and successful choices of former generations; it colours the present with the diversification of its fancy; and, being the handmaid of experiment as well as of tradition and of fancy, it is the most powerful instrument to better the future.

This is my favorite Keynes (one I’ve discussed before). Economics served a vision of the good life. It was not an exercise in discovering some “natural” state, some special truth about economic behaviour. It was a tool for society to use, and he was wise enough to see that people were not selling apples for pleasure or profit. It was the job of economics to create a prosperous society where creativity and individuality could flourish. It was, and remains, an inspiring vision.

If you’d like to read more about The General Theory, Keynes, and its influence on economics but don’t feel up to the full tome, I recommend these two short pieces (here and here) by Paul Krugman.

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the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the dawn

I mentioned Eugene Debs briefly the other day. Upon reading it, a friend sent me an excerpt from a speech of Debs’. Debs gave the speech upon being convicted, under the Sedition Act, of campaigning against the draft, and US entry into World War 1.

Eugene Debs Was an American Hero

I wanted to share it with you all now:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.…

Your Honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in a fundamental change—but if possible by peaceable and orderly means…

Standing here this morning, I recall my boyhood. At fourteen I went to work in a railroad shop; at sixteen I was firing a freight engine on a railroad. I remember all the hardships and privations of that earlier day, and from that time until now my heart has been with the working class. I could have been in Congress long ago. I have preferred to go to prison…

I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and the factories; of the men in the mines and on the railroads. I am thinking of the women who for a paltry wage are compelled to work out their barren lives; of the little children who in this system are robbed of their childhood and in their tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the monster machines while they themselves are being starved and stunted, body and soul. I see them dwarfed and diseased and their little lives broken and blasted because in this high noon of Christian civilization money is still so much more important than the flesh and blood of childhood. In very truth gold is god today and rules with pitiless sway in the affairs of men…

I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence…

Your Honor, I ask no mercy and I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never so clearly comprehended as now the great struggle between the powers of greed and exploitation on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of industrial freedom and social justice.

I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own.

When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the southern cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches, the southern cross begins to bend, the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of time upon the dial of the universe, and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the lookout knows that the midnight is passing and that relief and rest are close at hand. Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.

The full speech can be found here

He pulled his coat over his head, and lay still

I’ve read many accounts of war over the years: campaign map style histories where individuals hardly feature; swashbuckling adventures ala Sharpe; Antony Beevor’s awestruck reconstruction of the Battle of Stalingrad; the intimate realism of Svetlana Alexievitch.

Never have I seen death described as in this excerpt from Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel. Jünger served at the front for all four years of the First World War, and his war diaries were the basis for the book.

In the ripped-up no man’s land lay the victims of the attack, still facing the enemy; their grey tunics barely stood out from the ground… A young man tossed in a shell-crater, his features already yellow with his impending death. He seemed not to want to be look at; he gave us a cross shrug and pulled his coat over his head, and lay still

From a book of nearly three hundred pages, this single paragraph haunts me.

What was that young man experiencing? Shame? Despair? Did he want a final moment of solitude? Was he angry at his powerlessness, at the uncaring god that had left him alone in a shell hole to die? Was he exhausted? Did he want to avoid pitying looks and empty words?

We’ll never know. Jünger moves on past him, never to return.

Stoicism, fear, acceptance, and rage. They are the forms we are comfortable arranging the dying in. But there is something about this young man, all those years ago, alone in a shell hole, curling away from the sight of others, that breaks my heart.

“Because there probably will never again be such people as we were then”

I just finished The Unwomanly Face of War, Svetlana Alexievitch’s oral history of Soviet women in World War Two. I could only read the book a little at a time; there was too much pain, too much blood, too much thoughtless heroism in the face of incomprehensible suffering. Reading it quickly would inure you to their stories; precious testaments from a species of humans that once lived and is no more.

I wanted to share a few passages that stood out for me:

I remember the sounds of the war. Everything around booms and clangs, crackles from fire… In war your soul ages. After the war I was never young…

It’s a pity I was only beautiful during the war… My best years were spent there. Burned up.

Can I find the right words? I can tell about how I shot. But about how I wept, I can’t. That will be left untold. I know one thing: in war a human being becomes frightening and incomprehensible. How can one understand him? You’re a writer. Think up something yourself. Something beautiful. Without lice and filth, without vomit… without the smell of vodka and blood… not so frightening as life.

Sometimes I come home after these meetings with the thought that suffering is solitude. Total isolation. At other times it seems to me that suffering is a special kind of knowledge. There is something in human life that it is impossible to convey and preserve in any other way, especially among us. That is how the world is made; that is how we are made.

We had the Chimuk brothers in our detachment… They ran into an ambush in their village, took refuge in some barn, there was shooting, the barn was set on fire. They went on shooting till they ran out of cartridges…Then they came out, burned… they were driven around the villages in a cart to see who would recognize them as their own. So that people would give themselves away…
The entire village stood there. Their father and mother stood there, nobody made a sound. What a heart the mother must have had not to cry out. Not to call. She knew that if she began to weep, the whole village would be burned down. She wouldn’t be killed alone. Everybody would be killed. For one German killed they used to burn an entire village. She knew… There exists awards for everything, but no award, not even the highest Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union is enough for that mother… For her silence…

So what now? I carried our wounded man and thought: “Should I go back for the German or not?” I knew that if i left him, he would die soon. From loss of blood…And I crawled back for him. I went on carrying both of them…My precious one… there can’t be one heart for hatred and another for love. We only have one, and I always thought about how to save my heart.

What was going on in our souls then. Because there probably will never again be such people as we were then. Never! So naive and so sincere. With such faith.

Keynes on GameStop

I could not resist another Keynes quote in light of recent events

The social object of skilled investment should be to defeat the dark forces of time and ignorance which envelop our future. The actual, private object of the most skilled investment today is ‘to beat the gun’, as the Americans so well express it, to outwit the crowd, and to pass the bad, or depreciating, half-crown to the other fellow…


…professional investment may be likened to those newspaper competitions in which the competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces from a hundred photographs, the prize being awarded to the competitor whose choice most nearly corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors as a whole; so that each competitors has to pick, not those faces which he himself finds prettiest, but those which he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitors, all of whom are looking at the problem from the same point of view. It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one’s judgement, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practice the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.

The Unwomanly Face of War

I am reading Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of Soviet women in World War 2, The Unwomanly Face of War.

The Unwomanly Face Of War: PMC by Svetlana Alexievich - Penguin Books  Australia

Some passages that have stood out so far:

On remembering

I often see how they sit and listen to themselves. To the sound of their own soul. They check it against the words. After long years a person understands that this was life, but now its time to resign yourself and get ready to go. You don’t want to, and it’s too bad to vanish just like that. Casually. In passing. And when you look back you feel a wish not only to tell about your life, but also to fathom the mystery of life itself. To answer your own question: Why did all this happen to me? To gaze at everything with a parting and slightly sorrowful look… Almost from the other side… No longer any need to deceive anyone or yourself.

For us old people life is hard… but not because our pensions are small and humiliating. What wounds us most of all is that we have been driven from a great past into an unbearably small present.

On violence

In the center there is always this: how unbearable and unthinkable it is to die. And how much more unbearable and unthinkable it is to kill, because a woman gives life.

On her work as an oral historian / journalist

I don’t simply record. I collect, I track down the human spirit wherever suffering makes a small man into a great man. Wherever a man grows. And then for me he is no longer the mute and traceless proletarian of history

Highly recommended