The Keynesian Cure for Hunger: Eat More

Article excerpt

Sylvia Nasar, author of the New York Times bestseller, A Beautiful Mind, has a new book: Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, which reviews the lives and ideas of a dozen economists from Marx to Keynes and Hayek to India's Amartya Sen. It begins with a description of life in Jane Austen's England (1775-1817). Briefly, it was a Malthusian world in which any improvement in living standards was quickly followed by an increase in population that drove living standards back down to the subsistence level - a level at which nine-tenths of the pupolation was constantly at risk of death from disease and starvation. Nasar assure us that as grim as this world was, life was far worse on the Continent.

By 1870, however, some 50 years after Austen's death, things had improved enormously. Real wages were significantly higher and rising. Most people could now afford more than a single set of clothes, life expectancy was increasing, and London was a far healthier place in which to live. What happened to so dramatically improve the average Englishman's lot in just two generations? Nasar explains:

The economic historian Harold Perkin argues that "Consumer demand was the ultimate economic key to the Industrial Revolution," providing a more powerful impetus than the invention of the steam engine or the loom. London's needs, passion for novelty, and growing spending power supplied entrepreneurs with compelling incentives to adopt new technologies and create new industries.

There you have it. For millennia people were starving to death and the solution was right there in front of them: Consume more. Similarly, those who died of thirst in the world's deserts could have been saved if they had only drunk more water.

This is not to deride Nasar, but to suggest that Keynes was on to something when he quipped that "even the most practical man of affairs [or the most intelligent historian] is usually in the thrall of the ideas of some long-dead economist." Nasar's passage, following as it does a recital of the terrible poverty that was the common lot for nearly all of human history, perfectly illustrates the emptiness and absurdity of popular Keynesianism. The work that Nasar quotes - The Origins of Modern English Society 1780-1880 - was published in 1969 at the height of Keynes's popularity: during the presidency of Richard "We are all Keynesians now" Nixon and before the stagflation of the 1970s.

Nasar's last sentence, however, contains an important truth in the phrase "growing spending power. …