The theories of John Maynard Keynes might be unfashionable but his ideas remain potentby Howard Davies / March 26, 2015 / Leave a comment
Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes by Richard Davenport-Hines (William Collins, £18.99)
I imagine that somewhere in Cambridge, perhaps in a hostelry frequented by economics PhD students, or in the King’s College junior common room, there will one day be a pub quiz devoted to trivia about John Maynard Keynes. If you wanted to train for such a quiz, Richard Davenport-Hines’s Universal Man is the biography for you. Who said, in 1919, after reading The Economic Consequences of the Peace, “I guess this Keynes to be a crank”? Neville Chamberlain. Who argued that the same book “enabled Hitler—only 20 years later—to trample the continent of Europe underfoot”? Conservative politician Robert Boothby. What age was Keynes when his father sewed up his overcoat pockets to stop him playing with himself? Eleven.
Davenport-Hines, who in 2013 wrote a well-received book about the John Profumo scandal, An English Affair, has done a capable scissors-and-paste job in Universal Man, assembling a collection of entertaining facts—larded with salacious gossip—about one of the 20th century’s most famous economists. It is broadly divided into the “seven ages of man,” with chapters on Keynes the Official, Keynes the Lover and Keynes the Connoisseur. There is nothing forced about this taxonomy: Keynes did live a series of remarkable lives. Unfortunately, it is also topped off with purple prose and portentous received wisdom. Lydia Lopokova, Keynes’s ballerina wife, is described as “fathom deep in exoticism and furlongs distant from any bluestocking.” In a description of his art collection we learn that “connoisseurs are fastidious, privileged and more ornamented than careful. Their opinions are trenchant, not insipid; but never hectoring… They adopt foreign fashions; they have their own decorum.” This is “fine writing” at its most pointless.
The narrative of Keynes’s public life is competently rehearsed—from the India Office through Versailles to Bretton Woods—and there will be readers who prefer this racy account to the more thorough, intellectual and discreet approach taken by Robert Skidelsky in his three-volume biography published a quarter of a century ago. What they will not find is any re-assessment of Keynes’s influence on the profession of economics and on economic policymakers.
In Davenport-Hines’s defence, generalisations about the economics profession are hazardous.…