John Maynard Keynes: The Economist as Saviour 1920-1937 by Robert Skidelsky

DECEMBER 5, 2006

This is the second volume of Skidelsky’s trilogy and takes Keynes from his resignation from the Treasury up until the publication of the General Theory (1936) and its immediate reception by the public and other economists. Though still excellent I found this a less satisfactory book that its predecessor.

This was for several reasons the most important of which was the necessity of dwelling far more on the economic theory than in the previous volume. Much of this theory can be rather complex and difficult to explain in simple prose (and this is a biography after all so we are going to starting getting diagrams and formulas). Moreover Skildelsky is not just explaining the theory as it eventually became but striving to explain how it was developed and debated. Since Keynes changed his mind regularly, often made erroneous statements and the General Theory is legendary for its impenetrability it is no suprise that parts an be hard going. (E.g. the banana parable about which Skidelsky says on p.325 “Spotting the flaw in Keynes’s banana parable was to occupy both him and his ablest critics for two years or more”. But I never bought the banana parable and never got a clear idea from Skidelsky of what this flaw was that was only discovered after 2 more years of effort).

Even without these handicaps things would be difficult – after all economic theory, even when lucidly explained, is intrinsically less interesting than the ‘life-and-times’ side of things. Nevertheless Skidelsky has done another impressive job and I look forward to the final volume which may resolve some of the more pressing questions of theory (was the General Theory actually any good or was it accepted because of the time at which it appeared) and should also see more of Keynes in his Statesman rather than theorist role.

one starts to be unsure whether on any given point (a) Skidelsky’s summary of Keynes is correct (usually yes I would imagine) (b) w As a result I am not sure he does as good a job as he might of explaining the various disputes that arose or explaining how these shortcomings could be addressed (