John Maynard Keynes, 1883 – 1946
“In the long run we are all dead”. So said John Maynard Keynes, born 120 years ago on Wednesday, in one of the most misquoted phrases in economics.
It comes from Keynes’s Tract on Monetary Reform, from 1923, in a discussion about the economic long and short run. If a factory closes you can say that in the long run its workers will find jobs somewhere else but in the short run there may be considerable unemployment and it was this that Keynes was concerned to tackle. Thus, the full quote is: “But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.”
Indeed, Keynes thought much about the long run. One of his most celebrated pieces of writing was an essay titled The Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren (1930) and he was one of the architects of the post-World War II Bretton Woods monetary system.
But this isn’t to say that Keynes had any coherent idea about the long run. He didn’t. In The Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren he observed that, since the Industrial Revolution, “the average standard of life in Europe and the United States has been raised, I think, about fourfold” and predicted that “the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is today”. In large part he attributed this, correctly, to “the accumulation of capital which began in the sixteenth century”.
But this capital accumulation was simply assumed by Keynes, not analysed. In The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) he speculates on the future possibility of “a society which finds itself so well equipped with capital that its marginal efficiency is zero and would be negative with any additional investment”, blithely asserting that it would be “comparatively easy to make capital-goods so abundant that the marginal efficiency of capital is zero”. The Solow growth model theorists are derided for their characterisation of technological change appearing exogenously as “manna from heaven” but that is exactly how Keynes conceptualised the accumulation of capital and capital goods.
In fact financial capital is that part of income not spent on current consumption; saving, in other words. Capital goods have to be produced and maintained. If they had no value, as Keynes posits in his Utopia, they would not be produced. Include the cost of maintaining them and they would be even less likely to be produced.
This lack of understanding of the process of capital accumulation, which he himself put front and centre of his theory of increasing wealth, was a constant in Keynes’s writings. In The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) Keynes wrote that, during the 19th century, which he later characterised as an “epoch of enormous economic progress”,
“There grew round the non-consumption of the cake all those instincts of puritanism which in other ages has withdrawn itself from the world and has neglected the arts of production as well as those of enjoyment. And so the cake increased; but to what end was not clearly contemplated. Individuals would be exhorted not so much to abstain as to defer, and to cultivate the pleasures of security and anticipation. Saving was for old age or for your children; but this was only in theory,—the virtue of the cake was that it was never to be consumed, neither by you nor by your children after you.”
This is drivel. The cake was consumed, not least by Keynes himself who wrote of the pre-1914 era that “The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he may see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep”. And while Keynes was a-bed, per capita consumption of milk, meat, butter, sugar, and tea all rose between 1860 and 1913. The grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who had flocked to Milton’s “dark, satanic mills” in the early days of the Industrial Revolution were beginning to consume such soon-to-be-household names as Oxo, Lipton, Rowntree, and Pears.
The end, even if Keynes couldn’t see it, was to extend to the inhabitant of Stepney the opportunities enjoyed by the inhabitant of Bloomsbury. This was made possible, as Keynes recognised, by “the accumulation of capital” which came, as Keynes failed to recognise, from saving. Keynes, aping his friend Lytton Strachey, derided the Victorians for not consuming the cake in its entirety but they understood better than Keynes that it was out of those leftovers, those savings, that they would bake a bigger cake tomorrow.
Keynes was concerned about the long run but he had no conception of how we would get there. He simply extrapolated past trends into the future without stopping to consider what factors were at work behind those trends. To paraphrase, economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if they simply tell us the ocean will be flat tomorrow without checking the forecasts.
By consuming the whole cake today without regard to the provision of tomorrow’s dinner, in Keynes’s long run we’d all be hungry.
This article originally appeared at The Commentator