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Crash course in economics
on 18 September 2009
Essays in Persuasion are a collection of articles and public letters published by Keynes in the 1920s and 30s. They treat mostly of economic subjects, beginning with the Versailles reparations and moving on to monetary manners, especially the return to gold, though the last fifth of the book is dedicated to political discussion (Keynes's view of Communism, the Liberal Party, hopes for a new culture in a future world of abundance...). They are a pleasure to read, spelled out with elegance and common sense and filled with humorous quips and witticisms.
This compendium is for anyone who doesn't have the skills or patience to read Keynes's General Theory. It lays out the essentials of Keynesian economic thinking, in particular on inflation and unemployment, while in passing making clear a number of economic terms and issues - for example how the gold standard worked and why, and the difference with the gold `exchange' standard, something that had completely escaped me. The Essays do require a minimal understanding of economic factors (interest and exchange rates, state and trade budgets, and how they relate), but they are not technical in style and are told in plain words; Keynes's public, after all, was the average newsreader or politician. A basic historical baggage also helps: why reparations were a difficult issue, the American loans, deflation and the incipient depression; here a good introduction is perhaps lacking. Nevertheless, this is accessible to all with this minimum culture, and it is both excellent economic education and mental exercise.
Finally, Keynes was a humanist, as the Essays show. He was the antithesis of the dry and unfeeling economist, and this makes for a refreshing and uplifting work. He was also human: one senses the anxiety rising as he recommended a tariff in 1931, or the misplaced relief at Britain's abandonment of the gold standard (a devaluation, with a similar effects to tariffs). And his modern relevance does not need underlining, with boom and bust and urgent monetary issues back to the fore.