Macroeconomics celebrates its 80th birthday this year


John Maynard Keynes
John Maynard Keynes, the father of macroeconomics.

Macroeconomics was born exactly 80 years ago this year, in 1936.

John Maynard Keynes (pronounced “Canes”) published The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936, and it was arguably one of the most influential books of the 20th century.

Macroeconomics was born almost out of necessity. Keynes purposed a new theory of the overall level of employment that sought to explain the sharp rise of joblessness during the late 1920s, and its stubborn persistence in the following years. But even if it was motivated by real life challenges, this was a book about theory, with the good professor from Cambridge University in the United Kingdom clearly stating in the opening sentences of the book’s preface:

This book is chiefly addressed to my fellow economists. I hope that it will be intelligible to others. But its main purpose is to deal with difficult questions of theory, and only in the second place with the applications of this theory to practice. for if orthodox economics is at fault, the error is to be found not in the superstructure, which has been erected with great care for logical consistency, but in a lack of clearness and of generality in the premises. Thus I cannot achieve my object of persuading economists to re-examine critically certain of their basic assumptions except by a highly abstract argument and also by much controversy. I wish there could have been less of the latter. But I have thought it important, not only to explain my own point of view, but also to show in what respects it departs from the prevailing theory. Those, who are strongly wedded to what I shall call ‘the classical theory’, will fluctuate, I expect, between a belief that I am quite wrong and a belief that I am saying nothing new.

In other words, move aside Dude, I’m starting a revolution. Keynes targets the hapless Arthur C. Pigou, who makes a cameo appearance as the stand-in for the classical theory in the famous Chapter 2 of The General Theory.

The opening pages of Chapter 2 of Keynes's General Theory
The opening pages of Chapter 2 of Keynes’s General Theory. (Click on image to expand.)

The classical model assumes a market for labour services that works like any other perfectly competitive market.  The price of labour—the wage rate—will move up or down to clear any excess supply, or alleviate any excess demand. Unemployment doesn’t really exist, or if it does it is fleeting and transitory, reflecting frictions as workers move between jobs, needing time to gather information and find them. If unemployment persists, it must be because workers are for some reason refusing to take a cut in wages. There is an excess supply of labour—that is, unemployment—because the wage rate is too high.

Keynes objects to this blame-the-victim argument: “the contention that the unemployment which characterizes a depression is due to a refusal by labour to accept a reduction of money-wages is not clearly supported by the facts” (Keynes 1936, page 9). The classical theory does not work, and we need something new, a new set of assumptions and logic that explains the facts.

There are two parts in today’s lecture. In the first we talk about the birth of macro-economics, and show that the high and persistent unemployment of the 1930s which motivated The General Theory, also characterizes what some of the rich countries have been through in the past eight or nine years. In the second, we begin our discussion of some of the basic vocabulary of macroeconomics, particularly the measurement of the macro-economy with national income accounting. Your prime objective is to fully understanding the meaning, the uses, and the abuses of “Gross Domestic Product.”

Rely on the readings listed in the course outline, and be prepared to discuss the meaning of unemployment and inflation for next class. The assignment will help guide you.


Welcome to your first course in “Macroeconomic Policy”


This is an exciting time to be studying macroeconomics! The “Great Recession” still, after almost eight years, echoes in high unemployment in European countries, in lower earnings and wage rates in the United States, and is even more strongly imprinted in excessive debt, low employment, and outright despair in other countries like Greece and Spain. Interest rates have never been as low, indeed in some countries banks are charging negative interest rates … it costs money to save money! Inflation is low, unemployment is exceptionally high (particularly among young people), and exchange rates keep bouncing around.

What has caused this instability in the overall level of economic activity, in incomes, and in employment? And what role can, or for that matter should, public policy play in making things better? How can it play these roles?

Every responsible citizen should have an understanding of the basic principles of macroeconomics. Without it how can you possibly understand some of the critical debates in almost every recent election in the rich countries: is a balanced government budget a good thing or a bad? how can governments create more jobs? why are interest rates so low, and should inflation be a worry? How can you possibly understand why less rich economies sometimes hit a brick wall as prices increase without bound, as unemployment soars, and as investment capital leaves the country? It is not an exaggeration to suggest that poor macroeconomic management is sometimes the prequel to civil unrest.

This is the first class of a course that is designed to meet the needs of students in public policy who may have had only limited exposure to economics. But almost anyone can follow along. Upon completion of the course successful students will be familiar with the basic principles of macroeconomics, and be able to apply them critically to issues dealing with Canadian and international public policy.

Your next steps?

Download the course outline, and get the two required books. Then watch one prominent macro-economist—Joseph Stiglitz—explain his views of what caused the great recession and what government should do about it in this presentation given about one year after the Great Recession was unleashed in the autumn of 2008. Pay attention to the vocabulary he uses: list words that are not familiar to you, try to discern when he is speaking about “microeconomics” and when he is talking about “macroeconomics”, think about the logic he uses and what this says about the way economists think. Here is a list to help guide you.

Our studies start next week with a discussion of what we mean by “macroeconomics,” and how we measure the things central to gauging macroeconomic performance. To be prepared for our discussions read the readings listed in the course outline for September 15th.

How much confidence should we have in the job numbers?


Statistics Canada reported that employment rose by 51,000 in February.

These numbers seem to gyrate tremendously from month to month in a way that has little to do with economic fundamentals: jumping by 40,000 in December, falling by 22,000 in January, and now rising significantly.

How much confidence should we have in them?

Continue reading “How much confidence should we have in the job numbers?”