Paul Krugman – a Bastard Keynesian

5 June, 2013 at 08:15 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

Joan-Robinson-What-Are-The-Questions-And-Other-EssaysSome decades ago the British economist Joan Robinson – one of John Maynard Keynes’ most brilliant students who helped him with the original draft of his General Theory – half-jokingly referred to some of her colleagues as “Bastard Keynesians”. These colleagues were mostly American Keynesians, but there were a few British Bastard Keynesians too – such as John Hicks, who invented the now famous ISLM diagram. What Robinson was trying to say was that these so-called Keynesians were fatherless in the sense that they should not be recognised as legitimately belonging to the Keynesian family. The Bastard Keynesians, in turn, generally assumed that this criticism implied some sort of Keynesian fundamentalism on the part of the British school. They seemed to assume that Robinson and her colleagues were just being obscurantist snobs.

Such a misinterpretation exists to this day. The second and third generation Bastard Keynesians – which include many of those who generally collect under the title “New Keynesian” – have reinforced this criticism. Paul Krugman, for example, in response from criticisms that he was misrepresenting the work of Keynes and his follower Hyman Minsky wrote:

“So, first of all, my basic reaction to discussions about What Minsky Really Meant — and, similarly, to discussions about What Keynes Really Meant — is, I Don’t Care. I mean, intellectual history is a fine endeavor. But for working economists the reason to read old books is for insight, not authority; if something Keynes or Minsky said helps crystallize an idea in your mind — and there’s a lot of that in both mens’ writing — that’s really good, but if where you take the idea is very different from what the great man said somewhere else in his book, so what? This is economics, not Talmudic scholarship.”

This is a classic misrepresentation of those who accuse Krugman and his ilk of Bastard Keynesianism. When people accuse Krugman and others of distorting the work of others it is not because of some sort of sacredness of the original text, but instead because Bastard Keynesianism is racked with internal inconsistencies that its adherents cannot recognise because, blinded as they are by their neoclassical prejudices, they never get beyond a shallow reading of actual Keynesian economics. What is more, these inconsistencies are not simply some sort of obscure doctrinal or theoretical nuance that only matters to hard-core theorists; rather they generate concrete policy responses that may well cause a great deal of trouble and, quite possibly, discredit Keynesian economics itself if and when they fail spectacularly should they be implemented.

Philip Pilkington

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