On The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money

Being passionate about economics, reading John Maynard Keynes‘ classic – The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money – has been on my to do list for quite some time and I am glad I have finally been able to read it.

Below I wanted to share seven key learnings from this masterpiece:

Lesson 1: The equivalence of saving and investment:

Income=value of output = consumption + investment; saving = income – consumption; saving = investment.

The equivalence between the quantity of saving and the quantity of investment emerges from the bilateral character of the transactions between the producer on the one hand and, on the other hand, the consumer or the purchaser of capital equipment. Income is created by the value in excess of user cost which the producer obtains for the output he has sold; but the whole of this output of user cost which the producer obtains for the output he has sold; but the whole of this output must obviously have been sold either to a consumer or to another entrepreneur; and each entrepreneur’s current investment is equal to the excess of the equipment which he has purchased from other entrepreneurs over his own user cost. Hence, in the aggregate the excess of income over consumption, which we call saving, cannot differ from the addition to capital equipment which we call investment. And similarly with net saving and net investment. Saving, in fact, is a mere residual. The decisions to consume and the decisions to invest between them determine incomes. Assuming that the decisions to invest become effective, they must in doing so consumption or expand income. Thus the act of investment in itself cannot help causing the residual or margin, which we call saving, to increase by a corresponding amount.

Lesson 2: Credit Impacts Output and Wages

The notion that the creation of credit by the banking system allows investment to take place to which “no genuine saving” corresponds can only be the result of isolating one of the consequences of the increased bank-credit to the exclusion of the others. If the grant of a bank credit to an entrepreneur additional to the credits already existing allows him to make an addition to current investment which would not have occurred otherwise, incomes will necessarily be increased and at a rate which will normally exceed the rate of increased investment. Moreover, except in conditions of full employment, there will be an increase of real income as well as of money-income. The public will exercise “a free choice” as to the proportion in which they divide their increase of income between saving and spending; and it is impossible that the intention of the entrepreneur who has borrowed in order to increase investment can become effective (except in substitution for investment by other entrepreneurs which would have occurred otherwise) at a faster rate than the public decide to increase their savings. Moreover, the savings which result from this decision are public decide to increase their savings. Moreover, the savings which result from this decision are corresponding to the new bank-credit, unless he deliberately prefers to hold more money rather than some other form of wealth. Yet employment, incomes and prices cannot help moving in such a way that in the new situation someone does choose to hold the additional money. It is true that in the new situation someone does choose to hold the additional money, it is true that an aggregate saving and investment which would not have occurred if it had been sufficiently foreseen. It is also true that the grant of the bank-credit will set up three tendencies (1) for output to increase, (2) for the marginal product to rise in value in terms of the wage-unit (which in conditions of decreasing return must necessarily accompany an increase of output), and (3) for the wage-unit to rise in terms of money (since this is a frequent concomitant of better employment); and these tendencies may affect the distribution of real income between different groups. But these tendencies are characteristic of a state of increasing output as such, and will occur just as much if the increase in output has been initiated otherwise than by an increase in bank-credit. They can only be avoided by avoiding any course of action capable of improving employment. Much of the above, however, is anticipating the result of discussions which have not yet been reached.

Lesson 3: The Below Six Factors Drive The Propensity to Consume

The principal objective factors which influence the propensity to consume appear to be the following: (1) A change in the wage-unit. Consumption (C) is obviously much more a function of (in some sense) real income than of money-income…(2) A change in the difference between income and net income. We have shown above that the amount of consumption depends on net income rather than on income, since it is, by definition, his net income that a man has primarily in mind when he is deciding his scale of consumption…(3) Windfall changes in capital-values not allowed for in calculating net income(4) Changes in the rate of time discounting, i.e. in the ratio of exchange between present goods changes in the purchasing power of money in so far as these are foreseen(5) Changes in fiscal policy. In so far as the inducement to the individual to save depends on the future return which he expects, it clearly depends not only on the rate of interest but on the fiscal policy of the Government. Income taxes, especially when they discriminate against “unearned’ income, taxes on capital-profits, death-duties and the like are as relevant as the rate of interest; whilst the range of possible changes in fiscal policy may be greater, in expectation at least, than for the rate of interest itself. If fiscal policy is used as a deliberate instrument for the more equal distribution of incomes, its effect in increasing the propensity to consume is, of course, all the greater…(6) Changes in expectations of the relation between the present and the future level of income. We must catalogue this factor for the sake of formal completeness. But, whilst it may affect considerably a particular individual’s propensity to consume, it is likely to average out for the community as a whole. Moreover, it is a matter about which there is, as a rule, too much uncertainty for it to exert much influence.

Lesson 4: Three Types of Risk Affect the Volume of Investments:

Two types of risk affect the volume of investment which have not commonly been distinguished, but which it is important to distinguish. The first is the entrepreneur’s or borrower’s risk and arises out of doubts in his own mind as to the probability of his actually earning the prospective yield for which he hopes. If a man is venturing his own money, this is the only risk which is relevant. But where a system of borrowing and lending exists, by which I mean the granting of loans with a margin of real or personal security, a second type of risk is relevant which we may call the lender’s risk. This may be due either to moral hazard, i.e. voluntary default or other means of escape possibly lawful, from the fulfillment of the obligation, or to the possible insufficiency of the margin of security, i.e. involuntary default due to the disappointment of expectation. A third source of risk might be added, namely, a possible adverse change in the value of the monetary standard which renders a money-loan to this extent less secure than a real asset; though all or most of this should be already reflected, and therefore absorbed, in the price of durable real assets.

Lesson 5: The True Definition of the Rate of Interest is one of Balancing Liquidity

Thus the rate of interest at any time, being the reward for parting with liquidity, is a measure of the unwillingness of those who possess money to part with their liquid control over it. The rate of interest is not the “price” which brings into equilibrium the demand for resources to invest with the readiness to abstain from present consumption. It is the “price” which equilibrates the desire to hold wealth in the form of cash with the available quantity of cash; which implies that if the rate of interest were lower, i.e. if the reward for parting with cash were diminished, the aggregate amount of cash which the public would wish to hold would exceed the available supply, and that if the rate of interest were raised, there would be a surplus of cash which no one would be willing to hold. If this explanation is correct, the quantity of money is the other factor, which, in conjunction with liquidity-preference, determines the actual rate of interest in given circumstances…Nevertheless, circumstances can develop in which even a large increase in the quantity of money may exert a comparatively small influence on the rate of interest. For a large increase in the quantity of money may cause so much uncertainty about the future that liquidity-preferences due to the precautionary-motive may be strengthened; whilst opinion about the future of the rate of interest may be so unanimous that a small change in present rates may cause a mass movement into cash. It is interesting that the stability of the system and its sensitiveness to changes in the quantity of money should be so dependent on the existence of a variety of opinion about what is uncertain. Best of all that we should know the future. But if not, then, if we are to control the activity of the economic system by changing the quantity of money, it is important that opinions should differ Thus this method of control is more precarious in the United States, where everyone tends to hold the same opinion at the same time, than in England where differences of opinion are more usual.

Lesson 6: The General Theory of Employment Re-stated:

There will be an inducement to push the rate of new investment to the point which forces the supply-price of each type of capital-asset to a figure which, taken in conjunction with its prospective yield, brings the marginal efficiency of capital in general to approximate equality with prospective yield, brings the marginal efficiency of capital in general to approximate equality with the state of confidence concerning the prospective yield, the psychological attitude to liquidity and the quantity of money (preferably calculated in terms of wage-units) determine, between them, the rate of new investment.

Lesson 7: The Government has an Active Role to Play to Ensure an Effective Economy

In some other respects the foregoing theory is moderately conservative in its implications. For whilst it indicates the vital importance of establishing certain central controls in matters which are now left in the main to individual initiative, there are wide fields of activity which are unaffected. The State will have to exercise a guiding influence on the propensity to consume partly through its scheme of taxation, partly by fixing the rate of interest, and partly, perhaps, in other ways scheme of taxation, partly by fixing the rate of interest, and partly, perhaps, in other ways. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that the influence of banking policy on the rate of interest will be sufficient by itself to determine an optimum rate of investment. I conceive, therefore, that a somewhat comprehensive socialisation of investment will prove the only means of securing an approximation to full employment; though this need not exclude all manner of compromises and of devices by which public authority will co-operate with private initiative. But beyond this no obvious case is made out for a system of State Socialism which would embrace most of the economic life of the community. It is not the ownership of the instruments of production which it is economic life of the community. It is not the ownership of the instruments of production which it is resources devoted to augmenting the instruments and the basic rate of reward to those who own them, it will have accomplished all that is necessary. Moreover, the necessary measures of socialisation can be introduced gradually and without a break in the general traditions of society…The authoritarian state systems of to-day seem to solve the problem of unemployment at the expense of efficiency and of freedom. It is certain that the world will not much longer tolerate the unemployment which, apart from brief intervals of excitement, is associated and, in my opinion inevitably associated with present-day capitalistic individualism. But it may be possible by a right analysis of the problem to cure the disease whilst preserving efficiency and freedom.

On a concluding note, Keynes reminds us about the power of ideas and the hope they bring:

I do not attempt an answer in this place. It would need a volume of a different character from this one to indicate even in outline the practical measures in which they might be gradually clothed. But if the ideas are correct an hypothesis on which the author himself must necessarily base what he writes it would be a mistake, I predict, to dispute their potency over a period of time. At the present moment people are unusually expectant of a more fundamental diagnosis; more present moment people are unusually expectant of a more fundamental diagnosis; more particularly ready to receive it; eager to try it out, if it should be even plausible. But apart from this contemporary mood, the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.

I must admit the book is somewhat of a dry read, particularly as compared to some of the other work by Keyne’s colleagues such as Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom or F. A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. Nevertheless an important read for anyone with interest in economics.


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