Ann Pettifor

Cambridge excludes Keynesians from conference on Keynes

Like Catholics organising a conference on Protestantism and excluding Protestants, the Cambridge organisers of a conference to ‘celebrate the 75th anniversary of the publication of Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money’, have excluded Keynes scholars. By contrast, most of those who will address the conference subscribe to the ‘classical’ theory that Keynes thought he had defeated.

The one name on the list that is identified with Keynes, at least in the public eye, is Professor Paul Krugman of Princeton University, who will be giving the ‘Plenary Lecture’. However, in his opening remarks to the conference, Prof. Krugman poses the question: “What am I doing here?” and modestly suggests that:

I’m arguably not qualified to [give this talk]. I am, after all, not a Keynes scholar, nor any kind of serious intellectual historian. Nor have I spent most of my career doing macroeconomics. Until the late 1990s my contributions to that field were limited to international issues; although I kept up with macro research, I avoided getting into the frontline theoretical and empirical disputes.

Click here to download a PDF copy of Paul Krugman’s lecture >

Krugman is an extremely controversial figure for Keynes scholars. He champions a mainstream interpretation of Keynes’s work known as the neo-classical synthesis, and seems to have avoided any discussion with those actually working in the field. Many fear that his adherence to a rightly discredited version of Keynes’s theory serves Keynes very badly indeed.

Qualification for participation in this event hosted by the Cambridge Faculty of Economics and Cambridge Finance appears to be complete detachment from scholarly debates about the nature of Keynes’s work. Scholars were hard pushed to recall one contribution to the Keynes literature written by any on the list of participating economists. The UK Post-Keynesian Economics Study Group, a body dedicated to the serious pursuit of these matters since 1988, with an on-line community of over 300 academics, found out about the conference by accident. “Even by the standards of the economics profession, this is staggering”, one member observed.

One wonders why Lord Eatwell, who once wrote a Keynes-oriented textbook with Joan Robinson, one of Keynes’s close collaborators, has consented to be on the Organising Committee for such an event.

The impression created is of an economics profession actively seeking to exclude any Keynesian challenge to an orthodoxy that has so patently failed society. As we seek solutions to rising unemployment, bank and business failures, debt-deflation and sovereign debt crises, the determination of a group of economists at an elite University – Keynes’s University – further to close down debate on alternatives should be a matter of the greatest possible concern to the public at large.


3 thoughts on “Cambridge excludes Keynesians from conference on Keynes”

  1. Ann, this just reinforces the view that Cambridge has become an economic intellectual backwater. Sadly, this perspective is not new for Cambridge.

    A clue to the recent entrenchment of this particular orientation seems to me to be “Cambridge Finance” involvement. With a few exceptions, the finance community is deeply hostile to Keynes.

    Many economists appear to unconsciously employ the Duhem-Quine method for saving their hypotheses, and since they do not use this methodology explicitly, they present justifications of their positions in alternative dress.

    A plus point for Krugman is that he isn’t as arrogant as some of his colleagues. A problem with Krugman is that he doesn’t seem to learn from many of the constructive, evidence-based criticisms of his column and blog entries.

  2. Looking at the conference participants, it has two biases. Firstly, it is biased towards monetary economics and financial economics, forgetting all the other myriad forms of economics. What about labour economics, and development economics, for example?

    Secondly, where are the non Anglo-Saxon economists. What happened to the Europeans? Where are the economists from the BRIC countries, or the developing world more generally?

    I am sure Keynes, who believed in making the solution fit the facts, not the facts fit the solution, would be astounded, if he was alive to witness this commemoration.

  3. As an engineer I know relatively nothing about macroeconomics. (I was tempted to write “absolutely nothing”, but over the past few years, as I have followed Ann’s writings, I have leaned some things and though I still don’t understand it all, what I have read allows me to comment with a modicum of understanding.

    The first thing that strikes me about this conference is that the major sponsors are banks! The second is that, though there are indeed several opportunities for general discussion, attendance at the conference is by invitation only! So it is extremely likely that nobody who is known to have a dissenting viewpoint will even be invited. This does tend to restrict open discussion somewhat! That the Post-Keynesian Economics Study Group only found out about this by accident does rather uphold this view.

    Frankly I suspect this is just an excuse for a bit of a jolly, and not really a celebration or commemoration of Keynes’s work.

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