Magazine article The New Yorker

The Demand Doctor

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Demand Doctor

Article excerpt

Half a decade has passed since the bursting of a huge asset-price bubble, and the U.S. economy is still depressed. More than ten million Americans are jobless, and many more are working part time. The gross domestic product has yet to recover its pre-bust level. In Florida and other areas where the speculative frenzy ran hot, vast developments stand empty. Overseas, things are no better, and in some places they're worse. Britain looks much like America. In Continental Europe, a debt crisis is wreaking havoc. Democratically elected governments appear powerless to turn things around. Political extremism is on the rise.

So conditions are grim when, on New Year's Day, 1935, the English economist John Maynard Keynes mails a letter to George Bernard Shaw. "I believe myself to be writing a book on economic theory which will largely revolutionize--not, I suppose, at once but in the course of the next ten years--the way the world thinks about economic problems," Keynes tells his friend. "I can't expect you, or anyone else, to believe this at the present stage. But for myself I don't merely hope what I say,--in my own mind, I'm quite sure." Keynes is right. When "The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money" appears, in February, 1936, it provides an intellectual justification for the large-scale public-works programs that Keynes has been advocating for years, and that F.D.R.'s Administration has recently launched as part of the New Deal. Keynes argues against the idea that the economy will recover on its own, and in favor of active measures--the manipulation of public expenditures, taxes, and interest rates--to spur growth and employment. His theory will become the keynote of a new era of economic policymaking. The main impediment to such policies, Keynes writes, is the lingering influence of outmoded theories:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

Today, some regard Keynes himself as that academic scribbler, entrancing a generation of mindless followers. For many others, he's the economist whose sweeping theory, shaped by a Great Depression, remains the surest guide out of our current woes. In the wake of the global financial crisis of 2007-09, President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama both launched tax-relief and spending initiatives designed to stimulate growth. Nicolas Sarkozy, in France, and Gordon Brown, in Britain, proclaimed the end of the free-market era. We were all Keynesians, and knew it--for about five minutes.

In 2010, Britain's new government turned away from expansionary policies and introduced major budget cuts, making arguments that harked back to Keynes's opponents in the nineteen-thirties, such as Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian economist who taught at the London School of Economics. Soon Greece, Ireland, and other debt-burdened European countries were launching ever more Draconian austerity programs. On this side of the Atlantic, with unemployment remaining stubbornly high, conservative economists insisted that the Keynesian medicine had failed to cure the patient and had perhaps even worsened the disease--an argument seized upon by Republican politicians.

"Keynesian policy and Keynesian theory is now done," Governor Rick Perry, of Texas, declared during a Republican Presidential candidates' debate last month. "We'll never have that experiment on America again." The following night, however, President Obama proposed what, in all but name, was another Keynesian stimulus package: a four-hundred-and-fifty-billion-dollar jobs program, consisting of tax cuts and increases in federal spending. …

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