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Critical Review of Keynes' General Theory

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A Critical Review of Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest & Money


Deepika Rana Priyanka Gupta

Biographical Account
John Maynard Keynes is doubtlessly one of the most important figures in the entire history of economics. He revolutionized economics with his classic book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), regarded as probably the most influential social science treatise of the 20th Century. The son of the Cambridge economist and logician John Neville Keynes, John Maynard Keynes, born in 1883, was bred in British elite institutions - Eton and then King's College Cambridge. During his freshman year at Cambridge, Keynes was invited to join an intellectual group called "The Apostles" that met periodically to discuss literary, philosophical, political, and aesthetic questions. Through his association with the Apostles, Keynes became introduced to the philosophy of G. E. Moore; critics note the pervasive influence of Moore's Principia Ethica on Keynes's A Treatise on Probability, his only philosophical work, as well as on his economic methodology. His first book on Indian currency (1913) was directly related to his experience at the India office. From 1914 to 1918, J.M.K. was called to the UK Treasury to assist with the financing of the British war economy. He excelled at his job and the influence he gained earned him a position with the British delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference in 1918. J.M.K was appalled at the vindictive nature of the peace settlement, and was particularly opposed to the devastating consequences of the heavy "reparations" payments imposed on Germany. He resigned from the conference and published his Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), denouncing the Treaty of Versailles and bringing him into the public spotlight. After returning to Cambridge, Keynes published his Treatise on Probability (1921), in which he dismantled the classical theory of probability and launched what has since become known as the "logical-relationist" theory of probability. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes brought out his heavy, two-volume Treatise on Money, which effectively set out his Wicksellian theory of the credit cycle. In it, the rudiments of a liquidity preference theory of interest are laid out and Keynes believed it would be his magnum opus. His bubble was soon pricked. Friedrich von Hayek reviewed the Treatise so harshly that Keynes decided to set Sraffa to review (and condemn no less harshly) Heyek's own competing work. The Keynes-Hayek conflict was but one battle in the Cambridge-L.S.E. War.

By the time the General Theory appeared, politicians and economists all over the world were searching for a way to reverse one of the longest depressions in economic history; orthodox, or classical, economic policy, which held that prosperity would return if prices and wages were lowered, was not promoting recovery anywhere. With the General Theory, as it became known, Keynes sought to develop a theory that could explain the determination of aggregate output and as a consequence, employment. He posited that the determining factor to be aggregate demand. Among the revolutionary concepts initiated by Keynes was the concept of a demanddetermined equilibrium wherein unemployment is possible, the ineffectiveness of price flexibility to cure unemployment, a unique theory of money based on "liquidity preference", the introduction of radical uncertainty and expectations, the marginal efficiency of investment schedule, breaking Say's Law (and thus reversing the savings-investment causation), the possibility of using government fiscal and monetary policy to help eliminate recessions and control economic booms. Indeed, with this book, he almost single-handedly constructed the fundamental relationships and ideas behind what became known as "macroeconomics". He was a principal negotiator at the Breton Woods Conference in 1944, where he played a significant role in the inauguration of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. His last major public service was his negotiation in 1945 of a multi-billion-dollar U.S. loan to England. He died of a heart attack on April 21, 1946, shortly after returning from an economic conference in Savannah, Georgia.

General Theory of Employment
General Theory is essentially about what determines the level of employment. In his book, h e problematises how the economy c ould g et stuck at the b ottom of the trade cycle. He strongly rejec ted the classical proposition of the sel f adjusting mechanism of the free ma rkets drivers viz . wages, prices & interest rate. He puts forward a theory of equilibrium at less than full empl oyment

level. The Principle of Effective Demand
The logical starting point of K eynes‟ theory of employment is the princ ip le of effective demand. Total Employm ent dep ends on total demand & unempl oyment results from a deficiency of total demand. Effective demand manifests it self in the spending of income. As e mp loyment increa ses, inc ome increases. A fundamental principle is that as the real incom e of the community inc reases, consumption will also increase but by less than incom e. Therefore, in order t o have sufficient demand to sustain an increa se in employm ent , there must be an increase in real investm ent equal to the gap between inc ome & c onsumption demand out of that income . In oth er words, employm ent cannot increase unl ess investment increases. Determinants of Effective Demand The thesis of General theor y is that employment is determined by aggregate demand which in turn depends upon the propensity to consum e & the amount of investment at a given tim e. An individual‟s consumption is determined mainly by his inc ome a nd his consumption will normally b e ra ther less than his inc ome. The prop ortion of income spent on consumption may change as incom e changes which K eynes conceptualized as th e marginal propensity to consume . It is a functional relationship indicating h ow consum ption varies when incom e varies. K eynes assumption that the propensity to consum e is relativel y stable in th e sh ort run is a generalization about actual experienc e & is an essential part of th e structure of h is theory. A high prop ensity to c onsume is favorable to

Average propensity to consume Propensity To Consume Marginal propensity to consume

Consumption ( C )

Size of Income

A theory of employment (N), Income(Y) & effective demand Rate of Interest (i)

Liquidity Preference (L)

Investment (I)

Quantity of Money(M)

Expectation of Profit Yields Marginal Efficiency of Capital(Cm) Replacement Cost, or supply price of Capital Assets

Employment & Income depend on effective demand. Effective demand is determined by the propensity to consume & the volume of investment. The propensity to consume is relatively stable. Employment depends on the volume of investment if the propensity to consume is unchanged. Investment depends on the rate of interest and the marginal efficiency of capital. The rate of interest depends on the quantity of money and liquidity preference The marginal efficiency of capital depends on the expectations of profit yields & the replacement cost of capital assets.

Fig. An outline of the General Theory of Employment

employm ent because it lea ves rela tively small gaps b etween incom e & the consumption out of incom e corresponding to different levels of incom e. The second el ement of effective demand, Investment , is det ermined by two things: the yield of investment & the cos t of borrowing i.e. the rate of interest. The profitability of new investment is called the marginal efficiency of c apital . It is important to note that Keynes uses th e term marginal efficiency of capital rather than expected rate of profit because he wish es to emphasize the dynamic setting on which the p resent & the future are linked by the expectation of investors. In this dynamic setting the investor is extra cautious about investment that will realize their value only over many years to come. Th e longer the period involved, the greater th e chance that the unforeseen events will intervene & disappoint today‟s investors. The role of capital assets as a link by which wealth holders bridg e the gap between the present & the future is one o f the fundamental id eas underlying the Keynes ‟ entire analysis . The rate of interest, th e oth er factor which determines th e volume of investment depends upon two thing s: a.The state of liquidity preference b. The quantity of money Liquidity preference, refl ecting upon the demand aspect, refers to the desire of people to h old som e of their assets in th e form of money. O n the oth er hand, the quantity of money representing the supply aspect of the price of money refers to the amount of funds in the form of currency. The type of l iqu idit y preference which is important in rel ation to the rate of interest is that arising in connection with the speculative m otive . Keynes defines the speculative motive as “the object of securing profit from knowing better than the market what the future w ill bring forth .” In line with the above rea soning, the demand for m oney is inversely prop ortional to the rate of interest. As p er Keynes, in the transition from depression to recovery, the demand for money for transactions will be increasing. If this increased demand must be met by drawing upon m oney used t o satisfy the speculative motive, the rate of interest will increase, and the recovery will be impeded. Th erefore, unl ess the banks are rea dy to offer m ore cash or unless the liquidity preference of the public for the speculative motive decreases considerably, the vol ume of investm ent will fall off & recovery will be nipped before it has really begun. The sh ortage of money would retard invest ment & recovery no matter how much the desire of the public to save might increase.

Basically, consumption & investm ent contain the essentials of the General theory of Empl oyment. Empl oyment dep ends upon effective demand, which is determined by the propensity to consum e & the induc ement to invest. If th e prop ensity to consum e remains unchanged, employment will vary in direct proportion to the investment. Increases in investment will bring about increases in incom e, & out of larger incom e there arises a grea ter demand for consumption which leads t o still furth er incr eases in incom e. This ph enomenon was christened as the „Multiplier Effect ’ by Keynes. N ow this implies that employment is det ermined by investment. The general theory is a theory of equilibrium . It analyses the process b y which four int errelated variables - consumption, investment, saving s & the National Incom e- are brought into equilibrium with each other & sh ows that the equilibrium e stablished, may or m ay not, result in full employment . Keynes assert ed that such equilibrium c ould persist for years or ind eed forever, unless investment rose & so, through the multiplier, raised th e output & the level of employm ent. Therefore if th e government wants full employm ent, it m ust itself accept responsibility for manipulating the level of demand in a way that would ensure it. Th e fact that this might involve budget deficits was not im portant. Thus the message ran if the government wants full employment, it can‟t simply sit back & hope that full employment will just happen. Keynes found no reason to assume that the gr owing gap between income & c onsumption at high levels of employm ent will be filled automatically that is without conscious „social action‟. In these terms, Keynes makes a case for public works & becomes an advocate of public spending.

Digressions on Keynes’ General Theory
Under massive Keynesian spending, the U.S. went from the greatest depression it has ever known to the greatest economic boom it has ever known. The success of Keynesian economics was so resounding that almost all capitalist governments around the world adopted its policies. The success of Keynesian economics was such that even Richard Nixon once declared, "We are all Keynesians now." After the war, economists found Keynesianism a useful tool in controlling unemployment and inflation. This set up a theoretical war between liberals and conservatives that continues to this day. Of course, Keynesianism has its critics, most of them conservatives who loathe the idea that government could ever play a beneficial role in the economy.

 Monetarist School
One of the first major critics was Milton Friedman. Although he accepted Keynes' definition of recessions, he rejected the cure. Government should butt out of the business of expanding or contracting the money supply, he argued. It should keep the money supply steady, expanding it slightly each year only to allow for the growth of the economy and a few other basic factors. Inflation, unemployment and output would adjust themselves according to market demands. This policy he named monetarism. Where Keynes went wrong:Friedman‟s critique of Keynesian ec onomics ha d several dim ensions . Consumption expenditure resp onds to changes in permanent income not temporary changes in income. Monetary factors have greater significanc e than Keynes or th e Keynesians allowed . Demand for m oney will dep end on total wealth, the prices and returns on various types of a ssets, and consum er preferenc es . Increases in money supply will have only a t emporary effect on i nt erest rates an d expenditure & a l onger run ef fect on the price l evel .

 The Pigou Effect
The Pigou effect or th e real balance effect provides a criticism of the Keynes‟ view that there exist under employment equilibrium situation. It is based upon the idea that with flexible wages and prices , unemploym ent will lead to falling

prices and an increa se in the value of m oney balances . Eventually people will cease trying to increase their money holdings and will increase consumption . Thus employment does not rely on interest rate declines or investment expenditure . Where Keynes went wrong: In Keynesian policy, unemploym ent is never to be correct ed by any reduc tion of money- wage- rates. Keynes recomm ends two main remedies. One is deficit spending & the other is low interest rates, artificially produced by "the Monetary Authority." Keynes inc identally admits that such artificially low interest rates can only b e produc ed by printing m ore m oney, i.e., by deliberate inflation. As Professor Jac ob Viner not ed:
Keynes's rea soning points ob viousl y to the superio r ity of infl a tiona ry remedies fo r unempl oyment over money -wa ge reductions. In a w orld orga nized in a ccorda nce w ith Keynes' s specifica tions there w oul d be a consta nt ra ce betw een the printing press a nd the business a gents of the trade unions, w ith the proble m of unempl oyment la rgel y sol ved if the printing pres s coul d ma inta in a consta nt l ea d a nd if only vol ume of empl oyment, irrespective of qua l ity, is considered importa nt .

The truth is that the only real cure for unemployment is precisely the one that

Keynes's whole "g eneral theory" was designed to reject: the adjustment of wage- rates to the marginal labor productivity or "equilibrium" level . This does not mean a uniform en bloc adjustment of "th e wage level " to "th e price level ." It means the mutual adjustm ent of specific wage- rates and of pric es of the specific products which various groups of workers h elp to produce. It means also the adjustment of various wage - rates to each other and of various prices to each other. It means the coordination of the c omplex wage- price structure. It means th e maintenance of a free, fluid, dynamic equil ibrium, or a constant tendency toward such equilibrium, through the economic system . In sum, neither g overnment spending, nor low interest rates, nor a n increase in the money supply is eit her a necessary or a sufficient condition for the existence of full employment . What is necessary for full employment (using the word in a working, practical sense) is a prop er relation among the prices of different kinds of goods and a proper balance between costs and prices, particularly between wages and pric es. This functional balance will tend to exist when wage- rates are free a nd fluid and competitive, and not dictated

by arbitrary union c oercion. When this balance exists, full employment and maximized production and prosp erit y will tend to foll ow. When this b alance does not exist, when wage- rates are pushed above the marginal product of labor, and profit margins are doubtful or disappear, there will be unemploym ent . The presence or ab sence of monetary inflation, in brief, i s by itself irrelevant to full employ ment . All that government policy needs t o do, besides keeping the currency sound, is to enforc e the laws against violenc e and intimidation, and to repeal the l aws which confer exclusiv e legal privileges and immunities on union lea ders. “Unqualified supremacy of the principle o f free employe e choice" sh ould b e the rule.

 Theoretical Rebuttal
 Keynes's definitions of his key terms—Income, Saving, and Investment—are merely circular; they are all defined in terms of each other. He so defines saving and Investment that they are not only necessarily equal, but identical. He repudiates and apologizes for his "confusing" definitions of these same terms as given in his Treatise on Money, but absent-mindedly returns to these old definitions in his subsequent discussion, particularly when he tries to prove that investment increases employment and that saving reduces it.  Keynes's argument against "liquidity" and against" speculation" is untenable. Speculative anticipations and risks are necessarily involved in all economic activity. Somebody must bear them. What Keynes is saying is that people cannot be trusted to invest the money they have themselves earned, and that this money should be seized from them by government officials and spent or "invested" in the directions in which those officials (seeking to hold on to political power) deem best.  Keynes's plan for "the socialization of investment" would inevitably entail socialism and state planning. Seriously carried out, it would remove any significant field for the exercise of private initiative and responsibility. Keynes, in brief, recommended de facto socialism under the guise of "reforming" and "preserving" capitalism. "Domestic laissez faire and an international gold standard," blamed by Keynes as among the "economic causes of war," were, in fact, powerful forces for peace and international cooperation. It is the national planning policies recommended by Keynes that would tend to provoke wars.

 The explanation of an economic crisis as a "sudden collapse of the marginal efficiency of capital" is either a useless truism or an obvious error; according to the interpretation we give the phrase "the marginal efficiency of capital." If this means simply a collapse of confidence, the explanation is a truism. If it means a collapse in physical productivity, it is nonsense. If it means a collapse in value productivity, it reverses cause and effect. The Keynesian cure for crises is perpetual low interest rates. The attempt to attain these would lead to a policy of perpetual inflation.

 Keynesianism in Globalized world
Keynes could not visualize the collapse of ''Keynesian'' demand management under pressure from the bourgeoisie, especially the financial interests. It collapsed within a regime where there was globalization of finance and hence far freer flows of goods and finance. First, any boosting of activity to levels close to "full employment", gives rise to expectations of inflation and currency depreciation, so that long before the economy comes anywhere near full employment a flight of finance capital occurs which realizes these very expectations and thereby forces a contraction of the level of activity. Second, when this boosting is done under the aegis of the State, especially through higher State spending for purposes other than militarism, this becomes all the more a cause for panic in financial circles, since an activist State of this genre appears too radical for comfort. The only ways then that an advanced capitalist country can achieve high levels of activity and employment in these conditions are: either if it is so decisively the financial centre of the world that the sheer expansion of its financial sector that must necessarily occur in the era of globalised finance is enough to generate high employment; or if its currency is so decisively the lynchpin of the entire system that everyone has confidence in its value even when the economy of the country has high levels of activity. By the same token however the fact that Continental Europe, despite having a string of Socialist or Social Democratic governments, elected to office on the promise of getting rid of unemployment, continues to remain saddled with massive unemployment underscores the impossibility of Keynesian demand management in an economy caught in the vortex of globalised finance.

 “Budget Deficit doesn’t matter”: An Apprehension
The unconditional use of fiscal deficits for increasing employment faces reservations for two reasons: Firstly, a fiscal deficit-financed expansion in activity accentuates wealth inequalities compared to an equivalent tax-financed expansion of activity. Secondly, even if private wealth has no effect on private consumption, if the economy gets taken to full employment through a fiscal deficit-financed expansion in activity, then at full employment there would be a large overhang of private wealth in liquid form (as direct or indirect claims upon government) and these, when resources are being fully utilized, can give rise to speculation-engendered inflation.

 Overemphasis on effective demand to cure unemployment
If a worker enjoying an increase of employment increases his cash holdings, all other conditions, including the amount of cash holdings desired by the other members of the society, remaining unchanged, the increase in cash holdings realized by the owners of the incomes increased but not spent will necessarily have, as a consequence, a decrease in the cash holdings of other members of the society below the level of the holdings which they desire to maintain. To restore their cash holdings to the level desired, the latter will then offer labor without demanding. This will tend to bring about a fall in the whole system of prices. BUT, one price remains stable, the price of gold: automatically maintained at the legal parity by the purchases of the coinage authority. Hence the fall in the system of prices tends to bring about the transfer of productive resources from the products whose prices have fallen to the product whose price has not changed: a diminution in the production of the former and an increase in the production of gold. But the Bank of Issue buys all of the yellow metal offered and not demanded, and consequently supplies, by monetizing the increased production of metal, the additional cash holdings desired. Since the fall of prices and the consequent transfer of productive resources continue as long as the cause which produced them persists—that is, the insufficiency of actual cash holdings relatively to those desired—this double movement cannot but result in bringing the former to the level of the latter by increasing the quantity of monetized metal and at the same time establishing between the price of gold, stabilized at the legal parity, and the other prices in the market the relations which formerly obtained.

Thus, the demand for additional cash holdings will move employment from the production of consumers' goods or investment goods which would not have been wanted to the production of metal (gold) destined for monetization, and consequently providing the increases in cash holdings desired. It is therefore impossible to accept Lord Keynes' conclusion that the insufficiency of demand for consumers' goods or investment goods constitutes an obstacle to the increase of employment. If there is really an offer of an increment of employment on the market, and if only increases in cash holdings are desired by the persons for whom the increase of employment will provide an increase of income, the labor forces offered will find themselves spontaneously but inevitably directed by the force of the price mechanism alone towards the production of the additional cash holdings desired. Thus, the increment of production associated with an increase of employment will not have lacked a market, since it will have taken the form in which the owners of the additional incomes wished to absorb it. It is therefore not true that the limitation of the propensity to consume, if it is not compensated by investment expenditures of an appropriate amount, is the cause of a limitation of employment. It is still less true that it leads to equilibrium with under-employment, since the forces spontaneously brought into being by every increase in labor offered tend to adapt the economic structure to the utilization which the newly employed workers wish to make of their additional income. An economic state in process of adaptation, whatever it is, cannot be a state of equilibrium. A theory which neglects the influences tending to produce these adaptations cannot be a general theory, still less a true theory.

 Evidentiary rebuttal
It is not true that deficits in the government budget cure unemployment. It is not true that low interest rates cure unemployment. The Keynesian prescription leads to a constant race between the money supply and the demands of the trade unions—but it does not lead to long run full employment. The biggest worry for the global economy in the 21st century is that all the OECD economies, which acted as engines of world growth through the 20 th century, seem to have lost steam. The US faces the prospect of the longest recovery from a recession in its history. Not surprisingly the unemployment level of U.S. at present is 9%. During much of the 20th century, the wisdom of Keynesian economics told us that governments would create budget surpluses during an economic boom & use the surplus for deficit financing during downward business cycles so that aggregate demand was kept up.

However, this cardinal rule was thrown to the winds as the US piled up its largest chunk of debt during the boom period of 2001-08. In fact, the first decade of the century was marked by galloping debt to GDP ratios for all western economies, most of whom have national debt pretty close to 100% of their GDP. Considering the present Euro crisis it seems obvious that unsustainable borrowings have dulled their growth impulse.


 Stewart, Michael; Keynes & After (1967)  Dillard, Dudley; Economic explanation of John Maynard Keynes  Reuff, Jaques; The fallacies of Lord Keynes’ General Theory  Hazlitt, Henry; Critics of Keynesian economics  Indian Express article dtd. October 12, 2011: “On the tipping Point”…...

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