Economists

Created 4/30/1996
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Cairncross on Keynes

Sir Alec Cairncross on John Maynard Keynes, from The Economist of April 20-26, 1996 (pp. 75-6).


When I worked at The Economist for six months in 1946, one of my first assignments was to draft an obituary of Keynes. The draft was much revised and expanded by the editor, Geoffrey Crowther, and appeared as a first leader at the end of April. Geoffrey summed up as follows:

It must be left to posterity to say how great a man Keynes was. But what posterity will never know... is the charm of the man, the devastating brilliance of his conversation, the quickness of his intuition, his ready generosity, or the unsparing devotion to the public interest that finally killed him.

My first meeting with Keynes took place in Dennis Robertson's room in Trinity College, almost as soon as I got to Cambridge early in October 1932. A group of dons, most of whom I had never seen, had gathered for tea when Keynes entered and I listened overawed to the subsequent discussion. Much of it dealt with pig rearing in the Soviet Union and the problems of artificial insemination in breeding--not a subject to which I could contribute, but one on which Keynes was full of information. The sequel, so far as I was concerned, was an invitation to join the first meeting of Keynes's club.

This met in his rooms on Monday nights after hall and consisted largely of undergraduates who had been brought to his notice; a few dons, visiting economists, and a graduate student or two also attended. It was the one way in which Keynes's interest in, and kindness towards, young economists found expression. He cam down from london for the weekend to fulfil his bursarial duties, stayed on to lecture and preside over his "club" in the evening, returning to London next morning. A paper would be read, sometimes by a don or a visitor or occasionally by Keynes himself, sometimes by an undergraduate or graduate student.

After everyone had their say, Keynes summed up: and one could be sure that he would have some new and penetrating reflections. There were also times when he interjected a comment on what had just been said. In a discussion on Roosevelt's policies, someone remarked that Rexford Tugwell, a member of the president's "Brains Trust", could not make up his mind and was sitting on a razor's edge. "Then there will soon be two Tugwells," said Keynes.

I read two papes to the club, both of them on home and foreign investment, and used the first occasion to introduce a Ltain version of the limerick on the young lady of Niger, curious to observe how Keynes would react to such frivolity. Keynes remained entirely impassive, and made no comment then or later, preferring to concentrate his remarks at the end on the way in which studies of investment seemed always to be couched in terms of gross investment, with no mention of the net amount.

From 1932 to 1934 I heard Keynes lecture, on Mondays at noon in the Michaelmas term. There was an audience of about 100 drawn not only from students of economics but from other disciplines and countries, all curious to observe his style of lecturing and absorb his ideas. At that time he was rehearsing what would find its way eventually into The General Theory, his chief work.

He had a resonant and melodious voice, lecturing conversationally in a matter-of-fact way without gestures. The argument was developed lucidly and systematically, assisted by an occasional witticism, doses of what he called "symbolic arithmetic" and once in a while be reflections on one of his predecessors or be a flight into philosophic speculation. I remember particularly a lecture in 1933 when he tried to convey how new ideas were born. Never did they arrive, he said, with the hard edges that later critics came to attribute to them when trying to define their terms. Ideas were apt to be like fluffy balls of wool with no fixed outline, and the relationship between concepts when first perceived was likely to be equally woolly. Keynes mistrusted intellectual rigor of the Ricardian type as likely to get in the way of original thinking, and saw that it was not uncommon to hit on a valid conclusion before finding a logical path to it.

Of my immediate contacts with Keynes in those years what comes most readily to my mind is the lunch to which Bryon Hopkin and I were invited as sole guests early in 1935. Our conversation happened to elicit from him an account of his method of writing. "I don't really start", he said, "until I get my proofs back from the printer. Then I can begin serious writing." There was talk then of Bagehot, partly because I had quoted the Victorian as saying: "John Bull can stand many things, but he can't stand 2%," and Keynes wanted to know the source. When I commented on Bagehot's sagacity, Keynes replied: "It was native to him. He had a feel for the way things work."

As a pupil of Keynes I naturally look back on him chiefly as a man of ideas, and it will be for his ideas that he will be longest remembered. Although he wrote extensively on monetary theory and inflation, especially in his early years, it was the problem of unemployment that came to dominate his thinking. In the 1930s he saw unemployment in terms of a deficiency of demand, for which additional government investment and cheaper credit were the obvious cures. Even when, in the post-war world, excess demand became the more usual state of affairs, his prescription of demand management remained appropriate, although pushed far beyond the 5% level of unemployment that he had taken to represent full employment. As he had foreseen, inflation was aggravated by the steady rise in money wages--posing a problem to which he had no solution and one that he regarded as political rather than economic.

What he could not have foreseen were the many other problems that have arisen, associated not with a failure of demand but with the international flow of capital and rapid structural change affectin the demand for labour of different kinds in a labour market itself undergoing rapid change. It would be absurd to suppose that Keynes, who never said the same thing for long, would fail to make entirely new proposals after 50 years.


Economists

Created 4/30/1996
Go to
Brad DeLong's Home Page


Associate Professor of Economics Brad De Long, 601 Evans
University of California at Berkeley; Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax
delong@econ.berkeley.edu
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