Keynes or Keynesian isn't a dirty word

Whenever you meet someone who uses the words Keynes or Keynesian as a swear word - or as synonyms for socialist - know that their adherence to neoliberal dogma far exceeds their understanding of mainstream economics.

Though John Maynard Keynes' (rhymes with gains) magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, was published in 1936, and he died 10 years later at 62, most economists - including many who wouldn't want to be called Keynesians - acknowledge him as the greatest economist of the 20th century.

It's true that the "monetarist" counter-attack on Keynesian orthodoxy led by Milton Friedman in the 1970s and early 1980s led to lasting changes in prevailing views about how the macro economy should be managed - mainly, that the primary instrument used to stabilise demand should be monetary policy (interest rates) rather than fiscal policy (the budget).

But the monetarists' advocacy of using control of the money supply to limit inflation was soon abandoned as unworkable, and these days few economists would want to be called monetarist.

What remains is a host of fundamentally Keynesian ideas. First is the distinction between micro-economics (study of particular markets) and macro-economics, study of the economy as a whole.

Then there's the idea that governments should seek to stabilise the fluctuations in aggregate (total) demand as the economy moves through the business cycle, a notion rejected by some "new classical" academic economists, but daily practised by the world's central banks and treasuries.

Macro-economists' obsession with fluctuations in gross domestic product is a product of Keynesian thinking, made possible by the development of "national income accounting" by Keynes' followers.

The General Theory was Keynes' attempt to explain how the Great Depression of the 1930s occurred - when the prevailing "neo-classical" orthodoxy said it couldn't occur - and how the world could return to healthy economic growth.

Eventually, it led to a revolution in the way economists thought about the macro economy. Neo-classical theory was out, Keynesian theory was in. Usually, radically different ideas can take years to be accepted - but this time, not so much in Australia.

In his book published early this year, A History of Australasian Economic Thought, Alex Millmow, an associate professor at Federation University in Ballarat, explains how Keynesianism??? came to Oz.

Although The General Theory laid out Keynes' new approach in all its exciting but confusing glory, the thinking of Keynes and his associates at Cambridge University in England had been developing since the start of the Depression in late 1929, and expressed in several of his earlier books and papers.

Australian academic economists had also been puzzling over the causes and cure of the international slump. They'd been closely involved in our initial policy response, to devalue the Australian pound, cut wages by 10 per cent and try to balance the budget.

Only slowly did the evolving thinking of Keynes and his circle in Cambridge cause them to doubt the wisdom of this deflationary approach, which made things worse, and shift to the opposite tack of using government spending on capital works to stimulate economic activity and create jobs at a time of mass unemployment.

Cambridge was then the Mecca of economics - especially for Australians - meaning our academics had plenty of contact. Our leading economist of the era was Lyndhurst Falkiner Giblin, a Tasmanian based at the University of Melbourne.

Anther leader was Douglas Copland, a Kiwi also at Melbourne Uni. They were early and influential, if cautious and qualified, supporters of the Keynesian approach.

Among the Australians who studied at Cambridge and brought back Keynesian thinking was E. Ronald Walker (later Sir Edward Walker; several of these people ended up as knights), based at the University of Sydney.

Over the years, Walker did most to inculcate Keynesian macro-economics among Australian academics and students. Another Aussie who returned from Cambridge as a convert was Syd Butlin, also at Sydney, who became our greatest economic historian.

Keynes was interested in how Australia had been hit by the Depression. Among his colleagues and students who made extended visits to Australia in the 1930s was Colin Clark, who stayed on after accepting an invitation to become a top bureaucrat in the Queensland government.

Clark was a brilliant economic statistician, who played a leading part in the development of what these days are known in every country as the national accounts.

When a Labor federal treasurer, Edward "Red Ted" Theodore, proposed a program of reflation in 1931, to counter the effects of the earlier deflationary measures, he quoted Keynes in his support. His plan was blocked by the Senate.

All this explains why Keynesian ideas were widely accepted by Australian economists even before the publication of The General Theory in 1936.

Publication came just as our first royal commission into "the monetary and banking systems" was getting under way. Many economists gave evidence, making a more influential contribution than the bankers, who defended the status quo.

The leading member of the commission, who wrote most of its report, was Richard Mills, an economics professor from Sydney University. Its other member of note was Ben Chifley, future Labor treasurer and prime minister, whose part in the commission caused his biographer to call him "a Keynesian of the first hour".

It's key finding was that "the Commonwealth Bank [then Australia's central bank, as well as a government-owned trading bank] should make its chief consideration the reduction of fluctuations in general economic activity in Australia".

The commission's recommendations shaped the regulation of Australian banking - including establishment of the Reserve Bank of Australia in 1959 - until the advent of financial deregulation in the mid-1980s.

As Millmow has observed elsewhere, the latest banking royal commission is unlikely to be nearly as influential as the first.

The federal government's national mobilisation following the outbreak of war in 1939, then the preparations for "postwar reconstruction and development", saw the full acceptance of Keynesian economics.

Ross Gittins is the Herald's economics editor.

This story Keynes or Keynesian isn't a dirty word first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.