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John Maynard Keynes in Modern Macroeconomics Education

January 14th, 2011

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It is of interesting note that Paul Krugman and Paul Samuelson, in their dismissal of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The New Industrial State, mentioned that Galbraith was a talented writer (Duhs, 2009, p123). Perhaps it would not be too far-fetched to suggest that such a comment was motivated by the fact that both Krugman and Samuelson were Keynesians. John Maynard Keynes was not known for being an easy read, with scholars and economists alike criticizing The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money for its complex writing despite its largely practical nature. Keynes, whose fame peaked with the publication of The General Theory heralded some sort of revolution in the economics of the late 1930s. The General Theory created a change in the way governments handled the recessions of a post-Depression era. Once economies were lifted out of depressions, Keynesian policies gradually disappeared and in the 1970s were mostly displaced by Milton Friedman’s monetarism (Stewart, 1993). Keynes may have lost his popularity towards the end of the 20th century, but he returned to attention recently in light of the global financial crisis. Seeing as long after his death Keynes remains a big name in economics, it is only natural then to expect his teachings introduced in a standard macroeconomic course. Hence this essay will examine the content of textbook macroeconomics and how much of it agrees with the economics of Keynes, primarily through the analysis of introductory macroeconomics textbooks.

Looking at the history of Macroeconomics textbooks, we can see that Keynesian economics began to saturate economics textbooks since as early as the 1940s. A study of Paul Samuelson’s Economics shows that Keynesian economics was gradually assimilated into mainstream economics syllabus, starting with its first edition which was loosely structured around Keynes’s concepts. Samuelson’s text was the principle introductory economics textbook of the USA and today it is built around ideas from The General Theory alongside other relatively recent economic concepts such as the Phillip’s Curve. Pearce and Hoover (2005, p186) additionally notes that today’s macroeconomics textbooks are mostly Keynesian. However, it is worth mentioning that most textbook Keynesian economics are not necessarily teachings of Keynes but rather other economist’s interpretations or understanding of Keynes. There exists a difference between (as Alex Leojohnhufvud famously put it) “Keynesian Economics and the Economics of Keynes” (Garrison, 1994). Colander observes that textbook Keynesian policies were not exactly Keynes but rather Abba Lerner’s interpretation of Keynes while Caporaso and Levine (1992, p101) notes that economists such as textbook writer Samuelson placed Keynesian ideas into a neoclassically inspired framework. The latter supports the notion put forward by Littleboy that textbook writers merely picked up bits of Keynes that fit into its neoclassical vision.

Things take a fascinating turn when the discord between Keynes’s own teachings and textbook macroeconomics are made visible. A quick review of standard macroeconomics textbooks is sufficient to show that Keynes was not purely “watered down” or “bastardized” as claimed by some economists, but rather eliminated completely in certain crucial parts. The most obvious would be the lack of the political side of Keynes due to the textbook writer’s pursuit of the measurable and results-oriented components of Keynesian economics. Keynes did not trust the market system to perform satisfactorily on its own, and this forms a core section of Keynesian economics. Sharing a similar opinion with Karl Marx (who is completely absent from most modern macroeconomics textbooks), Keynes denied the ability of the market to keep a steady rate of employment and production. However, Marx went on to claim that the free market system is “violently unstable”, a thought that Keynes disagreed upon (Caporaso Levine, 1992, p101-2).

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