The folly of ‘dentistry’ economics

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Brad Bateman, provost and a professor of economics, is regarded as one of today’s foremost scholars on the highly influential but somewhat misunderstood economist John Meynard Keynes. It was Keynes, some claim, whose ideas saved capitalism and fought back the Great Depression. On the other hand, many critics paint him as a proponent of government intervention (now a dirty word in some political circles). Both sides are ill-informed, Bateman claimed in a 2010 interview with Denison Magazine, and he sought to bring better understanding in The Return to Keynes, a book he co-edited for Harvard University Press that same year.

Bateman and Roger E. Backhouse, an economic historian at the University of Birmingham, jumped into the fray once again with an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times. They suggest that today’s economists have lost sight of capitalist systems, largely overlooking the perspectives of Keynes, or even his theoretical adversary, Milton Friedman. By looking at the small pieces of economies, they miss a bigger picture that is as much worldly philosophy as it is economics. And that, Bateman and Backhouse say, is one reason why we’re in trouble today:

Another downside to the “dentistry” approach to economics is that important pieces of human experience can easily fall from sight. The government does not cut an abstract entity called “government spending” but numerous spending programs, from veterans’ benefits and homeland security to Medicare and Medicaid. To refuse to discuss ideas such as types of capitalism deprives us of language with which to think about these problems. It makes it easier to stop thinking about what the economic system is for and in whose interests it is working.

Bateman and Backhouse continue their exploration of Keynes and his approach to economics theory in their latest book, Capitalist Revolutionary: John Maynard Keynes, now available from Harvard University Press.

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