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History of Political Economy 32.1 (2000) 167-168

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Book Review

The Coming of Keynesianism to America:
Conversations with the Founders of Keynesian Economics

The Coming of Keynesianism to America: Conversations with the Founders of Keynesian Economics. Edited by David C. Colander and Harry Landreth. Cheltenham, United Kingdom: Edward Elgar, 1996. xi; 244 pp. $90.00.

Economists have previously accepted obsolescence far too easily. Textbooks are "born" to be killed off by the subsequent edition; Keynesian and pre-Keynesian "macroeconomists" had obsolescence "thrust upon them"; and most economists "achieve" obsolescence simply by growing old. Only after death do some of these economists qualify for (historical) attention. But by then much of their social capital has died with them. The Colander and Landreth book is an important attempt to preserve (in oral history form) some of this important social capital.

Twelve conversations that took place, with one exception, between 1983 and 1987 are recorded, with Robert Bryce, Lorie Tarshis, Paul Sweezy, Abba Lerner, and Alvin Hansen (in 1972), Walter Salant, J. Kenneth Galbraith, Evsey Domar, Richard Musgrave, Tibor Scitovsky, Paul Samuelson, and Leon Keyserling. The editors have done a good job, although Nixon's New Economic Policy was initiated in 1971, not 1972 (111), David Bensusan-Butt's surname is not "Bensusan Buck" (62), and the index could be more comprehensive. My only real complaint is that the book was not published until 1996.

Musgrave reflected that "it's amazing how different recollections are" (202); but oral evidence from participant-observers is admissible (even at the level of hearsay) even when it is incorrect. (Sometimes the errors of memory are trivial: for example, Patinkin [188] left the University of Illinois before, not because of, the witch-hunt of the Keynesians.) Indeed, hearsay evidence that conflicts with later perceptions can illuminate the motivational dimension of intellectual revolutions, as in the caricature of "classical" economists such as Pigou (62).

This book can be read for pleasure; but the informal nature of the evidence gathered will surely lead to a more systematic analysis of the structure of influence and persuasion in our profession. This relates to a much broader spectrum of issues than the title of the book suggests. For example, Samuelson, the leading formalist of the century, reflects upon the direction of the formalist revolution: "a lot of Ph.D. fodder, a lot of clever models to work on" (171). Likewise, Keyserling, one of the most influential policy advisers of the century (the only nonacademic, noneconomist, non-Keynesian interviewed), described contemporary economics as being "strangely remote" from the current policy process. He also reflected on the lack of influence of Keynes and "the college professors," with the exception of Alvin Hansen and Sumner Slichter (224, 233-34).

Oral evidence supplements the growing number of archival papers, strengthening significantly the resource base of our subdiscipline. This book poses all sorts of questions concerning the structure of influence (not just in the 1930s, not just about young economists). It should prompt a companion volume on the monetarist counterrevolution, thus completing a trilogy with Arjo Klamer's Conversations with Economists (1983). More work needs to be done in all of these areas. One prominent economist recently wrote to me that "it is some small consolation that [End Page 167] some time after my death, this whole Lucas-lot will be dismissed as stupid or venal or both (which, of course, they are not) by some new revolutionaries who look at the economy in some new, and presumed better, way." This book should also prompt a systematic attempt to preserve the social capital of our subject, in which the small fry will be found to be as nourishing as the big fish.

Robert Leeson
Murdoch University



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pp. 167-168
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Archived 2005
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