Although Keynes’ conceptual framework for macroeconomics was original, the economic ideas broadly known as Keynesianism — the possibility of unclearing markets, and countercyclical spending — are much older than John Maynard Keynes, and their continued predominating association with him is rather puzzling to me. Indeed, looking at Keynes’ ideas through the lens of his predecessors is illuminating.
According to Genesis in the Old Testament, in ancient Egypt, Joseph son of Jacob warned the Pharaoh that his dreams foretold seven years of abundant harvest to be followed by seven years of poor harvests. Farming in the Nile delta depended on good rainfall in the highlands of central Africa to flood the delta area with water and fertile topsoil. Without good rainfall, Egypt was susceptible to famine.
Joseph told the Pharaoh to store a surplus of grain during the first seven years so that the country would have grain during the drought. During the time of plenty, Joseph ordered the storage of 20 percent of farmers’ output in the Pharaoh’s granaries.
This was a countercyclical fiscal policy millennia before Keynes. If we are to be historically correct, Keynesianism might be better known as Josephianism. And although Joseph’s coat-of-many-colours might arouse the suspicions of certain homophobic critics of Keynes, it is noted that Joseph’s wife bore him two sons.
Keynes’ notion of disequilibrium was a reaction against an idea that only grew wings roughly 130 before Keynes with the industrial revolution — Say’s Law, the notion that “products are paid for with products”, that “a glut can take place only when there are too many means of production applied to one kind of product and not enough to another” and that subsequently “a rational businessman will never hoard money; he will promptly spend any money he gets “for the value of money is also perishable.”
Say’s Law is empirically false. Under certain conditions — including the present condition — savings levels can soar uncontrollably even while interest rates languish at zero, and while unemployment is elevated. In fact, Say himself foresaw the possibility of massive involuntary unemployment and like Keynes and Bastiat, advocated public works programs to decrease unemployment. Indeed perhaps Say’s Law — at least in its post-Keynes incarnation — is more reflective of the ideas of Nassau Senior or David Ricardo than Jean-Baptiste Say.
Although the human sphere has always been driven to disequilibrium by the divergency of human plans and imaginations, prior to the industrial revolution — like in the time of Joseph and the Pharaoh — the possibility of involuntary unemployment (and starvation, etc) arising out of flood, robbery, famine, plague, drought, barbarian raids or some other externality was everywhere. The difference between the modern breakdowns in the Great Depression and the Post-2008 Depression and pre-industrial breakdowns of production is that the cause of the former is psychological (investors become grossly fearful of markets, etc, allowing resources to sit idle rather than being reallocated to productive uses) while the cause of the latter is actual material scarcity. But in the worst case the result is the same — needs and wants go unsatisfied and skills and trades stagnate. The outcomes of pre-industrial scarcity can seep into the post-industrial world through the channel of human psychology.
Keynes’ and Joseph’s recommendations on saving in the fat years to spend in the lean ones are ultimately apolitical in nature and apply just as much to the private sector as to the public sector. There is a widely-held conception that spending in the slump and saving in the boom is statist and favours central economic planning. This is not necessarily true. If a stateless society — let’s say, a future moon colony led by radical libertarians — becomes depressed, unemployment rises and resources lie idle, one solution to lift economic activity would be voluntary private infrastructure and capital spending. While Keynes himself rather unfortunately noted that “the theory of aggregated production… can be much easier adapted to the conditions of a totalitarian state”, infrastructure spending of private origin would be just as helpful in a depression in a stateless economy.
Yet Keynes sometimes pushed his arguments too far. Keynes suggested that “digging ditches is preferable to doing nothing” and proclaimed that the dawn of the Second World War meant that “the end of abnormal unemployment is in sight”. But wasting idle resources on unwanted projects like ditches or giant space lasers to repel a nonexistent alien invasion, or actively harmful projects like wars even though it may raise aggregate demand is still wasting resources. If the point of countercyclical policy is to avoid excessive levels of stagnation, it seems self-defeating to take idle resources and spend them on something entirely unwanted and unwarranted. Spending labour and capital on a destructive life-ending and infrastructure-destroying war rather than on useful infrastructural and scientific projects is akin to Pharaoh spending grain in a famine to support a war where just as many Egyptians die fighting as would have died in the averted famine.
So for successful countercyclical policy, I think it is important to emphasise quality projects that people actually want rather than simply emphasising aggregate levels of spending. In Pharaoh’s Egypt, that was a store of grain…