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The Rise of Keynesian Economics. When John Maynard Keynes responded to popular demand for an
When John Maynard Keynes responded to popular demand for an
alternative policy to laissez-faire. In his book, The General Theory of
Employment, Interest, and Money, he gave people both an alternative ex-
planation of the depression and a suggestion of what to do about it that
didn’t rely upon cutting wages. While there were many dimensions to
Keynes’s ideas, their essence was that Say’s law (supply creates its own
demand) was wrong. Keynes argued that Thomas Malthus was right—
general gluts could exist (and certainly did exist in the 1930s).
Keynes (a shrewd investor who was extremely active in the financial
sector) argued that the financial sector didn’t work the way Say’s law
assumed it did. It didn’t translate savings into investment fast enough
to prevent a general glut in output. According to Keynes, the level of
savings did not determine the level of investment. Instead the level of
investment would change the level of income and thereby change the
level of savings. Let’s consider an example. Say that a large portion of
the people in an economy suddenly decide to save more and consume
less. Consumption demand would decrease and savings would increase.
If those savings were not immediately transferred into investment (as
the Classicals assumed they would be), investment demand would not
increase by enough to offset the fall in consumption demand and aggre-
gate demand would fall. There would be excess supply. Faced with this
excess supply, firms would cut back production, which would decrease
income. People would be laid off. As people’s incomes fell, their desire
to consume and their desire to save would decrease. (When you’re laid
off you don’t save.) Eventually income would fall far enough so that once
again savings and investment would be in equilibrium, but that equilib-
rium could be at a lower income level at a point below full employment.
In short, what Keynes argued was that the economy could get stuck in
Once the economy got stuck in a rut with a glut, it had no way out.
The government had to do something to pull the economy out of the rut.
Keynes and his followers presented a set of models and arguments to ex-
plain their views. Those models, which were aggregate models, became
the central macroeconomic models.
Keynesian ideas spread like wildfire among the younger economists.
By the 1950s Keynesian economics became accepted by most of the
profession. The policies that came to be associated with Keynesian eco-
nomics were monetary policy and fiscal policy. Monetary policy meant
varying the money supply to affect the level of spending in the economy.
Fiscal policy meant varying the government budget deficit or surplus
(by varying government expenditures and taxes) to control the level of
spending. Together they were supposed to provide a steering wheel by
which economists could control the economy, keeping it free of business
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