A final bite

Eating with a friend a few days ago, I mentioned I had just finished the new Keynes bio. They asked me who Keynes was.

This is a perfectly legitimate response for someone who has never studied economics. Nor is it surprising, because there is a very real sense in which economics exists in an ivory tower. We know it is there, and from time to time it ventures out – shrouded in numbers and jargon – to issue warnings or prescribe rules. It is unknown in the way God once was: impossible to understand but impossible to ignore.

It is not necessarily an issue. I don’t understand how a fuse box works or why turning my router on and off always fixes it; the world is full of mysteries reserved for specialists.

Still, it is a tragedy for a profession concerned, at its root, with human flourishing. This can be and should be communicated in the language of values and vision, resonating with passion and feeling.

So, even though I have already spoken about the book, I could resist a final few quotes from what has been a truly inspiring read that I recommend highly:

Keynesianism in this purest, simplest form is not so much a school of economic thought as a spirit of radical optimism, unjustified by most of human history and extremely difficult to conjure up precisely when it is most needed: during the depths of depression or amid the fevers of war.

“Down with those who declare we are dumped and damned,” the twenty-one-year-old Keynes cried in 1903. “Away with all schemes of redemption and retaliation!” A better future was not beyond our control if the different peoples of the world worked together, leading one another to prosperity.

I have written about how economic planning is making a comeback. Let us remember vision too.

Keynes

What we need is a form of society which shall be ethically tolerable and economically not intolerable

Keynes

I have been reading the new biography of Keynes by Zachary Carter: Keynes The Price of Peace. For someone whose knowledge of Keynes starts and ends with: “he wrote The General Theory,” it has been a non-stop parade of incredible facts and stories: he married the most famous ballerina of his day, was a founding member of the Bloomsbury Group – an avant garde set of British intellectuals and artists that included Virginia Woolf – was a syndicated columnist with an audience of millions, and the leading figure in British economic policy – all before he published The General Theory, the work which would found what we now know as Keynesian Economics.

The General Theory was to us less a work of economic theory than a Manifesto for Reason and Cheerfulness, the literary embodiment of a man who, to those who ever saw him, remains the very genius of intellect and enjoyment. It gave a rational basis and moral appeal for a faith in the possible health and sanity of contemporary mankind.

I have been inspired by how Zachary explains Keynes economics in terms of his political beliefs, which in turn were formed by his love of art and culture. Economics, as Zachary tells it, was Keynes way to build a society which could support the creative, artistic lifestyle he loved (Keynes essay on the 15 hour work week should be read in this light). The notion of beginning with a vision of the good life and working outwards seems oddly revolutionary today:

Keynes was a philosopher of war and peace, the last of the Enlightenment intellectuals who pursued political theory, economics, and ethics as a unified design. He was a man whose chief project was not taxation or government spending but the survival of what he called “civilization” – the international cultural milieu that connected a British Treasury man to a Russian Ballerina

In contrast, consider this blogpost by Branko Milanovic, a leading economist on inequality, on how the lives of notable economists today are notable for: “their bareness. The lives sounded like CVs. Actually, there was hardly any difference between their CVs and their lives.”

Krugman, using his own life as an example has responded arguing: “interesting ideas have very little to do with interesting life experiences.

Krugman has a point, although I wonder whether there might be a more hidden cost. I was reminded of a conversation with my brother who, contemplating a career in economics, was disheartened when, Googling the careers of many famous contemporary economists, found they all had the same story: Bachelor through PhD at Harvard or MIT, a stint at the IMF or World Bank, then back to academia with some policy work sprinkled in. It looks like an impossible barrier from the outside.

At the same time, lunch at Cambridge with Bertrand Russel followed by drinks at Virginia Woolf’s house is not exactly more accessible.