A Little World Building

In the next few blog posts, we’ll start to unpack American Keynesianism. What was it? Who advocated for it? What did it accomplish? To do this, we’ll read some of the major writings on American Keynesianism, and summarize the findings with an eye towards synthesis. We’re world building here, so we’ll need some characters and events and structural features of the landscape to start with – then we can get to the messy business of theorizing what it all meant and how it came to pass. As it turns out, even though 50 to 70 years have passed from the history described, there’s still debate about the nature of American Keynesianism, so we’ll be exploring those debates.

We’ll start with an overview of some of the major legislative milestones – the Employment Act and the Kennedy-Johnson tax cuts among them – and look at their effects on the economy. Then we’ll discuss the movers and shakers who made these accomplishments possible – the intellectuals and policy entrepreneurs who pushed for these bills and turned them into law. Finally, we’ll start to theorize about what this means for American history, and for Keynesianism today.

To get some of these bare-bones facts, we’ll turn to three classics:

  • Herbert Stein’s The Fiscal Revolution in America
  • Donald Kettl’s Leadership at the Federal Reserve
  • Alan Brinkley’s The End of Reform

Then we can turn to some of the intellectuals. For that we can mine the Duke University History of Political Economy archives, and dig up some primary sources to reprint here. It turns out that Keynesianism was a fairly broadly shared ideology midcentury. In Robert Collins’ incredible but under-appreciated work, The Business Response to Keynes, we can find all sorts of evidence that growth Keynesianism had become hegemonic in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Taking a look back at how all that happened will then be the starting point for a theory of Keynesianism and a theory for the present. We’ll turn to reviewing two magisterial volumes:

  • Peter Hall’s edited volume, The Political Power of Economic Ideas
  • Monica Prasad’s The Land of Too Much

The first is political science written in the late 1980s, when many felt that Keynesianism was in the process of dissolution; the second is sociology, written in the aftermath of the great recession, when the full significance of the mid-century moment had become clearer.

After this cycle is completed, we’ll be at a good place to start ranging more freely across the primary and secondary literature, as we delve even deeper into the process of reviving growth Keynesianism.

Published by tiltingatM3

Nic Johnson is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of Chicago, researching the intellectual history mid-century Keynesianism and the Federal Reserve. Prior to joining the University of Chicago, Nic was ABD in economics, specializing in monetary theory.

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