Cooking the Books 1: Keynes rides again

It is not just the ideas of Marx that the current crisis is getting people to look at again. It’s also those of Keynes. In fact it now seems to be official government policy. In October the Chancellor Alistair Darling declared that “much of what Keynes wrote still makes sense” (Sunday Telegraph, 19 October). Then last month Gordon Brown himself, in America for a summit of the G20, “invoked the memory of John Maynard Keynes”, according to the Financial Times (15/16 November), proposing a typically Keynesian approach to the current crisis, right down to exactly the same terminology:


Gordon Brown yesterday heralded an anti-recession strategy founded on tax cuts for low earners and further cuts in interest rates, in the hope that Britain will spend its way out of the downturn. Mr Brown . . . suggested that the government would use tax credits to help poor families since they were more likely to spend any money handed out. People on low income had ‘a higher propensity to spend if their credits are higher’, Mr. Brown said.”


Keynes was an inter-war years economist who was at one time credited with having saved capitalism. He argued that capitalism did not automatically tend towards full employment and that government intervention to increase spending was needed to ensure this. He was himself a Liberal, but his ideas were embraced by all three main parties in Britain. He was particularly liked in Labour Party circles as his theories seems to justify their reformist attempt to redistribute income from the rich to the poor with their “higher propensity to spend”.


As it happened, post-war Britain did have more or less full employment for twenty or so years after the war, but this was more due to the expansion of world markets than to Keynesian “demand management” policies. When, in the mid-1970s, world market conditions changed, Keynes’s policies were shown not to work. Instead of stimulating a revival of industrial production they added a new problem – rising prices through currency inflation, which in turn led to periodic devaluations of the pound. In all previous slumps prices had fallen, but the implementation of Keynesian policies in the 1970s meant that they continued to rise. A new word was invented to describe the result: “stagflation”.


In Britain the funeral oration on Keynesianism (Keynes himself had died in 1946) was delivered by the then Labour Party Prime Minister, James Callaghan, at the 1976 Labour Party Conference:


We used to think that you could just spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you, in all candour, that that option no longer exists and that in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting bigger doses of inflation into the economy, followed by higher levels of unemployment (Times, 29 September 1976).


Or, as Keynes’s biographer Lord Skidelsky put it, “Then Keynesian policies suddenly became obsolete and the theory that backed it was condemned to history’s dustbin” (Times, 23 October).


It is a sign of the desperation of Brown and his government that they have been forced to rummage through the dustbin of history for a policy to deal with the current financial crisis and coming depression. Spending your way out of a crisis was tried by the last Labour government and, as Callaghan was forced to admit, it didn’t work. There’s no reason to believe it will this time either.

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