DeLong on Skidelsky on Keynes
By David Henderson
Time passed. The death toll from WWI mounted toward ten million, Keynes became angrier and angrier at this civilization-breaking catastrophe, and angrier and angrier at the politicians who could see no way forward other than mixing more blood with the mud of Paaschendale. At the Versailles peace conference the new democratic German government was treated as a foe rather than a potential ally, and the object became to extract as much in plunder and reparations from Germany as possible. Jan Christian Smuts wrote about how he and Keynes sat at night and “rail[ed] against the world and the coming flood. And I tell him that this is the time for Grigua’s prayer (the Lord to come himself and not to send his Son, as this is not a time for children). And then we laugh, and behind the laughter is [Herbert] Hoover’s horrible picture of thirty million people who must die unless there is some great intervention. But then again we think that things are never really as bad as that; and something will turn up, and the worst will never be. And somehow all these phases of feeling are true and right in some sense…” (HB [Hopes Betrayed], page 373).
This is from Brad DeLong’s review of Robert Skidelsky’s biography of John Maynard Keynes. Brad reprinted it on his blog in April.
Many of my political allies see no good in Keynes. I’ve never had that attitude and the main reason, I think, is that when I was 19, I found, at the annual Winnipeg Hospital book sale, an original copy of Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace and read about the first half of it, enough to get the gist. I paid 25 cents for it. (It burned in my 2007 fire.) I read that first half in one night’s sitting. There’s quite a contrast between the clarity of that book and the fuzziness and imprecision in the General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, which, after three attempts, I have never gotten all, or even close to all, the way through. This is in contrast to my friend Alan Reynolds. When I visit friends, I like to pull books out of their library and see how they have marked them up. Alan’s copy of GT is full of long comments in the margins, and not the Murray Rothbard-style putdowns, but thoughtful and respectful.
Keynes was passionate about not punishing the Germans for World War I and courageous enough to quit his job and write about it. What economic adviser nowadays has the guts to do that? Elsewhere, I have written about Keynes’s willingness to criticize his own Liberal Party.
Here is my biography of Keynes in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.
HT to Michael Davis.