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J.M. Keynes - Yesterday's Man?

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Peter Clarke looks at the memory of the influential economist

The centenary of his birth in 1983 caught his reputation at an awkward moment. The fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), was hardly better. The 1980s have not been kind to the memory of John Maynard Keynes. The rise of 'Thatcherism' in Britain and of 'Reaganomics' in the United States of America saw the explicit rejection of a Keynesian approach to economic problems – now denounced as 'the policies that failed before'. Margaret Thatcher has claimed from time to time that she is actually the true follower of Keynes, a backhanded tribute to the continuing hold of his name. It took Ronald Reagan to put him down with the one-liner that 'this man Keynes didn't even have a degree in economics'.

Quite true. As an undergraduate at Cambridge Keynes was a good but not brilliant mathematician. He turned to economics subsequently, with the strong encouragement of a family friend, Professor Alfred Marshall, who happened to be also the most eminent British economist of his generation. Born in Harvey Road, Cambridge, with a father who rose to be Registrar of the University, the young Keynes had every inside advantage in carving out a successful academic career. But he was not just a professional economist; he never became a professor; he drew much of his income from non-academic sources, notably speculation in the City; he was intermittently embroiled in government and politics.


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