Sunday, May 23, 2010

bastardized keynes or keynes the ******?

We dive once more into the world of Anti-Mankiw with a brief look at an article Keynes published in his book Essays in Persuasion (1933) titled "Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren," written in 1930. What I'm about to write may be controversial given that Keynes is one of the leftist's (most popularly, Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman's) favorite weapons to use against the standard free market arguments of the Republicans. So this could be seen as an Anti-Krugman just as much as it is an Anti-Mankiw. I'll leave that for you to decide.

But before I begin I'd like to briefly interject a point here. The particular set of ideas I am about to draw out is very precious to leftist thinking (subliminally or otherwise). However, in a recent conversation with fellow grad student Ian Seda (you can see his project over at Los Expatriados) I addressed a key concern that there does not exist a strong rhetorical strategy for getting these ideas about a more critical reading of Keynes "out there". Any comments or help on this would be greatly appreciated, because it is quite hard to package some of these ideas in a less ugly fashion. (More on rhetoric as it applies to these ideas in a few days, when we explore the traditions of capitalist opposition in eighteenth century England.)

At any rate, let's get started.

"Economic Possibilities" was written before Keynes published the book which rocked the field of economics in 1935, the General Theory. In this short essy he argues that the disaster of the stock market crash followed by the catastrophic beginnings of the Great Depression is a sign that we are on the razor's edge between two stages of economic history, arguing that very soon we will be at a point when
the economic problem may be solved, or be at leas within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not -- if we look into the future -- the permanent problem of the human race (366)
It's a quite compelling and beautiful passage! If not for want of some explanations, namely, how the economic problem may also be a political problem. This is my main criticism of this essay. Keynes doesn't recognize that, before the economic problem can be solved, the central political tension in all capitalist societies -- arising from the simple fact that employees do not normally have a say in the production process, nor do they share completely in the profits produced in an economy -- must be resolved. Regardless of whether you see the economy as naturally oppositional or not, it is crucial (and, I would argue, easy!) to see that if the problem of scarcity for all is going to be solved, economic decision making must be fully democratic. And economic decision making will be fully democratic when one group -- such as employers and others whose profit rates outstrip the productivity rates of their workers -- is no longer has control over economic decision making. That is, when private property in the means of production (factories, tools, technology) no longer exists, then everyone can decide about economic distribution, and scarcity will be on the way to being eliminated. This is all in the theoretical realm of possibilities, but the importance of it is brought to light by Keynes' prescriptions.

Don't get me wrong: I wouldn't argue that Keynes was oblivious to the strong relationship between economics and politics in his own time. But what this passage demonstrates is a crucial assumption in Keynes' theoretical understandings of the economy where he doesn't fully draw out the implications of the changes in society that would have to take place if a society were to transition to solving the economic problem.

Next (probably for either later today or tomorrow): we take up Keynes' thoughts in this article of the labor-leisure tradeoff. At that point I'll summarize my criticism and drive the main point: the prevalence of bourgeois ideology in economics regardless of whether you're left, right, or center.

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