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His little book sold 84,000 copies, caused a huge stir and made Keynes an instant celebrity. But its real import was to be felt decades later, after the end of World War II. Instead of repeating the mistake made almost three decades before, the U.S. and Britain bore in mind Keynes' earlier admonition. The surest pathway to a lasting peace, they then understood, was to help the vanquished rebuild. Public investing on a grand scale would create trading partners that could turn around and buy the victors' exports, and also build solid middle-class democracies in Germany, Italy and Japan.
Yet Keynes' largest influence came from a convoluted, badly organized and in places nearly incomprehensible tome published in 1936, during the depths of the Great Depression. It was called The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.
Keynes' basic idea was simple. In order to keep people fully employed, governments have to run deficits when the economy is slowing. That's because the private sector won't invest enough. As their markets become saturated, businesses reduce their investments, setting in motion a dangerous cycle: less investment, fewer jobs, less consumption and even less reason for business to invest. The economy may reach perfect balance, but at a cost of high unemployment and social misery. Better for governments to avoid the pain in the first place by taking up the slack.
The notion that government deficits are good has an odd ring these days. For most of the past two decades, America's biggest worry has been inflation brought on by excessive demand. Inflation soared into double digits in the 1970s, budget deficits ballooned in the '80s, and now a Democratic President congratulates himself for a budget surplus that he wants to use to pay down the debt. But some 60 years ago, when 1 out of 4 adults couldn't find work, the problem was lack of demand.
Even then, Keynes had a hard sell. Most economists of the era rejected his idea and favored balanced budgets. Most politicians didn't understand his idea to begin with. "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist," Keynes wrote. In the 1932 presidential election, Franklin D. Roosevelt had blasted Herbert Hoover for running a deficit, and dutifully promised he would balance the budget if elected. Keynes' visit to the White House two years later to urge F.D.R. to do more deficit spending wasn't exactly a blazing success. "He left a whole rigmarole of figures," a bewildered F.D.R. complained to Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. "He must be a mathematician rather than a political economist." Keynes was equally underwhelmed, telling Perkins that he had "supposed the President was more literate, economically speaking."
As the Depression wore on, Roosevelt tried public works, farm subsidies and other devices to restart the economy, but he never completely gave up trying to balance the budget. In 1938 the Depression deepened. Reluctantly, F.D.R. embraced the only new idea he hadn't yet tried, that of the bewildering British "mathematician." As the President explained in a fireside chat, "We suffer primarily from a failure of consumer demand because of a lack of buying power." It was therefore up to the government to "create an economic upturn" by making "additions to the purchasing power of the nation."