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Exploring the 'Many Other' Keynes

Exploring the

r elationship, Chandavarkar’s book comes

Exploring the ‘Many Other’ Keynes

as a refreshing reminder of how much we stand to lose if scholarship, writing, and the breadth of perspective of the Chanda-

Arvind Subramanian varkar variety approach extinction.

eynes is back. Not just the “defunct economist/academic scribbler” of yore to whom men in authority t oday have turned for guidance in navigating their way out of the current global financial crisis. But also the larger-thanlife personality – the polemicist, persuader, a esthete, arts-patron, money-maker, moneyloser, institution-builder, and sexuality switcher – who dominated his times, and looms large even today.

Paul Krugman has been leading the charge in defending Keynes the intellectual against the so-called fresh water school of macroeconomics (mostly the Universities of Chicago, Minnesota and Rochester) which has paid homage to the great economist by excluding Keynesian economics from the academic curriculum (“discredited fairy tales” is how one prominent economist of this school describes Keynesian economics).

Coming Alive of Keynes

Keynes the man has been made to come alive in a number of recent books. Robert Skidelsky has issued an update of his three-volume, magisterial and definitive, biography of Keynes in which he describes Keynes as a “successful not a tragic hero – an Odysseus rather than an Achilles”. In Liaquat Ahamed’s magnificent recent book Lords of Finance, Keynes is like the ghost in Hamlet who hovers over the gold standard-obsessed landscape of the inter-war years, urging the abandonment of that “barbarous relic”. And now Anand Chandavarkar, former Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) official, author of the justly acclaimed book Keynes and India: A Study in Economics and Biography, offers us a collection of his essays on the other, or rather, the many other, Keynes. In an earlier review I had referred to the “trinity of talent that worked in the RBI in the 1970s and then moved on to work at the IMF in W ashington DC, where they ended their

book review

The Unexplored Keynes and Other Essays by Anand Chandavarkar; Academic Foundation, 2009; p p 346, Rs 995.

professional careers”. One of that trinity was Anand Chandavarkar, the other two being V V Bhatt and Deena Khatkhate.

The essays in this new book are actually in two parts. The first, The Unexplored Keynes, contains pieces in which Chandavarkar really does explore the many other Keynes: Was he an anti-semite? Was Keynes a development economist? Was he a good civil servant?

The second, A Post-Keynesian Miscellany, is, as the title suggests, an eclectic collection of essays and short biographies, including on Richard Kahn, whose idea of the multiplier Keynes would draw upon later in his writings; I G Patel, one of Keynes’ pupils; and Dharma Kumar, historian and professor at the Delhi School of Economics, who invited Chandavarkar to contribute to the Cambridge Economic History of India which she edited.

To this reader, who has been rewarded with the pleasure of the author’s company over several years, this book only reinforces the sense of awe about the capacious intellect and erudition of Chandavarkar. He is amongst that dying breed of people who know so much about so many things, who are as comfortable suggesting that Joseph Conrad’s novel Nostromo is a must for any economist writing about the natural resource curse as they are in discussing Fernand Braudel’s view of history, and who have read so widely that they can make such comparisons as “Robert Skid elsky is Keynes’ Boswell and Lytton Strachey combined”.

In a culture that increasingly rewards the “quickie”, the genre of instant books, about ephemeral topics written by shallow intellects based on superficial inquiry, which have shelf lives of a Hollywood

november 14, 2009

Rather than describe the contributions of the book, I want to convey my sense of how much I learnt by way of history, fact, anecdote, and insight contained in it to goad readers of this review to rush out and partake of the original.

The book has many gems but no reader should miss out on Chapters 2 (“Keynes Eponymous: A Reappraisal”), 9 (“Keynes and the International Monetary System Revisited”), 11 (“Was Keynes Anti-Semitic?”), 14 (“The Unexplored Richard Kahn: The Reclusive Sage”), 23 (“A Life in Political Economy: I G Patel”), 25 (“Economics and Philosophy: Interface and Agenda”), and 28 (“Dharma Kumar: A Pioneer Economic Historian”). Not that any of the chapters needs external validation but it is worth noting that the chapter on Keynes’ antisemitism comes with an enthusiastic endorsement from Isaiah Berlin, and the chapter on econo mics and philosophy with an endorsement from Ken Arrow, arguably the greatest economist after Keynes himself, that it is an “excellent and provocative essay”.

Multifaceted Keynes

Chandavarkar tells us, for example, that Keynes has appeared in English fiction, “albeit in an unflattering role, as Barrally, the “half-adventurer, half squire, and wholly amoral, financier” in John Buchan’s novel the Island of Sheep, a caricature that reflected the standard right wing opinion of Keynes as “a man of first class brains but second-class character”. He also informs us that in the Hindi film Chashm-e-Buddoor, the heroine is shown absorbed, guess in which book: Keynes’ remarkable but relatively unreadable

General T heory of Employment, Interest and Money. Even Bollywood has evidently heard of Keynes.

Keynes actually stood second in the civil services examination, which he took in part out of a recognition that he would not make it as a top class mathematician. Gallingly, for Keynes, he did not even score

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Economic & Political Weekly


the highest marks in economics, which prompted him to say, “I evidently knew more about Economics than my examiners”.

Chandavarkar asks hypothetically how Keynes would have been treated by the institution that he created, the IMF. He notes with irony that Keynes would never have made it to the Fund’s prestigious Economist Programme because he had no degree in economics and “irrelevant work experience – shipping pedigree bulls to Bombay while at the India office”; would never have had a paper accepted in the IMF staff papers (“No equations or regressions – the only model he ever understood was the ballerina Lydia Lopokova”); and would never have been invited as a visiting scholar to the Fund because he “never held a professorial chair”.

One of Keynes’ over-used quotes is his supposed retort to a question on his inconsistency: “When the facts change I change my opinions, what do you do sir”. Chandavarkar finds for us a quote from Richard Kahn which explains this trait of Keynes even better: “Keynes often used to remark to me that he enjoyed the advantage of waking up every morning like a new-born babe, entirely uncommitted to what he had thought or advocated previously”.

Adjustment, Anti-Semitism and Keynes

The chapter on the international monetary system reminds us of Keynes’ prescience in obsessing about the problem of asymmetric adjustment. “Adjustment was obligatory for the debtor country and voluntary for the creditor country”, is the very apt way that Chandavarkar interprets Keynes. With the world worrying about the global imbalance problem and how to get surplus countries such as China to reflate in the long run, we see that this was a problem that Keynes had anticipated. His solution was to try and introduce a scarce currency clause which would penalise creditors for failing to adjust. That clause never really got off the ground (because the United States, a creditor country at the time of the establishment of the Bretton Woods institutions was against it) and the underlying problem may well elude solution even today. But Keynes was really on to it.

Was Keynes anti-semitic? Chandavarkar’s summary is simply breathtaking in

Economic & Political Weekly

november 14, 2009

contrasting Keynes’ anti-semitism with that of a diverse cast of illustrious characters.

What, in sum, do the foregoing evidence and analysis of Keynes’ attitudes and actions in relations to Jews as a group and Zionism as a cause amount to? It is no exculpation of anti-semitism to say that there are degrees and kinds of anti-semitism and that there is a degree between the gas chamber and the prejudices of the country club and the senior common room. Keynes’ attitudinal and selective anti-semitism was certainly not of the monolithic variety like the rabid rancours of Ezra Pound and Richard Wagner, nor did it wear the literary raiments of Chesterton and Belloc or assume the programmatic agenda of T S Eliot ...In retrospect, Keyens’anti-semitism will be seen more as a peripheral fringe of an inherently compassionate personality, an unamiable foible rather than a fatal flaw of character, a blind-spot which never blurred the totality of his social and political vision.

This is an assessment with which Isaiah Berlin broadly concurs in describing Keynes’ anti-semitism as “at once genuine and superficial”.

The chapter on economics and philosophy is a tour de force, a thoughtful reflection on the many facets of economics and its relation to a number of disciplines. In this essay we come across such wonderful lines as Mortimer Wheeler’s “Economics is more vendetta than science”, a phrase that pretty much captures today’s acrimonious, even nasty debate in the United States on Keynes’ legacy between the saltwater school of economics (Harvard and Princeton: Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and the freshwater school.

Franklin Roosevelt famously said that the only thing to fear is fear itself. But Chandavarkar finds an even better rendition of that from Keynes in what was appa rently his last article:

No one can be certain of anything in this age of flux and change…[if our] plans palpably fail, then, of course, we and everyone else will try something different..We shall do well not to fear the future too much… we shall run the risk of jeopardising the future if we are influenced by indefinite fears based on trying to look ahead further than anyone can see.

Two Short Biographies

The sketches of I G Patel and Dharma Kumar, like the pieces on Keynes, reveal a kindness of attitude and empathy in Chandavarkar that wonderfully complement his more intellectual predilections and make him a very good biographer. On I G Patel, there is a great anecdote about Indira Gandhi summoning him to deliver a fait accompli: she had decided to nationalise the banks and she wanted him to s imply write up a speech for her that would announce and justify this policy. In doing so, I G Patel would of course become complicit in the policy. Chandavarkar lets I G Patel too easily off the hook for going along with a policy that he

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seems to have been opposed to. All insiders struggle with decisions that they are against but choose not to publicly repudiate, often justifying the complicity as the lesser of the two evils. There is little sense of that internal agonising and questioning, and Chandavarkar’s generosity gets the better of his dispassionate assessment. This is reflected in a wonderful description of the great Cambridge economist philosopher Frank Ramsey by Lowes Dickinson that Chandavarkar thinks should also apply to I G Patel:

unworldly without being saintly; unambitious without being sentimental. Through good report will such men work on, following the light of truth as they see it; able to be skeptical without being paralysed; content to know what is noble and reserve judgement on what is not. The world could never be driven by such men, for the springs of action lie deep in ignorance and madness. But it is they who are the beacon in the tempest, and they are more, not less, needed now than ever before.

The piece on Dharma Kumar is not only accurate in its praise for her as a historian and academic but also moving in its recollection of her final days. The last sentence is worth repeating: “We share with Mrs Sahai (Dharma Kumar’s mother-in-law) and Dharma’s daughter, Radha, the loss of a much loved and admired person, a feminine exemplar of Chaucer’s ‘verray parfit, gentil knyght’ RIP”.

A Rare Species Indeed

The role of economists in contributing – through sins of omission and commission

– to the current crisis is now the staple of conversation around the world. But what is the benchmark for assessing economists? Chandavarkar reminds us that Keynes provided the answer:

The study of economics does not seem to require any specialised gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy and pure science? Yet good, or even competent, economists are the rarest of birds. An easy subject, at which very few excel! The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher – in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.

Against that exacting standard, almost every economist, save Keynes himself, would fall short.

But for bringing alive the “other”

Keynes and other personalities in India and abroad, we must be deeply indebted to Chandavarkar, economist and man of letters, and an intellectual and essayist in the truest Keynesian sense of breadth and multifacetedness. We have in this new and richly informative book an author worthy of the biographical object of his study. Keynes would really have s avoured it.

Arvind Subramanian ( is with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Washington DC.


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