Thursday, June 21, 2012

I am intrigued by but skeptical of the new Skidelsky book

They seem like they are taking the worst part of a fascinating Keynes essay and putting it on a pedestal. I've always loved Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, but I think I'd turn the Skidelskys completely inside out on this one. Keynes is right on capitalism and wrong on human fulfillment, although the Skidelskys seem to think he's wrong on capitalism and right on human fulfillment.


  1. I'm not sure how they can make a whole book out of it, but I agree more with Skidelksy's narrative than yours.

    One of Keynes' major problems was his optimism. He believed the power of good ideas would trump the power of vested interests and so was not too concerned with making his message clear, leaving himself open to interpretations. He also did not foresee the merging of big money and big ideas (e.g. MP society was funded by large financial institutions).

    Were I to put my full crazy-anti-capitalist hat on, the story would go something like this (bear in mind at no point am I assuming some sort of 'puppet master'):

    Capitalism began by forcibly impoverishing peasants with game laws, and not allowing anything like unionisation throughout the 19th C, forcing them to work long hours.

    However, eventually the march of rising living standards and democratic processes forced back these trends, and by the time Keynes was around the elites found themselves with a fairly empowered working class who had gone beyond the state of scarcity.

    So in order to maintain consumption, they responded by using Freudian psychology to manipulate the populace into working hard to finance consumption, associating products with people feeling good about themselves and fulfilling various other desires.

    They also helped launch a counter-intellectual movement to topple the institutions Keynes work to create. These processes are not 'practical' problems that can be 'dealt with', but are
    all part of the reality of capitalism.

    The point here being: at what point is any of this 'human nature', rather than either forced behaviour or deliberate manipulation?

    P.S. This is obviously a caricature & extreme version of events. But there is a lot of truth to it:


    1. Unlearningecon is as crazy as the Mises Institute Austrians.

    2. All of what I said is based on facts - they are stubborn things, after all, and I can't deny them.

      I did consciously adopt a craziness hat for the purposes of narrative, though.

  2. The idea that there is one common collective group of people that sits together to organize ideas, commonly works together to manipulate those ideas into a whole mass of people, and that the whole mass people collectively decides to believe those ideas - it's always nonsense on stilts. It's as stupid as the suggestion that think tanks influence how we think, even though 99% of us pay zero attention to what the latest think tank report is.

    Greed is not an artificially invented, deliberately manipulated, or forced behaviour. It is the original sin of man, to use Christian reference, and has been the oldest part of man's nature.

    No conspiracy was required to enforce greed into people.

    1. I explicitly said that was *not* what occurred. However, there are some pivotal individuals throughout the stories, such as Freud's nephew Edward Bernays.

      There are many examples societies throughout history where people are the opposite of greedy. You can't reason backwards from the way things are now and conclude history naturally tended to this state because that's 'just the way people are.' Any history course would give you a poor grade for that kind of thinking.

  3. The Greeks and Romans were quite greedy.

    Their idea of "poverty" was having several slaves and servants and an estate that earned them a rentier income. They did despise materialism - which for them meant wanting more slaves than normal, more estates than normal, and more land than normal.

  4. Adam Curtis at his best is a sort of anti-Jeffrey-Friedman. They both think pretty much the same things, but they take them in very different directions. Adam Curtis at his worst is just clever video editing with no content. This is quite funny....

    1. That is funny, but it's a bit of a caricature and doesn't offer any real criticism. For example, 'the century of the self' contains a coherent argument about psychoanalysis and advertising, as well as interviews with many of the main people involved.

  5. For me the problem with Keynes is that he died so unpardonably early. Anna Schwartz who just died and her husband before her lived such long lives.

    If Keynes had that luxury we wouldn't have so many debates over "bastardized Keynesianism" as he'd be able to tell us what he thinks about it all-IS-LM, Minsky, etc.

    Of course Joan Robinson insisted that Keynes wrote a great book but didn't udnerstand it. That he himself was a basterdized Keyensian.

    Interesting that he in his own lifetime didn't fight the IS-LM narrative-he didn't think it perfect but on pragmatic grounds he let it be. He only lived about 10 years after his magnum opus and most of that time he was in poor health. Whatever energy he had was devoted to developing Bretton Woods.

    On the other hand Friedman lived 40 years after Monetary History and wrote prolificly. Marx too was closer to this-had a good 35 years after Capital

  6. evilsax: Joan Robinson's intellectual honesty has been questioned before. And I do agree with you - if medicine and surgery had been better in Keynes's time, perhaps he might have lived a one to three more decades from 1946. The development of the economics profession would no doubt have been different.


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