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Misquoted

Apropos of nothing in particular, here’s a line that came up in casual conversation which inadvertently-but-I-am-nevertheless-OK-with-that made the person doing the quoting look like a bit of a imbecile. Be warned, people: if you treat glib quotables like some sort of intellectual highlight reel, these pratfalls are inevitable. Throwing around clever quotes about stuff you clearly don’t understand is the signature useful-conversation-finishing move of obnoxious jackasses the world over.

Some of you are nodding to yourselves right now, because you know exactly who I’m talking about.

“In the long run, we are all dead.” – John Maynard Keynes

Depending on who you’re talking to this means either that the economic structures of the world are an enormous machine controlled at cynical distance by shadowy figures and we can’t do anything about that so screw it or, more often, regular old screw it. The extended quote, however, is as follows:

“The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.”

Keynes is actually halfway through saying that the world is a complicated place, and if you’re an economist and you want that to mean something, you’d better be ready to raise your game.

I wonder if economics is the only field out there where people cite the most basic stuff they teach you in the entry-level course as being the definitive answer to some arbitrarily complex problem. Certainly, anyone who made some claim ending with “… but that’s just computer science 101″ would be immediately put on the to-not-take-seriously list. “Obviously, that’s geology 101.” “Obviously; that’s just biochemistry 101.”

3 Comments | Skip to comment form

  1. Lara

    I think that Psych 101 also shares this same distinction.

  2. Mike Hoye

    Really? I’ve never heard that anywhere. To borrow a phrase from Koz, though: “Punchability: Achieved!”

  3. David

    As I recall, the “long run” was defined more by Marshall than by Keynes, and had to do with economic inputs. So in the short run you could adjust, say, labour inputs, materials, and minor aspects of your process and product in a relatively defined market. But in the long run the nature and scope of the market, the techologies, the products and the production process could change. Short, medium and long run comparative statics models are useful for analysis if there is in fact some elements of the equations that encourage stability or convergence over the period of the model

    Columbus would not have ventured forth if he thought the waves got bigger the longer you were out and away. The morning traffic jam is ultimately constrained by the number of cars and the geography of the road network.

    If you look at outputs, and use dynamic models (which Keynes could sense acutely (he referred to “animal spirits)), and your models don’t converge over the relevant (to you) timeframe, it is hairier, and you can invoke chaos theory. But even then there are things that can be done. Canoes get through the rapids better if canoeists keep their hands on their paddles, and their paddles in the water. There are many butterflies in Central Park, and big Mr Sun working on El Nino out in the Pacific will easily trump a great flickering flock of them, and in no case will we get thousand mile per hour winds, nor glass smooth oceans. So partial analysis can be useful.

    But your larger, unexpurgated quote is interesting. I think Keynes was thinking more about the “life spans” of consulting or advice-giving economists, which is usually shorter than the cycle time of the economic phenomena that they are attempting to study and prognosticate about. (So they don’t have time both to learn and to reapply their learning, and make it better).

    Apparently Napoleon’s last interview question before he hired a new field marshal was “and is he lucky?”, and I suppose that businesses and governments still ask that, notionally, of their analysts and advisors.

    Governments sometimes outlive economic advisors, and sometimes they die from them.