Keynes, By Peter Clarke

Shares in John Maynard Keynes are rising, and Peter Clarke's elegant, succinct biography could not be more timely. The first half is a chronological account of Keynes's life, reminding us what a polymath the man was. As well as the most influential economist of the 20th century, he was a mathematician and philosopher whose first published work was a treatise on probability, an essayist and journalist, an adviser to governments, and friend of most of the leading intellectuals of his day. (Bertrand Russell described him as the cleverest man he ever knew, and said that every time he argued with Keynes he felt as though he was taking his life in his hands.)

The second part of Keynes is an explanation and analysis of his theories and their influence. It is dry, technical and bristling with distinctions (between saving and investment, between ex ante and ex post outcomes, between the spending behaviour of individuals and aggregate spending), but Clarke has done a decent job of making the ideas accessible. He argues that Keynes was right to maintain that public works ultimately pay for themselves, and his conclusion, that a form of updated Keynesianism is needed now, is well-earned.

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