What Makes an Economist Great?

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Universal ManUniversal Man: The Lives of John Maynard Keynes
by Richard Davenport-Hines
Basic Books. 432 pages, $29.99

 

 

JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES would not make a great Hollywood protagonist, at least based on Richard Davenport-Hines’ biography. It’s hard to identify a breakthrough moment, any dramatic shift, in the life of the most important economist of the first half of the 20th century. He seems always to have been brilliant and charismatic. Things came easily to him, as well they might to a superbly educated English gentleman, and things seemed to go his way. No less an intellect than Bertrand Russell remarked that “Keynes’ intellect is the sharpest and clearest that I have ever known.”

Keynes has been the subject of several biographies, including Robert Skidelsky’s three-volume effort in 1983. In contrast to Skidelsky’s approach, Davenport-Hines is less interested in producing a faithful narration of Keynes’ life than a lifelike portrait by broad theme. The Keynes that emerges merits attention for more than his economic theories, which are gone into only lightly here. He was a government official and adviser to prime ministers and treasury secretaries; a syndicated columnist, the editor of the New Statesman, and the writer of The Economic Consequences of the Peace, a 1919 bestseller that criticized the Versailles Treaty; an unapologetic gay man who ended up marrying a woman; an art collector who orchestrated the National Gallery’s purchase of Edgar Degas’ private collection after his death in 1918; and a diplomat who secured concessions from the U.S. for the repayment of British debt after World War II.

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