John Maynard Keyes wrote in 1945 that “the day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied, by our real problems – the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behavior and religion.” In the United States, we have pursued a policy of unquestioned growth and expansion, following the recommendations of prominent economists with an ardor that borders on religiosity. However, the economic problem, as Keynes described it, has not taken a back seat, but rather has the developed world in the grip of a severe recession.
In the United States we have always looked to economists for the magic to make our economy go. Milton Friedman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, believed that a free market economy could expand and prosper with minimal government interference. Alan Greenspan, an admirer of Friedman, was revered as an enabler of unending growth during his service as Chairman of the Federal Reserve; he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the inaugural Harry S. Truman Medal for Economic Policy, the inaugural Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Civilian Leadership, and was named both a Knight Commander of the British Empire and a Commander of the French L’Egion D’honneur. Presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush all trusted Greenspan with the keys to the economy. During the same time period, Bill Clinton, a Democrat, trusted economist Larry Summers’ advice that deregulation of banking and finance would also lead to continued growth; that was the height of Milton Friedman’s influence. Barack Obama appointed Summers to be Chairman of his Economic Council despite the fact that his policies were partly at fault for the current economic crisis. Why do all of these Presidents, from Reagan on the right to Obama on the left, put so much faith in these economists? Keynes, in The General Theory of Employment History and Money (1935), addressed this question. He wrote that:
“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”
The economic policies of the United States have become more and more complex since Keynes’ time. Over the decades, as the United States left the Gold standard, and created a dynamic economy reliant on the growth of consumption and continuous expansion, we have relied and trusted economists to make it all work. Most Americans who do not work on Wall Street have trouble understanding even some of the basic terminology and concepts used in finance today. Many of us learned what a Collateralized Debt Obligation was last year, and discovered how debt was securitized in such complex ways that even some of the old hands in charge of major firms didn’t really understand. Americans trusted economists to drive our growth, and while many don’t understand the problems we face, they expect economists to create a deus ex machina to miraculously get us out of the recession and onward to unending growth.