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Yet not until the U.S. entered World War II did F.D.R. try Keynes' idea on a scale necessary to pull the nation out of the doldrums--and Roosevelt, of course, had little choice. The big surprise was just how productive America could be when given the chance. Between 1939 and 1944 (the peak of wartime production), the nation's output almost doubled, and unemployment plummeted--from more than 17% to just over 1%.
Never before had an economic theory been so dramatically tested. Even granted the special circumstances of war mobilization, it seemed to work exactly as Keynes predicted. The grand experiment even won over many Republicans. America's Employment Act of 1946--the year Keynes died--codified the new wisdom, making it "the continuing policy and responsibility of the Federal Government ...to promote maximum employment, production, and purchasing power."
And so the Federal Government did, for the next quarter-century. As the U.S. economy boomed, the government became the nation's economic manager and the President its Manager in Chief. It became accepted wisdom that government could "fine-tune" the economy, pushing the twin accelerators of fiscal and monetary policy in order to avoid slowdowns, and applying the brakes when necessary to avoid overheating. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson cut taxes to expand purchasing power and boost employment. "We are all Keynesians now," Richard Nixon famously proclaimed. Americans still take for granted that Washington has responsibility for steering the economy clear of the shoals, although it's now Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan rather than the President who carries most of the responsibility.
Keynes had no patience with economic theorists who assumed that everything would work out in the long run. "This long run is a misleading guide to current affairs," he wrote early in his career. "In the long run we are all dead."
Were Keynes alive today he would surely admire the vigor of the U.S. economy, but he would also notice that some 40% of the global economy is in recession and much of the rest is slowing down: Japan, flat on its back; Southeast Asia, far poorer than it was just two years ago; Brazil, teetering; Germany, burdened by double-digit unemployment and an economic slowdown; and declining prices worldwide for oil and raw materials.
In light of all this, Keynes would be mystified that the International Monetary Fund is requiring troubled Third World nations to raise taxes and slash spending, that "euro" membership demands budget austerity, and that a U.S. President wants to hold on to budget surpluses. You can bet Keynes wouldn't be silent. Dapper and distinguished as he was, he'd enter the fray with both fists and a mighty roar.
Robert B. Reich, professor of economic and social policy at Brandeis, was U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1993 to 1997