Some Problems With Keynes

You've been hearing a lot about John Maynard Keynes, the British economist of the early 20th century who, 63 years after his death, is suddenly the single-most important thinker if you want to understand President-elect Obama's plan to get us out of this economic whole.

We're going to do a lot on Keynes. I'm on Morning Edition this Friday and This American Life over the weekend talking about the man.

I've been reading the masterful biography by Robert Skidelsky. Just get it. It's fun and fascinating even if Keynes were not, suddenly, basically running our country.

And I will give plenty of time on this blog and the podcast and on the radio to Keynes's important ideas, but I have to get some things off my chest: the things about Keynes that absolutely drive me crazy. That make me furious and frustrated and angry.

Keynes didn't like Jews.

I spoke with a British Jewish historian who told me most Brits of his day didn't like Jews. And Keynes did have some close Jewish friends.

But I don't find it all that easy to give Keynes a pass. His dislike of Jews was somewhat central to how he understood economics.

Keynes had this idea that Jews had brought the idea of longing for immortality to Pagan Europe. He saw that longing as positive but felt that many Jews distorted it into a longing for money. He thought that the Jews influenced the rest of Europe to love money too much and that had ruined much of European civilization. Keynes believed that by 2020, European civilization would have gotten past its Jewish-inspired love of money and would focus on other things.

It doesn't seem necessary to comment too much on this. One Jewish correspondent pointed out to Keynes that Jews don't actually spend a lot of time thinking about immortality. That's more of a Christian thing. Keynes just ignored that

Keynes didn't like Americans.

OK, this is pretty standard, too, of the time. He found Americans, largely, stupid and incapable of using their vast wealth to run the world. He came to the US as rarely as possible.

Keynes didn't like the working class.

He—again, like many Brits of his day—believed that the purpose of civilization is to create opportunities to experience great art and great thoughts. He was dismissive of the masses who are incapable of experiencing true beauty. He didn't believe the goal of an economy is to get the highest number of people to have decent material conditions. He believed the goal is to have a small elite enjoy art and culture.

Keynes was so narrow-minded.

He had this tiny little world: Cambridge artists and intellectuals. He didn't like people who went to Oxford and wouldn't even bother to think about anyone who went somewhere else. While he traveled the world and met countless world leaders, he doesn't seem particularly worldly. Everywhere he went, he was thinking about a handful of elite snobs in London and Oxford. That was his perspective.

Now, I am not sure all of this is an argument against his ideas. (There are good arguments against his ideas, but ad hominems are always weak tea, as I imagine Keynes saying). I certainly don't think Mr. Obama should avoid a fiscal stimulus because the guy who came up with the idea is a bit of a jerk. (Again, there are other arguments against fiscal stimulus, but jerkiness doesn't merit serious consideration).

But I do find it worth noting that Keynes, hero to so many union members and working class folks around the world, was an elitist, socially conservative snob who wouldn't find it pleasant to spend even a moment with the people who support his ideas the most.

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